WNBAlien 2011 Previews: Phoenix Mercury

PG: Temeka Johnson/Ketia Swanier

SG: Diana Taurasi/Alexis Gray-Lawson/Marie Ferdinand-Harris(/Bonner)

SF: Penny Taylor/DeWanna Bonner

PF: Candice Dupree(/Bonner)

C: Kara Braxton/Nakia Sanford/Olayinka Sanni(/Bonner)

—–

Head coach: Corey Gaines

Significant additions: Sanford, I guess, and Braxton from the start of the season instead of the middle. So not much, except the hope that Taurasi’s rested and angry.

Significant losses: Tangela Smith.

—–

It was tumultuous offseason for the Mercury, despite the minimal changes made to the actual roster. Diana Taurasi’s reported positive drug test, later rescinded by the Turkish lab that performed it, led to all kinds of debates about whether Taurasi could play in the WNBA while FIBA suspended her, a potential lifetime ban from the Olympics, and whether all the Americans playing in Europe every year could trust that they’d be treated fairly. She’s been cleared, without even the cloud that tends to hang over the few athletes who prove their innocence in these cases, but her head must’ve been in complete disarray while the situation was unfolding. The positive aspect for the Mercury is that as a result of all that, Taurasi was forced to take several months off from basketball that she wouldn’t otherwise have taken. For a player who openly discussed burn-out and the potential of skipping future WNBA seasons last year, a rest may have been just what she needed. The Mercury could certainly use a reinvigorated DT this year, given that otherwise there’s little reason to see why this squad is any better than the one that finished 15-19 last season.

Having one of the top ten or fifteen female basketball players in the world starting on either wing is always a nice place to build your basketball team from, and that’s exactly what Phoenix have got in Taurasi and Penny Taylor. Taurasi’s one of the greatest scorers the women’s game has ever seen, capable of pulling up and shooting from any kind of range in an instant. She’s also a willing passer who’ll create for others both through her own distribution and by simply drawing so much attention from the defense. She also never shuts up, constantly bitches about calls and will likely lead the league in technicals yet again, but that vocal and open desperation to win has always been part of her charm. Taurasi’s defensive abilities are distinctly questionable, but she’ll work hard and take on all comers at the center of the trademark ‘rover’-zone that Phoenix favours. Taurasi’s shooting numbers dropped a little last year without Cappie Pondexter on the team to share the perimeter scoring load, but that may have had just as much to do with the minor injuries DT played through. Taylor’s a much quieter, more understated personality, but her game on the court speaks loudly enough on its own. She has one of the best all-around skillsets in the game, capable of scoring inside and out, while last year developing her game as passer to the extent that she was top-five in the league in assists. Taylor also left Turkey early after the Taurasi controversy, so should be just as well-rested as her partner in crime.

Alongside Taylor and Taurasi, Candice Dupree had a remarkable statistical season in her first year in the Merc system last year. Her style changed dramatically in Phoenix, taking the vast majority of her shots at the rim rather than the mid-range game she showcased in Chicago, and it resulted in an outstanding 66% from the field. However, with Tangela Smith gone and replaced on the roster largely by low-post bangers, Dupree will likely have to stretch her game out again this year to at least 15 feet. She’s certainly capable of it, but that floor percentage will probably come down a fair bit. Along with fitting in nicely on offense, Dupree’s matador defence fit right in with the Merc last year as well, not that that was a good thing. Backing up Candice at the 4 and nearly everyone else at every other spot, DeWanna Bonner has been a perfect fit ever since the Merc drafted her in 2009. She runs the floor like a gazelle, finishes well on the break, and those go-go-gadget limbs make her one of the few useful defensive players on the roster. In fact, on a team that actually concerns itself with playing defense, she’d probably have a reputation for it.

The unfortunate thing for the Merc about Bonner is that for the last couple of years she’s pretty much been their bench on her own. And despite some turnover, that doesn’t look like changing this year. Veteran guard Marie Ferdinand-Harris was signed as a free agent but has basically been past it for about six years. If you look closely you might be able to see rigor morits setting in. Rookie guard Alexis Gray-Lawson is an unknown quantity but unlikely to make much of an impression. Ketia Swanier is around for another year as the backup point and while lightning fast, she’s yet to prove she can play under control at this level (or shoot). They also brought in a bunch of bigs who frankly don’t make a lot of sense to me. Kara Braxton was acquired midseason last year and has decent hands and a huge frame but tends to disappear from games on a regular basis, when she isn’t throwing the ball to someone in the stands. She’ll likely start to allow Bonner to maintain her role as the bench energy boost, but Braxton really ought to be someone’s first post off the pine in this league. Behind her, Nakia Sanford and Olayinka Sanni both made the roster (for some reason). Sanford drove Mystics fans crazy for years with her inconsistency and lack of offense, but she’s a big, strong defensive center who’ll take charges and fill space. So pretty much the ultimate anti-Gaines kind of player. This team doesn’t play defense, and that’s all Sanford does, so I’m not sure how he’s going to use her. Sanni has a big body as well, but she’s a mediocre backup in this league unless something’s changed dramatically since 2009.

Oops, almost forgot the player who runs the show (at the start of games, anyway). Temeka Johnson is a pint-sized point guard who they fought hard to keep last year through salary cap issues and all the Pondexter drama. She’s quick and she’ll push the tempo just as Gaines desires, but she seemed to get increasingly sidelined last year due to her porous defense and inconsistent shot. She’s still a better option than Swanier, but expect to see Taurasi sliding over to the point and TJ on the bench in crunchtime quite a bit.

The Mercury aren’t going to change their spots. They’ll push and push, likely be the fastest team in the league yet again, and some nights they’ll run away with games when their opponents just can’t keep up. And they’ll drive me crazy by playing some of the worst defense you’ll ever see from a professional basketball team. I still can’t believe they haven’t gone out and hired a specialist defensive assistant coach to help Gaines, who’s never shown any signs of knowing what the hell he’s doing on that side of the ball. Without Pondexter, this team only won 15 games last year and although Merc fans are putting all their faith in Taurasi being relaxed and hungry, I’m just not buying it. I expect a playoff spot, because 2/3 of the conference makes the postseason and their talent is good enough to keep them in that top 67%. They might even win a couple more games this year. But I don’t expect them to make much noise once the regular season’s over, and I’m not convinced that Corey will still have his job by this time next year.

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