May 29, 2020
How the 2020 Phoenix Mercury roster came together
GM Jim Pitman, coach Sandy Brondello explain the process and how it shook out
Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.
Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues and grows. Subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.
Diana Taurasi. (Chris Poss photo)
The Phoenix Mercury has been one of the older teams in the league for the last few years. Last year, they were the oldest, and it wasn’t close. But there are advantages to having an older roster, and being ready for anything is one of them. That weighed heavily into the decision for the Phoenix Mercury when it came time to build their final roster. When push came to shove, the team retained none of their rookies or training camp invitees.
There was also the matter of the salary cap to consider after the Mercury was aggressive during free agency back in February. The team met the salary cap and roster limit by waiving four players, leaving a team of 11 without any rookies.
“We obviously want to make sure that our star players got paid the amounts that they deserve,” general manager Jim Pitman said. “And so that was at the top of our list, but also going with more veteran-type players…. In a shortened season, depending on what our season looks like, we have to be prepared to have all players ready to play. And sometimes it takes a while for a rookie to develop into a player that you can really count on to give you good performances night in and night out. And we just felt in this particular case, in this particular year of uncertainty, that going with a more seasoned team made more sense for us.”
In addition to releasing former Baylor guard Te’a Cooper and former Rider guard Stella Johnson, the Mercury also waived roster camp invitees Olivia Epoupa and Sara Blicavs. On draft night, they traded first-round pick Jocelyn Willoughby to the New York Liberty for Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.
Both Pitman and head coach Sandy Brondello felt that they were able to make that decision in part because the team kept Alanna Smith, Brianna Turner and Sophie Cunningham from last year’s draft. It gave them youth, just not “rookie youth,” in Pitman’s estimation.
“Last year, we thought we had a great draft in order to select those three players that stuck with us,” Brondello added, “and we think very highly of them.”
The addition of third-year player Nia Coffey also helped them get younger while adding versatility. The coach and GM returned to that idea of versatility over and over when discussing their roster.
“I believe that she’s just never been in the right place for her skill set,” Pitman said of Coffey. “And I think that we are that place. I mean, incredible competitor, better shooter than she’s given credit for. High character, really high character person.”
The base of the Mercury will continue to be their talented veterans, though. After missing most of last season and much of the US National Team’s Olympic warmups, Diana Taurasi is set to make a comeback when the 2020 season gets started.
“As long as she’s healthy, age is just a number for me,” Brondello said. “It’s more about they’re healthy and playing well. Why would she want to keep going even past 2021? She has the ability. No one works harder than what she does. It was just a really bad timing of this pandemic because she was really getting back.”
The team cored Brittney Griner making her eligible for the $215,000 maximum deal she signed during free agency. Shortly after, they acquired Skylar Diggins-Smith at a maximum rate via a sign-and-trade deal with the Dallas Wings. Those two players account for $430,000 of the Mercury’s possible $1,300,000 salary under the current cap.
The bulk of the remaining cap money goes to a group of veterans that joined via free agency or trade, including Bria Hartley, Jessica Breland and Kia Vaughn. The criminally underpaid Taurasi with her $119,500 contract joins a group that accounts for between $500,000 and $600,000 of the team’s available salary.
That left the Mercury with about $300,000 to construct the other half of the roster. They couldn’t quite spread it among six players. Three-year veterans Coffey and Walker-Kimbrough join last year’s rookie class to round out the 11-player roster.