What’s Up With the Mercury?

On back-to-backs in the WNBA
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Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | June 24, 2005
Before this season, I didn't have time to put together my preseason WNBA picks. That's a very good thing. I would have put the Phoenix Mercury in my Western Conference top three, and right now I'd look like an idiot with the Mercury sitting at 3-9 and a half game out of the cellar in the West.

When I went around the WNBA a little more than a week ago, I noted the Mercury's incredibly imbalanced schedule. Phoenix has played nine road games, two more than any WNBA team. If you make the extreme assumption that teams will lose every road game and go undefeated at home, Phoenix is right where it should be at this point of the season.

A better way to look at that, perhaps, is to average a team's home and road winning percentages. This method doesn't help the Mercury out nearly as much, as Phoenix has lost two out of three games at home thus far. That's not a big sample size to go by, but the fact that the Mercury has lost three games in a row and hasn't even been particularly competitive isn't a good sign for Phoenix's continued success.

"Every single one of those claims was true last year, when Phoenix went 17-17 and had the fourth-best point differential in the league."
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty
Where the theory about the schedule evening out eventually falls apart is at the extreme, and the Mercury is about as extreme as it gets. When Phoenix's schedule was combined with the late arrivals from overseas of starters Penny Taylor and Kamila Vodichkova, a poor start to the season was almost inevitable. Because these are real people, frustration was bound to set in, and it has, if Tuesday's near-melee in Washington is any indication.

The WNBA has seen bigger comebacks than what the Mercury would have to do, none of them more notable than Charlotte going from 1-10 to the WNBA Finals in 2001, Anne Donovan's first season as Sting head coach. Phoenix plays four straight home games in July, and it's not difficult to see the Mercury winning a couple of games, gaining confidence and momentum and going on a run.

Even if the Mercury's 2005 season can't be saved, I'm not sure I buy the argument that Phoenix needs fundamental changes. Amongst the charges leveled have been that the Mercury needs a true point guard, doesn't have enough defensive players on the roster and is too weak up front.

But you know what? Every single one of those claims was true last year, when Phoenix went 17-17 and had the fourth-best point differential in the league, one better than any team in the Eastern Conference. (That point differential was a big reason I thought the Mercury would be so good this season; the Storm had a point differential that dramatically exceeded its win total in 2003 before breaking through last year.) Even as an obviously flawed team, Phoenix was good enough to come within a win of making the playoffs.

The issue I really disagree with is the need to move Diana Taurasi off the point. With that configuration, the Mercury boasted the second-best Offensive Rating in the WNBA last season, scoring 96.4 points per 100 possessions. That's not a persuasive argument against Taurasi the point guard. Bizarrely, Phoenix has the second-worst Offensive Rating in the league this year, ahead of only Charlotte. That certainly might be Taurasi, though I think the difference has more to do with the lack of chemistry right now because Taylor and Vodichkova are still trying to fit into the lineup.

From a big-picture standpoint, I think my background following the NBA affects my opinion when it comes to scoring point guards. In general, I'd say opinions about point-guard play in women's basketball tend to be more conservative than in men's basketball. In an ideal world, yeah, I'd probably want Taurasi at the two. But, to hearken back to Econ 200 for a minute, we live in a world of scarce resources, and point guards are particularly scarce in the WNBA. How many legit starting point guards are there out there? That depends on your perspective, but, throwing out the players who are better off as shooting guards, I'd say about nine. To me, that's the nature of the point guard position.

An important Bill James piece of thinking in baseball has been the James Defensive Scale, which describes the relative defensive importance of positions. Players who can effectively play shortstop, James argues, are rarer than second basemen and much rarer than first basemen. In the same way, it's a lot easier to find a basketball player who can play shooting guard than point guard. So when a player can play point guard, she's much more valuable there.

Taurasi is different than a player like, say, Kelly Miller in that she's such a dynamic offensive talent that you want the ball in her hands regularly. A dominating point guard like Sue Bird alongside Taurasi would be something of a waste of her talent. There haven't been a lot of players like that in the history of the WNBA, but there are plenty in the NBA, and the general agreement is you want alongside them a player who can shoot from the perimeter or defend and is a good enough ballhandler to bring the ball upcourt but isn't a dynamic passer. Ron Harper and Steve Kerr in Chicago alongside Michael Jordan are pretty much the archetypes for the role. In Anna DeForge, the Mercury has a super-Kerr, and I think she and Taurasi are a good fit.

Where Phoenix could use a point guard is off the bench. Last year, the Mercury could bring either Tamara Moore or Jae Cross into the game to spell DeForge or Taurasi. This year, with no backup guards on the roster, either DeForge or Taurasi has been paired with a small forward like Taylor or Shereka Wright when the other is out of the game. Having a weak ballhandler at shooting guard with a non-point guard poses problems, and I'm surprised the Mercury hasn't brought in a point guard.

Up front, the Mercury will be helped if 6-8 center Maria Stepanova at long last returns from Russia. Stepanova would give the Mercury a defensive presence it has lacked … well, since she was last in Phoenix. She'd also eventually allow the Mercury to move Plenette Pierson to the bench and presumably start a frontcourt of Stepanova and Vodichkova. While Pierson was solid as a starter in 2004, she's been very inefficient this season, shooting 36.3% from the field and committing 3.1 turnovers per game.

Phoenix also needs to get DeForge and Taylor going. Last year, DeForge led the WNBA in 3-pointers while Taylor was sixth in the league in percentage (as well as fifth in field-goal percentage in sixth in free-throw percentage). So far, Taylor is hitting only 29.6% of her 3s, DeForge 33.3% (and 35.3% from the field). Merely getting these players back to their 2004 level of efficiency over the same number of shot attempts would give Phoenix a 3.3-point per game boost on offense. It's hard to believe they'll stay so cold all season long.

It would be a mistake for Phoenix General Manager Seth Sulka not to take the lessons of this 3-9 start seriously and continue to improve the team in the development process. However, I think it might be an even bigger mistake to throw away some of the very good things the Mercury did last year because of 12 poor games. Since her season in Seattle, I've considered Carrie Graf one of the brighter minds in this league, and I think the Mercury has the kind of talent that at its best can be very entertaining and competitive with anyone in the WNBA. I hope they get that chance.