Lost in Western Conference Finals
Key Offseason Moves:
Diana Taurasi set to return from playing abroad
Signed Penny Taylor after she missed the 2015 WNBA season
Signed Sonja Petrovic and last year’s first-round pick Isabelle Harrison, who missed all of the 2015 season with an ACL tear
R1, P8: Courtney Williams, G, South Florida
R2, P8: Jillian Alleyne , F, Oregon
R3, P8: Nirra Fields, G, UCLA
After a year hiatus, Diana Taurasi is back in Phoenix for the 2016 WNBA season and eager to lead the Mercury on a quest for championship No. 4. The last time Taurasi played in a WNBA game, it was Game 3 of the 2014 Finals as she led the Mercury to their third championship, to go along with titles in 2007 and 2009.
There are three teams in WNBA history that have won three championships – the defending champion Minnesota Lynx, the Detroit Shock (now the Dallas Wings) and the Mercury. Grabbing a fourth title would put them in the ultimate company alongisde the Houston Comets, who established the first WNBA dynasty by winning the league’s first four titles.
— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) May 6, 2016
The return of Taurasi as well as Penny Taylor — also a member of the Mercury’s three championship teams — immediately puts the Mercury into championship contention. Don’t forget, this team made the Western Conference Finals last year without them.
“We grew a lot as a team last year and adding two of the top players in the world, in my opinion, that just makes it obviously much easier,” said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello. “Diana, she can do it all, and I think she’s playing the best that she’s ever played over in Europe. Adding them back into the fold as our leaders is important.”
While being without Taurasi and Taylor is something no coach would welcome, there was a bit of a silver lining to their absence in that it forced the remaining players on the team to elevate their games. Three-time Sixth Woman of the Year DeWanna Bonner went out and made All-WNBA First Team last season, while Brittney Griner won her second straight Defensive Player of the Year award.
“We weren’t happy with the way the season ended, but we were happy with the progress that we made,” said Brondello. “And as individual players, DeWanna Bonner, I’m just very proud of her — she shined. Obviously, she’s capable and one of the best players around, but last year she really did at both ends of the floor, she played fantastic and she continues to do that so now its more about putting the pieces together and making sure we’re on the same page.”
The returns of Taurasi, who ranks third all-time in scoring average at 20.1 points per game, and Taylor should boost the Mercury offense, which ranked sixth in the league in offensive efficiency a year ago (100.7 points per 100 possessions).
Phoenix’s Top Plays of 2015
Meanwhile, they bring back a defense that ranked third in the league a year ago (96.9 points per 100 possessions) and is anchored by Griner, the standard bearer for blocking shots and protecting the rim in the WNBA.
“We’re about defense first and making our defense create our offense,” Brondello said. “We have some great offensive players and we still want to run, but in the end its all about ball and player movement, moving the ball and getting a great shot every possession. That’s just my philosophy.”
And perhaps the scariest thing about Griner is that she is still getting better. While her physical gifts and natural talent have already made her one of the best defensive bigs the women’s game has ever seen, Brondello sees Griner’s knowledge of the game continuing to grow.
“She’s really still learning the game. There’s so much more going on and it’s so much faster in the pro league,” Brondello said of Griner. “But you see the impact she has — she’s Defensive Player of the Year and she obviously deserves that. But I still think she can get better, just limiting some of the breakdowns she does on some of the coverages. That’s how special she is.
“And maybe that’s unfair to put such high expectations on her but I think she is capable of doing it because we all believe she can be one of the greatest of all-time.”
Brondello has had a front row seat for Griner’s development all year long as she is not only her head coach in the WNBA, but an assistant coach with Griner and Taurasi’s European team, UMMC Ekatinburg.
“I think she’s learned a lot playing over in Europe and the more she plays, the better she gets so hopefully she just keeps moving forward,” said Brondello. “But Defensive Player of the Year is what she is and that’s where she really helps us because we’re not the fastest with our starting group, but when you’ve got a big anchor behind there it allows us to put a bit more pressure on the ball.”
The Mercury coach has an interesting task ahead of her this season when it comes to balancing the talent she has on the roster. Of course, that is a problem any coach would love to have, but it will be interesting to watch Bonner adjust to the return of Taurasi and Taylor after she had become a focal point on the team a year ago.
Then there is incorporating rookie guard Courtney Williams into the rotation off the bench, last year’s first-round pick Isabelle Harrison and veterans like Candice Dupree. It may take a little time for everyone to establish their new roles and find the right lineups and combinations to feature on the court together.
“It might give me some gray hairs,” Brondello said with a laugh. “But I’d rather have this year than last year — put it that way.”
The Mercury should get the rest of their squad in Phoenix this week as overseas commitments come to a close. They will only have a few days together before the season tips off on May 14 in Minnesota against the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season.
Phoenix has its home opener on Friday, May 20 against the Seattle Storm. Expect a raucous crowd at Talking Stick Resort Arena when No. 3 is introduced with the starting lineups.
Will the return of No. 3 lead to the title No. 4?