PG: Samantha Prahalis
SG: Diana Taurasi/Alexis Hornbuckle/Briana Gilbreath
SF: DeWanna Bonner/Penny Taylor/Charde Houston
PF: Candice Dupree/Lynetta Kizer
C: Brittney Griner/Krystal Thomas
Significant gains: Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, a healthier Candace Dupree, generally giving a crap about basketball games.
Significant losses: Probably threw away their list of injury excuses.
Does this bunch even need to be previewed? Since the minute Phoenix won the lottery, everyone’s been talking about the superteam that the Mercury could put out on the floor when they came together. This is what happens when an already talented team has a terrible year (due to injury, ‘tanking’, or a combination thereof) and ends up adding another superstar into the mix. It’s even better when the young phenom fits perfectly into a hole on your roster. The hype for this team has been enormous, but that’s hardly a surprise considering the players they have returning, and they might just manage to live up to it.
When healthy, the three pieces the Mercury are essentially ‘adding’ to last year’s squad are all superstars of the women’s game. Diana Taurasi is an elite perimeter scorer, who’s also a willing passer and creator for her teammates. She got plenty of rest last season, and even played a slightly more reserved role for her Russian team while they won everything in sight during the offseason. She should be back to full speed. Whatever the story with Taurasi, Penny Taylor was definitely injured last year. She’s still in the final stages of recovering from her ACL tear, and hasn’t actually played a game yet, either overseas or in the WNBA preseason. At 100%, she’s a tough, versatile small forward, capable of scoring from a variety of angles and making smart passes for her teammates. Hopefully she’ll be back to full speed at some point, but it’s a case of wait-and-see as to exactly what she’ll be able to offer.
And then there’s Brittney. An athletic specimen the likes of which the women’s game has never seen before, a 6-8 center who can still move smoothly, rebound, finish and block shots. She’s known for her dunking ability, and it probably won’t be long before she exhibits it in the WNBA, but there’s more to what she can do. On the Mercury, while they’ll benefit from her offensive skills in the halfcourt, her most important role will be at the center of their defense. Head coach Corey Gaines basically can’t coach D – we’ve got years of evidence of that. This team’s been terrible defensively for eons. But when you put a behemoth like Griner in the post it cures a lot of defensive ills. Even when she isn’t blocking shots, she’ll alter a lot of them, and simply make players less keen to drive into the paint. She’ll have to work on pick-and-roll defense (which is a far bigger part of the game in the pros than it is in college), and Gaines will need to establish defensive structures that never take her far from the rim, but that shouldn’t be hard. It’s a marvellous fit for the Mercury.
Even while slogging through some awful basketball last season, the Mercury had some legitimate talent. DeWanna Bonner is a long, versatile player, capable of defending the perimeter or the post, and hopefully her shot selection will become a little more considered this year with significantly more talent around her. Candice Dupree missed a large chunk of last season, and she’ll be back to offer her usual combination of smooth finishes around the rim, rebounding numbers and matador defense. Then there’s second-year point guard Samantha Prahalis, who looked useful at times in her rookie season but put up some ugly shooting percentages. She has a very different job description this season, and it’s going to be interesting to see how she adapts. They don’t need her to take all the shots she took last year – they need her to take the good ones, and distribute the ball to all the new weapons around her. There won’t be as much on her shoulders, but mistakes will be more crucial. It’s a big change.
Then there’s the bench, which is the typical Mercury exercise in fill-ins and players you hope don’t have to play too much. Either Taylor or Bonner will be first off the bench – and whichever it is, assuming Taylor’s halfway healthy, is an immediate favourite for WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year – but then it gets dicey. Charde Houston will come in and fire away as always, giving back just as many points at the other end; Alexis Hornbuckle remains a reasonable defender, and generally a calamity at the other end; Lynetta Kizer and Briana Gilbreath both showed flashes of talent last year as rookies, but may find opportunities limited this season; and Krystal Thomas is the cheap backup for Griner. We saw what happened when this group had to play a lot of minutes last year, but now they’re back where they belong as bench players it should be okay. As long as the starters stay healthy.
With how much love has been showered on the Mercury in the long build-up to this season, it almost feels like you have to argue from the perspective of why they might not win a championship. There are still some question marks. For all her natural talent and physical gifts, Griner will have to learn how to handle real posts challenging her on a daily basis, along with the new defensive three-seconds rule. We still don’t know how healthy Taylor is (or if she’ll ever be as good as she was). Has Taurasi rested up and become a more considered distributor, or has she begun to lose half a step? Will there be any tension caused by having six players who likely consider themselves ‘starters’ at this point in their careers? Is Gaines a good enough coach to take this team back to the promised land, even with Griner fixing many of the defensive issues in one fell swoop?
Remember, apart from Griner, this is a pretty similar team to the group that went 15-19 in 2010 and only reached the Western Conference Finals because the West was atrocious that year (bar Seattle). So it’s not a done deal. But it’s fair to say that they have a chance to be very, very good. In fact if the key pieces are truly healthy and everything clicks, they could be exceptional. It’s certainly going to be a lot of fun watching them to find out.