We have not even reached the magic day of February 1st when free agents can officially sign contracts with new or incumbent franchises. Even with roughly two weeks prior to the big day, one team appears to be dominating the headlines.
That team is the WNBA’s flagship franchise.
It was only a few days ago that former league MVP, four-time All-Star and two-time WNBA Finalist Jonquel Jones was traded in a three-team deal (along with Kayla Thornton from the Dallas Wings) from the Connecticut Sun to the New York Liberty.
Of course, Lib Loyals have been daydreaming for the last calendar year about the possibility of Breanna Stewart going from Seattle to New York after she had a meeting last offseason with Joe and Clara Wu Tsai.
Now, Howard Megdal recently unveiled on a podcast that there appears to be mutual interest between the Lib and Courtney Vandersloot, who was integral in winning the 2021 WNBA championship for the Chicago Sky.
Granted, if the Liberty were to sign both Stewie and Sloot, it would likely come at the expense of other talented players on the roster – perhaps, Betnijah Laney because of cap concerns.
Is all of this interest in players wanting to join the seafoam, black and copper merely a coincidence – or is it something larger?
It may be just that – and also a clear sign of the rebound the Liberty as an organization has made from the dark days of the late 2010s.
As Jackie Powell, Liberty beat reporter at The Next, mentioned in one of her recent articles, it was not that long ago where it appeared no one wanted to play for New York. Why would any WNBA player?
This was a franchise that just five short years ago was put up for sale by an owner in James Dolan at MSG who clearly only saw the team as a charity case and moved them from Madison Square Garden to the old and decrepit cardboard box better known as the Westchester County Center.
And this is an organization used to playing in unusual venues – the Liberty once staged home games at Radio City Music Hall. But playing in an embarrassment of an arena that would not be suitable to host high school championship games not to mention was roughly an hour or so outside of New York City was one final middle finger to the Liberty on Dolan’s way out.
Fast forward to 2019 when the Liberty were bought out by Brooklyn Nets owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai and eventually relocated them to an actual basketball arena accessible by subway in Barclays Center. The team has played two full seasons at Atlantic and Flatbush and both have resulted in playoff berths for New York.
The trade for Jones serves to further a belief that the Liberty are done being patient and are ready to fast-track its ascent back to among the WNBA’s elite teams.
But all of the interest among plenty a WNBA baller in wearing the Liberty colors can perhaps be attributed to how the philosophy of the Tsais is a total 180 from that of Dolan – or other incumbent owners.
It is clear that the Tsais see the Liberty as an actual franchise worth putting money towards. One look at the facilities established for the team at The Clays will illustrate this point beautifully. How New York is covered by local sports networks such as YES Network and SNY are also a reflection of the improvements the Tsais have made.
Speaking of Megdal, remember when that “Traveling Violation” report came out last season that the Liberty were fined $500,000 by the WNBA for chartering flights towards the conclusion of the 2021 season? By the way, that was 10 times how much the NBA fine for the Lib’s sister franchise – the Nets – was for allowing Kyrie Irving to sashay around New York City’s COVID protocols at the time because he did not want to get the vaccine which would have made him eligible to play at New York City’s two NBA arenas.
One would have perceived that as a major scandal, but we knew it was actually a scandal that was not a scandal because the Tsais were simply doing what the WNBA should have been doing all along.
After all, the Tsais in that report even presented a plan to the WNBA to charter flights for the following three seasons. It was shot down by some of the other owners in part because they did not want the world-class hoopers of the W to get used to actually being treated like world-class hoopers.
That report led to players lambasting the WNBA on social media. It became clear to many a player that there are owners who treat WNBA players like charity cases solely because they are either women or go by they/them pronouns if not she.
The disconnect between players and the league could not have been more clearly illustrated than it was in that report in Sports Illustrated from Megdal. The WNBA treated the Liberty chartering flights as a major scandal while players began looking at New York as a model franchise that all 144 players should want to be part of.
Commissioner Cathy Engelbert later threw a bone to players at last year’s All-Star Game in Chicago when she announced that the WNBA would charter flights for the Finals.
The Tsais, as well as Mark Davis at the Las Vegas Aces, have stood out as the two primary owners that are investing real money into their WNBA teams. The Aces are now defending WNBA champions and Davis is building a new practice facility for the team in the Sin City suburb of Henderson.
The interest among WNBA players in wanting to play for the Liberty may be sending a message to other owners across the W. If you want us to have your franchise as the top of our list of teams we wish to play for, then do what Davis is doing in Vegas and what the Tsais are doing in Gotham. Put the money where the mouths are.
To be fair, we have seen many a team increase their front office budgets with how many are now hiring separately for coach and general manager. The Sun, Washington Mystics, Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks all now have separate coaches and general managers leaving James Wade at the Sky as the only outlier among teams.
A franchise can invest in a front office, but what about the player experience and making sure players are taken care of? The perception among WNBA players could be that the Liberty experience is now among the best in the W and that is why there is so much interest.
And New York has an advantage to this in large part because of the New York factor. When the Liberty were shoved into Westchester for those two years they had to play in that cardboard box, the advantage was gone because they were in a small, cramped and uncomfortable arena – plus the team was losing a lot more than it is currently.
One of life’s oldest maxims is to go where one is celebrated and appreciated as opposed to tolerated. At this point, we may have a good idea on which owners appreciate and celebrate their players and which ones simply tolerate them. Davis and the Tsai family certainly appreciate and celebrate their players.
Of course, only 12 will make the Liberty’s final roster just as only 12 will make the final roster for the Aces and the other 12 teams. As much as WNBA fans push for expansion of the league, there also needs to be expansion of the rosters…right, Cathy Engelbert?
Simply being on a WNBA team to be on a WNBA team is not enough anymore for today’s group of smart and talented ballers. They want to be in an environment where there’s clear effort on the part of its owners to make sure they are being taken care of and that all the tools are there for them to perform at their peak on a game by game basis.
One might as well put it this way…
On the count of three, pro ballers getting money!
Broke owners to the left where we want ‘em!