May 11, 2021 

2021 WNBA season preview: Phoenix Mercury

It's all about winning a title for Phoenix heading into their 25th season

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Photo Credit: Phoenix Mercury’s Twitter Account

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PHOENIX — The internal goal for the Phoenix Mercury is pretty simple this season, and Skylar Diggins-Smith summed it up rather perfectly:

“I want my race car to get a stripe.”

In both the WNBA’s and their 25th season of existence, it’s very clear that the Mercury believe themselves to be in the thick of title contention, to win the franchise’s – and Diana Taurasi’s — fourth WNBA championship.

And even though she was a part of the most recent one, you can count Brittney Griner as someone who feels like they still have that box to check off, too.

“I definitely have a huge burn underneath my ass because I didn’t get to play in the final game because of that detached retina,” Griner said, referencing her missing the clinching Game 3 in the 2014 WNBA Finals. “I want to get back to the Finals and play in that very last game again.”

Here are three major questions for the Mercury before the 2021 season tips off:

Does good chemistry lead to better results?

There was roster turnover right at the top of the Mercury’s rotation from 2019 to 2020, with only five players returning to the team from their 2019 roster DeWanna Bonner leaving to Connecticut but Phoenix adding Diggins-Smith and Bria Hartley, as well other depth players, to their team. And don’t forget that Taurasi had also missed most of 2019 with various injuries and three of those five players were rookies in 2019, so they had limited playing time with Taurasi.

So heading into 2020, training camp was going to be a vital learning experience … until the pandemic shut everything down. When the league finally converged in the bubble, Diggins-Smith missed all of the mini-preseason with a hamstring injury. Taurasi said there was a lot of learning during games rather than during practices — both about her health and about her new teammates.

“After not playing for a year and a half, it took me about a month of playing to get back into basketball shape. The last month of the season, I really felt, individually, I finally got back to feeling really good on the court, really confident,” Taurasi said. “As a team, we started playing really well. There were some positives that I took from it and we took from it collectively. Hopefully, this season, where the season’s a little bit longer and more of a normal schedule, we can continue to build weekly and monthly.”

One offseason later, the Mercury’s main core all return and Phoenix added Kia Nurse and Megan Walker in an offseason trade with the Liberty. And while five players went overseas, including Griner — who, after leaving the bubble early, didn’t head to Russia until January — Taurasi and Diggins-Smith spent months together working out 5-6 times a week in the Mercury’s brand-new training center, continuing to build a solid on-court bond.

“It’s a pleasure to play with her. Just her competitive spirit rubs off on everyone,” Taurasi said of Diggins-Smith. “When you’ve been in the league a long time when you see your teammate have that grit and that grind, it brings it out of everyone. We’re really familiar with each other — our tendencies, our personalities, I think we respect each other and know the things that make us go. Hopefully, this summer, that can translate to more wins and getting to where we want to go.”

Diggins-Smith also added, “Spending that valuable time together — I thought it was important because any time you have a player of Diana’s caliber, [you want] to be a sponge and pick her brain. So anytime she was in the gym, I was going to be in the gym because I know how important that is in the WNBA — you don’t get a lot of time on the floor together before you start.”

Taurasi and Diggins-Smith all also spent time together at a USA Basketball mini-camp in San Antonio in April, giving them more time together before the season starts that they just didn’t have last year. It tells the Mercury that the time for learning is over and it’s time to make it happen on the court.

“This is just about building and sharpening our tools. We’re competitive in practice and we have that, ‘Iron sharpens iron’ mentality,” Diggins-Smith said. “I’m looking forward to this year being in Phoenix and starting with a year under my belt here.”

Will they be able to stay healthy with a tight roster?

The Mercury have known for months that they were only going to carry 11 players on their roster, as they have three of the league’s seven supermax players in Diggins-Smith, Griner and Taurasi. They also are paying Hartley near-max money, too.

The Mercury, of course, are completely fine with this.

““We’ve got a lot of big-time players here who we pay, and they should be paid,” Brondello said. “We have really tight caps [in the WNBA], and the players are rightfully getting paid what they deserve, and you want to pay your best players.”

The Mercury came into camp with their roster fairly squared away, even while knowing five of their final 11 players were going to be late arrivals from overseas. Brondello has often noted that there was really only one roster spot up for grabs in training camp. But asked if anyone had made a big impression in the first preseason game to challenge for one of those spots, Brondello replied, “Not really, to be quite honest.”

But with Hartley still recovering from an ACL tear (she won’t be back for at least a month), Phoenix will open the season with only 10 healthy players for the time being.

“I’m fine going in with 11, 10 at the start,” Brondello said. “Not everyone plays 11 players or 12 players anyway, but hopefully we can stay healthy. That’ll be the biggest thing.”

On top of that, some of the players returning from overseas have had their seasons run long, with Walker and backup guard Shey Peddy not clearing quarantine protocols until the final week of training camp. Additionally, backup center Kia Vaughn is still in the quarantine process, who was still playing in Turkey for Fenerbahce as of Tuesday. She’s unlikely to be available for the season opener on Friday and her status beyond that will depend on when her quarantine process officially starts and how quickly she can join the team after that.

All of these complications are things the Mercury think the veteran group can handle, especially since Peddy and Vaughn know the system from last year. But it certainly is an extra challenge to deal with as they open with three road games in five days to kick-off 2021.

“We have to make sure we’re prepared,” Brondello said. “We have to make sure that we have the right players to go in and win games early in the season. I think that’s important for us.”

Can they find the right mix for their style?

Mercury general manager Jim Pitman hasn’t been shy about expressing confidence in the vision that he and Brondello have for this roster. And with trading their first-round pick in the 2021 and 2022 Drafts to the New York Liberty to get Nurse and Walker, they feel they found the right two players to plug in and make their high-octane offense even more lethal.

“[The acquisition of Nurse and Walker] gives us more shooting to space the floor even more around BG. It’ll allow us to play the style that we really want to play,” Pitman said. “As we played at the end of last season, that up-tempo, fast-paced style, that’s what we want to be at the Phoenix Mercury. And Kia and Megan allow us to do that even more so than we did in the bubble.”

Part of running that type of offense is making sure you can play the defense to back it up, though. A key word that’s been used by a few people around the Mercury during training camp has been balance, and how they need to find it.

“We have inside, we have outside, shooters, people that can get to the rim,” Griner said. “Knowing what we need at different times in the games, which games, it might be a big outside presence, and some games it might be inside, some games a little bit of both. Finding that right balance and putting it together, it will be good for us and definitely versatile.”

Taurasi added, “We have to become a more balanced team. When you look at our roster, we can become a more balanced team offensively and defensively.”

Turner’s emergence on the defensive end really stood out in the bubble last year, and it’s been noticeable to Griner, who also got to see it from an opponent’s perspective in the Russian League this winter.

 “You just see the growth. You see that light coming on, her being more comfortable,” Griner said of Turner. “She’s a hell of a defender. Going up against her overseas, I definitely felt it even more. I’m glad that she’s right next to me.”

According to Basketball-Reference, Phoenix was fifth in both offensive and defensive rating last season. They were firmly in the second-tier of teams last season, around the same level as Minnesota, Los Angeles and Chicago but clearly not at the same level as Las Vegas or eventual champions Seattle.

Make no mistake, though: The Mercury expect to be challenging those teams at the top this year. If they can stay healthy, they should have a chance.

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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