PG: Leilani Mitchell/Tiffany Bias
SG: Monique Currie/Noelle Quinn/Tess Madgen/(Marta Xargay)
SF: DeWanna Bonner/Shameka Christon/Alex Harden
PF: Candice Dupree/Mistie Bass
C: Brittney Griner/Cayla Francis
Significant additions: Mitchell, Currie, Quinn and Christon if you want to be generous over ‘significant’. Maybe Xargay once she arrives.
Significant losses: Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Erin Phillips, Griner for seven games, and the Shay Murphy/Anete Jekabsone-Zogota/Ewelina Kobryn group from the end of the bench are all gone too.
Most teams, when they win a championship, try to bring back as much of that team as possible for another run the next year. Unfortunately for Phoenix, Diana Taurasi announcing that she was skipping the 2015 WNBA season in order to make significantly more money overseas put a big dent in that idea. Penny Taylor has also played a key role in every Mercury championship team, and will also be missing this season. So this squad was already going to look very different in 2015. Then came the arrests for Brittney Griner and her wife Glory Johnson, which led to a seven-game league suspension that she is presumably going to serve to start the season (although the possibility of an appeal still seems to be floating around). It’s not been the offseason the Mercury would’ve wanted after all their success in 2014, but there’s still enough pieces in Phoenix for them to be a dangerous team – just not as dangerous as last year.
At the center, quite literally, of their chances in 2015, is Griner. While Taurasi made their offense tick last season and they’ll miss the playmaking and shooting of both her and Taylor, the major improvement that Phoenix made in their championship year was on the defensive end. They went from a team that had been a defensive disaster for years under Corey Gaines to the best defense in the league under Sandy Brondello, with Griner’s size and threat in the middle the key element. While they’ll lose some of the chemistry that’s always important to building a team defense with Taurasi and Taylor out, neither of those two are exactly known for their defensive skills, so player-for-player there shouldn’t be much drop-off. They added veterans like Monique Currie, Noelle Quinn and even Shameka Christon in the offseason, all perimeter players will some size and length who can switch constantly just like they did for much of last season. While Griner is suspended they could look pretty awful, but once she’s back there’s every reason to believe that they can be one of the best defensive teams in the league once again.
The offensive end could look rather different from last year. They’ve tried to add some perimeter shooting to replace Taurasi, Taylor and Erin Phillips, with Leilani Mitchell returning to the league after missing last season (plus Quinn, Currie and Christon can occasionally hit from outside). But they’re likely to play more inside-out this year. They’ll look to integrate Griner as an offensive focus more, along with using Candice Dupree’s finishing inside as much as possible, and DeWanna Bonner will have to try to step up her offensive production without returning to the endless desperate chucking from a couple of years ago. The problem is that it’ll all be more difficult without Taurasi’s skill at finding the right player at the right time, and drawing the attention of opposing defenders. Defenses will sag inside constantly and dare the Mercury to beat them from outside, and only Mitchell has really been consistent from out there over her career. For the first time in the best part of a decade, scoring could be more of an issue for the Mercury than stopping their opponents at the other end.
The bench looks a little threadbare as well, with the aging vets on the front line backed up by thoroughly inexperienced reserves behind them. Cayla Francis could be a useful pickup to join Mistie Bass in helping back up the post, but it’ll be a surprise if they get much out of the likes of Tiffany Bias, Alex Harden and Tess Madgen on the perimeter. Last year, when they added players like Shay Murphy, Anete Jekabsone-Zogota and Ewelina Kobryn, you could see what they were thinking and how they were trying to fill holes and deepen specific areas. This year feels more like they’ve been grabbing whoever was available to cover a spot and then fill out the roster.
So this won’t be the Mercury of old, or even of last year. They probably won’t run as much, because they don’t have the same athletes or passers to create those opportunities. They probably won’t hit from deep as much, because the shooters aren’t there. But once Griner’s back, and assuming she stays healthy (and isn’t distracted by her new bride and impending motherhood), they could still win a bunch of games. It just might be more of a grind than Mercury fans are used to. Looking up at that fresh new banner in the rafters should help ease them through any difficult nights.