Controlled Chaos: The Mercury's Electrifying Offense

By Ben York,
Posted: September 1, 2011

After the Mercury's victory over the Tulsa Shock on Tuesday, I received an instant message from one of my friends back East. We never really talk about the WNBA specifically (he's not exactly an avid follower) so I was surprised to see his message start out with "The Phoenix"

Keep in mind, the game wasn't on national television and he certainly didn't watch it through a local Tulsa feed. In order to view the game, he had to log-on and watch it on Live Access.

I immediately verified that pigs still cannot fly because, knowing my friend, the last thing I thought he would do on a Tuesday night was watch a WNBA game.

"They're fun, man," he continued. "Up and down the court with reckless abandon. They just run, run, run. I'm officially hooked."

Two thoughts immediately crept into my head:

    1. Anytime someone says "reckless abandon" I think of Paula Abdul on American Idol. Can't help it. I'm pretty sure she used that phrase 5,981 times on the show.

    2. The Mercury's offense really isn't "reckless." It's controlled chaos and takes an enormous amount of concentration.

A common misconception regarding the Mercury's offense is that is consists solely of running up and down the court to get the first open shot. If Iím honest, that's actually not even close to an accurate representation of the offense and fails to give credit to the coaching staff and team for their stellar execution of it.

Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden often used to say, "Be quick; don't hurry." Perhaps more than any other statement, that's the best way to describe the type of offense the Mercury runs. Hurrying or trying to do too much inevitably leads to turnovers and improper execution.

The entire offense is predicated on moving the ball quickly (and efficiently) while exploiting match-ups along the perimeter as well as in the paint when applicable.

In order for the Mercury's offense to be effective and successful, it takes a tremendous amount of focus and discipline that can't necessarily be taught. When a player sees an open cutter or avenue towards the hoop, there has to be a natural reaction internally to either put the ball right on the money to the cutting player or make a split-second decision to attack the basket. Admittedly, this type of vision can be improved with constant hard work, but much of it comes naturally.

Next time you watch a Mercury game (tonight's game against the Silver Stars is a great opportunity), pay close attention to where each player goes on a fast break. You'll notice that the wings go to a specific spot on the floor and the point guards understand exactly where they should be along with the 4 and 5 (frontline). With how fast Phoenix's offense is, there really isn't time to hesitate or think about your next move. Quite simply, it allows your instincts to take over and let the game come to you. It's another reason why there is a large adjustment period and learning curve for new players to grasp the system.

Still, in order for a set offense or fast break to work, the team has to have proper spacing or a crumbling domino effect will occur. This is another area to keep an eye on the next time you watch the Mercury play (hint: tonight). Phoenix does an excellent job of keeping enough distance between each other so as not to clog the lane or allow the defense to defend multiple players at once.

If the defense is going to stop Phoenix from making a basket, the Mercury is going to make sure the opposition works extremely hard to do so. That's why there are constant pick-and-rolls and weak-side movement. Because of this, the defense cannot simply focus on one player. It's also a reason why you tend to see opposing teams get physical with the Mercury - it's an attempt to slow Phoenix down. The caveat to this is that Phoenix shoots 84 percent from the foul line.

As I mentioned before, the type of offense Phoenix runs isn't ideal for every player. The Mercury needs its players to dribble with a purpose, be confident in their shooting ability, and work extremely hard. Akin to a phalanx formation in the military, each player is dependent upon the next. When one cog breaks down, the entire formation is easier to break. Though, it certainly doesnít hurt to have Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor remedy that if/when it does happen.

The most amazing part of all this is that it a made basket usually occurs in about 10 seconds, or with roughly 14 seconds left on the shot clock. At least, thatís when the Phoenix Mercury is at their best.

There are so many moving parts to the Mercuryís offense that happen in an incredibly short amount of time that it must look chaotic, frantic, and somewhat frenzied.

The reality? Far from it.