What if the Mets hadn’t acquired Noah Syndergaard from the Toronto Blue Jays. Would he have emerged as one of the top pitchers in Major League Baseball?
What if the Oklahoma City Thunder hadn’t traded Victor Oladipo to the Indiana Pacers? Would we be talking about a player who is a finalist for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award?
The same dynamics can occur for an entire franchise. Sometimes change is good.
But the team lost in the second round of the playoffs the last two seasons. As last season came down the stretch, it wasn’t uncommon to hear players talk about the challenges playing for a coach such as Laimbeer, who is caustic and as subtle as a heavy metal guitar riff.
Laimbeer bolted the Liberty after the season to take the head coaching position with the now Las Vegas Aces.
Enter Katie Smith, one of Laimbeer’s assistants and one of the greatest players in WNBA history.
When the Liberty tip off their season Sunday at the Chicago Sky, Smith will make her head coaching debut. Despite playing for Laimbeer and learning the fine points of coaching from the former Detroit Pistons’ Bad Boy, Smith will bring a more even-keeled persona to the first chair.
“I always thought of myself as someone who leads by example and not a great talker,’’ Smith said with a laugh. “I believe showing up every day and being consistent. There’s no better way to prepare than doing the work every day in practice.’’
Smith has several advantages going into her rookie coaching season:
1. In Tina Charles, the Queens’ Bee, the Liberty has one of the elite players in the league. Charles made a conscious decision last season to become more of a leader and she was the leading voice in the locker room.
2. Smith has a veteran staff led by Herb Williams, Barbara Farris and Teresa Weatherspoon, the point guard whisperer. Last season, Weatherspoon helped Manhattan’s Epiphanny Prince return to elite form after suffering a torn ACL in 2015. She’ll work with Brittany Boyd, who tore her Achilles tendon in the second game of last season.
3. There is no shortage of experience on this team. Six of the top players have at least five seasons of WNBA experience. Smith doesn’t have to spoon feed this group.
“I’m going to be anxious Sunday night, no question.’’ Smith acknowledged. “I hope I keep all the plays in my head because my job is to put the players in the best position to succeed. But I have a great staff, I have one of the great leaders in the league in Tina Charles and we all have the same purpose.
“Hopefully once the ball goes up I’m not thinking as much as reacting to what I see. You rely on your intuition, just as you did as a player. You watch the game and make your decisions.’’
Smith was known as a relentless, tenacious player. She was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame at this year’s Final Four. She was a seven-time WNBA All-Star, a two-time WNBA champion and a three-time Olympic gold medalist.
But the way she played, a drill sergeant with a basketball, will be how she expects the Liberty to compete this season.
“You talk about Katie and that fierce competitor that she is, I think we’re going to mirror that,’’ said first-year Liberty player Marissa Coleman, a WNBA veteran who gives the team another frontcourt option. “That’s the one thing we’re going to do.
“We have a ton of talent on this team but if we compete night in and night out we’ll have a very successful season.’’
The question that Liberty fans want to know is this: What constitutes a successful season? The Liberty went 22-12 last season. Most franchises would take that in a heartbeat. Not the Liberty.
The franchise is yearning for its first-ever WNBA title. Laimbeer got them to the playoffs only to have the season end with home playoff losses.
“We always want to win a championship every year,’’ said guard Bria Hartley of Long Island.
“The last couple of years didn’t end the way we wanted it to so we want to make sure this season ends really well.’’