October 22, 2021 

Assessing the Phoenix Mercury offseason ahead

GM Jim Pitman discusses vital questions ahead

PHOENIX — It’s no secret that the Phoenix Mercury have held a “championship-or-bust” mentality for several years now and have built their roster with that mindset.

And, for Mercury general manager Jim Pitman, making it back to the WNBA Finals for the first time since 2014, even if Phoenix lost the series 3-1 to the Chicago Sky, has only given him more reason to approach the 2021-22 offseason in that way.

“We’re in a win-now mode because we were literally a few minutes away and a few plays away from being a champion, in my mind,” Pitman said. “We’re not going to take any steps back. We’re going to do whatever we can to improve to make sure that we have the opportunity to be back in this situation next year — hopefully, with a different outcome.”

Pitman, who also works for the organization’s MNBA Suns team and assists with “salary cap and player contract management” for them, feels like the Finals loss both teams experienced in 2021 leaves their rosters in a similar place, too.

“To me, we’re in a similar position to where the Suns were,” Pitman said. “Where we’d like to keep a lot of our core together and try to improve around the edges where we can.”

Of course, the first major inflection point is Diana Taurasi. The 39-year-old didn’t outright declare one way or the other if she would be back next season on Monday, but has said multiple times she plans to come back next season, including to The Next right before the Finals began. Pitman seems to be planning for a world where Taurasi is still suiting up.

“I expect Diana Taurasi playing until she tells me she isn’t,” Pitman said.

How does this roster shape around Taurasi and her two fellow Olympic gold medalists from this year, All-WNBA First Teamers Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith? Let’s look into it.

The heart of their roster

Looking at 2022, the Mercury’s roster will surely have to make some changes, but it’s tough to envision how some will happen. If you take a look at Phoenix’s salary sheet thanks to our friends at Her Hoop Stats, Diggins-Smith, Griner and Taurasi are all signed to super-maximum deals and Bria Hartley’s contracted is a protected as a guaranteed veteran at $196,100.

In total, those four players mean Phoenix already has $879,994 of its $1,379,200 cap space guaranteed for 2022. It’s the most amount of guaranteed dollars to the salary cap of any team in the WNBA. And while that seems like a lot, it’s exactly what the Mercury say they intended to do.

“Our philosophy has been [to] pay our best players what they deserve and then we’ll work out everything else,” Pitman said. “So, we’ve done that, and I think that’s the right thing to do — we should always pay our best players the money that they deserve.”

Hartley, in particular, figures to be a major factor in how the Mercury will look in 2022. Phoenix signed Hartley to a three-year contract making the maximum amount ahead of the 2020 season, which looked like an overpay to a lot of people. But as Pitman pointed out, Hartley looked like the perfect combination of speed and playmaking during her time in the bubble last year.

“For the first three weeks in the bubble last year, she may have been our best player,” Pitman said. “It’d be nice to get that spark again back on this team.”

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Of course, the reason they were missing Hartley was because of a torn ACL on Aug. 28, 2020. After initial hopes were that Hartley could rehabilitate the knee and return around “June or July,” as Pitman said on Monday, Hartley didn’t get back on the court until September and was still clearly not back to 100%. She played a decent bit in the playoffs, though, and left those around the Mercury wishing there was a little more time left on the calendar to see how she could progress.

“Bria adds so much — just her ability to be able to score and defend, a hard-nosed player. Those are the things we need, and we know we can get those out of Bria,” Griner said. “I wish the season was a little bit longer. I just feel like she was right there on flipping that switch. And I hate with all the restrictions she had, [but] you’ve got to play it safe. But I can’t wait to see her next year at full strength.”

Pitman heard Griner say this and echoed it, adding, “I wish we would’ve had another three or four weeks of her, because we were just starting to see her play the Bria Hartley way. If we had had three or four more weeks, it may have been a different story.”

Between the four of them and Brianna Turner, who Phoenix picked up the fourth-year option on from her rookie contract and will make $72,141, that’s the core of the Mercury roster for next season. It’s a core that Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello really likes — and thinks could end up looking really good next year.

“I think you saw the chemistry we got as the season went along, once Diana got healthy. They had to get used to playing with each other,” Brondello said. “It takes time, you know? These are superstars. But it’s not just them learning to play with each other, it’s the role players learning to play with each other and how they fit, and I think we found a nice little flow there.”

“We’ve got some really good pieces in place, and we’ve got to make sure we can build around it.”

And while those five players that make up their core don’t leave The Mercury with a lot of cap space to work with (and two players are still under contract that we’ll discuss in a moment), when asked directly if the lack of cap space limits what Phoenix can do, Pitman’s answer left plenty of room for intrigue.

“We don’t have cap space per say right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make moves to create cap space,” Pitman said. “We will be as active as we can be to improve our team.”

What are the key decisions to make?

Beyond the core five, Phoenix has Kia Vaughn ($110,000) and Megan Walker ($70,127) under contract for next season, but neither of their deals are guaranteed. Vaughn played a vital role as Phoenix’s third post player for 2021 after filling in so adequately when Griner stepped away from the bubble in 2020.

Vaughn is not planning on playing basketball at all in this WNBA offseason, having retired from going overseas after winning the Turkish league with Fenerbahce in May. While the new Athletes Unlimited league could be a fit for Vaughn in January and February, she’s ready to enjoy the winter holidays and some birthdays in her family at home — but has discussed with Taurasi how to keep ready for basketball while doing that, too.

“I do want to focus on like physically getting myself together and mentally emotionally being there for family and trying to enjoy the time without stressing of, ‘Do I have too much time and what am I going to do and I drive myself crazy because there’s too much time?’” Vaughn said. “I’ve been doing this for 13 years professionally, going back and forth overseas. I’m not sure how my wheels will turn, but hopefully they’re in a good way.”

But she has one year remaining on her contract at $110,000, and that’s a dollar amount on her contract is high for a team with such little cap flexibility. And the veteran had a really poor shooting effort throughout the playoffs, only making 30% of shots from the field. She provides a strong locker room presence and is a very capable third post player, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the salary cap forces tough decisions about the roster spot.

Walker’s spot, too, looks a bit uncertain, especially considering that she’s due to make almost $10,000 more than a league minimum contract for a player with 0-2 years of WNBA time ($60,471). Walker was given a long look in the starting lineup during Taurasi’s first injury absence and had her moments, but the second-year player fell out of favor coming back from the Olympic break and wasn’t in the rotation at all during the playoffs.

But Pitman indicated that the Mercury still have a strong belief in Walker, who would fill an important role as an athletic, defensively-strong wing player if she could develop. As she heads to play for Tenerife on the Canary Islands in Spain, Pitman will be watching closely.

“She was basically a rookie this year, and I think that she has great growth potential,” Pitman said. “[We] challenged her in the offseason to continue to get better. I know she’s going to play over in Europe, in Spain, and I think she’ll have an opportunity to be one of the leaders of a team over there and I think that’ll be great for her growth. I’m hopeful that she continues to develop and will be able to provide us a big punch next year.”

Heading to the players not under contract for next season, the player Walker was acquired with from New York for first round picks in 2021 and 2022, Kia Nurse, becomes the biggest question mark of the Phoenix offseason.

She had an up-and-down season but really was playing her best basketball during the playoffs, giving Phoenix an active and communicative defender and being ready to shoot from deep when defenses collapsed on any of Phoenix’s big three. But in Game 4 of the WNBA semifinals, she tore her ACL 39 seconds into the game. Her presence was sorely missed in the Finals against the Sky, where the Mercury felt she would have been their best option against eventual Finals MVP Kahleah Copper.

Nurse is a restricted free agent, meaning Phoenix can offer her a restricted qualifying offer for one year at 105% of her 2021 salary. Prior to the injury, Phoenix surely would’ve offered her that and she would’ve declined, allowing her to talk to other teams, where she surely would’ve had some suitors and could have commanded a decent contract. Then, if a team gave her an offer sheet (that has to be longer than one year), Phoenix could either match it and retain her or let her go to the team on that contract.

Now, with the injury happening so late and the 2022 season wrapping up earlier because of the FIBA World Cup, will that process change at all? Any team who would be interested in Nurse will surely have to sign her to a multi-year deal, with the knowledge that they’d effectively pay her to rehabilitate her knee in 2022, taking up both cap space and a roster spot.

Nurse, by the way, will have her surgery next week, but is reportedly doing really well in “pre-hab” and was seen riding an exercise bike at a few points during the Finals. Coming from the athletic background, with both parents, both siblings, a cousin and her uncle as collegiate or professional athletes in various sports, Nurse was very confident she could return even during the middle of the WNBA season next year, let alone before the FIBA World Cup for Canada.

“I’m not in pain, it’s just, if I went to go jump, something bad would probably happen,” Nurse said. “it’s good to feel that, feel strength and feel strong enough, and just ready to get it [the surgery] over with.”

Brondello said on Monday that Nurse will “be back” and it would seem like Phoenix wouldn’t have made the big trade for her and Walker with the intention of letting Nurse go in free agency after one season. But the question of how many years and how much money will be important and tough questions for both the Mercury and for Nurse, and one Pitman left a little more open-ended when asked directly about Nurse on Monday.

“We’re still figuring out all of those details at this point, and I’m not sure the prognosis will be of her return,” Pitman said. “But we really like Kia Nurse, and I like having her on our team.”

Beyond that, Phoenix has Shey Peddy as a reserved free agent, but will undoubtedly keep her around — and for relatively cheap, too, which is vital. The Mercury had fourth-year options on three players entering this season, and while they picked up Turner’s option, they declined it on Alanna Smith and Sophie Cunningham. And while Smith did not play much throughout the season and will almost certainly not return, Cunningham is the second-biggest question.

The small forward from Missouri really had a solid season for Phoenix coming off the bench, even though her role fluctuated throughout the season. Cunningham shot 43.7% from the field and 41% from 3-point range on the season — career-highs by far for both — and gave the Mercury a spark and tenacity defensively that the team was desperate for at times during the season. While she’s not the most athletic player around nor a great on-ball defender, Cunningham isn’t afraid to get physical, make hustle plays and piss off the opponent.

In the playoffs, she was the key reason Phoenix survived its first round game, with an all-time heat check game: 21 points on 6-of-7 shooting from 3-point range. In the hallway to the locker room after that game, Cunningham told Mercury president Vince Kozar, “Y’all better bring me back!” and still feels passionately about being in Phoenix, a place she said she’s likely becoming a permanent resident of.

“We can’t have those conversations until January, but I do know that I love it here,” Cunningham said. “So, it’d be a blessing to come back. You guys can’t get rid of me yet.”

And while Cunningham said that the Mercury’s decision to not pick up her option “might have been a blessing in disguise” for her, it could convince a suitor to pay her a bit more than Phoenix could afford, leaving Pitman noncommital about Cunningham’s chances at returning.

“We loved having Sophie on our team, and we’ll see where the future brings us,” Pitman said. “But we loved having Sophie on our team.”

What Phoenix needs to cross the finish line

The biggest gap in the Phoenix roster put on full display during the Finals was the lack of athleticism the Mercury have on the wings. Even if she wasn’t hurt, Taurasi will turn 40 during the next season, and neither Nurse nor Cunningham have the fleetest of feet. Kahleah Copper won Finals MVP because of how much she torched the Mercury’s wing depth, and though Brondello feels Nurse would’ve done a better job against her, it still was a mismatch in the Sky’s favor even with a healthy Nurse.

And while it’s been no secret that the athletic wing is a spot on the roster that Phoenix is lacking for a few years now and is something they want to find, even with a Finals run seemingly without one.

“The league is moving in an athletic direction. We want to continue to become more athletic,” Pitman said. “We obviously were very close this year to winning, and I think, had we had a full squad, our chances would’ve been pretty good. Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen. But having said that, we’re always looking to improve. We have a core that will be back, but how can we improve in those other positions. An athletic wing would be something we could certainly use.”

It won’t be easy to find an athletic wing for the minimum, but given that they able to do find a significant contributor to their rotation from overseas on the minimum in Peddy, there’s hope they could do it again. And while they don’t have a first round pick because of the Nurse/Walker trade, they have a second and two third round picks (their own and Atlanta’s early in the third round). Pitman has never been shy to use his picks — either for players or for movement.

“We still have a couple of draft picks — no first rounder, but some seconds and early thirds, and it’s a deep draft,” Pitman said. “You never know what might be available there or in the trade market.”

The cap crunch being what it is also left Phoenix at 11 players for the entire season, and Hartley spent most of the year in rehab from her torn ACL from last year. If they bring Nurse back, as they intend to, would it be beneficial to figure out a way to get up to a full roster of 12, given that one will be rehabbing the whole time?

Pitman said that doing that is “a challenge” because of the way they pay maximum and supermaximum salaries to their stars, indicating they may not see the need to get back to 12. But could that also be a signal about how likely a Nurse return could be? And, right after going through an ACL rehabilitation that took longer than they expected with Hartley, are they willing to do that again with Nurse?

It’s just one of many questions that are surely floating around the brains of Pitman, Brondello and the entire Mercury basketball operations side. And, given the chaotic run from the first round to the Finals, there’s an appreciation for the bit of a breather before moves can start to happen again in January. A chance to focus inward, look outward and get next season rolling.

“The season, while it’s over, next season is just starting,” Pitman said. “We’ll take a few weeks to take a look at what we can do for next season.”

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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