May 5, 2024 

2024 WNBA season preview: Phoenix Mercury

The redesigned Phoenix Mercury enter 2024 season with win-now expectations, aided by additions of Copper, Cloud and new coach Tibbetts

Almost everything, down to the uniforms and jersey badge, will be completely new for the Phoenix Mercury this upcoming season.

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After starting 2-10 last season, the Mercury fired head coach Vanessa Nygaard and replaced her with interim coach Nikki Blue. And with Blue at the helm, the Mercury finished 9-31 – last place in the league. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

But now there’s a new guard, both on the court and the bench. On Oct. 16, the Mercury hired longtime NBA assistant coach Nate Tibbetts, and made him the highest-paid head coach in the WNBA. Tibbetts bolstered his staff with the addition of Kristi Toliver as associate head coach. He rounded out the rest of his staff with Green Bay’s Megan Vogel and NBA G-League assistant coach Michael Joiner. 

“I’m really excited to get going,” Tibbetts said. “It’s been a long offseason from when I first came here but thankfully, you know, we have some of our veterans in town. We’ve got a great group of individual players, but over the course of this journey together, we need to figure it out, our strengths, our weaknesses, but that’s the fun part of coaching. That’s the fun part of being on a team – getting the group to get a common goal – and that’s to win a championship.”

Fresh faces

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Natasha Cloud (9) defends New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) in a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 21, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

One of the first steps the Mercury took toward improving from last year was infusing the roster with new talent. On the first day of free agency, the Mercury reeled in point guard Natasha Cloud, who had spent the previous eight years of her career with the Washington Mystics. In 2023, Cloud set career highs across the board in minutes, points and rebounds per game. Her 6.2 assists per night ranked her fifth in the league. Cloud is known for being a scrappy two-way player. She’s one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, with a Second-Team All-Defensive nod in 2019 and First-Team in 2022. Cloud was a key factor in the Mystics’ championship run in 2019. She started all 43 games and averaged 13.1 points in the playoffs.

“It’s been great,” Cloud said of the first two days of training camp. “I feel like everything that I’ve done this offseason has been preparing me for this training camp and this season with a new organization. I went in very hungry – the same type of dog mentality that I have a lot left to prove to myself in my career – but I also want to bring this organization around, so just having that dog mentality early.”

Two days after acquiring Cloud, the Mercury went out and secured another reliable veteran in Rebecca Allen. Allen finds her way to the Valley via a sign-and-trade in which the Mercury sent guard Moriah Jefferson to Allen’s former team, the Connecticut Sun. Last season, Allen appeared in all 40 games with the Sun, and started in 27. She averaged 6.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, which ranked ninth in the league. Prior to her lone season with the Sun, the Aussie wing spent seven years with the New York Liberty. Similar to Cloud, Allen is a threat on the defensive end as one of the league’s top shot-blockers.

The additions of Cloud and Allen should help the Mercury improve significantly on the defensive end. In 2023, Phoenix ranked last in the WNBA with a defensive rating of 107.9. They ranked ninth in points allowed per game, at 84.9. They also sat in the bottom three in opponent field goal and 3-point percentage. 

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It wasn’t just the defense that suffered for Phoenix last year. The Mercury also ranked last in points scored per game and 11th in offensive rating. To bring in reinforcements, the Mercury traded the No. 3 pick to the Chicago Sky to get Kahleah Copper. In addition to sending the Sky the third overall pick, they also sent them Brianna Turner, Michaela Onyenwere and three additional draft picks. In addition to Copper, the Mercury received the rights to Morgan Bertsch.

Although the haul given up for Copper seems significant, the Mercury view it as a worthwhile investment. Copper, entering year nine, is just three years removed from being named the 2021 WNBA Finals MVP. The three-time All-Star averaged a career-best 18.7 points in 2023 on 44.8% from the field and 40.4% from beyond the arc. 

“Part of this offseason was adding talent and skilled players and we’ve done that in different ways with [Cloud] and [Copper],” Tibbetts said. “And not only how do they fit with [Taurasi], but how does [Taurasi] fit with them? And the great part is, they’ve all been around each other. They know each other’s games. They respect one another and that’s the most important part.”

The trade for Copper indicates a win-now mentality for the Mercury who significantly leveled up their starting lineup with the additions of Cloud and Copper. With Cloud joining to run the point, players like Copper, Taurasi and Cunningham will have improved opportunities to work with the ball out of their hands. Cloud’s ability to distribute the ball and generate ball movement should help the Mercury’s offense find the ability to settle into a consistent rhythm more often. Cloud’s addition will be especially helpful in allowing Taurasi to move back to her more natural position in the backcourt, off the ball. Allowing Taurasi to return to this role was one of the things that excited Cloud most about coming to Phoenix.

“When you’re playing with greatness on the wing like that, it makes your job as a point guard very easy,” Cloud said. “So my goal … is always to get two feet in the paint and find shooters, and DT just does such a great job of moving without the ball and knowing where to be on the court at the right time. She looks amazing.”

In addition to the free agent signings, the Mercury brought in several rookies. They drafted Charisma Osborne and Jaz Shelley with the No. 25 and No. 29 overall picks, respectively and brought both of them into camp. After the draft, the Mercury also signed Bella Muraketete out of Washington State to compete for a spot on the block behind Brittney Griner and help the Mercury improve upon its league-worst rebounding.

Due to the revamping of the roster, many of the spots for the 2024 team are up in the air. They could certainly be filled by some of the rookies in camp. Athlete’s Unlimited fan favorite Ariel Hearn also signed a rookie scale contract with the Mercury for camp. The Mercury also added four players that will take part in camp. Guard Amy Atwell looks to stand out in a loaded backcourt, while forwards Mya Hollingshed, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Natasha Mack all look to provide depth down low behind Allen and Griner.

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Old faces in new places

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Phoenix Mercury guard Sug Sutton (1) during the WNBA game between the Phoenix Mercury and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on August 31, 2023. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Taurasi isn’t the only Mercury vet who will have a chance to fulfill a different role with the influx of new talent. After carrying an unexpectedly heavy load in 2023, Sug Sutton is back in camp with the Mercury. Through 40 games, she averaged 26.3 minutes, helping alleviate some of the burden of point guard play behind Jefferson. This season, she’ll still serve in a reserve role behind Cloud but with a different outlook on how she fits in.

“I’m keeping my confidence. I had a really great year last year and I’m just building off of that,” Sutton said. “We have some really great players, some vets that have come in, and so I have to kind of switch my role, and I’m super thankful that I’m able to learn from them. I think one of my biggest goals this season is trying to get these scorers the ball. I’m a point guard, and as a point guard, one of my dreams is to pass the ball and be able to give it to my teammates that are able to score. That’s something that I always love to do. You see my scoring last season. I’m still going to bring scoring, but I’m super excited to be able to make plays for these scorers we have all around us.”

As for Phoenix staples like Griner, Taurasi and Sophie Cunningham, they get the chance to chance to reset while adjusting under the new coaching staff. Unlike previous years, Griner didn’t play overseas this offseason and stayed in the U.S. This gave her the opportunity to improve her mentality off the court, according to Tibbetts, and continue to develop in a different way that will still make her an asset to the Mercury. In her return to the league, Griner was named an All-Star for the ninth time, while averaging 17.5 points and 6.3 rebounds. Now, with a full offseason under her belt once again, Griner should be able to find her groove again and return to the dominance she’s shown consistently throughout her career.

As for Taurasi, entering year 20, she continues to advance her game each year. Although her 2023 stats of 16.0 points per game on 40.3% shooting were some of the lower marks of her career, she still is an offensive threat in the league. Cloud’s addition at the point guard position could alos serve as a rejuvenation for the 40-year-old Taurasi as her career winds down. In Taurasi’s eyes, one of the biggest factors to success this season will be chemistry. This applies to both her new coach and her new teammates. 

“I mean, it’s up to us,” Taurasi said. “We know how the WNBA season goes. It comes really quickly. You have to find a way to forge these relationships and this chemistry very quickly, and it starts with … going to San Diego … and starting our training camp. We start forging those really strong relationships that help you on the court.”

What to expect in 2024

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(From L-R) Natasha Cloud, Kahleah Copper, Nate Tibbetts and Diana Taurasi stand together at Phoenix Mercury training camp at the San Diego State Jam Center in San Diego, CA, USA on April 29, 2024. (Photo credit: Phoenix Mercury)

What can one expect from the 2024 Phoenix Mercury? Frankly, anything. There’s no precedent for Tibbetts as a head coach in the women’s game. Although general manager Nick U’Ren has crafted a talented roster around Tibbetts, that hasn’t necessarily worked out for the Mercury in recent years. This year’s roster, though, does seem to be crafted more strategically than the star-studded 2021 lineup that underperformed.

As with every team in the league, the Mercury have set their sights high on a championship. The moves they made this offseason show a desire to get there and do so quickly. If everything goes according to plan, the Mercury could be a real contender to try to push the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces out of the top spot. At the same time, with no previous indicators to give a hint about what a Tibbetts-led WNBA team could look like, this experiment could fail and leave the Mercury with no way to rebuild for the near future.

The hiring of Tibbetts was unexpected and it was disliked by many. And the trade for Copper, in which the Mercury surrendered considerable future draft capital, was undoubtedly a gamble, especially if this year doesn’t play out how Phoenix hopes. So, will these moves pay off? No one will know whether it was all worth it until the Mercury’s season officially tips off on May 14 in Las Vegas, against the formidable Aces.

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Written by Tia Reid

Tia Reid covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. Her other work has also appeared on, College Gym News, Cronkite News/Arizona PBS and the Walter Cronkite Sports Network. Tia is a senior at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

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