August 26, 2022
How the Phoenix Mercury overcame all odds
A season unlike any other presents some beauty in the chaos
It was for all the wrong reasons.
The loss of Brittney Griner early in February, as well as the multitude of injuries and behind-closed-doors incidents made for frequent discussions across the WNBA community. This was the tip of the iceberg for a Phoenix team that dealt with situation after situation.
Skylar Diggins-Smith left the team for personal reasons in the final six games (including playoffs) and Diana Taurasi sustained a right quad injury.
If you thought this was it, there’s more. During the team’s first round matchup against the Las Vegas Aces, guard Shey Peddy ruptured her right Achilles tendon. Forward Sophie Cunningham described her emotions during the exact moment Peddy went down.
“It was like the dagger in our season. It just breaks your heart,” Cunningham said.
Phoenix guard Yvonne Turner reflected on how Griner’s presence pushed the team to make the playoffs.
“We definitely miss BG out on the court and off the court as well. But her presence is enough for us to miss her. But it was definitely hard this year playing without her for sure; but, I mean, we made it to the playoffs and we gave it our all.”
Even with the calamity, Pitman spoke on how proud he is of this season.
“I’m most proud about is the fact that we’ve somehow managed to get into the playoffs given the fact that we had so much happen,” Pitman said.
How was the road to the playoffs?
With a rookie head coach and a roster that changed about every week, the cards were not in the Mercury’s favor. In their first ten games, they had a 2-8 record and lost seven straight. In this chaos, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi had a heated exchange on the bench after a May game against the Aces. This sent the media into a frenzy, wondering if the Mercury were on the verge of a collapse.
Phoenix picked up three straight wins off the backs of the two star guards. Both players put up 18+ points in those games against the Los Angeles Sparks, Atlanta Dream and the Washington Mystics. The system seemed to flow, players were getting their fair share and then…
On June 25, hours before Phoenix plays against the Dallas Wings, center Tina Charles parts ways on a “contract divorce” (fancy term for a buyout). Not only that, but the eight-time all-star signed with the rival Seattle Storm.
What did the Mercury gain from Charles’ absence?
Charles’ departure left a bad taste. Besides the abrupt exit, the first thing after her exit was a W in the win column. Half of the roster scored double figures, including Cunningham, who got her first start ever at the power forward position. The Mizzou alum posted 14 points and six rebounds on 5-for-9 shooting. After the game, a tweet went viral for her loudly proclaiming the phrase, “F— Tina Charles.”
There seemed to be no love lost between Cunningham and Charles. Both players got opportunities and certainly capitalized. The former 2012 MVP got to play with another former MVP in Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and future hall of famer, Sue Bird. For Phoenix, Nygaard used Cunningham in a new way.
The rookie coach put the 2019 second round draft pick at the four and did not look back. Cunningham responded by scoring in double figures in all but two games since switching positions. Also, Cunningham matched her own personal records. She was the only player this season to hit two or more threes in 17 consecutive games, according to the Phoenix Mercury. Furthermore, since being named a starter, she made 56 threes. That trailed only Kelsey Plum with 63.
Switching roles nearly every day
For the fourth-year pro, Cunningham was grateful for the opportunity and explained what she learned about herself taking on this new role.
“This year has been a confidence booster for me. I think there’s been a lot of areas that have shown me what I need to work on in my game. I need to become more of a one-on-one player; I need to learn how to handle the ball better; I need better ball handling skills,” Cunningham explained in her exit interview. “But I think it’s proven that you know, I belong here, that I really can make a dent in this league and in the three point scoring. I think I’ve stepped up in a lot of ways because our team has needed us to.”
Phoenix has been a team of adjusting and switching roles. According to Mercury general manager Jim Pitman, the franchise signed 31 total contracts. One of those contracts was Yvonne Turner. The former Nebraska Cornhusker was thrown into the mix, after Diggins-Smith made the announcement of stepping away from the team. Turner explained how even with everything going wrong for Phoenix, they made no excuses.
“Every team has their problems and setbacks and stuff like that. But you can’t really use that and make excuses. We’ve always been through the trenches and things like that. And we’ve always persevered,” Turner said.
Turner spent three seasons with the Mercury before making two stops to Atlanta and the Minnesota Lynx. Even with the uncertainty of playing with a team for a full season, Turner carved out her role. Nonetheless, she described how tough that process can be.
“It’s just give and take. And every team is different, every year is different. So your role can change, you know, drastically or your role can stay the same. But at the end of the day, it’s about you know, that organization, and what they’re looking for is definitely hard,” Turner said.
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It’s tough in a league of only 12 teams and 144 roster spots for players to leave their mark. Kaela Davis left hers, for all the right reasons. When she came to Phoenix, much like Turner, Davis understood what her role needed to be.
“I think for me, it’s just doing what I know I’m capable of doing, you know, just contributing, whatever it is I can contribute, being of assistance and help wherever it is that the coaches ask me,” Davis said prior to game two against the Aces.
Davis scored 10+ points in two of her five games with the team. It was the playoffs, though, where she shined. Pull-up jumpers, taking defenders off the dribble and her work in the post made her extremely effective.
She was a lone bright spot in that horrid final game. The former Gamecock posted 23 points on 11-for-19 shooting, with six rebounds and three assists. What arose out of that? Opportunity. Davis described that feeling and how she took advantage of the unpredictability.
“Individually it was huge for me. You know, I’ve been in the gym, just working on my individual self and trying to get better and improve. So, to be able to have an opportunity to go out and, and showcase on that platform in a playoff, it meant a lot to me,” says Davis. “I’m just thankful for, you know, [the Phoenix Mercury] for having me out. And, you know, being able to just do it.”
A sense of real loss
While opportunities were rampant for Phoenix, it doesn’t change the news of Griner’s wrongful detainment in Russia. A broken heart is merely a synopsis of the entire 2022 season. The news cycle swirling stories revolving around Griner and fans on social media mentioning it to players made it difficult, to say the least. In her exit interview, forward Brianna Turner described how much the support is needed, even if it hurts.
“It was definitely hard, but it was definitely good to see her (Griner’s) name out there on all the courts saying BG 42,” Turner said. “A lot of teams had her on their shirts. And there were a lot of developments throughout the summer, but it was good to see her name was obviously trending as it should be.”
The team thought about her at every passing moment. There was even a moment teammates described last season with Griner riding scooters around the city of Indianapolis. Those times can only be remembered, as players embark on awaiting her potential release.
“I’m glad that her name is out there and I’m glad [the recognition] she can get in the media,” Turner said.
Turner took a brief pause and finished with the mantra for the Mercury since the season started, “Even if it is tough for us, it needs to be done.”
Written by Hayden Cilley
Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.