June 28, 2023 

Nikki Blue taking patient approach to new role as Phoenix Mercury interim head coach

Nikki Blue has her work cut out for her as the Phoenix Mercury are 2-11

PHOENIX – The Nikki Blue era began for the Phoenix Mercury on Tuesday at the Footprint Center as the Mercury (2-11) lost 77-62 to the Dallas Wings (7-8).

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Why the team decided to move on from Vanessa Nygaard and appoint Blue as interim head coach was explained by general manager Jim Pitman.

“The final straw is that we’re 2-10,” said Pitman on Monday. “And that’s just not good enough. Our organization and our fans expect a lot from the Phoenix Mercury. And first of all, I’d like to thank Vanessa for all of the things that she did for our organization. She managed through a lot of adversity over the last year and a half. But at the end of the day, professional sports is a results-oriented business.”

Pitman explained that Blue, the former WNBA player, Mercury assistant coach and high-level college assistant coach, was named interim head coach because of her basketball IQ and relationships with the players. He said moving to her is a “great reset” for the team.

Blue discussed being named interim head coach, saying it was her goal to become a head coach in the WNBA.

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“It means everything to me,” Blue said. “Being an Arizonian now, I guess, the growth that you can experience in the city – me coming in at (Grand Canyon University) and doing a good job there. … (Arizona State) and do a great job there. And then come in and being a professional coach, it just has been amazing. Given me and my family the opportunity to be here for the past five and a half, six years. And for this to become our community. And with the support that I’ve had at all three places has been amazing.”

One has to wonder how much of a role Mat Ishbia, the owner of the team, had in the Mercury parting ways with Nygaard. Since taking over as owner of the Suns and Mercury, Ishbia has been quick to make decisions. The Suns are practically unrecognizable compared to where they were a year ago.

Blue said Ishbia has been “super supportive” and explained that he is “always around.” She said it is good to be able to have a relationship with the owner because not many coaches have the kind of relationship she does with Ishbia.

One also has to wonder how much of a role star players on the Mercury, such as Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi, played in the coaching change.

Pitman provided insight on how much input the team’s players gave regarding the coaching change.

“I didn’t really seek out specific player feedback,” Pitman said. “I’ve obviously been observing the team for the whole season at this point. I could see body language that it was probably time.”

The Mercury are a perennial playoff team. They were in the WNBA Finals as recently as 2021. This season has not been typical Phoenix Mercury basketball.

Blue knows she has a difficult task of attempting to steer the team back in the direction fans are accustomed to seeing.

“We are in a tough position,” Blue said. “Pretty banged up. We have a couple different circumstances going on. But what it’s going to take – it’s just going to take patience, it’s going to take play-by-play, minute-by-minute, game-by-game. So we’re going to come out and give it our all every chance we get.”

Griner discussed the first practice with Blue at the helm.

“Different energy,” Griner said. “Definitely a pick up for sure. And the energy level, people buying in. So it was good. We added a few things, took out some things and I think in the long run, in the grand scheme of things, it’s going to help us out tremendously.”

Tuesday’s game was a noticeable improvement over previous games. While the box score does not look much different from a typical 2023 Phoenix Mercury game, the energy from the team, especially on the defensive end, was better. There were still a few too many turnovers and the Mercury’s rebounding could have been better. But Phoenix kept it close most of the game and who knows what would have happened if the team was not missing starting forward Sophie Cunningham and key reserves Shey Peddy and Megan Gustafson. Cunningham, Peddy and Gustafson were all out with injuries.

Blue assessed the team’s performance in her first game.

“We hung in there for the first three quarters and we just started making some careless mistakes,” Blue said. “I don’t know if it was fatigue. Our lineups were kind of distorted a little bit due to some minutes restrictions (Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner) and some key players missing so I think we just got out of whack for a small amount of time.”

Mercury guard Jennie Simms spoke to the media following the game and talked about Blue’s first game as head coach.

“It was good,” Simms said. “… When it comes with energy, the team is buying in. At the end of the day, it is still a good thing. It would have been better with a win, but at the end of the day, we are all buying in to her and what she has for us.”

As for the reception from the fans, Blue received a slightly elevated reception from the crowd, which was smaller than the crowds the Mercury usually get.

The next chance for Blue to get her first victory as head coach is Thursday at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT against the Indiana Fever. The game will be televised nationally on NBA TV and locally in Phoenix on Arizona’s Family Sports.

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.

1 Comment

  1. RM Williams on June 29, 2023 at 6:27 am

    The Phoenix Mercury is a fractured team that no cast can heal. It is time to amputate. Diana Taurasi needs to gracefully bow out. Brittney Griner might well do the same and continue recovery from that horrific ordeal. Skylar Diggins-Smith? Frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn. Time to move on. Whether it is Nikki Blue or someone else who eventually takes the helm, that coach needs the freedom to create their own team, as Tanisha Wright is doing in Atlanta and Laticia Trammell is trying to do in Dallas. The fans in Phoenix deserve a team that addresses the future, not the crumbling glory days. Is Sophie Cunningham a face of the future or an attempt to youthfully hold onto the past? Sophie is too good a baller and deserves something better, whether in Phoenix or somewhere else. Maybe it is just too hot in Phoenix for people to think straight. A little philosophical air-conditioning might be in order.

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