March 07, 2013

Laimbeer era starting early for Liberty

If anything else, hiring former "bad boy" Bill Laimbeer as your head coach and general manager means the beginning of a new era. For Laimbeer, an opportunity arises to extend his esteemed legacy in the WNBA (Laimbeer won titles with the Detroit Shock in '03, '06, and '08) -- for the Liberty, a chance to rejuvenate the organization that has failed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals twice since acquiring Cappie Pondexter in 2010.

As noted from my column in January, that rejuvenation process was allegedly involving the pursuit of restricted free agent Angel McCoughtry, but the all star has since re-signed with the Atlanta Dream. Although the blockbuster rumor did not come to pass, it was announced on February 25 that the Liberty would re-sign Essence Carson, who might benefit most from Laimbeer's hard nose defensive style. In the same breath, the announcement of signing 38-year-old veteran Katie Smith, a two-time WNBA champion under Bill Laimbeer in Detroit. Smith's value will be seen instantly because of her innate toughness, experience, and savvy on both ends of the floor (side note: at 38, Smith averaged over 37 minutes per game for Seattle last year).

After Monday's announcement, "Trader Bill" started making good on his former nickname. The following Wednesday, the Liberty traded post player Kia Vaughn and the No. 17 pick in the upcoming draft to the Washington Mystics in exchange for the No. 7 pick, giving New York two top-ten selections in the WNBA draft next month. That Friday, a three-team-deal sent the Minnesota Lynx the rights to Janel McCarville, and Nicole Powell was traded to Tulsa. On the surface, these moves by Laimbeer could be seen as traditionally cleaning house, but to the trained eye, a tactical and meticulous plot is unfolding in New York.

Laimbeer's legacy in the WNBA is recognized as transforming the Detroit Shock organization from a 9-23 season in 2002 to WNBA champions in 2003. It was his vision that inspired their program's rise to dominance, which included a preference for a particular personnel. Evidently, Laimbeer's current vision has the same implications in a different context. It is no coincidence that Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton, both current Liberty players, were part of Laimbeer's championship teams in Detroit. Neither is it that Katie Smith has been summoned for her services. It also happens that the Liberty have acquired the rights to Deanna Nolan from Tulsa in the aforementioned three-team-trade, who truly rose to stardom under, you guessed it, Bill Laimber in Detroit. Noticing a trend? How about one more -- Michelle Voepel from ESPNW reported that New York will likely be bringing Cheryl Ford on board. Ford was the #3 overall pick in the 2003 draft, chosen specifically by Laimbeer, and became a most memorable inside force for that Detroit dynasty. Laimbeer has since expressed little optimism that Nolan will be in uniform this season, as she is still competing professionally in Russia, and nothing has been confirmed yet on Ford.

What seems to be unraveling as a Detroit reunion in New York can be simplified as the vision of a man who has done this before. Clearly it is important to Laimbeer that he coaches a group more familiar with his style than not, but it also remains clear that his intention is to produce instant glory for one of the original franchises in the WNBA. So, two players from the Liberty's starting unit have been traded, two (possibly three) of Laimbeer's former players are joining a Liberty roster with two former Shock members on it, New York will have two top-ten rookie selections coming from next month's draft, and as prophesied by Laimbeer, Cappie Pondexter is geared to lead the WNBA in scoring this season. Sounds like a new era to me.

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