New York Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb spent the last few weeks reading the “tea leaves via emojis” just like everyone else. It’s been the longest year of his life, he said, and if he ever forgot why, his office served as a reminder.
“I’ll be really honest with you, in my office right now there’s three names on a whiteboard and those names have been up there since the fall,” Kolb said.
There’s no need for tea leaves when the emoji is a check mark. Welcome to New York, the Statue of Liberty emoji is waiting for you. Hours after the Brooklyn Nets’ super-team suffered its final implosion in the trade of Kevin Durant, the Liberty introduced at that same Barclays Center the two key pieces of their own super-team in Stewart and Vandersloot. And unlike the Nets, there are clear signs from the start that this newly combined collection of established All-Stars, MVPs and champions has staying power.
“What’s really important here is we didn’t just target the best names on a sheet and try to get them all,” said Kolb, who nonetheless nabbed two of the biggest free agents on the market. “We were really tactical with researching and going about getting people that will fit what we’re building and that’s these two right here, as well as JJ [Jones] joining.”
It’s been a four-year rebuild journey in which Kolb has spoken about culture and fit consistently, from winning the 2020 draft lottery that brought in Naismith Trophy winner Sabrina Ionescu to hiring championship-winning head coach Sandy Brondello ahead of 2022. New York is an original franchise, but the only one to never have won a WNBA championship. They’d like to see a trophy fit into the case.
“New York hasn’t seen a basketball championship since 1973 and I think this team is ready to bring one home,” Liberty owner Clara Wu Tsai said, referencing the lack of titles from the men’s teams in town.
The final year of the build has been the longest for Kolb because that’s how long he’s been courting Stewart, a Syracuse, New York, native and two-time WNBA champion who entered free agency for the first time in 2022. They met with the 2018 MVP in Los Angeles last winter, but she instead opted to stay in Seattle for one final season with legendary point guard Sue Bird.
For round two, Kolb, Brondello, Wu Tsai and her husband, Liberty co-owner Joe Tsai, traveled to see Stewart in Turkey, where she’s playing for Fenerbahçe S.K. They reiterated their commitment, and discussed the issues facing the WNBA that all view as necessary to change. The day players could officially sign, Stewart swapped her Storm green jersey to seafoam. She called the moment “surreal” on Thursday morning. Vandersloot, one of the best point guards in league history, announced her commitment the following day. Awaiting them was 2021 MVP Jones, who the Liberty acquired in a January trade.
While there have been super-teams in WNBA history — maybe more so than the NBA given fewer teams and smaller rosters — there has not been a super-team by its widely accepted definition. It is the first time two or more All-Stars have together joined a roster to create a group of at least three All-Stars. It’s more than having a “Big Three” of talent, like the Houston Comets, Minnesota Lynx and Brondello’s former Phoenix Mercury before it. A super-team is pieced together through player movement and free agency, long absent in the W.
It’s why the catch with a super-team is they’re highly combustible. Every one of the Liberty’s projected starting five, including wing Betnijah Laney, has been the focal point of their teams. None more than the two new forwards with MVP trophies in their case. How that meshes matters.
The Liberty’s newest trio hold a collective 13 All-WNBA nods, a dozen more than the roster had previously. Stewart, Jones and Ionescu, the lone Liberty award holder in 2022, were All-WNBA selections last year. Stewart has won two championships, two Final MVPs and a league MVP in 2018. Vandersloot led the Chicago Sky to their first title in 2021 and has led the league in assists six times. Jones won an MVP as the focal point for the Connecticut Sun during their stretch as the winningest franchise since 2017, though they never won the championship in their two trips.
“Yes, we’ve all had success individually. When you look at the whole roster, everyone has had success,” Stewart said. “But as a collective group, this team has not yet. And that’s a goal that I think we’re really interested in figuring out how to check that box. And I think it’s just respect. You know what everyone can do. And putting everyone in the best position possible to be great so that we can all be great together.”
Not every element binds into a productive compound. (See: the men’s team next door.) In this case, there is proof that various element groupings of this Liberty compound do because in the women’s game, overseas play is common and the best spend significant time in USA Basketball camps. They already know how to do this.
“From day one, everybody is going to have to sacrifice,” Vandersloot said. “Everybody up here, every player on the roster, but it’s all for the better good. It’s all to win. And it happens fast and smooth if you’re all in it to win.”
Added Stewart, “As long as we come together as a team, that’s all we’re concerned about up here.”
Stewart, Vandersloot and Jones won championships playing together for UMMC Ekaterinburg. Stewart has played with Laney since she was 14 in U16 USA Basketball camps and with Ionescu in senior recent camps. Vandersloot is set to join her on Fenerbahçe this month.
The experience extends to the bench, where contributions and chemistry are just as important. Stefanie Dolson played with Vandersloot in Chicago for five seasons and was on the ’21 title team. They were both coached by former Sky assistant Olaf Lange, Brondello’s husband who took the job as Liberty assistant coach. Dolson also overlapped for the first two of Stewart’s four championships at UConn. Epiphanny Prince, a 13-year veteran who signed this week, was on the Storm’s ’20 championship team with Stewart.
“We just wanted to add to this roster,” Vandersloot said. “We didn’t want to come here and blow it up. We wanted to be additions and that was the most important part.”
Vandersloot said she believes this team has the intangibles it takes to win, from its culture to commitment and sacrifice. Brondello, who is used to facing the talent she now coaches, is looking forward to the “real work” starting in how she’ll piece the puzzle together. She hopes through culture and chemistry, the players view it all as one of the best experiences they’ve ever had.
“It will take time, but I think it won’t take as much time as what everyone kind of thinks because of the kind of people they are,” Brondello said. “No. 1 [the] kind of players [they are], but how they go about doing their things. They’re very unselfish.”
The Liberty slipped into the postseason as the final No. 8 seed last fall and soared into title favorites with their latest additions. The reigning champion Las Vegas Aces, the super-team of the West, are also favorites having added two-time champion and two-time MVP Candace Parker to an already All-WNBA-laden roster. The franchise is currently being investigated for circumventing the hard salary cap, a source confirmed to Yahoo Sports, by reportedly setting up potential free agents with monetary deals outside their salary.
The Liberty used all but $500 of their available cap space to sign the duo, Her Hoops Stats reported on Wednesday. Stewart reportedly signed for $175,000, nearly $30K less than the regular max and $60K less than a supermax she could have taken in Seattle. Vandersloot signed a two-year deal that starts at $189K this season, per Her Hoop Stats, a decline from her Sky deal.
“They’re taking less. They’re truly taking less to come here and win,” Kolb said in a final note to his opening remarks the day after the Aces’ investigation went public. “And that is not an easy decision. And New York is not easy. But they welcome the challenge with open arms.”
Excitement is high within a fan base that has stuck with it even when they were banished to Westchester before the Tsais purchased the team. Season-ticket sales are up around 55% from this time last year, Wu Tsai said, and that’s without a lot of time to properly market the roster.
The preseason hype on a super-team is large and the window for a title is often short given the salaries involved. The Liberty will need to pay Ionescu next season when she comes off her team-happy rookie contract that pays her $86K in 2023. Stewart, Laney, Jones and Dolson will be unrestricted free agents in a year.
The time to win is now. The Liberty reached the Finals in four of the league’s first six seasons, but haven’t been back since that final run in 2002 when Aces head coach Becky Hammon, Dream assistant coach Vickie Johnson and the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon were on the roster.
“We want to be championship contenders,” Wu Tsai said. “We have some unfinished business to take care of, this franchise.”
The rebuild is complete, the names checked off the whiteboard. The chemistry is a matter of tweaking some elements that have already meshed well together in other variations over the years. If there’s any more tea reading of emojis, it seems more likely to be trophies than clowns.