For the New York Liberty, defense is king.
If asked about the keys to success, whether it’s Liberty players or coaches answering the question, the responses will circle back to defense every time. That is the mentality Bill Laimbeer instils, and Libs players speak often about holding one another accountable on the defensive end of the floor.
It should not be surprising the numbers bear this out, and arguably the biggest determining factor in New York posting back-to-back 20 win seasons, is team defense.
In 2015, when the Liberty posted a franchise-best 23-11 overall record, and the top mark in the WNBA, the squad ranked 1st in defensive rating (92.2). That year, New York performed exceptionally well on the road, going 11-6 away from home, with an even better defensive rating of 91.9, well ahead of 2nd place Minnesota and their 96.2 in road games.
Last year, once again defensive proficiency made a huge impact. New York’s points allowed spiked to 99.5, but scoring increased across the board because of several rule changes, which successfully promoted a more open game and more possessions. The Liberty ranked 1st in opponent field goal percentage (.413) and 3rd in defensive rating (99.5).
Those two seasons were improvements from 2014, which saw New York rank 4th in defensive rating, and only 5th in the WNBA on its home floor.
This has become a staple for Laimbeer throughout his career. During his years in Detroit with the Shock, two of his three championship teams ranked in the top 3 in the league in defensive rating; the 2008 squad was the exception, but still finished in the top half, checking in at 5th.
For the Liberty, it comes down to execution. New York did not lead the league in blocked shots or steals, ranking 4th and 7th respectively in 2016, but as a unit, presented a formidable barrier to its opposition.
It is no secret that interior defense played perhaps the largest role in that success. New York was first, by a wide margin, in opponent field goal percentage inside the paint, at just .504. The next closest team was the Lynx (.540), and the league average was .571. The Liberty has constructed the best defensive front court from top to bottom with Tina Charles and Carolyn Swords starting, and Kiah Stokes and Amanda Zahui B waiting in the “bench mob” second unit.
Tightening up on the defensive end has led New York to the best record in the Eastern Conference in consecutive seasons for just the 2nd time in its history, and will certainly remain the team’s focal point heading into 2017.