August 12, 2021 

Breaking down the Mercury’s season so far

And how do they get from here to a title?

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It’s tough to really get a grip on what to think of the Phoenix Mercury’s 2021 season up to this point, sitting at 9-10 ahead of the restart of practice and the conclusion of the Olympic break.

A number of players, including stars Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, entered the season going eight months without playing in a game. But others — notably, Brittney Griner and Brianna Turner — had to race over to the U.S. after finishing their seasons in Europe, getting only a few days to prepare — and, in Kia Vaughn’s case, missing the first four games of the WNBA season.

Then there were the injuries to Taurasi: she missed a month with a fracture in her sternum, then missed another three games ahead of the Olympic break battling a hip injury. All of that over the two-month opening stretch of the season left the Mercury feeling like they never were fully put together.

“We’ve struggled with a lot of injury issues here in the first half, and our chemistry wasn’t great to start,” said general manager Jim Pitman in an interview with The Next during the Olympic break. “We’ve never gotten our group really in sync for the whole season. We’re looking forward to hopefully coming out of the break having a full, or almost full, roster and seeing what we’ve got.”

But there are still plenty of takeaways from how they’ve played on the court and what things need to happen for a postseason run to be in their cards. Let’s dive in, both using traditional stats and using some advanced stats courtesy of Synergy Sports, focusing heavily on the point-per-possession (PPP) metric, which looks at how many points a team is

Offense: Great in half-court, even when running & shooting poorly

It doesn’t matter where you look at the stats from the first half of the season for the Mercury. Everywhere that does them will come to the same conclusion: Phoenix did not shoot the ball well whatsoever.

It took a great shooting performance from Kia Nurse in the final game before the Olympic break to push the Mercury above the 30% line from 3-point range for the season, but they’re still ranked 11th in the WNBA at 31.1% from deep. Synergy points out that the Mercury are scoring 0.904 PPP on their 3-point attempts for the season (320 points on 354 possessions), the second-worst mark in the league.

Synergy even points out that even when they are shooting *unguarded* catch-and-shoot jumpers, they’re only scoring 0.921 PPP (163 points on 177 possessions). Overall, the Mercury are 10th in the league at 0.859 PPP on their jump-shots (440 points on 512 possessions), which account for about half of their shots from the field.

But if you’re looking for an area that Phoenix can improve beyond, “just make your shots,” there’s one that stands out: transition offense. Now granted, they’ve only had about a tenth of their possessions get marked as transition by Synergy, but they’ve only converted that at a 0.904 PPP rate, second-worst in the league.

It’s incredible to think about how, in spite of that, their offense overall is ranked in the top-half of the league, a 0.907 PPP (1,417 points on 1,563 possessions). That’s buoyed by their dominance in the post (1.11 PPP on 136 possessions) and around the basket (1.137 PPP on 321 possessions). Both of those, of course, can be mostly chalked up to Griner, but Turner has also been performing well at cutting to the basket too.

Diggins-Smith is also having a strong season and can be considered a key part as to why the Mercury are second in the W in free throw attempts (21.4 points per game) and free throws made (17.0). The combination of frequent free-throw line trips, a slightly-above-league-average turnover rate and the second-slowest pace in the league all lead to the Mercury taking the fewest shots per game (65.6) of any team in the W.

Overall, Phoenix is doing a great job in the half-court and have somehow turned out a middle-of-the-league offense in most holistic categorizations (they’re seventh in Offensive Rating at 101.0). But consider how good they could be if they could get some more shots to fall, or cleaned up just an extra turnover or two per game and turned those possessions into shots or trips to the line.

Defense: Communication must improve, but the foundation is visible

On the other end of the ball, the Mercury actually have the exact same PPP defensively as they do offensively, at 0.907. But while that’s 5th-best ranking in offense, it’s fifth-worst, or 8th, in defense.

First, looking at the positives from team defense shows that the Mercury are really solid in one-on-one defending situations. They’re the best in the league at defending in isolation, holding opponents to just 54 points on 81 possessions (0.667 PPP). They also are second in the W in post-up defense with 0.78 PPP (85 points allowed on 109 possessions) and fourth in spot-up defense at 0.885 (246 points on 278 possessions).

But throw Phoenix in a situation where they have to communicate and they’ve been massively vulnerable all season long. They’re second-worst in the WNBA when facing a pick-and-roll and the ball-handler takes a shot, allowing 0.853 PPP (314 points on 368 possessions) and they’ve faced that situation almost a quarter of their defensive possessions, too. They’re also allowing more than a point per possession on the following types of shots on the defensive end:

Cuts: 1.151 PPP (137 points on 119 possessions), 9th in the W

Off-screen: 1.01 PPP (101 points on 100 possessions), 8th in W

Offensive rebound put-backs: 1.122 PPP (92 points on 82 possessions), 8th in W

Dribble hand-offs: 1.072 PPP (74 points on 69 possessions), 11th in W

The Mercury have been the worst team in the league at allowing offensive rebounds (9.7 per game) and second-chance points (13.9 per game) and are also the worst in the league at forcing turnovers (10.6 per game). These numbers mask the good they do on the defensive end, like holding opponents to just 42% from the field (3rd-best in the W) and being tied for the fewest free throw attempts allowed in the league.

Individually, the numbers from Synergy tell you some things that you would expect, like the fact that Griner is a sensational defender. Diggins-Smith has actually put together an incredible year defensively, facing the most possessions of anyone on the Mercury and is near the top in the league … while allowing just 0.712 PPP (158 points on 222 possessions).

She’s currently on pace to grab a career-high in defensive rebounds (2.9 per game) and has blocked almost a shot a game (0.8). At this point, she should be in the conversation for All-Defensive team.

But ask Diggins-Smith, and there’s a more critical player to their defensive success.

“I think it starts with Brianna Turner on defense — to me, she’s the Defensive Player of the Year this year,” Diggins-Smith said on July 9, after the Mercury beat the Storm. “Stewie’s an MVP caliber player and we know what she’s done to everybody, but the effort Breezy put in tonight, she definitely has to get more credit for DPOY and be a frontrunner for that, so I’m going to put my bid in.

“I know I’m biased, but I think the effort she put in tonight, it’s hard to disagree with me at this point. She set the tone for us, we talked at the beginning of the game and I knew that I needed to step up my defense, especially against this team. If you let them get in a rhythm, they’ll score in bunches, so we had to be disruptive.”

Turner’s Synergy numbers are lower than you’d think, coming in at 0.824 PPP on 125 possessions, but Turner often gets marked as the primary defender in switching over as a help defender away from the pick-and-roll. She’s blocking 1.5 shots per game and grabbing 8.6 rebounds per game, both in the Top 10 in the league.

Megan Walker has also been solid in spots for them, especially guarding players individually in spot-up, but she’s been exposed often in the pick-and-roll as the primary defender, ranking in the bottom 10% of all WNBA players. And Kia Nurse has been really struggling on the defensive end, allowing more than a point per possession across nearly 200 possessions this season.

Will their strong finish buoy them into an easier schedule?

Of course, things looked absolutely dire after the Mercury were blown out by the Minnesota Lynx on July 3, a 31-point blowout that had many questioning everything about the team.

A brutal schedule was left, with a game in Las Vegas against the Aces followed by a home-and-home with the defending champion Storm. But a party for July 4 at coach Sandy Brondello’s house seemed to save the season, leading the Mercury to two wins and a close loss in Seattle, even when only dressing seven players. The charge in that last week has left those around the team hopeful ahead of their return to play.

“I think that we showed in the week up to the break — when we beat the two teams with the best records in the league and did it without Diana playing — I think we have a chance to still be pretty good,” Pitman said. “We haven’t shot the ball particularly well, that’s been disappointing because I think we have better shooters. Kia Nurse obviously had a breakout game in the last game before the break, that was great to see, and hopefully we can continue to have progress in our shooting from everyone over the course of the second half of the season.”

Brondello even joked that, once she and the five players on the Mercury who competed in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo returned, she’d be happy to host another party: “As soon as I’m back from the Olympics, we’ll be right there.”

Phoenix isn’t picking up practices again as a team until Thursday, Aug. 12, just three days ahead of their first game back against the Atlanta Dream. But the team has held practices for their six non-Olympians, and Bria Hartley has featured in those practices more and more after participating in her first shootaround in the final weekend pre-Olympic break. Her return would be a welcome boost to this team, but it may not happen right away.

“Her progress has been pretty good, but that’s one that we’re not rushing,” Pitman said. “When she’s ready and able, we’ll keep progressing her, but her progress has been really good over the last six weeks.”

The opener against the Dream will kick off a stretch of 11 straight games against Eastern Conference teams, including all three of their games for the season against 11th-place Atlanta and against the last-place Indiana Fever (facing both teams once in Phoenix and twice on the road). They’ll face the Washington Mystics once, likely before Elena Delle Donne is back in the lineup, play back-to-back games at Barclays Center against the Liberty and get one more game at home against a very different Chicago Sky team than the one they beat twice in early June.

Of course, the finish to their season is with three games against the league’s best: home against Connecticut, at Seattle and home versus Las Vegas. So, in these next 10 games before the finish, we’ll get to truly find out if the Mercury are going to be able to surge into contention for a championship before they have three chances to prove it against top competition.

But make no mistake: as long as #3 is suiting up in Phoenix, going for a championship is the singular focus for the Mercury.

“We’re here to win a championship and we’re going to do whatever we can to win it, whether it’s this year or next year,” Pitman said. “We want to make sure that Diana plays as long as she can and wants and has every opportunity to win a championship or championships in that time.”

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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