Erin Phillips/Tiffany Bias
Diana Taurasi/Anete Jekabsone-Zogota/Shay Murphy
DeWanna Bonner/Penny Taylor
Candice Dupree/Mistie Bass
Brittney Griner/Ewelina Kobryn
Significant additions: Phillips, Bass, Jekabsone-Zogota, Murphy, maybe more from Taylor, new head coach Sandy Brondello
Significant losses: Briana Gilbreath, Krystal Thomas, Charde Houston, Alexis Hornbuckle and Lynetta Kizer are all gone – but like the changes in LA, no one’s exactly weeping for what’s been lost
After being the darlings of many experts and fans in preseason a year ago, the Mercury have been lost in the shuffle a little bit this time around. The Lynx have the proven track record, LA have the new owners and refreshed depth, even New York and Atlanta have engendered more discussion with their changes since last year. But like the Sparks, Phoenix have retained their core while rebuilding the pieces around them and attempting to upgrade the supporting players. They’ve got a new head coach in place from the start this time – rather than finally realising they needed to make that change in midseason – and Brittney Griner’s got a year under her belt as a pro. Maybe coming at this season as a little bit of an underdog is just what they need.
The first and most important addition – the only one who’ll start, barring injuries – was Aussie point guard Erin Phillips. After spending last season with Diana Taurasi constantly on the ball running the offense – because there was no one else around who was a viable option – the key need in the offseason was someone else who could handle the point guard spot, and hopefully hit some open shots. Phillips should be a good fit. She’s not a pure point by any means, but she’s feisty, she’s quick, she can get the ball up the floor, and she’s a 38% three-point shooter over her WNBA career (including 45% over her last three seasons). That’s just about exactly what Phoenix needed, especially considering they’re in win-now mode, and there wouldn’t have been anyone available at the 9th pick in the draft (the pick they traded for Phillips) who could’ve filled the spot to the same standard.
Health is going to play a major role in determining how good Phoenix can be this season. That’s always true for every team in this league, of course, but it’s more of a concern for the Mercury than most of the others. Phillips battled knee problems last season, being troubled by recurring pain even once she returned from a torn meniscus. Griner kept picking up minor issues that limited her play and prevented her from settling in as a pro. And of course, Penny Taylor is a constant question mark at this stage in her career. Apparently Taylor’s been a participant in much of their preseason work and is looking good, but won’t start the season in uniform. We’ve heard the ‘looking good’ and ‘returning soon’ messages with Penny so many times now that it’s hard to take them seriously until we actually see her on the floor, and even then there’ll be constant fears that she’ll break down. She was a wonderful player in her prime, capable of doing pretty much everything from either forward spot, but sadly that player is probably gone. Still, if she can get healthy enough to provide solid backup minutes late in the season and into the playoffs, she could be a significant contributor to the Mercury’s success again. But it’s reached the point where no one’s counting on it.
Even without relying on Taylor, Sandy Brondello was handed a pretty nice core to work with. Taurasi may not be quite the player she once was at her peak, but she’s still an outstanding scorer with range for miles, who bends defenses in dangerous ways, and is happy to create for her teammates. Griner is just as tantalising and scary a prospect as she was when she came out of college surrounded by fanfare. The combination of size and athleticism, with a healthy dose of skill thrown in, is simply very hard for any opponent to combat. If Brondello can utilise Griner better than she was last season – and keep Griner’s head in the game on a consistent basis – she can be a dominant force in this league. And if Griner can start to comprehend pro defense a little better, she can be a destructive defensive presence even quicker than she’ll dominate on offense.
Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner are both still in town as well, and the presumptive forward pairing with Taylor’s doubtful health. Dupree was her usual self last year, sliding and slithering through gaps to finish efficiently inside, and the Taurasi/Dupree pick-and-roll was one of the most effective offensive options in the league. Her defense still leaves plenty to be desired, but you can’t have everything. Harnessing Bonner and turning her into the player she can be for this team will be one of Brondello’s primary objectives. Awful threes from ridiculous distances have become Bonner’s trademark, and that’s not something you want to be known for (unless you’re Tina Thompson and they go in on a regular basis). Her defense has also dropped off to a significant degree in recent years. She’s still a talented, athletic player who can play multiple positions and be a very useful piece – she just needs to be forced into attacking the rim more and taking good shots. If Brondello can do that, Bonner becomes part of the solution rather than a problem.
The Mercury bench certainly looks more dangerous than it did a year ago. Mistie Bass was picked up in free agency from Connecticut and will offer solid backup minutes at either spot down low. Ewelina Kobryn was acquired in a trade with Seattle, presumably at Brondello’s behest after they worked together in Europe. She’s a mediocre backup at this level – and only arguably an upgrade from the released Krystal Thomas – but maybe her comfort level with Brondello’s system will improve her production.
On the wing, they added both Shay Murphy and Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, which should provide some extra firepower from the reserves. Both can come into games and attack, and will be more than willing to take open shots offered up by defenses drawn to the Mercury’s stars. Murphy had a poor season last year in Chicago, but wasn’t helped by Pokey Chatman constantly jerking her minutes around and never providing a consistent role. We’ve seen her in the past be a player who can be useful as bench energy. AJZ hasn’t been in the WNBA since 2010, but she’s also been at UMMC with Taurasi, Brondello and Kobryn. She plays a pretty quiet role on that team these days, but she still knocks down outside shots. It was shocking how few legitimate perimeter threats the Mercury had last year to surround Griner and Taurasi and stretch the floor – they’ve got significantly more now, and Jekabsone-Zogota is one of them. Rookie draft pick Tiffany Bias also made the roster as the backup point guard to Phillips, although they may use Taurasi in that role most of the time.
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that this team is going to sneak up on anyone – it’s hard to step quietly when you’re led by Taurasi and Griner, two of the most recognisable (and outspoken) personalities in the women’s game. But there definitely isn’t the same level of attention and hype around them that there was a year ago, and that’s good. No one will be panicking if they lose a few games early on while Brondello settles in. But they’ve filled their most glaring holes, they’ve got a head coach who’ll pay more attention to defense than the guy who started last season in charge, they’re markedly deeper, and they’ve got all-star calibre talent starting at virtually every spot. If they can piece things together, and if they can stay something close to healthy, this is another scary contender in the Western Conference.