Regional Sports

Smith’s departure causes more instability for Liberty

Another Liberty head coach departs.

The Liberty decided not to renew Katie Smith’s contract a few days ago, so this means everyone that worked under then-James Dolan’s staff is all but gone.

Smith knew she was on borrowed time. She needed to show the Liberty significant progress to coach next season. It appeared she had them in the right direction when they were 7-7 on July 5 after a four-game winning streak and a successful road trip that had them winning at Atlanta, Seattle and Phoenix. But then everything fell apart with Asia Durr injuring her groin and Amanda Zahui B. missing time because she played in the Eurobasket tournament. Losses piled up, and that was it.

The Liberty finished 3-17 after reaching .500, and that 10-24 record sealed Smith’s fate. She finished her Liberty coaching career with a 17-51 record in her two years coaching them. It can be understandable if relatively new Liberty owner Joseph Tsai wanted a clean break.

But is it a good idea? How does it build stability for a program that is trying to get up and running? Smith should have coached at least one more season with a healthy roster and a new draft pick.

Look, I don’t know if Smith is a great coach or not. She did what she had to work with. A head coach or a manager should get at least three years to show something before a coach does not get renewed.

She technically was not fired. Her contract expired, and it was not renewed, so Tsai had another case to want to move on. But her players played for her, and they developed well under her, particularly Brittany Boyd, Rebecca Allen, Reshanda Gray and Bria Hartley. It would have made more sense to keep continuity going with players making individual progress with the hope the team improves next season.

No question Tsai will find someone that can coach, but that’s going to be easier said than done. It’s much better to have a coach continue to improve and get better. Smith showed signs of it at times this season with player development.

There’s nothing a coach can do if the personnel can’t play defense. Smith constantly sang the same song in her press conference after games about her players needing to box out, guarding one another, not turning the ball over and avoiding fouls to no avail.

She did what she could have done with what she had to work with. It’s doubtful any other coach could have gotten the same results. Bill Laimbeer and recently crowned champion Mike Thibault are considered the best coaches in the WNBA, and it’s hard to think they can do any better outside of maybe getting just a few wins.

The point is that a coach can only do so much. It starts and ends with players. It will always be that way in sports.

Yes, it did not help Dolan never made a commitment to build an infrastructure that would put the Liberty in a position to succeed. It’s something Tsai vows to focus on moving forward. But again it won’t matter who coaches unless better players come.

The Liberty feature three good players in Kia Nurse, Zauhi B. and Durr. They will get the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft, who likely will be sensational guard Sabrina Ionescu out of Oregon. A guard that is great for double-doubles and even triple-doubles. And yes, a guard who can be a difference maker on defense. They should spend in free agency, too. Improvements within the roster should help.

But again, it may not be enough. And even if it is, wouldn’t it make sense to keep Smith and let her finish this through? She basically had nothing to work with in her two seasons, and her record reflects that. The Liberty were better off just growing and keeping on improving. Third year would help the team’s growth. There’s something to be said about stability.

I get it that Tsai wanted his own people, and that he wanted to make his mark with this franchise. It happens in sports all the time with new management and ownership. But it does not mean it’s a great idea.

The next coach has so much work to do when it comes to implementing strategies and principles along with knowing her players. That takes a year, and it slows the growth of the program, which was why it made more sense to keep Smith for one more year.

The Liberty don’t need a coach who can light a fire. Smith did that fine. It comes down to better players. The onus is on Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb to get it done. He gets an upstart with the No. 1 pick, but he has to do more than get the pick right. He and his staff must get the right players in the later draft to form a good team.

If Kolb can’t get that right, there will be another new coach in another two years, and maybe another general manager. Kolb just got here in March.

It’s Tsai’s team now. He can’t blame the prior regime or Dolan anymore. He ran out of scapegoats after not renewing Smith.

It’s important he gets it right with the head coach after hiring his general manager here or else he won’t be any better than Dolan.


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