PG: Samantha Prahalis
SG: Diana Taurasi/Alexis Hornbuckle/Alexis Gray-Lawson
SF: DeWanna Bonner/Charde Houston/(Penny Taylor)
PF: Candice Dupree/
C: Nakia Sanford/Zane Tamane/Avery Warley
Significant additions: Prahalis (college draft), Houston (‘trade’ with Minnesota), Hornbuckle (‘trade’ with Minnesota), Tamane (free agency after being out of the league)
Significant losses: Penny Taylor (ACL injury, out for the season), Temeka Johnson (giveaway trade with Tulsa), Ketia Swanier (free agency to Atlanta), Marie Ferdinand-Harris (unsigned, retired from the WNBA)
Like LA, there are all kinds of questions hanging over this team heading into the 2012 season. Unfortunately for the Mercury, it’s hard to find quite so many answers. They began their offseason by trading starting point guard Temeka Johnson to Tulsa for Andrea Riley, who ultimately didn’t even make the team. Then Penny Taylor blew out her knee playing in the EuroLeague Women Final Eight, ending her WNBA season before it began (along with her Olympic dreams). Free agency produced merely two players from the end of Minnesota’s bench and a backup big from Europe, while point guard hopes now rest on an untried rookie. Even with their typically exciting run-and-gun system and the mercurial talents of superstar Diana Taurasi, is could be a long season for the Mercury.
Taurasi’s a superior offensive talent, one of the best the women’s game has ever seen. She’ll fire away from anywhere, create her own shot when necessary, and her fire and passion for the game drives any team she plays for. Her defense still leaves plenty to be desired, whatever her fans will tell you, but that’s not what people come to watch with Diana.
The players joining Taurasi in the Mercury backcourt are a series of hopes and prayers. They were fortunate to find the only point guard projected as a first-round pick still waiting for them at #6 in the draft, and Ohio State’s Samantha Prahalis could start immediately considering the alternatives. Her energy and style may well make her a perfect fit for the Mercury’s helter-skelter approach, but adapting to the pro game at Phoenix’s pace may be even tougher than on more ‘standard’ teams. Head coach Corey Gaines is already talking about a ‘point guard by committee’, which suggests he doesn’t think Prahalis is necessarily ready to be handed the keys to the car just yet. The other backcourt options are Alexis Hornbuckle and Alexis Gray-Lawson. Hornbuckle is primarily a defender who had some moments as a role player back in Detroit, but has never looked worth much more than that at WNBA level. She isn’t really anyone’s idea of a point guard, although she can at least help bring the ball up the floor. Gray-Lawson’s smaller and quicker, and had a couple of flashes last year where she looked like she could be an energy scorer from the bench. Running a team would be a very different matter, however. Ultimately, Taurasi’s likely to have to do a lot of the creating on this team. Hopefully Prahalis can adapt quickly, because otherwise the weight on their superstar’s shoulders could prove too much.
Part of the reason that the hole at point guard is such an issue, is that Taylor was a creative force for this team as well as a scorer. She led them in assists last season, and much of the offense ran through her when the ball wasn’t in Taurasi’s hands. Now they’re going to need even more from forwards DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree, and new arrival Charde Houston. After winning the WNBA’s Sixth Woman of the Year award for three straight seasons, Bonner is more than ready to step into the starting lineup. Her length and ability to play inside and out makes her hugely important to this team and its flexibility, but they’ll need her to be more than a superior energy player and scorer this year. In 30 minutes a night, Taylor averaged nearly five assists per game last year; in 25 minutes, Bonner averaged under one. It’s a different role as a starter, and she’ll need to adapt. Needing to push her into the starting lineup will also obviously weaken their bench.
Dupree has shown what she can do within the Mercury’s system over the last two seasons, and we can expect more of the same this year. She’ll score efficiently inside when her teammates find her on cuts and in position, and she’ll grab her fair share of rebounds. The problem is that she’s looked reluctant to press the issue offensively in the last year or two, willing to convert at the rim but typically looking to pass whenever she’s outside 10 feet. With Taylor out, they may ask her to broaden her game, and with that will likely come a decrease in percentage and efficiency. If they need anyone to take extra shots, Charde Houston will be more than happy to oblige. As regular readers will no doubt remember, WNBAlien has been suggesting that Houston should be playing in the Mercury system for eons, and now finally it’s come to pass. The girl can flat-out score the ball. She’s a horrible ballstopper at times, a poor rebounder if you’re going to try to use her as a power forward, and an abysmal defender, but this team is all about offense. And when you’re a horrible defensive team, what’s one more horrible defender? Assuming Bonner starts and Houston takes her role coming off the bench, the numbers she could put up in this style of basketball make her a threat to take over Bonner’s mantle as Sixth Woman of the Year.
The remaining members of the roster, for some bizarre reason, are all centers. Gaines did the same thing last year, when he kept Kara Braxton, Nakia Sanford and Olayinka Sanni on the roster to start the season, despite the fact that he doesn’t really like to use true bigs. This year, of course, it’s 3 out of 10 rather than 3 out of 11 (Taylor takes up a roster spot while injured), which only makes it worse. Nakia Sanford returns after stepping up to fill the spot midway through last year when they dumped Braxton. She’ll fill the paint and try to cover for defensive issues elsewhere, plus pick up a few points when under the hoop and open. They’ve also brought in Latvian big Zane Tamane (née Teilane), who played briefly in the WNBA with Washington back in 2006. She wasn’t much use back then, but she has developed in Europe and could provide some decent minutes in the middle. At 6-7, her basic size and length make her useful as a help defender, which may be central to why they’ve brought her in. Undrafted rookie Avery Warley from Liberty completes the group, but she’ll likely play the Sanni role of holding down the end of the bench unless something unfortunate happens. Keeping three pivots makes little sense to me on this team, when Bonner/Dupree may well be the post tandem of choice at crucial moments. It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see at least one of the trio cut at some point in order to bring in someone smaller and more agile who can play a different spot.
Summary and Outlook
I’d be worried if I were a Mercury fan, although with Griner, Delle Donne et al on their way next season it’s obviously a decent year to drop into the lottery if you had to pick one. They’re not going to be any better defensively under Gaines than they ever have been (in fact, essentially replacing Taylor with Houston in the rotation should make them even worse). Offensively, the loss of Taylor leaves a huge hole, and switching from a veteran who knows the system to a rookie (or a ‘committee’) at the point only makes things worse. They’ll still be fun to watch, and with Taurasi on their side they could win any given contest, but there are a lot of glaring holes on this squad. On the bright side, whenever they have dipped into the lottery, the Mercury have typically had plenty of luck with the ping-pong balls.