Just how much faster are the New York Liberty playing?

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 1: Epiphanny Prince /

The New York Liberty have been atop the league’s standings for two consecutive years now, knocking on the door to contention. Twice they’ve fallen short of breaking through to the WNBA Finals.

Their primary weakness? Offense.

The Liberty ranked second-to-last in points per possession last season and 10th in 2015, despite the prowess of MVP candidate Tina Charles, Sugar Rodgers and Epiphanny Prince. While Prince missed serious time in both seasons and Rodgers only emerged as a major offensive threat in 2016, New York needs improved scoring in order to compete. Head coach Bill Laimbeer has a plan.

“Last year we were a fair amount of walk the ball up the floor team, targeting Tina Charles primarily,” Laimbeer told The Summitt prior to New York’s home opener. “Put a lot of pressure on the shot clock, which okay, we executed well, but still we need more easy baskets. And the only way you get that is to push the ball up the floor after makes and or misses.”

Laimbeer points to changes in the roster as the spark for wanting to run more, but it’s also a solution to the Liberty’s biggest problem. Per Synergy Sports, the Liberty were 10th in halfcourt offense these past two seasons. Transition opportunities made up 11.9% of their total offense in 2016, and only three teams finished with a lower mark.

Pushing the ball should open up easy shots, especially on this roster. New York’s starting frontcourt of Charles and Kiah Stokes can run the floor, catch and finish. Rodgers is one of the best shooters in the league, and backup forward Rebecca Allen can’t be left open either. Epiphanny Prince and Brittany Boyd—arguably the fastest on-ball player in the WNBA—are dangerous in the open court.

“We have exceptional bigs across the board so you want to get it to them early before the help side is set, defenses are set,” Katie Smith, associate head coach of the Liberty, told The Summitt prior to a home loss versus the Sparks. “It’s a little bit more of a mindset. Kicking the ball ahead, seeing the advantages you have, whether it’s by a guard or by a big posting up early. So it’s just easy buckets before the defense gets really locked in.”

Laimbeer stressed he isn’t looking for quicker shots in the halfcourt, only more movement and transition opportunities. An added bonus to emphasizing transition is lessening the burden on Charles’s shoulders. She finished second in the league in usage rate last season, and seemingly tired out in closing moments at times. Giving her more possessions off could prove worthwhile.

“It’s going to come in spurts,” Smith said. “There’s going to be spurts where she’s rolling and then there’s spurts where they’re going to pay a lot of attention, somebody else has gotta step up to allow her to have that breath and be able to come back at it.”

One potential drawback could be feeding New York’s propensity to turn the ball over. The Liberty finished fourth in turnover rate last season and third in 2015. They typically haven’t freelanced with the ball well.

NEW YORK, NY – MARY 18: Bria Hartley
NEW YORK, NY – MARY 18: Bria Hartley /

“We’re a work in progress,” Smith said. “Some other teams get the ball out quicker, are aggressive and really prone to score rather than push the ball up and then get into an offense.”

It’s been just two weeks and change, but so far the results have been underwhelming. Once again, the Lib are among the doldrums in offense, ranking 10th. They’re also 10th in halfcourt offense specifically, and only the Indiana Fever are more active in the halfcourt over transition. Their offense itself isn’t schematically any different, but there seems to be an increased urgency in trying to get down the floor off a defensive board or turnover.

It’s still far too early to draw real conclusions yet, and even watching this unfold through the season may not be enough. Boyd, the ultimate fast break player, is out for the year with an Achilles’ tear. Prince is more of a methodical, change-of-pace guard, but the Liberty will be without her as well due to overseas commitments. Does this change things for New York?    

“Still want to get out and go,” Smith said.