February 3, 2022 

Moves made, message sent: Phoenix add DeShields, may add Tina Charles

The Mercury cleared the cap space to sign Diamond DeShields and are close to adding Tina Charles, how will this work?

On Oct. 18, the day of the Phoenix Mercury’s highly-intriguing exit interviews, Phoenix’s general manager Jim Pitman spoke to The Next and The Arizona Republic after all of the players and then-coach Sandy Brondello finished and left for the night. He answered questions on specific players, his takeaways from the season, and the plans for the offseason.

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At the time, no one — and, given some of his answers that night, I’d reckon not even Pitman — knew Phoenix wouldn’t be bringing Brondello back and hiring Vanessa Nygaard to her first professional head coaching gig to replace the Australian. But Pitman was not shy about his willingness to make whatever changes he would need — even as their cap space looked rather slim.

“We don’t have cap space per say, right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make moves to create cap space,” Pitman said on Oct. 18. “We will be as active as we can be to improve our team.”

Pitman later also answered a question by talking about the draft picks Phoenix had in the 2022 Draft but finished that answer by saying, “You never know what might be available there or in the trade market.”

Fast forward more than three months, to Jan. 25, the day they hired Nygaard, and Pitman told The Next exclusively about how the stars they have in Phoenix — Olympic gold medalists Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith — put Phoenix into championship-or-bust mentality.

“It’s not just Diana. It’s Diana, it’s Skylar, it’s BG,” Pitman said. “In my mind, those are three of the top 10 players in the world. Having those three, as well as Brianna Turner, it’s a sales point for us, for sure.”

On the second day, players could officially sign with new teams; it seems like the combination of the sales pitch and aggressive trading has put the Mercury in a position to add even more star power — and another Olympic gold medalist — to their 2022 roster.

According to reports from GirlsTalkSportsTV’s Khristina Williams and ESPN’s Holly Rowe, the Mercury appear to be close to signing Tina Charles. And Williams and JustWSports/Winsidr’s Rachel Galligan reported on Wednesday night that Phoenix was sending Bria Hartley and its second-round picks in 2022 (No. 20 overall) and 2023 to Indiana while sending its first-round pick in 2023 to Chicago to acquire Diamond DeShields, which the team announced on Thursday.

DeShields is a restricted free agent who could only be traded after being signed by her team, so Phoenix facilitated a sign-and-trade with Chicago to bring in the 6’1 wing. Annie Costabile of the Chicago Sun-Times reported Thursday morning that DeShields would be getting “over $300,000” in a two-year deal, and Richard Cohen of Her Hoop Stats confirmed that and broke down the contract into the amount per year: $150,000 in 2022 and $154,500 in 2023.

By offloading Hartley and her maximum contract of $196,100, Phoenix is giving itself some more wiggle room to make a few extra deals — like potentially bringing Charles to the Valley of the Sun.

That’s the one thing left unfinished in the flurry of moves to create the cap space required to pull this all off, but it appears they’ve done that. Now, with officially bringing Sophie Cunningham back into the fold  – at $75,000, per Richard Cohen of Her Hoop Stats, which would be almost $3,000 more than the Mercury would be paying her if they had picked up her fourth-year option — a previous trade of Kia Vaughn to the Atlanta Dream for a 2023 third-round pick and the official acquisition of DeShields, it’s evident what the Mercury are doing.

The Mercury are making a play for getting the most talented basketball team they could conceivably and legitimately build in 2022, no matter how weird or awkward the fit may be.

What Phoenix’s roster looks like – and how it works financially

If we deduce that the acquisitions reported come through, the Mercury are up to eight players under contract for 2022. By the position they play the most, they have:

Point guard: Diana Taurasi, Shey Peddy

Shooting guard: Skylar Diggins-Smith

Small forward: Diamond DeShields, Sophie Cunningham

Power forward: Brianna Turner

Center: Brittney Griner, Tina Charles

They also have a qualifying offer out to small forward Kia Nurse, who is still rehabbing the torn ACL she suffered during the WNBA semifinals in October. All indications are that Phoenix would like to bring her back, even if there is uncertainty over how likely she is to play in 2022. Of course, given Phoenix’s tight cap situation, if another team wanted, they could legitimately make Nurse impossible for the Mercury to bring back … but interest in doing that hasn’t been reported at this time.

The Mercury will have to get to 11 players, and while two third-round picks is coming up in the 2022 draft (overall picks No. 26 and No. 32), it wouldn’t be shocking to see Phoenix bring in a slew of potential overseas veterans who have 0-2 years of WNBA experience. And would only make the minimum salary of $60,471. We know who one could be, as Galligan reported on Thursday that guard Jennie Simms is signing a training camp deal with Phoenix. Simms has played one season in the WNBA, playing parts of 2017 with the Mystics and the Fever. And having played the four years since overseas.

Using the numbers from Her Hoop Stats, assuming a cap space hold of the minimum salary for the unfilled roster spots (and Nurse counts as a spot while she has a qualifying offer out to her), the Mercury presently have around $71,159 above those minimum slots to work with. So, in theory, you could give Charles as much as $131,630 and still get to 11 on the roster. But that’s *if* Nurse is only signing at her qualifying offer and *if* you’re only adding two players at the 0-2 year minimum.

But what if Phoenix wants a more experienced player in the WNBA? Any flipping of one of those two extra roster spots to a veteran minimum, at $72,141, means less money for Charles.

Now, Charles has made it abundantly clear that her intention is to win a WNBA championship, and she’s donated her entire salary to charity for years. But she’s also worthy of a lot more money than that, something that matters to her — and that matters to Pitman, who has said for years that he believes in paying Phoenix’s stars what they are worth.

The question left to wonder for now: might Charles be willing to take less money in her salary— all the way down to the veteran’s minimum, even — to help the Mercury have more money to get better players? I would reckon Phoenix would pay her whatever they could if that’s what she wanted. But that could hurt the title chances a little.

Mainly because the way this roster would work remains a bit of a mystery.

So … how would this work, exactly?

Griner and Charles were the starting Team USA frontcourt for half of a decade as long as they were both healthy. They both started all six games in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Istanbul, all eight games in the 2016 Olympics in Rio and three games in the 2018 World Cup in Tenerife, Spain. Griner had to miss two games with an ankle injury and came off the bench for a game. But they’ve had plenty of a run together.

In the 2020 Olympics, which just took place last summer, Griner started next to A’ja Wilson while Charles was primarily used in a one-two frontcourt combo with Sylvia Fowles off the bench, so their playing time together wasn’t too much in Tokyo. But Charles’ game has evolved over time, and her 2021 season with the Mystics may show how it *could*work.

After a slow progression over her time in New York, Charles is starting to shoot the ball frequently from 3-point range — and make them, too. She averaged 5.1 3-pointers a game and made 1.9 for a 36.5% percentage from deep — all three were career-highs.

The increase in both volume and shotmaking from deep raised her true shooting percentage up to 53.8% — higher than it’s been in almost a decade. But she’s still an elite center who does her best work in the paint, something that is very obvious on her shot chart from WNBA dot com’s stats page:

Tina Charles' 2021 shot chart

For comparison, here’s Griner’s shot chart last year (and as a reminder, hexagon size indicates the volume of shots taken, hexagon colors indicate the field goal percentage for the player compared to the league average):

Brittney Griner's 2021 shot chart

Those are some awfully big hexagons in the same spaces around the rim. Talent can make all issues go away, and defending that frontcourt will be a challenge. But it still will be a lot for Nygaard to deal with.

Especially given that the acquisition of Charles will almost certainly push Phoenix’s best defender, Turner, to the bench and into their sixth woman. Turner’s offense had its limitations, but Brondello and the Mercury found a way to get some use out of her on that end of the floor in the semifinals … until Chicago stifled it in the Finals.

On the other end, Turner really fits best as a help defender inside, alongside Griner (or Charles) to make life hard for opponents’ post players. If you played Turner as out of position at small forward, she’s been a capable defender against smaller players at times. But she’s a step slower than them and would likely have issues if asked to do so frequently.

How will Nygaard manage to balance getting the two multiple Olympic gold medalist frontcourt superstars on the floor together … while also appeasing Turner, who is a back-to-back First Team All-Defense player and will hit restricted free agency next year?

DeShields’ fit seems to be solid for what the Mercury need in 2022, especially if Nurse can’t play at all in this potential final season of Taurasi. But her 3-point shooting — both in quantity and in quality – have gone drastically down since her All-Star season in 2019. She only made 30% of 3-pointers last year (24-for-80) and went 3-for-12 from deep in the playoffs.

She’s still a capable cutter and slasher and can make plays around the rim (even if her 2021 was underwhelming there, too), but this is a Phoenix team that needs its small forward to be okay without the basketball in her hands. She’s also been a solid defender, averaging more than a steal per game throughout her four years in the WNBA.

DeShields battled injury issues and role changes in the last two seasons. And wasn’t shy about how difficult the 2021 season was for her, even as her team won a championship. Does placing her in the starting lineup — something she told Costabile at the Chicago Sun-Times she believes she’s worthy of — help her get back to her 2019 form or even improve from there?

You can count Pitman, Nygaard and the Mercury as believers in her. And it would seem like the sales pitch — to play with three (or maybe four) gold medalists — sold DeShields, too.

The move to bring in DeShields and the potential addition of Charles will only make the spotlight on the Mercury even brighter and make the championship-or-bust expectations even stronger. But while it’s impossible to know exactly how it will work — if it even works — there’s one thing that can already be guaranteed.

It most certainly will not be boring.

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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