June 25, 2023 

Why the Phoenix Mercury parted ways with head coach Vanessa Nygaard

The Phoenix Mercury parted ways with head coach Vanessa Nygaard after a disappointing 17-31 run as head coach

The 2023 Phoenix Mercury season has been about as dismal as one could have imagined and on Sunday, the team decided to part ways with head coach Vanessa Nygaard.

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Assistant coach Nikki Blue will take over as the interim head coach for the rest of the season.

“We have chosen to make a change at head coach,” said Mercury general manager Jim Pitman in a press release. “We thank Vanessa Nygaard for the way she endured and managed the adversity of the last year-plus. Our organization and our fans have high expectations for this team, and we have not reached those with our performance this year. We have confidence in the job Nikki Blue will do as interim head coach for the remainder of the 2023 season.”

Nygaard’s job has come with many challenges, including navigating center Brittney Griner‘s detainment in Russia in 2022, a contract divorce between the team and center Tina Charles last season, numerous injuries and guard Skylar Diggins-Smith leaving the team late in the 2022 season. She also was involved in a controversy last season when she said the 2022 WNBA All-Star Game “will not be an All-Star Game because Diana Taurasi is not playing.” Diggins-Smith, who was named to the All-Star Game last season, quote tweeted a video of Nygaard’s comments with a clown emoji.

In two seasons at the helm, Nygaard led Phoenix to a 17-31 record. The Mercury were 15-21 last season and snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. They were swept by the eventual champion Las Vegas Aces.

Phoenix parting ways with Nygaard comes after Saturday’s 97-74 loss to the Seattle Storm. The Mercury now sit 2-10 and have two fewer wins than any other team in the WNBA. Their last five games have all been double-digit losses.

Three glaring issues on the court have plagued Phoenix this season. The team has been turning the ball over at a high clip. The Mercury trail only the Atlanta Dream in turnovers per game, averaging 15.9 per game this season. After they seemed to turn a corner in Wednesday’s 99-79 loss to the Las Vegas Aces by only turning the ball over 13 times, they were back up to 20 on Saturday in the loss to the Seattle Storm.

What has been frustrating to watch has been how preventable the turnovers have been. There have been a good amount of illegal screens and hurried passes that end up in the hands of an opponent.

The second glaring issue for Phoenix in 2023 has been defense. The Mercury have been awful defensively. They give up the most points per game in the WNBA, as opponents score 88.4 per game against them. They allow the second-best opponent field goal percentage in the league at 44.5% from the field. They look out of sync on both ends of the floor, with nothing really clicking on offense or defense.

The third issue that has popped out about the 2023 Phoenix Mercury squad has been the poor rebounding. With the 6’9 Griner at center and Brianna Turner, who has a knack for finding the ball and rebounding, at either the power forward or center spot, Phoenix should be better at grabbing boards. This is not the case, as the Mercury have only won the rebounding battle twice this season. Now, Griner has missed three games, but even in games she has played, they are 2-6-1 in the rebounding battle.

When asked how they can fix their issues after Saturday’s game, Griner suggested going back to the drawing board.

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“What’s happening just isn’t going to cut it,” Griner said. “… First time I’ve ever had a record like this. That’s for sure. So it’s really frustrating, honestly, and I don’t know I guess tear it down and rebuild it back up. I really don’t get it. Just not going the way we want it to go. It’s not the Phoenix Mercury basketball that we all know. So just getting in the gym, trying to find different little things.”

Tearing it down and rebuilding it back up is exactly what the Mercury are now doing. Blue moves into a role as interim head coach after being on the Mercury staff since last season. Before joining the Mercury, Blue spent time as a college assistant coach. Most notably, she was on the staff for three seasons at Arizona State under longtime coach Charli Turner Thorne from 2019-22.

Blue has experience as a WNBA player as well. She played four years with the Washington Mystics from 2006-09 and one season with the New York Liberty in 2010.

The decision to move on from Nygaard is the first major decision by the team since new owner Mat Ishbia acquired the Mercury and Suns in February. However, given what he has done with the Suns organization so far, it comes as no surprise. Since Ishbia acquired the Suns, the team has traded for Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal and fired head coach Monty Williams in May. With the Mercury parting ways with Nygaard, both head coaches of Ishbia’s teams are gone just over four months into his tenure. One has to wonder how much of a hand he played at the end of Nygaard’s run.

Written by Jesse Morrison

Jesse Morrison covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. A native of Roanoke, Va., Jesse moved to Arizona in 2017 to attend the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, graduating in 2021 with a degree in sports journalism. Outside of The Next, Jesse works for Arizona Sports, co-hosting an Arizona State podcast, producing a radio show and writing for their website.

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