One week into their first training camp under Bill Laimbeer, the New York Liberty are full of excitement and optimism.
"He has a great system for us, utilizes everyone at their strengths," forward Essence Carson said Monday at the team's annual media day. "We're just trying to get this chemistry together and get it rolling."
Laimbeer's hiring in New York last October has energized a franchise that reached the WNBA Finals four times in the league's first six years, but has not been back to the championship round since losing to Los Angeles in its last appearance in 2002.
"I'm excited," said Liberty star Cappie Pondexter, who joined the team Sunday after helping Fenerbahce win the Turkish League title. "(Laimbeer) is a player's coach, definitely. ... I'm excited I get to learn a lot from him."
After struggling to a .500 record the last two years under former coach John Whisenant, expectations are sky-high for the team under Laimbeer, who led the Detroit Shock to three championships in a six-year stretch before stepping down early in the 2009 season to pursue opportunities in the NBA.
"Bill is a perfect fit for New York," Pondexter said. "He's got that New York swagger, that New York attitude and he brought players in that fit that and we're going to have a great year. ... He's a defensive guy, but he's smart, too, with his offensive tricks and things like that."
Forgotten is the rivalry Detroit and New York had over the years while meeting in the postseason three times. The Liberty won a first-round series in 2004, knocking out the then-defending champs on a buzzer-beater in the decisive Game 3, but then came up short in hard-fought three-game series in the first round in 2007 and the conference semifinals in 2008 during the Shock's run to their last title.
Carson, the longest-tenured player on the roster entering her sixth season, was a rookie during that last playoff meeting.
"I was just coming into the league, just looking to win, period," she said. "I didn't care who I was playing, what coach it was, what the other team was. I just wanted to win. It doesn't feel weird to play for him. It just seems weird that he's in New York because you always identify him with Detroit, his playing days and his coaching days."
Laimbeer didn't waste any time putting his stamp on the Liberty, signing free agents Katie Smith and Cheryl Ford to join a team that also had former Detroit players Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton the last couple of years.
Pondexter believes that group's familiarity will be a big asset to the Liberty.
"The old Detroit players, they understand Bill," Pondexter said. "They're going to help bring everybody along quickly in terms of what he expects and wants. They're great additions."
The training camp roster also includes rookies Kelsey Bone, Toni Young, Kamiko Williams and Shenneika Smith. The other returning players include Leilani Mitchell, Alex Montgomery and Kelley Cain, as well as camp invitee Loree Moore, who spent five seasons in New York from 2005-09.
"We've got a great mix here," Pierson said. "It'll help the rookies and younger players come along a lot faster, and also help us. We know that some of us are aging and not capable of doing the same things we used to do, maybe not at the same speed, so to have those young rookie players that can go in there and go, it adds a little mix for other teams to stay on their heels."
Laimbeer said Pondexter and Carson will be starters while the rest of the lineup and rotations are undecided. Two of the coach's biggest decisions for the starting five likely hinge on picking between Pierson and Ford at power forward, and Braxton and Bone at center.
Laimbeer pointed to both Ford and Bone as players who will improve New York's rebounding, which has been one of the team's weak points in recent years. While the Liberty have not had a player put up more than 6.9 rebounds per game since Elena Baranova in 2005, Ford has averaged 10.8 points and 9.7 boards over 196 games in her WNBA career, and Bone — selected No. 5 overall in this year's WNBA draft — averaged 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds in two years at Texas A&M.
Ford is back in the league after sitting out the last three years to rest and recover from injuries. However, she played in Europe during the last three winters.
"She looks good, a monster on the boards still," Smith said. "She's got great hands, still can finish ducks in with the best of them. She looks great. ... Still is feisty and a great rebounder. She hasn't lost her tools that she's been good at and is still good at."
Katie Smith, brought in for her leadership, is third on the league's career scoring list with 6,244 points — trailing only Seattle's Tina Thompson (7,009) and the retired Lisa Leslie (6,263). However, entering her 15th season in the WNBA, Smith said this will likely be her finale as a player.
"I'm so excited about this year, so excited about playing and helping this team any way I can," she said. "(But) I think I'm ready to move and transition to the next and finish grad school. I would like to coach. ... I'm ready to let this part go and be done, close this chapter and move on to the next."
The Liberty are entering their third and final season of playing home games at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., while Madison Square Garden undergoes the last phase of its three summers of renovations. They open the league's 17th season at Connecticut on May 25, and then host Tulsa in the home opener on May 31.
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