WNBA Week 12: The New York Liberty Finally Look Like That Promised Super Team

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The WNBA is sprinting toward the 2023 playoffs. Just this week, the New York Liberty were crowed Commissioner’s Cup champions. As always, Natalie and Heather break it down and make some bold predictions about end-of-season individual awards.


Natalie: All set to talk all things WNBA?

Heather: I am ready! I cannot wait to hear your thoughts on the Commissioner’s Cup game!

Natalie: That’s a great place to start: last Tuesday, the New York Liberty faced the Las Vegas Aces for the league’s third annual commissioner’s cup and won, 82-63. Not nearly as bad a loss as the Liberty had given the Aces back in New York but still a good butt kicking…especially for the Aces who had been playing so well at home.

I think the win cemented two things for me: first, that the New York Liberty are legit. It’s like they’ve finally come into their “superteam” form and have all their pieces working. The starters have gelled and, I think most importantly, the bench is providing a substantial contribution. Second, the Aces are not infallible. It feels like everything we’ve been warning about for the last year or so — the long minutes being put on their starters, the non-existent bench — is finally having a tangible impact on the court. What were your takeaways from that Commissioner’s Cup game?

Heather: I think you are spot on, as usual! During the game, we were chatting just a little, and one of the things that really jumped out at both of us was that the Liberty’s bench was the thing that was making all the difference for them. I had it completely wrong. I thought Stef Dolson would be the game-changer off the bench, defensively — but no! Kayla Thorton had eight points, four rebounds, and two assists off the bench. And Marine Johannes, who seems to exist to troll your fantasy team, had 17 points on 5-7 shooting behind the arc. Stacy and I have always called her Kicky because she pulls up and shoots in the most bonkers, cartoon rabbit kind of way. When she’s off, she’s off. But when she’s cooking, there is nothing you can do to stop her. Becky Hammon said as much after the game. It was also such an even effort from the Liberty’s starters, in terms of the point spread. AND. As you and I have been saying since week one, when Jonquel Jones is playing like Jonquel Jones? That’s the stuff of championships. I was so thrilled to see her win the Cup MVP trophy.

The Aces short bench is something that’s been worrying you for two seasons now, and with Candace Parker out with injury, it’s an even more obvious liability. Another thing Hammon said after the game is that the Liberty weren’t even guarding Kia Stokes or Alysha Clark, and that was allowing them to jump off screens and double up on A’ja, Chelsey, KP, Jackie. Kiah wasn’t guarded AND she didn’t score. That’s going to be something the Aces are going to have to figure out, and fast, because other teams are going to scout that in a heartbeat.

I was so happy for the Liberty win because they’re my team, but also because it made me super excited for the playoffs, which I had just been assuming, up until this week, was going to be a field day for the Aces in route to another championship.

However! It must be said! That the Aces did turn around and spank the Liberty two days later!

Natalie: As I said during our in-game chat, not guarding a player on the floor has to be one of the most disrespectful things you can do….and I think it gets into the player’s head a little bit. I mean, I don’t think Kiah Stokes is the greatest offensive player but she should at least be able to give you a few points, just in terms of putbacks, right? The Aces have to find a way to make Stokes into a scoring threat. They just have to. Even in that second game against the Liberty — the actual regular season game — Stokes doesn’t score at all.

I think that second game was just Chelsea Gray absolutely refusing to allow the Aces to lose. But also? The Liberty just looked gassed…they’d played a lot of games in a short period and hadn’t been able to really recover. Do you worry about that in a playoff scenario?

Heather: The Liberty actually played more games than anyone leading into that Commissioner’s Cup, in large part because they were making up games from when we had that wildfire smoke here in the city that made it impossible to breathe even inside. So I think that was a contributing factor. I also think, even though they did fly charter and have a few days to prepare in Las Vegas, they were the team traveling across the country. They weren’t playing at home. So yes, they absolutely got outplayed, but I do think there were some extra things contributing to their exhaustion that will likely be more balanced in the playoffs. Do I still think it’s likely the Aces will pull it out again in the end? I sure do. But do I now think it will be more competitive? Absolutely!

One other thing I am so eager to hear your thoughts on: This rivalry is getting REAL chippy. It started back when JJ elbowed A’ja in the neck before the Cup game. It continued in their Thursday night regular season game when Kayla Thorton absolutely throttled A’ja into the ground with such ferocity that Becky Hammon RUSHED THE FLOOR to keep A’ja from jumping up and retaliating. What do you think of the simmering blood between these two, and will THAT be a factor in the playoffs?

Natalie: I think the back and forth with Thorton had been building all game and A’ja’s anger over it (compounded by not getting the calls) nearly boils over at that point…such that all her teammates and Becky Hammon have to step in an prevent an altercation from happening. And I should say, for our readers who aren’t diehard W fans like you and I: A’ja Wilson’s not that type of player. There are other folks in the league with tempers but A’ja Wilson’s not typically been one of them…so to see her get that fed up was really remarkable.

Heather: Yes, I agree — and I honestly thought it showed just how close this team is, including how close they are with Hammon, because, like you said, A’ja doesn’t play ball like that. And in the case of Hammon, she only saw the back of A’ja’s head before she started rushing the court. Just even seeing her body language, she knew she was about to act out of character. One thing you can say for absolute certainty about these Aces: you mess with one of them, you mess with all of them.

Natalie: I think what we’re seeing, though is other WNBA teams believing that the best way to beat the Aces is to play them physically. You’ve seen that in the five games they’ve lost this season, including the most recent loss to the Sparks over the weekend. To have that sustained level of physicality, especially if the refs aren’t calling the fouls, is going to drain a team…and without a bench to rely on, the Aces are really vulnerable.

Heather: A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart are both majorly susceptible to that funk that comes over them when they’re not getting calls, because they are so used to getting calls! And so much of their points, and their team momentum, comes from what they’re able to do in the paint, whether that’s getting offensive rebounds, coming through with ‘and 1s,’ pulling down huge defensive rebounds and then leading the transition charge down the floor. So when they’re getting beaten up down there, with nothing to show for it, it’s got to get frustrating as hell! I love physical post play, I L O V E I T — but, way more than that, I value these players’ bodies and livelihoods, so I hope the refs can find a way to keep everyone safe as we head into this last part of the season.

There’s one more Aces thing we have to touch on. They lost to the Sparks. Natalie, what in the world!?

Natalie: It’s like I said: the physicality is a problem…and the refs just weren’t calling it.

Heather: I also want to shout out Layshia Clarendon. 22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists? That’s a masterful performance! I am always rooting for them and it was so cool to see them so happy after that game!

Natalie: Definitely a great performance in that game. They’re one of the best physical guards in the league and it made it harder for the Aces’ guards to dish the ball or get into the lane.

That game also featured another great performance by Jordin Canada who, at least in my book, is leading the race for the Most Improved Player in the league right now. Earlier in the season, we made our predictions for the WNBA Awards and, for MIP, I predicted Satou Sabally or Shakira Austin taking it while you had Allisha Gray.

With a few weeks left in the season who’s your pick for Most Improved?

Heather: Oh wow, we had great picks! I agree with you that Jordin Canada’s in the conversation, but I think for me it’s gotta be Satou Sabally. Not only is she having a career best year, personally, her play has elevated the Wings to a whole new level. ESPN had them third in their power rankings this morning! It’s obviously very much a team effort in Dallas. Teaira McCowan and Natasha Howard are having the best year’s of their careers too. But Satou is just on another level.

Natalie: I want to go with Satou…first because I love her and second because I love being right…but I think the consistency hasn’t been there for me lately. In the last two games for the Wings, she’s averaged just 8 points. Canada, on the other hand, has been such a steadying force for the Sparks…and, for me, she’s leading in that race.

A lot of talk about the MVP race. In our pre-season picks, you went with Breanna Stewart and I went with a “if she stays healthy — and that’s a big if — Elena Delle Donne.” I see now that I probably jinxed EDD with that statement and I regret it.

Heather: I think EDD is simply cursed.

Natalie: What about you? Are you still betting on Stewie to take the MVP trophy this year?

Heather: I think it’s going to be A’ja or Stewie, and I can’t argue with either. They are two of the best to ever do it; they’re both shining so bright this season; All-Star captains; likely Championship team captains. Best players on the best teams, like you always say!

Natalie: So, can I be honest and admit that I’m rethinking the best player on the best team thing?

Heather: Ooh, say more!

Natalie: Obviously, Stewie and A’ja have been great this season but what Alyssa Thomas is doing in Connecticut this season is just other worldly. She’s breaking records left and right. Over the weekend, she became the first WNBA player to have 300 rebounds and 250 assists in a single season AND she still has nine games left?! And then the triple-doubles on top of that?

I don’t know how someone can have that historic of a season and then we don’t acknowledge that with an MVP trophy.

Heather: You know what, you’re absolutely right.

I’ve been thinking lately that if AT was having this kind of otherworldly season in Vegas or NYC — I don’t even mean on the Aces or Liberty, really, I just mean in either of those cities/markets, so I guess Los Angeles too — this would be a whole other conversation. Or if she was a male athlete having this kind of season. So, yeah, I have absolutely no quibble with your selection here. I mean! She’s literally right now in competition with Courtney Vandersloot for the most assists this season, and breaking the single-season assist record! They’re tied right now for the 3rd-most assists in a season in WNBA history.

Natalie: The thing that really turned me around on this is, oddly, enough the Rookie of the Year race. I don’t think there’s a legitimate argument to be made that anyone other than Aliyah Boston is going to take home that trophy….but when you talk about why Boston deserves it, you’re talking about stats that defy history. Over the weekend, she passed Tamika Catchings for the rookie field goal record in Indiana. Her efficiency for a rookie is off the charts. She deserves it because she’s making history.

So why deny Alyssa Thomas the MVP trophy when she’s doing similar things?

Heather: Welp! You convinced me! In like three minutes!

Natalie, I just love talking about the W with you. Just reading the last two things you wrote, I’ve got chills all over my arms. How dang amazing for us to be witnessing this women’s basketball history! At a time when we can watch more women’s basketball on TV than ever before!

Natalie: We really are witnessing greatness on the court…and I can’t believe I get to talk about it with you and get paid for it. Don’t tell Carmen but I’d talk to you about the WNBA for free!

Heather: Shhh, me too!

I’d love to know who’s got your vote right now for Coach of the Year and DPOY.

Natalie: Coach of the Year is another tough one for me. Obviously, Hammon’s in the conversation…and I think Brondello has to be as well. It took a minute but getting that New York Liberty team to gel, getting everyone to understand their roles and how valuable they are in making the “superteam” super…it’s been an impressive feat for Brondello. But I think I have to give it to Stephanie White.

Heather: MY ENEMY FROM 1999?!?!

Natalie: If you had told me that the Sun were going to lose JJ in the off-season, lose Brionna Jones to injury during the season and still be in the top tier of the WNBA…I would’ve thought you were crazy. But they’re still sitting in the upper echelon of the league. That’s a testament to what White’s brought to the franchise.

But I think it’s between White and Brondello…what about you?

Heather: Forgive me Pat Summitt in heaven, but I do agree with you that what Stephanie White has accomplished is nothing short of a coaching miracle. Especially because Connecticut isn’t really famous for having teams that super-duper love each other. And there are plenty of chips to go around for plenty of shoulders, even just DeWanna and AT getting shut out of All-Star starting spots this season when they’re both having such huge seasons in such illustrious careers.

For me, though, I do think it’s Brondello. I will be honest and say that the patience and gentleness she exhibited with this team all the way up until the All-Star break was absolutely maddening to me. I just wanted to see her get mad! At the turnovers! At giving up offensive rebounds! At the way they were not playing to their potential! But she just kept calmly saying that these things take time, that the team was going to come together, that JJ was going to find her place, that Sabrina was going to learn how to play defense. She was infuriatingly peaceful and full of confidence all that stuff would happen and that the Liberty would peak at the right time — AND THEY HAVE!

Natalie: I mean, hoping that Sabrina learns how to play defense might be expecting a little too much but yes, that’s exactly why I think Brondello’s a lead candidate. I suppose after so many years with Phoenix, managing the egos in New York seemed like child’s play.

DPOY is another tough one for me: who do you have?

Heather: I think it’s A’ja again. Not just because she’s leading the league in blocks and defensive win shares, but also because just the fact of her keeps so many people out of the lane and also keeps them from shooting. She is so endlessly impressive with her blocking, but I’ve really only just begun to appreciate how brilliant she is off the ball and how she can make people pay — or balk — even if she’s not guarding them.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Sabrina Ionescu pick up her dribble in a panic and turn the ball over simply because A’ja Wilson started moving toward her.

Natalie: What do you think gives her the edge over someone like Stewie? And, are you surprised that Brittney Griner’s not part of the DPOY conversation?

Heather: That’s two great questions. I think the difference with Stewie is that she’s not guarding the other team’s best player every night. And, in fact, Sandy Brondello will go to a second, or even third choice, before she forces Stewie to really guard someone who’s going to get her in foul trouble. Betnijah Laney is, by far, the Liberty’s best defender, and she’s usually guarding the other team’s star, every single night. With A’ja, you’re just going to get her no matter how good you are. Hammon trusts her to play killer defense and be smart enough to stay out of foul trouble.

As far as BG goes, I have just been so endlessly impressed with her level of play this season, after everything, that I’m not surprised she’s not in the DPOY conversation because she’s still not at the top of her game, but that doesn’t take away from what she’s accomplished, of course! (I actually saw BG laughing at her bobblehead on on the Mercury’s IG the other day, saying she wishes she could put back on that weight the bobblehead BG is showcasing.

Natalie: Sorry for the delay but I had to go look for that bobblehead post on IG, it sounded hilarious…and it is!

Heather: I love this video!

Natalie: Her reaction is absolutely adorable. I love BG so much.

Heather: Every time she smiles — literally every time — I smile back. I’m like a little baby, just mirroring her happiness.

Natalie: Her joy is infectious.

Two quick things to touch on before we toss it over to Carmen for the WNBA Fits of the Week: first, WNBA Commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, is on the road visiting potential expansion cities for the league. She made a stop in Denver last Wednesday. Are you feeling optimistic about the possibility of expansion and are you surprised that WNBA players don’t seem as thrilled about the possibility as fans are?

Heather: I think if you’d asked me this at this exact time last year, I would have been over the moon excited. But I’ll tell you what, I have been so deeply disappointed with so many of the decisions Engelbert/the league have made this season that I actually wish they’d get that stuff handled before expanding. The weirdness with charter flights, the bullshit with BG’s security, the baffling ways pregnant players are being treated, the too-small roster limits, the low pay that’s still going to force so many players overseas. I don’t see how expanding the league is going to fix any of those issues, and I think that Engelbert’s got this almost trickle-down economics idea that her main job should be marketing and expansion so that the league can grow and then make more money and then deal with all these very valid player complaints. But that feels more and more backward to me. I’m so glad you asked this because I have been so greedy for your take on it.

Natalie: I think you’re where a lot of the players are: Kelsey Plum has talked about this a little bit, particularly as it relates to the travel piece. There are all these things that need fixing in the league and those things warrant more immediate consideration. I don’t disagree with any of the issues that you’ve raised but also I hope it’s not an either-or proposition, you know? Like I want us to be able to have charter flights for the players AND expanded rosters AND new teams in the league. There’s no reason for a professional league to not be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Heather: And amen to that!

Natalie: I think, as the players go into this next round Collective Bargaining, related to the TV deal, hope that they approach it with an yes-AND mindset rather than an either-or.

Heather: I absolutely agree.

Natalie: The second thing: over the weekend, we also saw Minnesota forward Aerial Powers take to twitter and make clear that she won’t be back in a Lynx jersey next season. We’ve both been perplexed about Powers’ play (or lack thereof) in Minnesota this season so I’m not sure her frustration came as a surprise…but what do you think is the problem in Minnesota?

Heather: I mean, obviously it’s much harder to handle any kind of drama in the locker room when your team has a losing record. The Lynx are having the weirdest season. They’re in the playoff conversation, but they’re 15-17 (6-10 AT HOME). I’m sure there’s been plenty of conversation about who the Lynx are going to bring in during the next draft, and whether or not they’re going to be some kind of savior. It’s impossible to overlook what a huge loss it was in the locker room when Sylvia Fowles retired. I think they’re having a bad season, I think any kind of bad blood between players, or between players and staff is probably getting more and more heated, and I just get the feeling Aerial feels at least slightly discredited by the organization. Her girlfriend tweeted that the team was “toxic,” so I don’t really know what’s happening there, but I hope she can field a trade to a place where she’s happier. She’s got some good years left in her! What’s your thinking on her, and also just on the Lynx overall as we had toward the playoffs?

Natalie: The toxic tweets caught me a bit off-guard because, though we all acknowledge that not all WNBA franchises are well-run, there’s never been any indication that Minnesota is a particularly toxic environment. If there’s something else going on, I hope that we hear more about it so that it can be addressed.

That said, I think the real issue in Minnesota — and I don’t know that it qualifies to the level of toxic given how common it has been across the league — is that the head coach should not be the general manager. They brought AP in for scoring and, particularly while Phee was out, Powers provided that…but now Phee’s back, Diamond Miller’s stepped up and they’ve got Tiffany Mitchell…and AP isn’t needed as much. They’d trade her but, because Reeves was so desperate for scoring help, they signed Powers to an inflated contract…so there’s no other team that can really afford to take her.

Heather: That’s a really, really astute observation. This isn’t the first time you’ve been able to see the bad effects of having Reeves do both of those jobs.

Natalie: Absolutely. Remember the Angel McCoughtry stint in Minnesota?

Anyway, how about a Minnesota palate cleanser?

Heather: Okay well that’s the cutest thing I have seen in a minute! I love seeing women athletes with their babies on the floor and field, I just love it!

Natalie: So do I!

Heather: Speaking of things we love, let’s turn it over to Carmen for Fits of the Week!

Carmen: The obvious winner for outfit of the week goes to my fantasy wife Chelsea Gray for her Commissioner Cup fit last week.

Heather: Mmm hmm.

Carmen: There are no words. In fact I think, upon knowledge of this outfit, my exact phrasing was: “what am i supposed to do with this huh WHAT AM I TO DO?!?! i guess just lie down on the floor.”

I also would like to publicly acknowledge that it’s been brought to my attention by Natalie that my Aces bias might be influencing my outfits of the week — they’ve been featured more than any other team — and while I stand by my choices!! I am going to be conducting an informal “Which WNBA Team is the swaggiest??” in the next couple weeks. And I’ll pay attention in the comments for any suggestions!

Right now if I had to guess the answers are: 1) Aces 2) Chicago 3) Dallas 4) LA… but that’s just a first pass at it!

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Natalie

A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 396 articles for us.

Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.

Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 700 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. My favorite post of the week! Thank you thank you. You two have such astute observations and I am shocked you aren’t full time sports writers (but I also love the other things you write so lucky me!)

    to your point about the way the W is being led and odd/troubling organizational decisions, I find how hard it is to watch games baffling. I know part of that has to do with market demand but seeing so many games only available via NBAtv/ league pass /Twitter is troubling. I hope they have plans for some new media deals as they expand. I hate not being able to watch games – because I wanna help viewership numbers. But how can that happen when viewing is so cobbled together?

      • So this had also been driving me up a wall, but we recently learned (uh, from Rebecca Lobo) that a lot of that bananas ESPN content is basically sports infomercials. Which doesn’t excuse it, but is certainly a wrinkle.

        (We had discovered competitive pillow fighting and were like THEY WILL SHOW ANYTHING TO NOT SHOW WOMEN.)

  2. I don’t think the Aces have the championship game in the bag at all, and I don’t only say that as a Liberty fan and an Aces critic! The Liberty didn’t just have a lot of games in a row, they had a lot of road games in a row, AND they had to go and play the Mercury the day after the Aces!! That’s an insane schedule, and I will reiterate, when they have beaten the Aces, they’ve smacked them. I feel like honestly their series is just a numbers games, and as we often see, it’s just hard to beat the same team multiple times when you’re equally talented. And when the Liberty have players like MJ and Nyara and KT coming off the bench, and the Aces…don’t (to put it kindly), I think they’re actually in a way better spot when it comes to players potentially getting tired down the stretch.

    I actually didn’t catch the KT foul, but I stand by that the JJ elbow was not intentional, and also A’ja got the call on that one so not sure how that plays into the no call frustration? I don’t think you can chalk that Sparks game up to the refs either. There were plenty of Aces fouls, such as every time Kelsey Plum plays offense, that also didn’t get called.

    I NEED to know the Aerial Powers tea. Cheryl Reeves being the GM and head coach is so insane…Add in the fact she’s the National Team head coach and this just feels like way too much power for one person, lol. I also was wondering if there was any truth to those tanking rumors and if so, that’s gotta be annoying for everyone currently on the roster (especially because Paige still seems to be riding the success of her high school career?? Seems risky to assume that’ll translate to the pro level, people!!)

    This might be an unpopular opinion but I think Diamond definitely deserves to be in the ROY conversation. She’s having a killer rookie season, elevating her team just like Aliyah is.

    It’s funny you say Aliyah made you re-think the best player on the best team argument, since that was so much of what drove the discourse around National Player of the Year this year! I’ve always felt that making history and breaking records should 100% come into it, especially a triple double records as it shows you’re versatile, and that’s why it’s always been AT for me this season. And this way neither of the two biggest fanbases on WNBA twitter win, and that for one is fun for me!

    Sad to hear Heather hates Stephanie White! I know nothing about her other than I think she’s a great coach and is dating (or married?) to a woman and honestly both of those things are enough to make me a big fan! I think COY is Sandy Brondello too, though. I thought the same thing about her Phoenix personality management – this Liberty team has gone from looking like they hate each other to laughing and holding hands on the court. She’s a magician.

    And, lastly, Kelsey Plum’s comments about expansion kind of frustrated me. I also don’t think it should be an either/or. With expansion would come more eyes on the league, more interest in different parts of the country/world, more players fighting for rights, and thus more revenue and improvements. I don’t think the solution to improving working conditions is to only protect people like her who are lucky enough to get a protected contract on a roster. I understand their concerns, but isn’t that always the case with toxic management? Creating a scarcity mindset?

    • also I’ve never gotten the argument that sagging off a player is disrespectful. I understand it getting into a player’s head, but also, on the flip side it can make your defender look really stupid if you start cutting and hitting shots!

    • Oh! I’m sorry, I should have clarified: I’m just joking about Stephanie White! I mentioned in a post earlier this season that White played on the Carolyn Peck-coached 1999 Purdue team that won the NCAA National Championship in what would have been Chamique Holdslaw’s fourth in a row at Tennessee. Natalie gently made fun of me for having an “enemy” from 1999. I like Stephanie White a lot. She was a great player, is an excellent coach, and dresses like Buffy!

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