When the New York Liberty open the season Saturday night in Connecticut, you might not recognize them.
They have a new coach, many new players, and perhaps more important, a new outlook on the game they love.
Coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer, in his first season with the Liberty, has brought a defense-first approach to a team that went 15-19 last season. And to help matters, he drafted several players who should help balance a lineup that still includes All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter.
It's hard to argue with his success, and Laimbeer is intent on changing the culture around the franchise. He brings an impressive resume with him. With the Detroit Shock, Laimbeer made six consecutive playoff appearances and won three league titles. He was with Detroit for eight seasons.
"Defensively, we want to use our physical strength and athleticism to play a smothering, aggressive defense with the emphasis on no second shots,'' Laimbeer said. "We have built a team that is big and strong at all positions with defense in mind."
Pondexter is coming off a season in which she was named to the All-WNBA first team. A four-time All-Star and two-time WNBA champion, she averaged 20.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists, and will again be a key cog this season.
"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."
New York finished in fourth place last season in the Eastern Conference, and narrowly made the playoffs. It wasn't a long stay, though. The Liberty lost to Connecticut in the first round, 2-0. The Sun were eliminated in the next round.
Connecticut fired Mike Thibault and replaced him with Hall of Fame standout Anne Donovan in the offseason. The move came despite a year in which the Sun posted an East-best 25-9 record before losing to Indiana in the conference finals.
"Usually, when you're taking over a team, you're restructuring, you're tearing it down, you're building it up again,'' said Donovan, who won a WNBA title as coach of Seattle in 2004, beating the Sun in the finals. "That's certainly not the case here in Connecticut.
"So, it is different."
Connecticut's weapons include Tina Charles, the league MVP; Renee Montgomery, who won the WNBA's sixth-player award last season, and veteran guard Kara Lawson.
Donovan said the general philosophy of the team won't change. The Sun will still try to emphasize defense and the transition game and will still feature Charles, who averaged 18 points and 10.5 rebounds last season.
"She has been, so far, everything that I had heard about her," Donovan said. "She likes to work hard and has high expectations for herself and people around her, has really matured over the last couple of years and provides great leadership for our team."
Donovan said she's also expecting a lot from Lawson, a 10-year veteran whom she coached in the 2008 Olympics in China.
Connecticut's biggest challenge will be replacing another Olympian, Ashja Jones. The 11-year veteran forward is taking the season off to recover from a string of nagging injuries.