After months waiting for the WNBA and the Players’ Association to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement finally ended last week, a compressed offseason calendar began on Monday. But teams have until March 15th to make qualifying offers (and core designations), then until March 19th to negotiate, before actually being able to sign players from March 20th onwards. So the only way teams can provide any entertainment for the fans at this stage is via trades of players already under contract, and the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever were the first to offer something for us all to talk about. The Fever sent Australian combo-guard Erin Phillips to Phoenix along with their second-round pick in the upcoming draft (17th overall), receiving the Mercury’s first-rounder (9th overall) and forward Lynetta Kizer in return.
The most prominent piece in the deal is Phillips, and it’s easy to see why the Mercury wanted her. The one obvious hole on their roster was in the backcourt, where Diana Taurasi was forced to become the de facto point guard far too much last season. While Taurasi’s certainly capable in that role, they desperately needed another reliable ballhandler who could allow Taurasi to play off the ball and focus on playing her natural game, rather than constantly having to facilitate for everyone else. It also became clear on several occasions last season that they simply didn’t have enough shooters to space the floor around Taurasi and Britney Griner – so it was important that whoever they found to fill their hole could shoot, not just bring the ball up the floor.
Phillips should be a good fit. She’s a feisty, aggressive guard, who’s never quite managed to solidify herself as a starting point guard in her WNBA career. But the Mercury don’t need her to be a pure point. They need her to bring the ball up the floor, hand it to the right people when she’s supposed to, and knock down open shots – all of which she should be capable of. She’s a career 38% shooter from three-point range in the WNBA, including 45% over her last three years in Indiana. The first figure’s well above average, the second’s truly elite – either should prove very useful to the Mercury. Heading into last season, Samantha Prahalis was supposed to be the Mercury’s answer at point guard, and one of the central reasons that didn’t work out was her inability to knock down the open shot (although her deficiencies in other areas also played a part). Phillips should be able to make those, and bring an extra edge to the Mercury’s backcourt defense that’ll be distinctly welcome alongside a sieve like Taurasi.
Of course, there are still some risks. Phillips tore a meniscus in her right knee last season, missing over a month, and then was repeatedly in and out of the lineup for the rest of the season. She generally looked fairly mobile when she played, but kept skipping games when pain flared up in the knee, or other ailments cropped up. In November she was released by her Polish team Wisla Can-Pack, again due to lingering injury – possibly the same one still hanging around – in favour of signing Danielle McCray. Phillips hasn’t played anywhere else since. The positive angle on that is that she’s had time to rest and recuperate, so should be ready for the WNBA season. The pessimist would say she might still not be healthy and it’s worrying when injuries won’t go away (or continue to mount up).
But it was a risk worth taking. The Mercury have a great history with Aussies, most notably legendary point guard Michele Timms and current forward Penny Taylor – who they’ll yet again be hoping to see return from injury this season. Their new head coach, Sandy Brondello, is an Australian as well, so Phillips should feel right at home.
Considering what they would’ve been likely to get at #9 in the draft – another project at best, or maybe Duke’s injured guard Chelsea Gray if they were willing to wait a year – making the move for a known quantity like Phillips makes sense. The Mercury have a foundation for the future in Griner and probably DeWanna Bonner, but Taurasi turns 32 this season. She doesn’t have that many prime years left, so they’re in win-now mode – as they should be anyway with the amount of talent on their roster. Phillips fills a glaring need, upgrades a major weakness, and takes some of the pressure off their leader. As long as they’ve done their homework to make sure she’s healthy, it’s a great move for Phoenix.
Grade for Mercury: A-
So if the trade was such a clear win for the Mercury, does that immediately make it a bad move for the Fever? At first glance, it doesn’t look great. Phillips was a useful part of their guard corps, giving them a knock-down shooter and an alternative when Briann January struggled (which was pretty damn often last season). Keeping her also hopefully would’ve kept Layshia Clarendon away from any point guard responsibilities, which Indiana head coach Lin Dunn constantly tried to foist on her overwhelmed rookie last season. Now they’re back to a heavy reliance on January and scrambling backup minutes between Clarendon, Shavonte Zellous, Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas (assuming she’s re-signed). Or, they start looking hard at guard options with those two first-round picks they now have to work with, but the options are limited. Unless they find a deal to move up from #5, Baylor’s Odyssey Sims will be gone by the time they pick. That leaves only UConn’s Bria Hartley as a healthy guard projected in their range (although waiting a year for Gray could now be an option for them as well).
The #9 pick in a barely-mediocre draft doesn’t seem like much of a return for a player that Phoenix projects as their starting point guard on a team with championship aspirations. But there were other considerations for Indiana. Dunn has never seemed entirely comfortable using Phillips at the point, which has always somewhat limited her value. She also only had one year left on her contract – a deal she signed with Phoenix as a restricted free agent, ironically enough, only for Indiana to match – so the Fever could well have lost her for nothing in a year’s time. The team salary cap, a virtual afterthought for the last year or two in the WNBA, will also have played a role. With Catchings, January and Zellous all on big deals, and Douglas, Erlana Larkins and maybe Jessica Davenport heading for new ones, money could be getting tight. The combination of all those factors – and maybe knowing more about her health than any of us do – at least makes the deal more understandable.
The player they received is also worth a mention. Lynetta Kizer is a big body, and in a perfect Fever world could end up the offensive version of what they discovered with Larkins a couple of years ago. Kizer rarely saw much playing time in Phoenix behind the likes of Bonner, Griner and Candice Dupree, but she’s a got size, she’s relatively mobile, and has shown off some occasional flashes of scoring touch. At the very least she’d be a step up from Jasmine Hassell and Sasha Goodlett, both of whom took the floor for the Fever last season.
But most of these elements are attempts to justify the deal, rather than realistic aspects that make it balanced. Davenport has been inconsistent at best, even before missing the whole of last season through injury. Unless Phillips asked out behind the scenes because she wanted to start – which is certainly a possibility, given her history – the Fever could’ve let Davenport walk and retained the flexibility Phillips gave them on the perimeter. Instead they gave her up for some cap space, a bench forward waived by Tulsa in 2012, and a crapshoot draft-pick late in the first round. Maybe they’ve got a target in mind in free agency that will make that space more worthwhile, or a package along the line that’ll make significant use of the pick. But right now, it seems like they gave up a pretty good player without a great deal in return.
Grade for Indiana: C
For Phillips this is great. She’ll start from day one, she’ll get a host of open looks from all the talent around her, and she’s joining the closest thing the WNBA has to an Aussie enclave. Plus, if it works out in 2014, there’ll probably be another big contract along the pike from the Mercury at the end of the year.
Grade for Phillips: A
Kizer’s been on the fringes of the league since being taken in the third round in 2012, so her situation doesn’t change much. She’d have been fighting for a backup role in Phoenix, and it’ll be largely the same in Indiana. But the Fever do have a history of giving those backups the chance to push on, and they could use someone who looks to score as much as she does – if she can be remotely efficient about it. So it could work out.
Grade for Kizer: B