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2019 Season Preview: Phoenix Mercury

The 2019 WNBA season tips off on May 24. will be previewing every team in the league. See below for a breakdown of the Phoenix Mercury.

2018 Recap

20-14, 5th in league standings; Lost to Seattle in Semifinals (5 games)

Leaders: Points: Diana Taurasi (20.7, T-3rd WNBA), Rebounds: Brittney Griner (7.7, 8th WNBA), Assists: Taurasi (5.3, 4th WNBA), Steals: DeWanna Bonner (1.3), Blocks: Griner (2.6, led WNBA), 3-Point Pct: Briann January (47.0%, led WNBA)

Team Stats: Offensive Rating: 106.8 (4th), Defensive Rating: 103.6 (7th), Net Rating: 3.1 (4th), Rebound Percentage: 48.7 (9th), True Shooting Percentage: 57.6 (1st), Pace: 80.3 (6th)

Offseason Moves

Free Agency: Re-signed DeWanna Bonner, Briann January, Sancho Little and Yvonne Turner; Signed free agent Essence Carson

Draft: Selected Alanna Smith (No. 8), Sophie Cunningham (No. 13) and Arica Carter (No. 32); acquired Brianna Turner (No. 11) in a draft night trade with Atlanta for Marie Gulich.

Trades: Acquired a 2020 second-round draft pick from the Minnesota Lynx in exchange for Stephanie Talbot

Players To Watch

Brittney Griner

Griner is set to enter her seventh WNBA season as the anchor for the Phoenix Mercury. She has averaged at least 20.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in each of the past two seasons and should continue to be involved in MVP and Defensive Player of the Year talks all season long, assuming she stays healthy. Griner played in all 34 games last season, but has never played in 30+ games in consecutive seasons (27, 34, 26, 34, 26, 34). Can this be the season she can buck that trend?

DeWanna Bonner

Bonner is set to begin her 10th WNBA season and is coming off one of the best years of her career (and doing so less than a year removed from giving birth to twins). Bonner averaged 17.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists last season (Candace Parker was the only other player to average 17-7-3 on the year), leading to her second All-Star selection.

Her 17.3 scoring average was the second highest of her career, topped only by the 20.6 she averaged in 2012, when Diana Taurasi was limited to eight games and the season prior to Brittney Griner entering the WNBA. With Taurasi set to miss a good chunk of the 2019 season, Bonner can pick up some of the scoring the Mercury will be missing.

Briann January

January is ready to begin her second season in Phoenix. In her first season with the Mercury, January averaged 7.0 points (just 0.1 more from her career low as a rookie), 3.3 assists, 2.1 rebounds and 0.5 steals. She did lead the WNBA in 3-point percentage (47.0%) with her 100 3-point attempts marking her highest number in seven seasons. While she was great from deep, she struggled inside the arc as she made just 36.6% of her 2-point shots. January is a steady hand running the point (her 2.43 assist/turnover ratio ranked 9th among players that averaged at least 20 minutes), but she may need to bring her scoring closer to double digits while Taurasi is out.

Diana Taurasi

One of the all-time greats will begin the season on the bench as she recovers from offseason back surgery. She is four weeks into a 10-12 week recovery period, which puts her return near the end of June or early July. More on this down below.

Sancho Lyttle

How important was Sancho Lyttle to the Mercury last season? The team was 13-5 before she was lost for the season with a torn ACL and went 7-9 the remainder of the season. Lyttle led the team in net rating – as the Mercury outscored opponents by 9.0 points per 100 possessions with her on the court. Also, her loss forced coach Sandy Brondello to experiment with new lineups, including moving DeWanna Bonner to the four, to make up for her absence.

It’s been reported that Lyttle could play limited minutes in the Mercury season opener or maybe wait until the home opener on May 31 to make her season debut. The obvious question is how strong she will look once she gets back on the court. An ACL surgery and recovery is a challenge for any player, especially one set to enter her 15th WNBA season.

Essence Carson

The Mercury signed Carson in the opening week of free agency in a move that adds more 3-point shooting and bolsters Phoenix’s perimeter defense. Carson is an 11-year WNBA veteran with playoff and championship experience as she was a starter during the Sparks’ title run 2016. Adding Carson not only gives the Mercury a solid 3-and-D wing, it also weakens the Sparks, a potential rival for this year’s postseason.

Three Questions

How long will Diana Taurasi be sidelined following back surgery?

It has been nearly a month since the Mercury announced on April 25 that Taurasi would miss 10-12 weeks after undergoing a procedure on a disk protrusion in her back. It will have been exactly a month from that announcement the Mercury open the season against Seattle on Saturday. Taurasi appears to be recovering quite well, she’s been at Mercury practices and attended media day on Monday, but even if all goes according to plan she will still miss at least a third of the 2019 season.

It won’t just be her 20 points per game that the Mercury miss – they have enough scorers to pick up that slack. But Taurasi is an incredible playmaker and makes everyone else’s job that much easier while she’s on the court. She draws so much attention from opposing defense and has the court vision and passing ability to set up her teammates for open looks. The Mercury were 22.6 points per 100 possessions better with Taurasi on the court (8.6 net rating in 966 minutes) compared to when she was off the court (-14.0 net rating in 354 minutes). That not only led the Mercury by a wide margin (Bonner was second at 9.0), it ranked second among all WNBA players that played at least 500 minutes last season.

Team Leaders: On-Court/Off-Court Net Rating Differential, 2018 Season (min. 500 minutes played)
Atlanta: Tiffany Hayes (15.6)
Chicago: Stefanie Dolson (9.7)
Connecticut: Alyssa Thomas (13.9)
Dallas: Skylar Diggins-Smith (8.7)
Indiana: Erica Wheeler (10.5)
Las Vegas: A’ja Wilson (6.5)
Los Angeles: Odyssey Sims (10.9)
Minnesota: Maya Moore (15.0)
New York: Shavonte Zellous (6.2)
Phoenix: Diana Taurasi (22.6)
Seattle: Jewell Loyd (18.6)
Washington: Kristi Toliver (25.0)

Can the Mercury gain a top-two seed and avoid the opening two rounds of single-elimination games?

This question is related to our first question about how long Taurasi will be out and how the team will perform in her absence. Since the WNBA’s new playoff format was introduced in 2016, the Mercury have never finished in the top four in the standings to earn a first round bye (or a double bye for finishing top two). Instead, they have had to survive and advance in single-elimination games in the first two rounds. They have done so in all three years, going 6-0 in those win-or-go home games. While they have made the semifinals in each of the past three seasons, they have yet to get back to the Finals under the new format. They were swept by Minnesota in 2016, swept by Los Angeles in 2017 and eliminated in five games to the eventual champion Storm in 2018.

In all three seasons of the new playoff format, the champion entered the tournament as either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed – the result of finishing with the top two records in the regular season. The result of that finish means a much easier path to the Finals as they only have to win one five-game series in the semifinals. Can the Mercury finish in the top two this season – especially with Taurasi likely missing at least 10 games – to give them an easier road in the playoffs as they chase their fourth title?

Can the Mercury take the next step and get back to the Finals?

The Mercury have appeared in three WNBA Finals – 2007, 2009 and 2014 – and have won the championship each time, with Diana Taurasi as the centerpiece of all three championship squads. It has been five years since Phoenix’s last Finals appearance and 2019 looks to be a opportunistic window for them to make a run at a fourth title to join Houston and Minnesota at the top of the WNBA champions list.

WNBA Championships
4: Houston, Minnesota
3: Phoenix, Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas (then in Detroit)
1: Indiana, Sacramento