Did Blaze Burn the Liberty?
And the WNBA suffers as a result.
by Clay Kallam
The two most important franchises in the WNBA are the Los Angeles Sparks and the New York Liberty – not necessarily in that order.
And while the Sparks are a competent, if not superior, franchise, the Liberty are unlikely to get back on track until James Dolan sells the team. Yes, Dolan’s poor leadership is more of a problem than Carol Blazejowski’s inability to evaluate talent, because any owner would have fired Blazejowski long ago, if only to appease an alienated and dwindling fanbase.
The capper, of course, was Blazejowski’s inexplicable trade of New York’s first-round pick to Minnesota for Sidney Spencer, a sweet-shooting forward whose best role is that of a zone-breaker for a team with designs on a WNBA title. And now that first-round pick is the No. 1 overall selection in next spring’s draft, and will net the Minnesota Lynx an outstanding young post like Tina Charles, or perhaps a dynamic wing like Amber Harris, and most likely propel the Linx into the Western Conference Finals.
The Liberty, of course, have no designs on winning a WNBA title; their goals are much more modest, beginning with getting to .500 and making the Playoffs. Now they might have been consistent contenders, again but for Blazejowski’s inability to determine who can play and who can’t. Becky Hammon and Vickie Johnson both wound up in San Antonio in 2006, a team that has out-performed the Liberty ever since. In return, Blazejowski received Jessica Davenport, who she cut this year – and then later played well for the East champion Indiana Fever.
There are other notable blunders (Olga Firsova as a first round pick?), but to catalog them all would be pointless: The key here is that Dolan has never budged in his support for Blazejowski. There are a couple of possible reasons for this support, beginning with the Liberty being so low on Dolan’s personal totem pole that he barely pays attention. More likely, Dolan is no more capable of making the Liberty a model franchise than he is of turning the Knicks into an NBA contender.
It doesn’t help that Blazejowski doesn’t appear to listen to much of anyone, relying exclusively on her own judgment, despite her tattered record. Now she and Dolan must decide on what to do about Anne Donovan, who took over as coach in mid-season. (Patty Coyle was fired, but it was hardly her fault that the Liberty weren’t competitive in the East). Donovan had some success in the league, but has always been both general manager and coach, which isn’t going to happen in New York unless Dolan finally makes a move. And that said, Donovan’s record as a GM isn’t all that stellar either. She won that WNBA title in Seattle thanks to Lin Dunn drafting Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson rather than any particularly astute moves on her part.
All this would be of interest to local fans and the WNBA in general if it were happening in Sacramento, but in New York, everything is magnified. WNBA president Donna Orender has been focused on generating income through corporate sponsorships since she took over from Val Ackerman, and New York is home to many of the corporations Orender hopes to sign up. But with the Liberty in a Dolan- and Blazejowski-based funk, the team that most of the suits know the most about is not only bad, but boring and losing fans on a weekly basis.
In addition, New York is the media capital of the country. If the Liberty are rolling, the Garden is packed and the WNBA buzz is building, the national media is going to react much differently than if the same thing is happening in Minnesota.
None of this, of course, is news in WNBA headquarters, but there’s really nothing that can be done as long as Dolan owns the team. Orender, like David Stern, is an employee of the owners, not their boss, and Orender, like Stern, can do nothing about the death spiral of the New York franchises except watch in horror. Both leaders have done everything short of hiring Ugandan shamans to try and fix things (which, for all we know, they have done as well), but they are helpless.
A sorry New York franchise, though, isn’t nearly as debilitating to the NBA as it is to the WNBA, which is still a fragile operation, and supporters of women’s basketball can only hope that Dolan sells the team, or at least relieves Blazejowski of any responsibility for personnel decisions. Sadly, neither of those options seem likely, so it looks as if the WNBA will have to carry a struggling New York franchise into the future, instead of the other way around.
Read more of Clay Kallam, and more about women’s basketball at Full Court Press.