‘Trying to find good starts’: Katie Smith’s search for Liberty guard play

Do the Liberty need a changing of the guards?

CHICAGO — For New York Liberty head coach Katie Smith, the re-arranging of her guard rotations come down to a simple search.

“I’m just trying to figure out how to get good starts,” she said, following Wednesday night’s loss to the Chicago Sky.

When the New York Liberty welcomed back three players from Eurobasket ahead of July 12’s game against the Sky, including the WNBA debut of French player Marine Johannès, they likely expected the fresh bodies to provide even more depth to a team coming off four wins in five games. Instead, the influx of perimeter options has resulted in more confusion than success — the Liberty have since lost six of seven.

The team numbers aren’t promising. The losses have come by an average of 13.2 points, which doesn’t even account for a 90-58 home loss to Las Vegas just prior to the return of the international competitors. The lone win, an 83-78 victory over a Los Angeles Sparks team playing without Candace Parker, Alana Beard and Riquna Williams, likely wouldn’t have come without the 6-6 shooting, including 4-4 from 3-point range, of Johannès.

The starting frontcourt has remained stable for most of the year, with All-Stars Kia Nurse and Tina Charles comprising the forward positions and Amanda Zahui B. at center when she wasn’t overseas. However, the Liberty have used three different starting backcourts in the seven games they’ve played with a full roster at their disposal.

“Hopefully it’s something we’ll solidify, but open to trying to figure out how to get us started on the right foot,” coach Katie Smith said after Wednesday night’s 101-92 loss to the Chicago Sky.

Beginning with the victory against LA, Brittany Boyd — who had previously started the first 17 games of the season — moved to a backup role in favor of veteran Tanisha Wright. Boyd didn’t play a single minute in Chicago on Wednesday. Wright, after playing 15 total minutes during the team’s first four games, has averaged 19 minutes per game over her last 17 contests, including five starts. According to Smith, the intention for the swap was to instill a stronger defensive presence from the opening tip. The Liberty allowed 55 and 53 points in respective first halves against Dallas and Connecticut last week, before surrendering 101 overall points in the loss to the Sky.

Tanisha Wright #30 of the New York Liberty handles the ball against the Seattle Storm on July 3, 2019 at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle, Washington. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Scott Eklund/NBAE via Getty Images)

“You can’t do that. You’re not going to win in this league. At the end of the day, we’ve got to guard somebody,” Smith said. “[Wright] is that steady influence on defense, she gives us that stability. We like that.”

Bria Hartley — who earlier missed 10 games for New York while overseas — immediately returned to the starting five following one start against Las Vegas back in June, only to be replaced by the previously injured Asia Durr. In 19 minutes off the bench on Wednesday, Hartley tied her career high with seven assists.

“[Hartley] is aggressive, she’ll guard, she pressures,” said Smith. “Good pick and roll guard. She’s had a good year.”

Durr, this year’s second overall pick from Louisville, has seen her playing time fluctuate in her rookie season. After eclipsing 20 minutes played in her first 14 games, she’s averaged just over 16 in the four games since, mainly the result of a groin injury and subsequent minutes limit. Despite ranking third on the team in scoring at 9.7 points per game, she’s been emblematic of the carousel of guards the Liberty have employed to begin games. Durr came off the bench for the season opener against the Fever, proceeded to start her next 13 games before the injury, returned to the bench for two games under the time restriction — only to be reinserted into the opening lineup against Connecticut on Sunday.

“Durr’s a starting guard in this league, so having her back and getting her back acclimated is big for us,” Katie Smith said. “We need Durr. Durr’s a scorer, she’s also a solid ball handler, playmaker and a very good passer… she’s somebody that needs to be on the floor.”

With only 144 players in the WNBA, it’s certain that everybody occupying a roster spot can legitimately play and deserves minutes on the court. There’s only so much coaches can do to find a healthy balance between committing to a cohesive rotation and giving every player opportunities to make an impact. Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller said as much after the team traded rookie Kristine Anigwe to the rebuilding Dallas Wings on Tuesday, calling the task of managing playing time “art” and “a challenge.”

“It’s hard. You can’t have a 12-man rotation. Somebody’s going to get the brunt of it. Players need to play to get in rhythm,” said Smith. “It’s something that everybody deals with, and that people have to embrace and still be ready when their number’s called. It could be foul trouble, it could be a change of pace, it could just be a different look.”

Smith also acknowledged that a rotation is dependent on the way a certain game is progressing, and who may be able to step up on any given night.

“It’s who’s performing. Sometimes when things aren’t going well, you’re trying to find that one that’s going to give you something… It’s next man up, and always be ready.”

Since their roster underwent a midseason retool, the Liberty have leaned heavily on spreading minutes across the various guards on the team and have searched for a starting lineup that will consistently generate momentum early in games. With 12 games left and the playoffs still within reach, finding an effective first five remains a priority.

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