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Best Team Ever?

Now the discussion can officially begin.

With a sweep of the Chicago Sky in the WNBA Finals, the Phoenix Mercury has completed one of the greatest single seasons in the 18-year history of the WNBA.

They racked up a record 29 wins against only five losses in the regular season.

They followed that up with a first round sweep of the Los Angeles Sparks, closing the series with a 25-point win on the road.

Next up was the defending champion Minnesota Lynx in the Western Conference Finals. This would prove to be the biggest roadblock on the Mercurys path to the championship.

Led by MVP Maya Moore, the Lynx provided the only blemish on the Mercurys postseason record, taking Game 2 and forcing a winner-take-all Game 3. Phoenix responded with an 18-point win in front of their hometown fans to advance to the Finals for the fourth time in franchise history and the first since winning the title in 2009.

The Mercury would not be truly tested again as they breezed past the Chicago Sky in the Finals with wins by 21 points in Game 1, a Finals-record 29 points in Game 2 and five points in Game 3, when they played without star center Brittney Griner. Thats an average margin of victory of 18.3 points, which ranks among the most dominant Finals performances ever.

Largest margin of victory, game (WNBA Finals)

Win MarginGame ResultDate
29Phoenix (97) vs Chicago (68)Sept. 9, 2014
28Los Angeles (82) vs. Charlotte (54)Sept. 1, 2001
28Phoenix (98) at Detroit (70)Sept. 8, 2007
25Minnesota (84) vs. Atlanta (59)Oct. 6, 2013
25Minnesota (88) vs. Atlanta (63)Oct. 8, 2013

Largest margin of victory, game (WNBA Playoffs)

Win MarginGame ResultDate
31Los Angeles (93) vs. Sacramento (62)Aug. 27, 2001
29Phoenix (97) vs Chicago (68)Sept. 9, 2014
29Cleveland (72) vs. Orlando (43)Aug. 15, 2000
286 times

Of course, this is not the greatest postseason run the WNBA has seen. There have been five teams, including last years Lynx squad, which swept through the entire playoffs without taking a loss.

YearTeamPlayoff RecordWin Percentage
2013Minnesota7-01.000
2010Seattle7-01.000
2002Los Angeles6-01.000
2000Houston6-01.000
1997Houston2-01.000

Two other teams have matched Phoenixs 7-1 postseason record, while two others also suffered only one loss on their way to the title when the WNBA used a shorter playoff format.

YearTeamPlayoff RecordWin Percentage
2005Sacramento7-1.875
2011Minnesota7-1.875
2001Los Angeles6-1.857
1998Houston4-1.800

The Mercurys combination of regular season and postseason dominance has placed them on the Mount Rushmore of WNBA teams. Any discussion of great womens basketball teams must now include this Mercury squad.

They are definitely in the discussion as one of the best all time, said ESPN analyst and former WNBA star Rebecca Lobo. Its hard because when you compare things historically, and the league hasnt been around all that long, but the play now is head and shoulders above the way the game was played in the beginning, so they are without question to me in the discussion.

Perhaps the best takeaway from this years Finals will be this discussion that fans can have over where this team ranks against the standard bearers from years ago.

The Houston Comets and Los Angeles Sparks defined the first six seasons of the WNBA and must each have a team that is represented on this Mount Rushmore.

My choices are the 1998 Comets and the 2001 Sparks. Choosing between the Comets teams was a difficult choice. They won the title in the leagues inaugural season in 1997, but that team featured Sheryl Swoopes for only a portion of the year as she returned from maternity leave.

The following year, the Comets had Swoopes back in superstar form for the entire season, along with the age-defying Cynthia Cooper, who won her second straight MVP after leading the league in scoring at age 35, and Tina Thompson.

Behind that trio of stars, the Comets went 27-3 in the regular season, setting a winning percentage (.900) record that still stands today. The Comets followed that up with a sweep in the semifinals against Charlotte and a three-game series win in the Finals over Phoenix. They are the only team in WNBA history to lead the league in scoring while also allowing the fewest points to their opponents. Their 12.6 point differential ranks second in league history, only trailing themselves from 2000, which had a 12.7 point differential.

YearChampionPPGOPP PPGDifferential
1998Houston76.2 (1)63.6 (1)12.6

I look at some of the early Houston teams because they were so hard to guard because of the weapons they had, said Lobo. You know people talk about the Big Three with Cooper, Swoopes and Tina Thompson, well Janeth Arcain was really, really good on that team. But I dont think they had five starters in double figures (like this Mercury team) because their point guards were never asked to score a lot, their centers were never asked to score a lot.

The Sparks began their ascension in 1999 as they made the playoffs for the first time and forced the Comets to a decisive Game 3 in the Conference Finals. They took another step the following year, finishing a game ahead of the Comets for the best regular season record in the league (28-4, .875 win percentage, second-best ever). But when the two teams met in the Western Conference Finals, the Comets swept the Sparks, moved on to the Finals and won their fourth straight title with a sweep of the Liberty.

The retirement of Cooper and the loss of Swoopes to a torn ACL prior to the 2001 season closed the door on the Comets dynasty. And Lisa Leslie and the L.A. Sparks were quick to take their spot at the leagues premier team.

Behind the core of Leslie, Mwadi Mabika, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Tamecka Dixon, the Sparks were nearly unbeatable in 2001, once again posting a 28-4 record. Their incredible season included an 18-game winning streak  a WNBA record that this years Mercury squad threatened but fell two games short of tying  and the first MVP award for Leslie, who averaged 19.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.

YearChampionPPGOPP PPGDifferential
2001Los Angeles76.3 (1)67.7 (10)8.6

Those back-to-back L.A. championship teams, they were very good but I dont think they were the caliber of this Phoenix team, said Lobo. When you look at the weapons that they have at every position and a player that we have never seen before  theres been nobody like Brittney Griner  and the defense that they play.

The Sparks swept the Comets in the first round and outlasted Sacramento in the Western Conference Finals in three games to advance to their first WNBA Finals, where they swept an overmatched Charlotte Sting squad.

For the next team on my personal Mount Rushmore we have to fast forward a dozen years, but I definitely should give honorable mention to some great teams during that stretch:

  • The 2003 Detroit Shock went from worst-to-first and also had incredible squads in 2006 and 2008 to collect three chips with Bill Laimbeer at the helm and Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith leading the way.
  • The 2009 Phoenix Mercury were an offensive juggernaut that proved you can win with offense as they averaged nearly 93 points per game. In the Finals, they met Tamika Catchings and the Indiana Fever in what, I contend, is the great WNBA Finals series ever. Go back and watch Game 1 of that series if you can. In 09, we were really good, said Taurasi when comparing the Mercurys championship teams. In 09, offensively, I dont think there are many teams that could have put up as many points as that team.
  • The 2010 Seattle Storm swept the Atlanta Dream by a combined total of eight points to earn their second title. Led by the trio of Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird and Swin Cash, the Storm racked up 28 regular season wins, including 13 when trailing after three quarters. This was a team that would not be denied.
  • For the third team on my personal Mount Rushmore, I look all the way back to  2013 and the Minnesota Lynx, who won their second WNBA title in three years behind the core of Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson.

    Look at the 2013 Lynx and the 2014 Mercury side-by-side and youll see some similarities in how they dominated the competition.

    YearChampionPPGOPP PPGDifferential
    2014Phoenix83.5 (1)74.1 (2)9.4 (1)
    2013Minnesota82.9 (1)73.5 (3)9.4 (1)

    Each had the top offensive team in the league based on points per game and both were top three in defense. Both teams led the regular season in point differential per game and did so with balanced scoring.

    This years Mercury squad saw all five of their starters average in double figures -- Taurasi (16.2), Griner (15.6), Dupree (14.5), Taylor (10.5) and Bonner (10.4). The year prior, the Lynx came close to that same accomplishment with four starters in double figures and their lead reserve at nine points per game -- Moore (18.5), Augustus (16.3), Whalen (14.9), Brunson (10.6) and Wright (9.0).

    The Lynx swept through the playoffs with a 7-0 record and won their games by a playoff-record 16.9 points per game. The Mercury made a run at that mark, finishing the playoffs with a 7-1 record and a point-per-game differential of 13.8 points.

    Part of what makes this Mercury team so impressive is that they dethroned such an impressive team like the Lynx. The Mercury won the season series 3-1 and knocked them out in the Western Conference Finals, 2-1.

    They have the greatest points-per-game differential in the playoffs ever and look who they have played  a pretty darn good LA team, a great Minnesota team and now against Chicago, so its been impressive, said Lobo.

    Phoenixs victory margin in the Finals took a hit when they had to face the Sky in Game 3 without the services of Griner, who suffered an eye injury in Game 2 that required surgery. The Mercury relied heavily on their starting five all season and playoffs long. The injury to Griner at such an important time brought with it some questions.

    They havent gotten a lot from their bench this season because they havent needed to, Lobo said prior to Game 3. And thats kind of the way it goes. Teams will really strong starting fives, they play the majority of the minutes. Could it be a weakness if someone gets injured? Well find out tonight.

    Even losing Griner for the most important game of the season was not enough to derail the Mercury. With the second-year center on the bench, Ewelina Kobryn got the start and chipped in eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks, but was unable to provide the same defensive presence in the paint as the Defensive Player of the Year.

    It helps when you have Candice Dupree having an incredible night -- 24 points on 11-of-16 shooting -- and Diana Taurasi coming through in the fourth quarter with 14 of her 24 points coming in the final period of the season, including the fadeaway jumper (and the foul) to give the Mercury a three-point lead with 14.3 seconds to play.

    The woman that wears No. 3 now has her third WNBA title, to go along with her three NCAA titles and three Olympic gold medals.

    This is up there as one of the best (teams Ive played on), said Taurasi. I mean theres obviously been some national teams that Ive played on that had no weaknesses and 1 through 12, we probably had, at the time, the 12 best players in the world.

    This team has found a way to play at the highest level though and obviously knowing each other for a long time, having Sandy kind of mentor us into that shape, thats really helped us.

    I think this is the most balanced team, where we take care of business on both ends, so that probably makes us the toughest team.

    That mixture of offense and defense is what makes this Mercury team so special. This is Phoenixs third WNBA title. Their first two were won with a high-powered offense and pedestrian defense. Both years they led the league in scoring, but ranked last in points allowed. While we can chalk up some of that to their pace of play, the philosophy of that team was essentially, we dont care if you score because we know well score more than you before the buzzer sounds.

    YearChampionPPGOPP PPGDifferential
    2009Phoenix92.8 (1)89.2 (13)3.7
    2007Phoenix89.0 (1)85.4 (13)3.6

    "I don't know if there's a team that defensively and offensively can just hurt you, said Taurasi, after being named Finals MVP for the second time. Our past Phoenix teams were all-out offense. We were going to outscore you. Those Detroit teams -- all-out defense. I don't know if there's been a mix of this type of versatility in this league ever.

    So let the debate begin. Where does this Mercury team rank among the 18 champions in the history of the WNBA? Do they make your Mount Rushmore?

    "Maybe I'm a little biased but I think it is the best team in the history of the WNBA, said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello after Fridays Game 3 win. If you look at the depth, Houston had a Big Three, but we have a Big Five. And everyone accepted their role and did it to the best of their ability. They bought into playing defense and that's what makes it special. We have a solid bench too but I don't know anyone or any team... that's just my opinion, that's not against anyone of the past but I just think this is the best team that I've ever seen play.