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.