Thursday, September 20, 2007
2007 Season in Review
We all know how things got under way for the New York Liberty in 2007. At the draft, Becky Hammon was traded to the San Antonio Silver Spurs for the 2nd overall choice, with which the Liberty chose Jessica Davenport. Hammon was (and still is) a crowd favorite, who later led the Silver Stars to their first post-season appearance in San Antonio, and the transaction bred a lot of anger and resentment against the New York front office. The Liberty, coming off their worst season in their existence and missing the playoffs for just the third time ever, were facing declining attendance and a rebuilding roster, and while the move made sense from a team standpoint, it did nothing to alleviate fears for one of the WNBA’s premier franchises.
New York could have been viewed as emblematic of the WNBA at that point; forced into an uncomfortable situation by decreasing attendance and viewership, and the subject of a lot of out-of-city ribbing and fan-based griping. Some choices seemed impossibly short-sighted (Orender’s coverage debacle, the Liberty’s cutting back on advertisement), while others seemed confusing (at best) or . There was little coverage heading into the WNBA 2007 Season in the mainstream press, and what little there was did not bode as good news for the Liberty. Few gave them a chance, especially against the increased quality of play in the East (thanks to the dispersal draft from the folding of Charlotte).
The first five games came as a great surprise to many, then, as the Liberty played with strength and speed not seen in the 2006 Campaign. Starting off with an unsteady, come-from behind victory over the Chicago Sky, the Libs managed to knock of their first five opponents, including a hotly-contested match against Phoenix (won in the waning seconds by a spectacular driving lay-up by Davenport) and a come-from-behind win against the then-conference leaders, Indiana Fever. The combined score of the first four contests was 395-357, hardly dominating, but impressive for a team that had finished 11-23 the previous season.
Major reasons for this opening went to the head coach, Pat Coyle. A fan of a modified zone-system of play, Coyle began the season as the maestro of a flailing orchestra, replacing the pieces of the Liberty’s ensemble when they were sputtering with players from the bench. Erin Thorn started out the season red-hot, seemingly unable to miss from beyond the three-point line, while Shameka Christon and Cathrine Kraayeveld also put up strong numbers to assuage fans’ fears. All five games featured the Liberty losing in the early parts of the game, only to have the ladies find their confidence and Coyle find her team, leading to a strong victory pulled from the jaws of defeat, sometimes in the final minutes of the game. It was nerve-wracking, to be certain, but exhilarating, also; it was the kind of play that the Liberty hadn’t seen since their seemingly perennial Finals appearances, and all of this coming from a group of youthful overachievers that most had written off before the first whistle was blown. The picture was bright, and many New York fans were hoping that it is was just the beginning.
Unfortunately, it was the peak.
The next nine games saw setbacks in nearly every category in which New York had developed. Three-point shooting was down as Thorn went into a major slump (and eventually was injured). Team defense, once key to New York’s game, became slack as points from turnovers increased and lazy fouls were taken. Coyle, at the beginning of the season seen as a beacon of wisdom, became the target of some fans’ anger. Coyle, who preached a more open game (and movable lineup) at the beginning of the season, began playing her “favorite eight,” relegating certain key figures in the first five wins (particularly Davenport) to bench roles while only at times reaching to the deep bench, despite lackluster play from some of her starters. Through this all, the Liberty lost seven of nine, including humiliating losses to Washington, Indiana, and Chicago.
The worst of it (and one of the low points of the season) was the June 26th game against Sacramento. The Monarchs were a defense-first team (and at the time, the conference leader in the West) and coming off of a Finals lost; they were the favorite to go back to the finals, but even that couldn’t excuse New York’s lackluster played. The Liberty scored single-digit points in each of the first two quarters, not scoring non-free throw until 7 minutes into the game and managing only 15 points in the first half. Despite horrible showings by Christon (1 point), Loree Moore (1 point), and Tiffany Jackson (4 points), only seven players were given significant playing time (Davenport and Lindsay Bowen both played four minutes, most of that time coming during the end of the game) in New York’s worst loss of the season. The final score? 59-46.
This overture of woe was broken by a brief interlude of hope. The Liberty took three of four, losing in resounding fashion to the Seattle Storm (84-53), but taking games from the Los Angeles Sparks, a rematch against the Monarchs, and an overtime nail-biter against the streaking (and conference leading) Detroit Shock. Janel McCarville, picked up by New York in the dispersal draft from the Charlotte Sting, began showing the promise that had made the Sting choose her first overall two years earlier. Thorn, out for nearly a month, made a comeback as well, while Christon and Moore both showed flashes of brilliance that helped the Liberty take games that shouldn’t have rightly been theirs. It seemed that the Liberty’s nightmare was over.
This was not the end of the Liberty’s pain, however, as New York went on a seven game losing streak and almost took themselves out of the playoff race. Their conference rivals, the Washington Mystics, whom the Liberty had battered in previous outings, helped their chances out by beating the Liberty during that span. The Mystics, hounded by a 0-8 start, made a surge after picking up Monique Currie in a trade to Chicago Sky (for Chasity Melvin) to aid Alana Beard, placing them at times in the fourth spot in the East. The Sky, meanwhile, after going 5-29 in their inaugural season just ten months before, was still in the playoff hunt as well, thanks to New York’s play and Connecticut’s limping start out of the gate.
The Liberty faced a tumultuous season off the court as well. Rabid fans and strong early play couldn’t hide the many empty seats at the Garden. Viewership, while slightly increasing across the league, was down for New York on MSG and during its national TV contests. Without a star player to focus around, the faithful had to settle for a 7-17 product (before the Liberty awoke to win three of four and secure a post-season appearance) that, at times, seemed lethargic, boring, and committed to a system that wasn’t working. Consistency woes plagued the team the entire season, and it could be felt in any game in the waning moments as all but a faithful few remained in their seats to see a team that at points seemed poised to overtake their opponents, and at others maddeningly dispassionate. Advertisement was down, as was corporate sponsorship, and there were times that it seemed like 2007 would go down as the dark-mark on the Liberty’s otherwise strong record.
The season was not a complete loss, however, regardless of appearances. Despite going 16-18 (just the third sub -.500 season in their history), the Liberty managed to pull their talent together and take three of their last games and secure a playoff spot on the last game of the season. In the first round, they took the opening game from the Shock (the regular season and eventual Eastern Conference Playoff champs), while leading them on a wild ride for the rest of the series, ultimately losing in the decisive Game 3 by a single point in overtime. By the end of the season, Coyle’s strategy seemed to finally click with the girls, who managed to finally move past their consistency problems and work together as a team. . In a rebuilding cycle, without a single All-Star, the Liberty managed to play a team game and found budding superstars in McCarville, while Kraayeveld, Thorn, Christon, and Moore all had career years. From an on-paper standpoint, this team is a star or two away from playing powerball and winning back the crowds.
Through it all and despite the various setbacks that had hindered the franchise through the season, passion among fans at the games remained high, and several high attendance crowds were seen at the Garden. Strong promotions kept people in the stands happy, while attendance rebounded a bit towards the end of the season. The Garden was often noisy, never silent, and rarely bored. Even during the doldrums, the Liberty faithful could be seen cheering on their gals. It was a heartening sight for the team, and for the franchise itself, as the season came to a close and 2008 marched closer.
That is not to say that there isn’t much to do for the Liberty in the upcoming months; there will have to be some hard choices made if this team is to become the darling of the league once more. The draft is right around the corner, and the Front Office needs to decide who is necessary for next season and who is expendable. Trade rumors are circling over Kraayeveld, a native North-Westerner who would compliment the Seattle Storm well (should they remain in Washington), but at what price? Things are going to get... interesting, and there will almost certainly be heart-break for the fans who have newfound favorites among those who may not wear the orange and blue next season.
Overall, however, it has been a fantastic ride. The Liberty made the playoffs and proved their nay-sayers wrong. The crowds still came without a star to lead them. There was reason to hope and cheer, and new heroes were made on a nightly basis. Looking back, it wasn’t the best year that the New York Liberty had ever seen, but there was reason enough for optimism even during the darkest moments. Will the 2008 season be brighter? We can only wait and see.
EDIT: I incorrectly labelled San Antonio's team the Spurs (NBA) and not the Silver Stars (WNBA). I can only say; wow. This has been changed, and I have been chastised. I apologize for the error.
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