The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, June 5, 2019
It's not the Liberty, it's everyone else — Sophie Cunningham interview — Must-click women's basketball links
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It’s not the Liberty
What’s wrong with the New York Liberty?
That’s the question going around WNBA circles, with New York off to an 0-3 start this season after finishing last year 7-27. The Liberty haven’t won since last July. That’s a long time to go winless.
So what’s the problem? It’s confusing, because as recently as 2017, the Liberty were a playoff team, and not a fringe one! They finished 22-12, hosted a home playoff game, and only lost it because Kristi Toliver went crazy, hitting nine threes.
Top line is that the Liberty simply aren’t playing defense at the level they did back in 2016-17, when they were a top-three defensive unit both years. And the reason that’s confusing is because Katie Smith, who essentially built that defense, is now the head coach, and the number of players from that period still on the team, including Tina Charles, is significant.
If anything, there’s reason to think this team should be even better defensively. Kia Nurse was a lockdown defender in college, and has the size and basketball IQ to be the same in the WNBA. Amanda Zahui B. and Rebecca Allen, both with expanded roles, are superior shot-blockers. Asia Durr defended well in college, though translating that to the league often takes time. Han Xu, you may have heard, is 6’9.
But the real answer in New York, I believe, is a question not of the Liberty, but the league as a whole. It reminds me of what Cheryl Reeve and the Lynx discovered last season. A dominant team — one we’ll talk about for generations — finished 18-16. Now part of that may be age, sure. But the bigger aspect working against them is that everyone else keeps getting better. Reeve saw it, too. You can tell by how completely she overhauled her roster.
Ask yourself this question: which roster in this league is worse than it was in 2015? Maybe Minnesota, by the impossible standard of that peak? Maybe Los Angeles (though hard to see how)? Indiana is without Tamika Catchings now, that’s a loss for the Fever, and America, really. Chicago without Elena Delle Donne. But essentially everyone else is better, and both Minnesota and Los Angeles might be, too. They’ve certainly continued evolving.
And as New York has been saddled by an extended sale, and only brought in its new general manager once free agency had begun, well: that’s several years asking Katie Smith to do more with the status quo. That’s setting a team up for failure.
All of which is to say things aren’t hopeless in New York, not at all. There’s obviously talent there. Tina Charles is a franchise player, but in a league where one franchise player just isn’t enough to win. That’s how far, how fast this league has gotten better. Even someone with Tina Charles’ will and skill isn’t enough anymore.
This Week in Women’s Basketball
Natalie Weiner writes the piece she was born to, on music and the WNBA.
Lisa Leslie commends the work Becky Hammon is doing in San Antonio.
Terrific Bria Felicien deep dive on Renee Montgomery’s Atlanta role.
Katie Davidson really nailed this Napheesa Collier/Jessica Shepard joint profile.
Brendon Kleen looks at Essence Carson, performance artist.
Kia Nurse and Asia Durr join Jordan Brand NOW GET SOME DAMN SHOES NAMED AFTER THEM.
What’s better than a LaChina Robinson podcast? When she’s joined by Devereaux Peters!
Oh, Cheryl. On Natasha Howard: “The player that we traded away. Yeah, that’s me, I traded her away. Now she’s their best player.” The Cheryl Reeve Show pulls no punches.
Nevertheless, weep not for the Lynx.
I have a bottomless appetite for Brooke McCarty-Williams stories.
Good look at the state of women coaching in the NBA here from Erica Ayala.
Throwback video of the Week
It’s not a tweet, or an IG post. It’s just glorious. Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter and Bridget Pettis. Enjoy.
Five at The IX: Sophie Cunningham, Phoenix Mercury
I had the pleasure of speaking to Sophie for an upcoming story. Here are some additional insights from the precocious rookie.
HOWARD MEGDAL: So, when you think about this team, where there’s so many veterans, what do you see your role as? What has Sandy talked about your role as being?
SOPHIE CUNNINGHAM: My role is just to run the floor, bring energy, but also be a shooter, open up the inside game for B.G. and DeWanna and create space for our wings and our guards to get down the lane. And so, if I can just keep shooting and knock down those shots and get the defense to respect me from three, then I think it will open up a lot for our team.
HOWARD MEGDAL: The fact that you were able to get out there right away and be part of the rotation, can you just take me through what that feeling was? Especially, you know, to be in a packed house where Seattle was able to get their ring. Did it feel properly big time?
SOPHIE CUNNINGHAM: You know what? It did. No matter where I’m at, I always have to prove myself more and more. So, I’m so happy to be a part of this team but, yeah, I’m always the last one to get in. I was like, okay, like I’m just getting more and more nervous. And so, once I was out there, I settled in. I know I had a turnover right off the bat but I settled in and I just played.
HOWARD MEGDAL: And then, just from the perspective of what you’re looking to accomplish this year, how do you measure it? I mean, you talk about proving yourself but what does that mean in your mind?
SOPHIE CUNNINGHAM: In my mind, I just want to prove that … because I know that I’m young and I have a lot to work on and I know that. But I don’t have to become a hard worker, passing or learn how to be competitive or gritty. And I think once I can really work on the basketball side of it that I think I can have a really good career. And Sandy’s a great coach. I have some great vets. I mean, Diana Taurasi, she’s been helping me. She’s been giving me tips here and there and just saying, just go out there and play. Don’t overthink it, just go have fun.