The 2017 WNBA season will be a “remodeling” one for the Phoenix Mercury as they attempt to construct a team around emerging star Brittney Griner.
Record last season: 16-18
Finished fourth in the Western Conference, lost in the WNBA Semifinals
Projected Starters/Potential Subs:
Danielle Robinson/Leilani Mitchell/Yvonne Turner
Diana Taurasi/Stephanie Talbot
Camille Little/Shay Murphy
Cayla George/Emma Cannon/Katherine Plouffe
Brittney Griner/Jillian Alleyne
In 2016, the Phoenix Mercury were predicted by the WNBA General Manager survey to win it all. On paper, why wouldn’t they? 2014 Finals MVP Diana Taurasi was returning from sitting out the 2015 WNBA season along with the second longest tenured player on the Mercury, Penny Taylor, who was also returning from a much needed break. Brittney Griner just finished her first Euroleague season with “Dee,” her UMMC Ekaterinburg teammate and Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello. Dewanna Bonner was coming off an MVP-type season in 2015 with Phoenix and placing second, behind Taurasi and Griner, with her team in the Euroleague championship. And Candice Dupree continued her work as the “Silent Assassin” for Phoenix, by being named to the 2015 WNBA All-Star Game.
This was, in this writer’s opinion, the best starting five in franchise history. Another championship seemed inevitable.
So then what the heck happened?
The Mercury started the season 0-4. Throughout last summer as predictions and perhaps hopeful fans still believed Phoenix could have a great year, the Mercury never looked cohesive throughout most of their five month schedule. With a new WNBA president constructing a new playoff format, pressure was added to teams to perform in near perfect condition. Hopes drastically changed from believing the Mercury would win it all to hoping they could own one of eight playoff spots. Since Taurasi arrived in 2004, the Mercury have consistently underperformed during Olympic years. After winning their first franchise title in 2007, the Mercury missed the playoffs in 2008. 2012 plagued the Mercury with injuries, and again, no playoffs.
While 2016 looked promising, the Mercury managed to make the 2016 WNBA playoffs by filling out the last playoff spot and finishing eighth in the league, with a 16-18 regular season record. According to the new playoff rules, this meant the Mercury had to win by single elimination. Two games on the road against the Indiana Fever and the New York Liberty. As if this wasn’t tough enough, Australian native Taylor announced her retirement pending the end of the season.
The Mercury went on to end the careers of both Tamika Catchings and Swin Cash before being swept by the monster dominant team of 2016, the Minnesota Lynx, in a best of five series. Needless to say, 2016 was anything but predictable for the Mercury.
Flash forward to 2017 and you will see a completely different Mercury team. Some would say they are even unrecognizable, given the fact that only three players from last year’s roster are returning; Taurasi, Griner, and Alex Harden. Taylor has retired, but has moved from player to Director of Player Development and Performance. Candice Dupree was traded to the Fever, and Dewanna Bonner is sitting out this season due to pregnancy. The major additions for this team are pretty much everybody considering the Mercury gave new meaning to the phrase, “clearing the bench.” There are currently 17 players listed on the Mercury roster, which means five have to go before the season begins.
Two things were clearly in the mindset of the Mercury front office during the offseason; sign talent who can control the ball at point, and size in the paint. The Mercury have always prided themselves on being an explosive offensive team, but with the acquisition of Griner and head coach Brondello, they have drifted more to focusing on defense. This season the Mercury have made a push for size in the paint, with their forwards and centers extending 6-foot-2 or more in height.
With the losses of Taylor, Bonner, Dupree, Bass, and the question of Kelsey Bone, replacing size is a must in order for the Mercury to have a successful season. Phoenix is also in desperate need of a player who can both flow and collaborate with Griner. In Minnesota, they have Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson. In L.A., it’s Nneka Ogwumike and Candice Parker, and so on. While in Russia, Griner’s post partner in crime is 6-foot-4 Sancho Lyttle. The two play off one another beautifully. One works on posting up, usually Griner, and the other boxes out. Defensively, they both create a brick wall of altered shots for their opponents. With Phoenix’s three starters out or gone, they are stepping into a new phase in the franchise. One that will eventually have to fade it’s focus from the GOAT to their new rising star in Griner, in order to continue their success. Believe me, X-Factor, it pains me to type that.
Another key for a successful season in the Valley of the Sun will be a point guard with a high basketball IQ. Obviously, they have the most talented guard in the history of the game, and one who could truly be successful at any position. But Taurasi seems to flourish the most coming off the ball. Danielle Robinson, Leilani Mitchell, and Shay Murphy are your strongest candidates for the job. All three have five or more years experience in the league, with Mitchell and Murphy having eight seasons respectively. The Mercury need a point guard who can direct traffic, take control of their team, and run plays. They need someone who knows when and how to get the ball to Diana. They need a quarterback who can help direct their quarterback. The prediction is “D-Rob” will start at point and Mitchell will sub. Diana will start at the two. BG will be your center at the 5.
Intuition tells me the strongest candidate right now to go toe to toe with Griner would be Cayla George at the four. The reasoning behind this is not only because of her size or success in Euroleague but also because she’s familiar with the Mercury and has more experience in the league. Which leaves the second most experienced player on the roster, Camille Little. When the Seattle Storm were at their peak performance, there was no one who was more of a silent threat to Phoenix than Little. I’d put Camille at the 3. It should be noted that Diana recently suffered an injury while competing for the Euroleague championship. Not to worry, X-Factor, she was back in action this week, now playing for a Russian League championship. Taurasi was 5 for 9 from the field, with 19 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists. She also played a full 25 minutes.
2017 seems to be, not a rebuilding year, but more a remodeling season. And not just for Phoenix, but the entire WNBA seems to be shifting in its 21st season. Minnesota is advancing in age, but never count out what a dangerous team they are. L.A. is coming off their championship season, but lost guard Kristi Toliver to Washington. The Washington Mystics also made headlines by signing Elena Delle Donne. The San Antonio Stars gained the number one player in college by way of Kelsey Plum, and have completely revamped what could be their most exciting team in years. Indiana lost the hardest working woman in the WNBA in Tamika Catchings.
For Phoenix, the GM survey probably won’t pick them to win it all this season. If I could sell one word on this year, it would be defense. Rebounding, boxing out, and movement on the offense will be the three keys to success. The first quarter of this season will probably be spent trying to see what players fit the best positions, who works best on the court with each other, and testing that strength against different teams. By Mid-June, Phoenix should start to fire on all four cylinders. Remember, the playoff format is different, so they will need every win they can to compete for playoff position. By the way, I hate making predictions on sports because it goes against my sports superstitions. Its like jinxing the team. As a fan, I believe the Mercury can win it all. They have Diana. But reality? I will say Phoenix will have a 22-12 record and place fourth in the regular season. I believe they will improve over last season’s record, pushing harder for better playoff positioning. For now, I will state the Merc will still get to the Western Conference Finals. I won’t say whether or not I believe it’s where they finish, but I believe they will get there.
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The Phoenix Mercury have always been a somewhat underrated team, and performed better when people underestimate them. What Phoenix has been able to do in the offseason gives a lot of hope that it will be a successful season. Whether you measure that by trophies, by team chemistry or the fundamental improvements. They’ve also always been their own worst enemy. When they’re on, it’s the prettiest and purest basketball you will ever witness. They play with more heart than you can imagine. You can’t recover from the loss of a player like Penny Taylor. It’s a dagger to your team and to the heart of your fans. It would be impossible for me to predict what the season holds for it’s teams. But I know I can’t wait. Is it May 13 yet?