What do the Liberty need to consider in their head coach search?

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SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – AUGUST 18: Minnesota Lynx Head Coach Cheryl Reeve and assistant coach Walt Hopkins discuss play in the third quarter against the Seattle Storm during their game at Alaska Airlines Arena on August 18, 2019 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 Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Team culture and culture sensitivity (there’s a difference)

Katie Smith has one of the sharpest basketball minds. There is no denying that. But something that I’ve speculated before was her inability to establish a team culture based on accountability. In Smith’s two years leading on the Liberty bench, who really was the disciplinarian? That was difficult to see.

There are many reasons why her tenure at the helm of New York ended after two seasons. Bill Laimbeer’s succession plan didn’t take into account a franchise in limbo and a lack of resources. But Smith struggled to make adjustments of her own. In the past two seasons, the core group of player personnel who knew Smith as their assistant and then associate head coach had difficulty adapting to new expectations and a new persona.  This task takes more than two years to achieve success.

Minnesota’s Cheryl Reeve has mastered what it takes to have a winning culture. She’s defined the “four Ps” (Preparation, Passion, Perseverance, and Principles) as a framework for what it takes to win a championship, and has pushed her players to “be the hardest working team in the league.”

Walt Hopkins, who joined Minnesota in 2017, has learned about these expectations in  Reeve’s system. He has a Masters in education from Harvard where he focused on moral development and motivation theory. And he also has a Masters from UC Berkley in Culture Studies of Sport in Education.

Hopkins said on the Lynx Off-Season Podcast that the mindset he has adopted from Reeve is: “You get what you accept.”

Over his career in the league, Hopkins has worked alongside All-Star point guards Skylar Diggins-Smith, Layshia Clarendon and Danielle Robinson. On the podcast, Robinson told the story of when she first communicated with Hopkins. He texted her: “I’ve studied your game for a long time.”

According to comments on his own LinkedIn page, Hopkins is a student of team culture and discipline. His knowledge of player behavior, experience working with point guards and keen eye to detail is exactly what New York needs.

Pokey Chatman, a sharp eye for talent and a wise basketball mind, maybe a contender for this role. But, she could prefer a GM role.

In addition to team culture, New York’s new head coach must consider how culturally diverse the current Liberty contingent is. I’ve often said that you can build a miniature United Nations Security Council with the 2019 roster.

Kolb isn’t sure about how much his international players will be able to contribute to the 2020 season in light of the looming Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. Signed players Han Xu, Kia Nurse, Amanda Zhaui B., Kiah Stokes and Rebecca Allen all have prominent roles on their respective national teams.

While the collective bargaining agreement negotiations prevent Kolb and his staff from substantive conversations with free agents, including Tina Charles and French newcomer Marine Johannès, he does believe the guard’s future will be with New York. “Marine Johannès is going be a part of the Liberty going forward,” he said.

Ought this coaching staff have some international representation as well, or at least experience with melding and understanding cultures? That falls under the umbrella of cultural sensitivity, which is something that can’t necessarily be found on paper in a candidate.

But the idea of cultural sensitivity is dependent upon having access to resources for international players. While both Han and Johannès got more comfortable as their 2019 season progressed, there was a significant language barrier.

Communication on and off the court is key. Toward the end of the season, I asked Smith about why she was hesitant to install Johannès at the point. She had seven assists in the Liberty’s final game at Westchester County Center against the Fever. While Smith noted her exceptional court vision, her reasoning was in MJ’s lack of command on the court and the ability to actively and aggressively communicate with her teammates.

More resources including support for the Liberty’s international players is integral for success. And according to Kolb, ownership now might be on the same page.

“[Ownership has] shown us such a vote of confidence here and we are excited to bring [winners to New York]. “I think the possibilities are really endless especially with the resources they have now provided us with.”

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