Stewart, the 2023 MVP, reiterated Friday that she is “excited for what we’re doing here in New York” and “looking forward to doing it for many years to come.”
New York is hoping that it can run it back with its relatively new core, a group of players who mostly arrived in Brooklyn this past offseason, and that it can build off its 3-1 Finals series loss to the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces.
The core acts like a franchise tag in the NFL: Once the Liberty officially core Stewart, she cannot sign a contract directly with another team. She can either sign a core qualifying offer (i.e. a one-year supermax contract) or negotiate different terms.
Although Stewart can be cored, 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones cannot since she already played for two years under the core designation. She will be an unrestricted free agent heading into next season. Jones said she will have conversations with the Liberty about how to proceed. She wasn’t ready to commit but added that she’s “definitely trending towards coming back here.”
Kolb called Jones “arguably our best player, just in terms of consistency” in the postseason. She averaged 17.0 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in the playoffs, where the Liberty went 6-4.
“She’s a player that we definitely want to retain, and we’ll continue those talks into the offseason,” Kolb said.
Courtney Vandersloot, Stewart and Jones all arrived this past offseason to join 2020 No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu and All-Star Betnijah Laney, creating what many dubbed the WNBA’s newest “superteam.” Vandersloot is under contract for next year all ready, as are Ionescu and Laney. Jones had one year left on her contract when she was traded from the Connecticut Sun, and Stewart signed a one-year deal.
The season holistically was an overwhelming success for New York, especially after it had been an afterthought in the league in recent years. With an .800 regular-season winning percentage, the Liberty posted the best campaign in franchise history before returning to the Finals for the first time since 2002. Their sellout crowds at Barclays Center, including about 34,000 across their two Finals games, showed a revitalization of the fan base that hadn’t been seen since the early 2000s.
Yet the sting was still there in how they fell short of their ultimate goal.
“When you set lofty goals, not achieving them feels like failure, but this season wasn’t a failure,” Ionescu said. “What we’ve been able to accomplish here, in such a short amount of time with this entire city backing us, behind us, and doing something that’s never been done before, is a success.”
Added Stewart: “This isn’t the goal that we had at the start of the season. We didn’t want to just get to the Finals. We weren’t content with being one game away from winning the whole thing. But we wanted to win, and really just building off of that and not forgetting what it feels like to be here.”
The Liberty had a difficult road to the Finals, getting through a Washington Mystics team that was tougher than its No. 7 seed indicated and then the No. 3 Sun, whom they beat in four games.
But in the Finals, the Aces looked the part of a team that had played together for years, building a chemistry that showed in how they played and helped them overcome adversity. They won the first two games of the series by a combined 45 points, then rallied in Game 4 to overcome the absences of point guard Chelsea Gray and center Kiah Stokes with foot injuries.
“We’re close. We’ve beaten Vegas many times this year, not one time. It wasn’t a fluke,” coach Sandy Brondello said, referring also to New York’s three wins over the Aces in August. “It means that we’re right there. So it’s all the 1% that we need to do better. It’s not like reinvent the whole wheel. I think we’re on the right track. I think we play the right way. But we’ve just got to do it better for longer periods of time when things are not going well.”
Kolb spoke of needing to shore up the team’s bench, especially on the defensive end. Players and Brondello reiterated that the more time this group has playing and growing together, the better, and now — collectively and individually — they can use their Finals loss to motivate them.
“For us, having that silence in the locker room, knowing what it feels like to be so close and not get it is going to fuel us going into this offseason,” Ionescu said. “I believe, next year maybe around this time, we’re going to look back and this is going to be the best thing that’s ever happened to us.”
Ionescu revealed that she needed an injection to be able to play the first two Finals games in Las Vegas after suffering a hip injury in the final game of the Connecticut series.
Stewart, meanwhile, said that she didn’t play her best in the playoffs (where she shot 35.8% from the field and 19.6% from 3), that she will look to better understand how teams play her, work on her stamina with a 40-game WNBA season and Olympics next year and that she overall just wants to be “consistently better at everything.” In a larger leadership role this season, she also acknowledged that “when things are really tough, what are we going to do as a whole to get something done, and yet that starts individually, but just the mindset as well.”
The 2023 MVP noted that the experience of losing on the championship stage is something new for her — she had never lost in the NCAA tournament in college and was undefeated in Finals series she played in during her stint in Seattle.
“Making sure that I don’t feel that again, I think that’s really my mindset and mentality going forward,” Stewart said.