Photo by Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
This season, the New York Liberty were an elite team. They had the WNBA's best record and played remarkable defense, the kind the Garden hadn't seen in years; in fact, they finished with the best defensive efficiency of any WNBA team since 2007. Tina Charles and Epiphany Prince provided a 1-2 scoring punch, while draft picks Kiah Stokes and Brittany Boyd finished among the league leaders in blocks and steals. On Tuesday, the Liberty advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.
New York is coached by Bill Laimbeer, and it's generally accepted in league circles that the roster was built by Kristin Bernert, the Liberty's head of basketball operations. Instead of celebrating the best New York pro basketball team in ages, however, everyone is trying to figure out how much credit Isiah Thomas should get for the team's revival. And team owners MSG can only blame themselves for causing this inevitable distraction by having hired Thomas in the first place.
Last week, the New York Post reported that Thomas helped "create a winner" after taking over as President of the Liberty in May. Among his many "behind-the-scenes moves" since being "secretly empowered in January," per the Post, was supposedly the trade that sent Cappie Pondexter to the Chicago Sky for Prince, who has been one of the best players on a championship-contending team.That came as quite the surprise to a source familiar with the talks, who told me, "Isiah had nothing to do with it."Bernert, who said she has never spoken to the Post, provided a more nuanced take in a phone interview on Monday night."Our first meeting was getting to know each other," Bernert said of Thomas, who she said agreed with her on the decision to re-hire his former teammate Bill Laimbeer as head coach. "From that point on, whether it was trades, or player dealing, or free agency…he was a part of it, he was consulted. Anything that would happen, he would obviously approve. The trade with Cappie, I was obviously running point on that. I was the one working directly with Chicago."
This is how the New York Liberty's 2015 season has proceeded: on parallel tracks."Bill and I have worked together for a long time," Bernert said. Their partnership dates back well over a decade, and includes three WNBA championships with the Detroit Shock. "We understood at the end of last year what needed to be done. And we were very happy that we were able to come together and complete the play. The New York Post article, I can't really speak to what was said in that. Isiah was very involved. We speak every other day. The way that I look at it, it's the three of us, working as a unit, and I think they'd say the same. On personnel, I take a lead on it, in working with agents. Bill is obviously a prolific coach. And it's Isiah's job to bring us together, get us on the same page."That's the strange thing: precisely why someone, let alone Thomas, needed to be hired to manage two longtime colleagues, who had previously won three titles and were already working in lockstep together, is confounding. "Isiah is a part of that," Bernert said. "And to say that he's not, I just don't think that's fair."But in many ways this is not Thomas' team at all. Last month, Laimbeer said that Thomas at the start of the season wanted New York's defensive-oriented team, one that would would become one of the league's all-time greats, to play a run-and-gun style."Isiah was talking about the league and how everybody is moving toward an open, faster-paced game, quick shooting," Laimbeer said during shootaround prior to an August game against the Minnesota Lynx. "And I basically said, 'No, that's not who we are. We're structured this way. We're gonna perfect who we are with the structure we have and see if that's good enough.' I think our team is based on team defense, first and foremost. We're significantly ahead of other teams in opposing field goal percentage. We're number one in rebounding, so we limit second shots and possessions. We do a really good job on help defense across the board. That's how we do business."
I asked Bernert how Thomas could have viewed the personnel of an all-time great defensive team and come to the conclusion it should adopt an offensive philosophy. She pointed out, accurately, that the league is heading in that direction as a whole. "It was just more about exploration about who we are and what we want to be," she added. "I think that Isiah, more than anything else, was challenging Bill's thinking." Bill's thinking, though, was clearly correct on the basic identity of the team.There's another part to this, as there generally is at MSG. It has to do with how Liberty owner Jim Dolan does business, and specifically how he used the Liberty to try to bolster the resume of his longtime friend, a Hall of Fame player who's had a disgraceful career as an executive. Propping up Thomas as a visionary and an organizational genius with the Liberty is an attempt at reputation laundering. Remember that neither Thomas or Dolan have ever taken responsibility—let alone apologized—for Thomas' sexual harassment of Anucha Browne Sanders during his tenure as New York Knicks president.On the surface, cleaning Thomas' reputation appears to be the reason for Dolan's surprise announcement in May that Thomas would become team president and part owner of the Liberty. Of course, Thomas becoming part owner required league approval, which Thomas did not get, although the league did make a face-saving announcement saying that it was the Liberty who removed Thomas from consideration.
And so, as the Liberty—a team the Post reported Dolan has repeatedly tried to sell and consistently treated as an afterthought—became a winning one, their success was quickly spun into a kind of Isiah Thomas Redemption Project. On August 1, the Post breathlessly reported that Thomas was the team's "Mr. Fix-It."And this past week, as the Liberty prepared to host its first playoff series as the WNBA's top overall seed, the Post went further, declaring that "Isiah Thomas has done what he couldn't with the Knicks: Create a winner."Bernert, the actual architect of this prototypical Laimbeer team, is seldom mentioned at all."It takes time to learn the WNBA and its players," Bernert said. "Isiah knows basketball, he's one of the best point guards in the history of the game. He knows basketball, and he knows talent. So learning the players in the WNBA took some time. Learning the players in the draft took some time. But he picked it up really quickly."
The Post said that Thomas "laid low amid the Liberty's climb," which is a strange thing to write about someone who held a presser at media day, held another one just minutes before the team tipped off, and put out this statement taking credit for the offseason he spent learning the league:"When we were building this team during the offseason, there were three specific goals in mind: We wanted our team to have great chemistry, identify players that would have a positive impact in the community, and to be known for our on court defense first. To see this group perform at such a high level from the very start of the year has been enjoyable to watch. Coach (Bill) Laimbeer, his staff, and our players, have done an incredible job."
The latter part is indisputable. Laimbeer was recently named the WNBA's Coach of the Year. The Liberty haven't just won with Laimbeer; they've won in precisely the same way Bill Laimbeer has always won in the WNBA. The last time any team put up better defensive efficiency numbers in the league was 2007, when two teams managed it. One featured Tamika Catchings, the only five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year in league history. The other was Laimbeer's Detroit Shock.Remember, Thomas wanted to make this an offensive-oriented team."There's no question that building a team is one piece of the puzzle," Laimbeer said Friday night. "But then you have to have a staff that takes them to the next level and gets the most out of them."Bernert didn't want the credit either, pointing out the early obstacles the team faced and overcame—namely, all the negative publicity from Thomas's hiring."We didn't really know what we had," Bernert said. "Obviously we started off the season—a bit of a rough start, came under some pressure. To see what they've done, to be honest, none of us should take any credit; the leadership of Tanisha Wright and Swin Cash; having players like Tina Charles and Epihpanny Prince, and role players who were willing to accept their roles… they're the ones who deserve the credit. Is it Isiah, does he deserve the credit? We honestly didn't know what we were going to have until the players decided what they were going to be."