October 28, 2021
Diana Taurasi’s legacy: the WNBA villain we all deserve
Dive deep on Taurasi's approach to the game, impact for the Mercury and the reality of her body
It’s about 75 minutes until tip-off of Game 3 of the WNBA Finals, and Diana Taurasi has just finished up a quick media session.
This one was bound to be newsworthy, as it was her first chance to address a fine levied on her by the WNBA for “inappropriate contact with an official” in the previous game. And after some called for her to be suspended for pushing official Tiara Cruse in Game 2, she came at the media session with her usual quips and one-liners.
“When Twitter speaks, the league has to make decisions, right?” Taurasi said. And later, when asked if she was okay with the $2,500 fine: “Yeah, that’s fine. I’m used to giving donations. I feel like it’s been awhile. It’s for a good cause.”
There’s a variety of reasons why public sentiment could be turning against Taurasi in the WNBA fandom world, in particular. Between her receiving the league’s somewhat-controversial GOAT honorific before Game 1 of the Finals, her appearance in Space Jam 2, the frequency with which she complains about calls and gets whistled for technical fouls, the incessant promotion of Taurasi — by the league, by the television networks, by the national team — or even simply her continued torching of the league whenever the Mercury seem to need her the most. It’s probably a combination of these things.
But no matter why this may be, Taurasi seems to be firmly reaching “Villain” status in the WNBA. So just after she finished those questions and was about to run off for warmups that night, I stopped her for a moment and asked: would you embrace being considered a villain?
Taurasi didn’t answer my question verbally. But she looked me directly in the eyes and gave a huge, toothy smile that I could easily pick out from a mile away.
It was The Joker’s smile.
Oh yeah, Taurasi would embrace being considered the villain. And, if she loves it, you know her teammates will, too.
“You know she loves it. You know she loves it,” Brittney Griner said. “Absolutely. Definition of it.”
As we head into the WNBA offseason, The Next is taking a deep look at Taurasi: how she approaches the game, her impact on-the-court for the Mercury and the reality of her body at this point in her career.
Her approach to basketball, and the respect she gets for it
If you just base your thoughts on what Taurasi’s relationship with officials is like solely on what you see in the game, you may think she’s hated by them.
She’s the league’s all-time leader in technical fouls assessed, she’s undoubtedly the league leader in fines assessed and has had a few moments with referees go viral, including the “I’ll see you in the lobby later” moment during the 2020 bubble.
But in the hours before a game, you’ll often find Taurasi stopping during warmups to say hello and have a quick chat with them. And in a small-rostered league with a high level of turnover, there are far more officials who have been around the WNBA for a lot longer than players.
“I usually just chat to the people that I have strong relationships with and that I’ve known for a long time, which is getting to be less and few as the years go by,” Taurasi said in a one-on-one with The Next back on Sept. 29, on the practice day between Games 1 and 2 of the WNBA semifinals. “Looking over to most rosters now, I really don’t know anyone. That’s definitely dwindled in the last three or four years.”
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Taurasi’s known to have a heart of gold, but she’s always in compete mode, too. And to her, the competition for any given night starts long before the tip-off time — and yes, that includes referees.
“The officials, that’s a game, too. Everything’s a game,” Taurasi said on Sept. 29. “Once you’re on the court, you have to try to do anything you can to get the advantage. I think everyone approaches that in different ways. When you’ve been playing for a long time, I think you can get a better gauge and pulse of what’s needed at certain times.”
It’s with that in mind that Taurasi also approaches her different methods of trying to get into an opponent’s head. There are countless stories and examples of the type of trash talk she can hit teams with, and Lindsey D’Arcangelo had a wonderful story on that at Just Women’s Sports.
But watch her enough and you’ll notice what she described as a “healthy respect” that comes out, too. Not only will Taurasi frequently be chatting people up, but she’s often sticking a hand out when anyone on the court falls over — no matter which team. It’s all a type of friendliness that runs counter to what some would expect from her.
But that countering of expectations can be exactly why it’s just another tool in her limitless arsenal to try and get opponents off their game. Talking trash may work to get some off, but being nice as can be can be just as powerful, too.
“For some people, I guess when they do that stuff, they lose focus or lose the edge to want to beat someone,” Taurasi said. “For me, I can easily be nice and want to rip your neck off at the same time. So to me, that’s a world that I can easily live in, [with] both.”
And it’s in that insane, maniacal competitive drive that you can see how the thing Taurasi maybe loves more than anything is shutting up a raucous road crowd. As her longtime teammate with the Mercury, overseas in Russia and with Team USA, Griner has taken on that love for silence, too.
“The best feeling ever,” Griner said. “When they’re like, ‘Oh yeah,’ screaming, going crazy, and then boom — you hit a shot or do a move or something happens and then it’s like, ‘Shhhh.’ That’s what I love, and I know Dee loves it.”
And if Taurasi and Griner love it …
“The whole team loves it,” Griner said with a big smile.
And that thrill of silence shone brightly for Phoenix in 2021, as the Mercury won 15 road games between the regular season and postseason, including two win-or-go-home games in Seattle and in Las Vegas. On those nights when the crowd was at their most raucous, especially in the playoffs, it’s clear that Taurasi has instilled that togetherness with this Mercury team.
“I feel like everybody has their own opinion about Dee,” Shey Peddy said. “But when we win, it’s like real quiet, and when we lose, it’s like ‘Rah rah rah,’ like we’re all the bad guys here. We did nothing to nobody, but it comes with the territory. She is who she is and we’re part of the team, so if everyone wants to label us as villians or root against us, that’s fine. We’re still going to play our game and take it one game at a time.”
Perhaps the greatest sign of Taurasi’s stature within the game is the respect she still gets from her opponents throughout the league.
Even when she looked to be at her most hobbled by her ankle and foot injuries during this playoff run, needing to be subbed out at multiple points during Game 1 of the Semifinals, the Aces didn’t want to even acknowledge the injuries.
“Taurasi ain’t hurt. Come on, please. This is the playoffs, nobody’s hurt,” Las Vegas coach Bill Laimbeer said. “I’ve been there, done that. All my friends have been there, done that. I don’t wanna hear anything, no. There is no sympathy factor in playoffs. And she will not give any quarter either, make sure of that one, okay? She will cut your heart out in a second. So she’s not hurt. We’re going to play her as if she’s full speed, ready to go and everything like that. That’s how we do business. If we think otherwise, we put ourselves at a disadvantage.”
When asked about Taurasi, Aces guard Chelsea Gray added, “I never take it for granted. She can come down and get 30 in one minute. She’s hobbled and things like that, so that might limit her, but I think she has this mentality that she’s playing, so she’s dangerous all the time.”
Taurasi’s impact for Phoenix — on the court and on the cap
For Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, Taurasi’s basketball intelligence is easily the most dangerous part of Taurasi’s game for opponents — and the catalyst for everything that Phoenix wants to do off of that.
“Diana’s one of the smartest players to ever play the game,” Brondello said on June 23, just before Taurasi returned from a fracture in her sternum. “We talk about how she’s the best scorer in the history of the league, but there’s so many more facets to her game. Just her leadership, her passing ability, but yeah defensively, she knows how to execute the scout, she understands player personnel, she talks out there — I mean, that’s a big part of being a good defensive team, is making sure that you have great talk and making sure you trust each other behind the ball, too. Diana brings that.”
Her first game back from the month she missed due to the fractured sternum was another classic Taurasi game, scoring 25 points and crossing the 9,000-point mark for her career in Phoenix’s win over Los Angeles.
“She’s Diana Taurasi, so she did what she did,” Skylar Diggins-Smith said after the game. “She distributed, she can score, she’s keeping the back line on defense, communicating out there. We feed off of her confidence, we feed off of her wisdom, just her experience. Obviously, we have to give her her flowers for 9,000 points. She continues to be the bar, as far as our league is concerned, from a scoring standpoint. Just one of the most prolific we’ve ever had.”
Griner added, “Anytime you have your top star player on the court like that, it just makes everything easier.”
All season long, Phoenix looked to be at its most competent and most complete with Taurasi healthy. In games where Taurasi played, the Mercury went 12-4 in the regular season, a .750 winning percentage that would’ve been tied for the second seed if carried over a full season.
Part of that clearly came from a chance at a sustained run of play together with Phoenix’s other two superstars in Diggins-Smith and Griner. After the Mercury traded for Diggins-Smith before the 2020 season, it’s taken a bit of time to actually get to play together for an extended period of time, between Griner leaving the bubble and Taurasi’s injuries this year.
But after the trio went to Tokyo together to win Olympic gold, they returned from the Olympics to the Mercury with a record of 9-10 and made it all the way to the WNBA Finals. It’s clear they finally were able to click together.
“I think the wonderful thing when you get a lot of good players is, can you share the floor?” Taurasi said on Sept. 30. “I think we just kind of naturally see our games and each have a piece of the floor that’s different to each other. Obviously, BG’s paint — well, she’s kind of everywhere right now. Skylar, what she does. I’m more perimeter-oriented. So we don’t get in each other’s way. I think that helps when we’re on the court.”
Diggins-Smith added that same day, “Everybody eating, and we always encourage each other to be aggressive. We know, at this point, we’ve learned each other and when people are feeling it, people getting hot, and just figuring out who to get the ball to, where and at what time. It’s easy playing with great players. It’s easy for me to come in with that mindset, being aggressive. And then when you have two of the best that came through our league, you feel pretty confident.”
Asked how you can defend Phoenix when she and her fellow two superstars are playing well together, Griner said on Sept. 30, “I mean, it’s hard. I don’t know who you’re going to help off of, if I was on the opposing team. You sag off on Dee, she’s going to hit it. If you give Sky some space, she’s going down your throat. When we’re all locked in to the game and what’s going on, it’s a hard guard, honestly.”
There is some fragility to the way Phoenix has built its roster around these three. All make the supermaximum salary amount, which was $221,450 in 2021. They’ll all make that supermaximum again in 2022 (though Taurai will get $194 more at $228,094 than Diggins-Smith and Griner at $227,900), making Phoenix the only team in the WNBA with *two* players already under contract for the supermaximum in 2022, let alone three.
It makes building around them difficult and limits how many roster spots Phoenix can even occupy. The Mercury carried 11 players for all of 2021, which included Bria Hartley as she was rehabilitating form a torn ACL. Heading into 2022, Phoenix will have to make yet another decision about carrying a rehabbing player with a roster spot, as Kia Nurse tore her ACL in Game 4 of the WNBA Semifinals.
Even with three superstars, Nurse’s absence was felt throughout the WNBA Finals, as Kahleah Copper tore through anyone Phoenix threw at her on her way to winning Finals MVP. Between that injury and Taurasi’s hobbled left ankle and foot, it left Phoenix asking the “What if?” questions that teams hate to have to ask after a season ends.
“These seasons are so fragile in a lot of ways,” Taurasi said. “You think you have everything together and then you get a sprained ankle, a torn ACL, a strained calf. You really have to have all of these things go your way to win a championship. I think, if we were fully healthy, there’s no doubt in my mind that that would’ve put us in a good place.”
And it makes you wonder: is Taurasi going to be okay with that Finals loss being her last WNBA career action? After the season she went through with this team, she was appreciative of what they were willing to put themselves through to make it that far.
“I’ve never seen a team really fight this hard, ever,” Taurasi said. “I’ve been, obviously, on a lot of good teams have been on some okay teams. But this team has a grit that just was incredible. And you know, I really enjoyed it.”
Could her body make her call it quits?
After a practice during the week of the WNBA semifinals, Shey Peddy was discussing what it was like to watch an aging legend at work.
Of course, this was about how, two nights prior, Peddy had just watched her favorite sports team, the New England Patriots, face off against their former quarterback Tom Brady on his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 44-year-old spent 20 years with the Patriots, leading them to six championships, but helped Tampa Bay come from behind to beat New England, leaving Peddy
“I don’t mind losing to Brady, but it hurt,” Peddy said. “I miss him — it’s not the same without him. He just does GOAT things.”
Of course, Peddy has a GOAT on her own team, too. And when the conversation transitioned to that GOAT, Peddy had an admission about Diana Taurasi.
“I can’t even picture a world with Diana not even playing basketball,” Peddy said. “I feel like she’s not going to retire and just keep playing, playing, playing.”
And, for Taurasi herself, that’s often been the case, too. She just finished her age-39 season and has one more year on the two-year supermaximum contract she signed in February left with the Mercury, and she’s stated before that she intends to play on it.
“The commitment I made is the commitment I made, for sure,” Taurasi said to The Next and The Arizona Republic before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
But after having her second child with her wife Penny Taylor on the day before the WNBA Finals started, losing in the WNBA Finals for the first time in her career, breaking a door outside of the visitor’s locker room after Game 4, Taurasi now faces an extended rest period to rehabilitate an avulsion fracture in her left foot that she played with all during the postseason.
When you factor her age, the wear-and-tear of years of basketball and an unfortunate season of injury luck, Taurasi’s tone about her plans for next year was a bit different during the team’s exit interviews on the Monday following Game 4.
“We’ve been chatting about already. And, you know, this will be an ongoing dialogue for the next eight months,” Taurasi said “And, you know, when you have a lot of time to think about basketball in the future, a lot of thoughts go through your mind. You know, but we’ll see where it goes.”
For most of the past few seasons, Taurasi has really fought against the narrative that she’s going to retire soon. Her most recent discussion of that at length was on Aug. 24 in a lengthy interview on the Bickley & Marotta Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, where she said “try to get you out the door quickly, but I’m not going to let them do that.”
But when Dan Bickley, a longtime Arizona sports columnist and now radio host with a lengthy relationship with Taurasi, asked her when she’s going to “sit back and smell the roses,” Taurasi conceded she’s closer to retirement than starting, but said she’s giving even more of herself over to her basketball pursuits.
“I’m really enjoying looking at sports in a different way, where it’s kind of taken over my life even more,” Taurasi said. “Because I know how important everything is to make sure I’m on the court. Whether it’s what I eat, how much sleep I get, physical therapy, massages, being on the court — everything I do is preparing me to be on the court. It’s almost been a different challenge in a lot of ways, and I’m almost enjoying the process even more now.”
Even when injuries happened, that all-encompassing takeover is clearly still consuming Taurasi. Back when The Next talked to her in Las Vegas on Sept. 29 between Games 1 and 2 of the WNBA Semifinals, she was only just beginning to play on her sprained left ankle and what she later revealed was also an avulsion fracture in her left foot. But even then, she was clear that the desire to play was driving her — no matter how badly she was hampered.
“I think that’s when you have that competitive battle within, right?” Taurasi said. “Are you going to do everything possible to be able to play in the playoffs? Are you going to do every little thing — from the 4-5 hours rehabbing to making sure you stay off your foot for the whole day after that, pretty much be conscious of everything you do just to play in these games.
“That’s a battle that some people lose, and it’s not easy. There are days where it’s like, ‘Maybe it’s a little bit too hard.’ But I really enjoy it. I enjoy kind of competing against myself and seeing how disciplined I can be. And that’s really changed over the years for me.”
Of course, she would steal the show the next night in Las Vegas, scoring 37 in the win. She reached the Finals for the first time since 2014 thanks to a fourth quarter explosion that set up Peddy’s winning free throws. She even had another late-game takeover in Game 2 of the Finals to help Phoenix even the series at 1-1.
But Chicago won both home games to finish off the Finals and Taurasi was clearly still not at 100%. Even if the types of injuries that hampered her the most this season (fractured sternum, sprained ankle) are more the “bad luck” type than the wear-and-tear type, she seems to accept that these injuries are going to be a part of her future — if she keeps playing.
“I was healthy for eight months [while] working out, playing five-on-five,” Taurasi said. “You know, sometimes injuries happen. And if you play enough basketball, they’re gonna happen. And the older you get, the more they’re probably going to happen. So probably it’s a little bit everything right? Bad luck, age, wear and tear. So, we’ll see where I go from here.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Finals loss, there was surely some doubt and sting left. But those around the Mercury still expect her to be back at this point.
“I expect Diana Taurasi playing until she tells me she isn’t,” Mercury general manager Jim Pitman said.
But, if she pulls a stunner and decides to be done, it’s pretty clear she’s comfortable with what she feels like her legacy is.
“I just leave it all out on the court,” Taurasi said. “The way I play is the way I play, and it’s just never going to change, whether I’m 21 or 39. When you love the game, you love to compete, you just leave it all out there. That’s all I tell my teammates, is to just leave it all out there. Do everything you can and then you live with the results and then you move on.
“The game, the game’s beautiful.”