Katie Smith’s future in New York remains uncertain

Silence from the Liberty front office about Head Coach Katie Smith‘s return

Are the New York Liberty looking to replace head coach Katie Smith after missing the playoffs two seasons in a row?

Both General Manager Jonathan Kolb and a team spokesperson did not respond to multiple inquiries whether Smith is returning in 2020.

It’s been a busy month for the Liberty, who won the franchise’s first number one draft pick ever on September 18  in the draft. With the departure of Teresa Weatherspoon, former Director of Player and Franchise Development, to the New Orleans Pelicans, 2020 was already going to look different under Kolb, who was hired this past March.

Then there are questions that surround the home of the team in 2020 along with the rest of the roster. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said during her state of the league press conference before Game 1 of the 2019 WNBA finals that she expects a decision from Liberty owner Joe Tsai on where the Liberty will play their 2020 season “in a few weeks.”

Only six players are signed on for next season: Amanda Zahui B., Rebecca Allen, Brittany Boyd, Kia Nurse, Asia Durr and Han Xu. While Tina Charles was given a franchise tag before the 2019 season, ambiguity regarding her return remains due to the current collective bargaining negotiations. The current CBA will expire on October 31.

It’s worth noting that Smith’s predecessor had a similar arc. Bill Laimbeer took the reins in 2013, failing to reach the postseason in his first two seasons as head coach. But by the third year of his tenure, he led the Liberty to a winning percentage just shy of .700 including an appearance in the conference semifinals.

Smith precedes both Kolb and Joe Tsai’s ownership group. She began as an assistant to former Liberty Head Coach Laimbeer in 2014. She was promoted to associate head coach in 2016 and resumed full head coaching responsibilities in 2018.

In two regular seasons, Smith battled through an ownership change and a move to White Plains’ Westchester County Center, two major factors that didn’t set the 2018 Naismith inductee up for success in her first head coaching gig.

Multiple league sources expressed consternation to High Post Hoops over the idea that Smith would be let go after two years of strife without a suitable home arena. One described the potential of her removal as “shameful” and another agreed. Expecting immediate success in the middle of ownership jumping ship during a simultaneous rebuild is unreasonable, observers feel. And moreover, leaving the legendary WNBA figure in limbo doesn’t serve anybody well.

Smith’s competitiveness and knowledge of the game haven’t been challenged. She’s been praised by Laimbeer and former coach Brian Agler, who currently stands as the winningest coach in U.S. women’s professional basketball. He noted how Smith has succeeded in dealing with the immense pressure expected when coaching in New York.

“[The Liberty] have some great players and to balance all the talent, and try to keep everyone happy is not [one of] the easiest things to do,” Agler said after a matchup against New York on August 1.

NEW YORK,NY – SEPTEMBER 29 : Coaches Bill Laimbeer and Katie Smith of the New York Liberty look on against the Indiana Fever during game Three of the WNBA Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden on September 29, 2015 in New York, New York 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 2015 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

But on the heels of two losing seasons, it is clear some changes are needed, regardless of who is the head coach.

In a column for The Athletic, Erica Ayala expressed how drafting the projected Sabrina Ionescu as the team’s floor general doesn’t make a majority of New York’s problems vanish.

Kolb told The Athletic after securing the number one pick in the 2020 draft that the franchise “has to look inward” and determine how it can improve.

“I know there is a lot of soul searching amongst all of us and we’re going to be all the better for it,” he said. “We’re going to do everything possible to put a championship-caliber roster together here.”

In 2019, the Liberty struggled to establish their basketball identity as a squad. Injuries and the Eurobasket tournament didn’t help, but there was a disconnect. New York struggled heavily with fundamentals such as ball handling and defensive consistency.

While it was unclear if Smith was unimpressed by her roster’s effort and drive in 2018, she made it crystal clear that her 2019 roster was a bit more focused. “I just think they’ve shown up every single day,” she said before the Liberty’s 94-84 loss to the Connecticut  Sun on August 30. “I think practice, the energy and effort and focus of showing up and trying to get better and really pushing each other has been something I’m really happy with.

Every single person has really been locked in and trying to do what they need to do and trying to get better.”

But a bit more focused might not be enough in New York.

In light of another losing season, however, two Liberty players who are currently under contract for next season agreed that the 2019 group got along very well and grew closer. They noted that there wasn’t any infighting amongst the team during what they characterized as a “rollercoaster” of a season.

“That’s never been our issue,” one of the players told High Post Hoops. “That’s been a strong point. As a group, it’s always been good coming to work.”

Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this story.

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