Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb named WNBA Executive of the Year

Alexa Philippou, ESPNSep 14, 2023, 11:00 AM ET

CloseCovers women’s college basketball and the WNBA
Previously covered UConn and the WNBA Connecticut Sun for the Hartford Courant
Stanford graduate and Baltimore native with further experience at the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and Cincinnati Enquirer

Fresh off assembling a superteam that is eight wins away from bringing home the first WNBA championship in franchise history, New York Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb has been named 2023 WNBA Executive of the Year.

The award was determined by the league’s 12 executives, with individuals not allowed to vote for themselves. Kolb received six first-place votes, with Dallas’ Greg Bibb and Connecticut’s Darius Taylor also receiving multiple first-place votes (two apiece).

Within a year, the Liberty went from eking into the playoffs to being a championship contender behind a historic offseason in which New York acquired 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones in a three-team trade and signed 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart and seven-time WNBA assists leader Courtney Vandersloot as free agents.

With Jones, Stewart and Vandersloot joining forces with 2020 No. 1 draft pick Sabrina Ionescu and 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney, the Liberty have asserted themselves as championship contenders eager to dethrone the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces, whom they tied 2-2 in the regular-season series but finished two games behind in the standings.

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Kolb told ESPN this week that New York’s offseason was a “confluence of events that will probably never happen again,” given where the Liberty were in their rebuilding process, the availability of a player like Jones on the trade market and the unrestricted free agency of Stewart and Vandersloot, already considered two all-time greats.

Stewart and Vandersloot also were willing to take well under the supermax salary to come to Brooklyn, what the team has described as part of their collective sacrifice in pursuit of a championship. The Liberty are the sole remaining original franchise to have never won a WNBA title.

The haul was a possibility Kolb envisioned early last year before successfully executing it this offseason. The future looks bright as well, as Kolb ensured Ionescu, Laney and sixth woman Kayla Thornton would return after they signed multiyear contract extensions during the regular season.

“For us to capitalize on it, it was really exciting at the time,” Kolb said. “You prepare for those moments and you hope that it’s going to break the way you want it to, both with that coming to fruition, those players coming, but then also that it’s going to work on-court.”

The Liberty’s 32-8 record marks their best winning percentage in franchise history (.800), a drastic turnaround considering they aren’t far removed from a 2-20 campaign in 2020 after Ionescu suffered an early season-ending ankle injury. The Liberty also defeated the Aces in the Commissioner’s Cup championship in August, marking the franchise’s first championship of any sort.

“It’s been consistent and constant effort from everybody to really stick to that buy-in and it’s been really amazing to see,” Kolb said. “Everybody is who they said they were, and that’s been the best gift of all.”

The Liberty’s modern-day success originated in 2019, when Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai bought the historic yet languishing franchise that had shipped games out of the city to Westchester County. Kolb was hired shortly thereafter, and the front office worked to move the team to Brooklyn, enhance its relevance in the city and make it a destination franchise with top-notch facilities and accommodations, an expanded performance staff and other resources not widely available in the WNBA.

“I think this is right on time with our plan that we had in place,” Kolb said of the franchise’s growth. “It’s not all the time that plans meet the end that you had hoped for, but this one did, and we couldn’t be more excited.”

The second-seeded Liberty kick off their playoff push Friday when they host the No. 7 seed Washington Mystics at 7:30 p.m. ET.

New York hasn’t won a playoff series since 2015, and last advanced to the WNBA Finals since 2002. But the Liberty have plenty of players with deep championship experience; Stewart won WNBA titles in 2018 and 2020 (winning Finals MVP both years), Vandersloot won in 2021 and Jones was part of two Finals runs in 2019 and 2022.

“You’ve got extensive playoff experience, especially amongst our starting group,” Kolb said. “They know what the mission is and they’re ready to attack it together.”

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