August 19, 2020 

Mercury still trying to overcome defensive woes, inconsistency as they head into the second half

Phoenix has been hampered by injuries as they try to integrate new faces

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PALMETTO, FL- AUGUST 16: Allisha Gray #15 of the Dallas Wings shoots the ball against the Phoenix Mercury on August 16, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida.

When Phoenix Mercury general manager Jim Pitman was putting together the roster for this shortened season, he and head coach Sandy Brondello were looking for versatility, defense and veterans who could get on the same page quickly. As the team heads into the second half of the season with a 6-5 record, they have shown their versatility. Defense and consistency provided by experience have been more difficult.

The haul the Mercury pulled in from free agency was headlined by the sign-and-trade for Skylar Diggins-Smith. The point guard has been as advertised on the offensive end of the floor. According to Basketball-Reference, she has the second-highest offensive rating (115) and effective field goal percentage (.611) on the team.

Diggins-Smith and the unexpected contributions of Bria Hartley are major reasons the team is second in the league in scoring at 87.8 points per game and have the third-best offensive rating (107.7). Hartley only recently fell out of the team’s top spot in points per game, now ranking fourth with 15.6 PPG.

The group is a mirror image on the defensive end of the court. Allowing a ninth-place 85.8 PPG while averaging just two more points on offense is a recipe for a .500 record. The team’s defensive rating sits at eighth in the league (105.3).

The Mercury’s stars are part of the problem. Diana Taurasi is second on the team with a defensive rating of 103, but Brittney Griner is sitting at fourth on the 10-player team and Diggins-Smith is only outperforming Sophie Cunningham.

No one on the team approaches the top 10, which is led by Natasha Howard at 83.9. Brianna Turner’s 102 leads the Mercury.

The team has talked a good game about needing to improve on defense, but what are the roots of the problem?

No matter how much experience they have in other organizations, putting together a team that includes five new faces out of ten players presents a very real likelihood that those players will need time to learn to play together. With a brief training camp, that time was in short supply. Adding hurdles was the fact that Diggins-Smith—the key offseason acquisition—was nursing an injury and didn’t participate much in camp.

Second-year player Cunningham, who has moved into the starting line-up, was also out for most of camp. The hard-nosed guard was nursing a case of COVID-19.

After the opening night loss to Los Angeles, Taurasi told the press that it was the first time all 10 players had been on the court together. She also blamed nerves and passivity for the blow-out loss to the Sparks.

Things haven’t improved much since then. While the Mercury went on a 4-0 run after dropping the first two games of the season, they have struggled to find both a consistent defense and a consistent line-up.

The team has run out four different starting line-ups with various levels of success.

On opening night, Phoenix went with the group of Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner, Brianna Turner and Nia Coffey. Two days later, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough had replaced Coffey in the starting lineup for game two. By the third game, Cunningham was filling that fifth spot, solidifying what appears to be Brondello’s preferred lineup.

Even once she settled on the line-up that worked best, Brondello didn’t have the luxury of just sticking to it. First, she was forced to scramble when Bria Hartley missed three games with a foot injury.

At the time, Brondello said that Hartley deserved to be a starter, but the construction of the roster didn’t allow for it. Considering that Hartley was the team’s leading scorer, it was tough to keep her off the floor.

Just as Hartley was preparing to return to play, Taurasi went down with a back injury. The team would play five games missing Hartley, Taurasi or both. Griner and Diggins-Smith led the team to a respectable 3-2 record over that period, but the team was never able to establish the kind of momentum they needed to rise in the standings.

Are the roster instability and shifting line-ups keeping Phoenix from achieving the kind of cohesion they need to earn a bye in the playoffs?

“I mean, sure. It has an effect,” Brondello said. “Definitely. You just are trying to keep them in rhythm. And, obviously, moving Sky back off the ball. Yeah, it does take time. I understand that. We just have to keep communicating with each other.”

Written by Kim Doss

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