Losses Outweigh Gaines: No defense for Corey as Mercury make a change


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.


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2013 WNBA Season Previews: Phoenix Mercury


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.


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2012 In-Depth WNBA Season Preview: Phoenix Mercury

PG: Samantha Prahalis

SG: Diana Taurasi/Alexis Hornbuckle/Alexis Gray-Lawson

SF: DeWanna Bonner/Charde Houston/(Penny Taylor)

PF: Candice Dupree/

C: Nakia Sanford/Zane Tamane/Avery Warley

Significant additions: Prahalis (college draft), Houston (‘trade’ with Minnesota), Hornbuckle (‘trade’ with Minnesota), Tamane (free agency after being out of the league)

Significant losses: Penny Taylor (ACL injury, out for the season), Temeka Johnson (giveaway trade with Tulsa), Ketia Swanier (free agency to Atlanta), Marie Ferdinand-Harris (unsigned, retired from the WNBA)


Like LA, there are all kinds of questions hanging over this team heading into the 2012 season. Unfortunately for the Mercury, it’s hard to find quite so many answers. They began their offseason by trading starting point guard Temeka Johnson to Tulsa for Andrea Riley, who ultimately didn’t even make the team. Then Penny Taylor blew out her knee playing in the EuroLeague Women Final Eight, ending her WNBA season before it began (along with her Olympic dreams). Free agency produced merely two players from the end of Minnesota’s bench and a backup big from Europe, while point guard hopes now rest on an untried rookie. Even with their typically exciting run-and-gun system and the mercurial talents of superstar Diana Taurasi, is could be a long season for the Mercury. Continue reading

WNBA Offseason Overview/Preseason Preview: Phoenix Mercury

Current roster certainties and virtual certainties:

PG: Samantha Prahalis

SG: Diana Taurasi/Alexis Hornbuckle

SF: DeWanna Bonner/Charde Houston

PF: Candice Dupree

C: Nakia Sanford

Injured: Penny Taylor

Fighting for the remaining three roster spots: Andrea Riley, Alexis Gray-Lawson, Krystal Thomas, Zane Tamane, C’eira Ricketts, and a whole host of other people.


Remember when I said Atlanta had a pretty poor offseason? Well Phoenix’s was probably worse. They kicked it off by trading their starting point guard, Temeka Johnson, for wild (and wildly inaccurate) gunner Andrea Riley. The one defensible reason behind that move was that it opened up plenty of extra cap space, but an effort to spend that cash on restricted free agent Erin Phillips didn’t work out when Indiana matched their offer sheet. The Mercury settled for the consolation prize of Minnesota’s Alexis Hornbuckle instead (who really isn’t anybody’s idea of a point guard). Many people expected them to be in the running for the other Lynx guard on the market, Candice Wiggins, but they apparently decided she wasn’t worth the risk or the money. When Phoenix eventually decided that there weren’t any point guards left worth signing, they used some more of that cap space on another former Lynx, forward Charde Houston, finally completing the most obvious match for player and system that this league has ever seen. A no-conscience shooter who can’t defend to save her life joins a high-octane, high-volume offensive team that doesn’t play any defense anyway – a match made in Heaven.

But then came the Mercury’s moment in Hell. Continue reading

WNBAlien 2011 Previews: Phoenix Mercury

PG: Temeka Johnson/Ketia Swanier

SG: Diana Taurasi/Alexis Gray-Lawson/Marie Ferdinand-Harris(/Bonner)

SF: Penny Taylor/DeWanna Bonner

PF: Candice Dupree(/Bonner)

C: Kara Braxton/Nakia Sanford/Olayinka Sanni(/Bonner)


Head coach: Corey Gaines

Significant additions: Sanford, I guess, and Braxton from the start of the season instead of the middle. So not much, except the hope that Taurasi’s rested and angry.

Significant losses: Tangela Smith.


It was tumultuous offseason for the Mercury, despite the minimal changes made to the actual roster. Diana Taurasi’s reported positive drug test, later rescinded by the Turkish lab that performed it, led to all kinds of debates about whether Taurasi could play in the WNBA while FIBA suspended her, a potential lifetime ban from the Olympics, and whether all the Americans playing in Europe every year could trust that they’d be treated fairly. Continue reading