Sitting at 10-11 and clinging to third place in the WNBA’s Western Conference, the Phoenix Mercury decided enough was enough on Thursday, and fired head coach and general manager Corey Gaines. Russ Pennell, former men’s head coach at the University of Arizona and Grand Canyon University, was named interim head coach, while Chief Operating Officer Amber Cox will take over the general manager duties.
While many were surprised at the timing – changes at head coach, especially for playoff teams, tend to happen in the offseason rather than during the regular season – the decision itself can’t be a huge shock at this point. After the desperate season last year, where endless losses piled up (by design or misfortune, depending on your perspective), this year was meant to be the bounce-back. They were adding a game-changer in rookie center Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi was healthy, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner were still in the fold, Penny Taylor was on her way back, even their young point guard was now a year more experienced – they were loaded. Injuries to Griner and Taylor provided yet more excuses for Gaines, but the team weren’t good enough whoever was on the floor. And considering teams across the league were dealing with major injuries to their stars and finding a way to survive, the Mercury’s struggles were made to look even worse.
Defense has always been Gaines’s achilles heel. In his five seasons in charge, the Mercury were second-last, last, last, third-last, and last in the WNBA in defensive points per possession (that’s how many points they concede, adjusted for the pace at which their games are played). They’re last again this year, by a considerable margin. The other 11 teams all sit somewhere between 91.4 and 101.4 points per 100 possessions; Phoenix have given up 104.3. Whenever this has been brought up over the years, his defenders have talked about how the Mercury offensive style leads to the defensive failings. But that’s always been a fallacy. You can play fast-paced, attacking basketball on the offensive end, and still play defense. Just because you like to concentrate on one end of the floor, doesn’t mean you can completely ignore the other. There are some poor defenders on the Mercury squad, but they’ve been so bad for so long that it’s completely inexcusable. There’s been a dismal lack of rules and consistency within their defense for years, and then this year they added the most dominant defensive center to emerge from the NCAA in a very long time. The hope was that they could install her at center, and she could cover for the flaws in Gaines’s system and coaching. But they were still terrible. Griner had her issues adapting to the pick-and-roll based pro game, and then the knee problem slowed her progress, but there were no signs that Gaines knew what he was doing in utilising her. You couldn’t help but feel that virtually any other coach in the league would’ve been doing a better job turning her into a true force on the defensive end.
The offense hasn’t been as good as it might’ve been this year, either. They spent the preseason and first three games trying to mould themselves to Griner, before Gaines admitted that was a mistake and reversed course back to their old run-and-gun style. For a while that led to a turnaround in fortunes, but it has sometimes seemed like they’re riding the talent of their players rather than maximising them. When Diana Taurasi is engaged and flowing, they’ve looked great, but the balance between running and looking for Griner inside has often been awkward. The primary task for his successor is to fix the defense – but next up is finding a way to get the most out of the elite offensive talents on the roster. Griner’s a huge presence defensively, but she also has lovely touch on offense and constantly draws double and triple-teams. She needs to touch the ball, without breaking up everyone else’s rhythm
Several other things have gone wrong as well. There was the Samantha Prahalis mess at the start of the season. She came into the year as their starting point guard, so even if they didn’t rate her as highly internally as they claimed to publically, they expected her to be a big piece for them this season. Instead, she started three games before being benched, and then disappeared off the end of Gaines’s rotation – before finally being waived. It didn’t cast anyone in a positive light, including Gaines, who drafted her last year before this disastrous second season. There’s also been the increasingly damaging attitude issue with Taurasi. While she’s always been feisty and her demeanour is part of her game, the pile-up of technicals has already led to one suspension this year, and she’s on the brink of another. So either Gaines was unable to control her, he wasn’t trying hard enough, or she’d stopped listening. All of those are equally negative when she’s a world-class talent and the leader of the team.
It was also slightly ridiculous that every time something seemed to be going wrong, he’d try to go back to what used to work in the past. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that if it leads to improvement, but it leaves you looking a little foolish. Changing the offense didn’t work, so they went back to the old offense. Playing the young kid at point guard didn’t work, so they went back to handing the ball to Taurasi and letting her run everything. The defense was even more of a mess than usual, so they went back to a zone that bore a striking resemblance to the ‘Rover’ zone they played in previous seasons. He couldn’t change anything without eventually giving up and going backwards.
It would be interesting to know what the tipping point was for the franchise. They lost to Seattle fairly convincingly on Tuesday night, but once again injuries offered an excuse. They lost convincingly to Seattle last week as well, and he survived through that. Maybe Taurasi said something to the front office. Maybe they only just talked Pennell into taking the gig. Maybe the injuries to Bonner and Griner from Tuesday night are a little more serious than they’re letting on, and they felt making a change now was right because their title chances were slipping away regardless. Because make no mistake, this roster has the talent to challenge. We weren’t all making that up at the start of the season. But at this stage, Minnesota and Los Angeles looked far more likely championship contenders. Taurasi only has so many years left, so maybe they simply felt they had to do something to change their trajectory.
(The one scenario I don’t want to contemplate, but which admittedly did at least cross my mind, was that the injuries on Tuesday were exaggerated by the players to make a point that they didn’t want to play for Gaines any more – therefore forcing the front office to act. I’d like to think anyone playing professional sport to this level has more respect for the game and their team than that. So let’s throw out that theory unless anything emerges later to offer any support to it.)
Pennell is already making all the right noises. He’s never coached women before, but there are certainly plenty of examples of successful coaches for whom that wasn’t an issue. One of the first things he brought up was “attention to detail on the defensive end”, and getting “better at helping one another”. This is stuff I’ve been harping on all season (and in previous years). They’ve needed a structure on the defensive end, and someone who’d hold the players accountable if they don’t stick to it. They need rules, not to defend the pick-and-roll seven different ways on seven consecutive possessions. That was never in evidence under Gaines, and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens under a coach who gives a damn about defense. Pennell’s only the ‘interim’ head coach for now, and they only have 13 regular season games remaining. It’s not a lot of time to change things, and the injury issues will complicate matters if Griner and Bonner’s problems linger (along with Taylor’s). But the raw materials are already there. Most new head coaches come into teams that lack talent and have lost a lot of games – that’s why the last guy had poor enough results to get fired. That’s not the case here.
So Gaines is gone. I admit, I felt it should’ve happened long ago. There never seemed to be a good reason for their defense to be anywhere near as bad as it was, and there seemed to be so little effort to improve it. But I don’t feel any ill-will towards the man. He won a championship in the WNBA, which isn’t an easy thing to do even when it’s accomplished with a legacy system from the previous coach and a surfeit of talent. The Mercury were almost always one of the more appealing teams to watch, thanks to their high-octane offense. But it was time. It was, frankly, past time. Now someone new gets a chance to keep that offense rolling, integrate the rookie phenom a little more cohesively, and try to remind this team there are two ends of the floor. Who knows, if he can achieve some of that quickly, the Mercury could still be dangerous in the playoffs come September.