Monday, October 16, 2017

Katie Smith Replaces Bill Laimbeer as Liberty Coach

Katie Smith before a June 2016 game. Smith was named Laimbeer’s replacement as the Liberty’s head coach on Monday. CreditJuan Ocampo/NBAE, via Getty Images

October 16, 2017

Katie Smith, one of the most decorated players in W.N.B.A. history, has been named coach of the Liberty, the team announced Monday morning.

Since 2014, Smith has been an assistant under Bill Laimbeer, who began coaching the Liberty in 2013. But over the last week, an unexpected string of events altered the W.N.B.A. landscape, leading to Smith’s promotion.

The San Antonio Stars confirmed on Thursday that they were in negotiations to sell and relocate the team. The Stars began as one of the W.N.B.A.’s original franchises in 1997 as the Utah Starzz. Since the 2003 season, the team has played in San Antonio and currently shares ownership with the N.B.A.’s San Antonio Spurs.

ESPN and The Associated Press, citing anonymous sources, reported that the team expected to relocate to Las Vegas once its sale was completed. The Golden Knights of the N.H.L. became the city’s first professional sports franchise this month, and the N.F.L.’s Oakland Raiders are scheduled to move to Las Vegas for the 2019 or 2020 season.

On Friday, multiple news media reports, said that Laimbeer would become the coach and general manager of the new Las Vegas team. The Stars finished in last place in each of the last three seasons.

The league has yet to disclose the potential buyer because the negotiations were ongoing.

Laimbeer missed the playoffs during his first two seasons with the Liberty and was fired after the 2014 season. But Laimbeer was rehired in January 2015 shortly after Isiah Thomas, his former teammate with the Detroit Pistons, began working as an adviser to the Liberty front office.

Creating a style focused on relentless defensive pressure and the diverse offense of Tina Charles, a former W.N.B.A. most valuable player, the Liberty excelled in 2015, finishing at 23-11, with their most wins in franchise history and the best regular-season record in the league that season. Laimbeer was named coach of the year, an award he won in 2003 with the Detroit Shock, with whom he won three W.N.B.A. titles before coming to the Liberty.

The Liberty made the playoffs the last three seasons, but they have never won an W.N.B.A. championship.

Laimbeer credited Smith, who won two titles with him in Detroit, with implementing the Liberty’s defensive schemes. In 2016, Laimbeer allowed Smith to coach the final regular-season game of the year, after the Liberty were already locked into their playoff seeding.

Smith, 43, has long been viewed as Laimbeer’s successor, although a change was not expected to occur this off-season. In 2013, Laimbeer signed Smith as a player to provide veteran leadership, and she was preparing for a transition into coaching the following year.

Smith scored more than 6,000 points in a 15-year W.N.B.A. career, and won three Olympic gold medals with the United States national team. Last year she was named one of the league’s top 20 players in its history.

“It is a privilege to have the opportunity to promote Katie Smith — unquestionably one of the best to ever play the game of basketball —- to head coach of the New York Liberty,” Thomas said in statement. “Katie has transitioned from an all-time great player to phenomenal coach during her time with the Liberty, which has included the most successful stretch of basketball in franchise history.”

Smith is respected by players but could overhaul the Liberty roster this off-season. Under the W.N.B.A.’s new playoff format instituted in 2016, the Liberty, despite finishing toward the top of the standings, have been eliminated in single-elimination games in the postseason.

Charles remains a perennial M.V.P. candidate, but the league has become dominated by teams in Minnesota and Los Angeles that are built around several players of such caliber.

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