June 20, 2024 

The Phoenix Mercury are turning off-court chemistry into on-court synergy

Sophie Cunningham: ‘Everyone’s having fun. Everyone loves each other.’

The new era of Phoenix Mercury basketball has included plenty of ups and downs through the first 15 games of the season. The team had to manage without center Brittney Griner for the first 10 games and without forward Rebecca Allen for five. The Mercury won three straight games before losing the next four in a row. They’ve put up some of the best and worst 3-point shooting performances of the season and have played in nail-biter games night after night.

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Through every new challenge or triumph this season has brought, one thing has permeated each moment: the Mercury’s overwhelming sense of togetherness.

“I think it’s the culture. I really do,” guard Sophie Cunningham told reporters after Tuesday’s win over the New York Liberty. “I’ve been around here for a hot minute. I’m getting old out here in these streets. But the ups and downs of previous years has been pretty exhausting. But when I tell you our new ownership has been phenomenal. Our new coaching staff has been phenomenal. The roster changes that we brought in, it’s just been a great feeling. It’s a breath of fresh air. No, it really is. And I just think it’s the culture. Everyone’s having fun. Everyone loves each other.”

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The Mercury players formed strong bonds with each other and first-year head coach Nate Tibbetts thanks to a new format for training camp. Instead of staying in Phoenix and hosting camp at their practice facility, the organization elected to hit the road and host camp in San Diego for the first time.

According to Tibbetts, the reason for hosting camp in San Diego was to avoid overlapping with the Phoenix Suns’ use of their shared practice facility during an expected playoff run. What the team got out of its time away from its home city laid the foundation for the culture Tibbetts wants to maintain.

“Our training camp in San Diego, you know, I think we’re gonna look back at that and remember the time that we got to spend together in those five or six days,” Tibbetts told reporters in May. “You know, usually in training camp, you’re so tired after camp. People go home, spend time with their families. But instead of sitting in a hotel room, we did different team stuff, and that stuff, it plays a part. You know, obviously, talented teams can win, but the teams that are connected and really believe in each other and fight, I don’t care what level we’re at. I mean, those teams — you always have a chance, and that’s what it’s about.”

Diana Taurasi and Natasha Cloud speak during a Phoenix Mercury game
Phoenix Mercury guard Natasha Cloud (0) speaks with fellow guard Diana Taurasi (3) during the WNBA game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, on May 28, 2024. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

The players’ connections with each other and Tibbetts were evident early on in the season. After Phoenix picked up its first win in a tight game against the Atlanta Dream, guards Natasha Cloud and Kahleah Copper laughed on the podium, telling reporters about Tibbetts cracking jokes regarding missed layups during the game’s crucial fourth quarter.

A few games later, on the road against New York, when asked why he substituted Cloud out of the game before putting her back in just moments later, he explained it was because he made a bet with her about which sideline out-of-bounds play guard Diana Taurasi would call. Tibbetts won the bet and $20.

This fun and supportive dynamic also exists among players. It’s evident in the big bear hug Cloud gives Allen before every game when starters are announced, and in how every player on the floor rushes to help their teammate up when they get knocked down. 

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For a brand-new team with tons of new personnel, the bonds are tight, and, according to Cunningham, they directly impact how the team plays together on the floor.

“I think when you have great chemistry off the court, and you guys have fun and you love each other and you truly genuinely want the best for each other, then on the court, you’re going to go to war with them,” Cunningham said. “Like you’re actually excited for your teammates when you see them going off, and it’s not a selfish-type thing.”

The Mercury’s chemistry isn’t just apparent on the court. Through various small improvements across the board, it’s reflected in the numbers as well. According to Her Hoop Stats, the Mercury’s turnover rate is down 1.7%, moving Phoenix from 12th to ninth in the league. 

Phoenix has also improved by 1.2% in its assisted shot rate. The Mercury’s 20.2 assists per game are fourth in the league. In Sunday’s win over Seattle, the Mercury assisted on 24 of their 31 made shots, marking their fourth game in a row with 24 or more assists.

“We’re moving the ball. We’re sharing it,” Copper told reporters after the game. “Everybody wants to go from good shots to a great shot. Sometimes we’re turning it over trying to get it to someone else, so very unselfish. Everybody just wants to win.”

Brittney Griner holds the basketball above her head in a game against the Minnesota Lynx
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) playing against the Minnesota Lynx at the Footprint Center in Phoenix on June 7, 2024. (Photo credit: Nicole Mullen | The Arizona Republic)

The Mercury’s chemistry has also manifested in the types of plays Phoenix is running and scoring on. Pick-and-roll plays run for the ball handler or roll player make up 29.3% of possessions, according to Synergy Sports. That is up from 20.5% in 2023. 

Screens, in general, are an integral part of Phoenix’s new offense. The Mercury are scoring 1.098 points per possession off screens, an improvement from last year’s 0.904 points per possession. Notably, with the increase, the Mercury are first in the league in total points scored off screens and second in score percentage, which is the percentage of possessions a player or team scores a minimum of one point, including made free throws.

The key to Phoenix’s impactful screening and success on screen plays is Griner. She is versatile as to which spots on the floor she can fill off a pick-and-roll. She also creates space and open lanes for her teammates to make decisions, challenge defenders and score.

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“Something that we worked on a ton after our staff got the job was sort of screening angles, and [Griner’s] really bought into that. And you’re seeing our players find her on rolls, right?” Tibbetts said Tuesday. “We’ve got high-level players coming off pick-and-roll, and their defender that’s in coverage or in drop, they’ve got a decision. And if they’re back, you know, BG is putting pressure. She’s getting out of the pick-and-roll at a good rate. And she’s just, you know, the presence, and if the big steps up at all, you know, Kah talked about it last game, you’ve got a decision to make.”

With the chemistry Phoenix has already built and Griner’s introduction into the rotation, the Mercury are 4-1 in their last five games. This includes wins over Commissioner’s Cup finalists the Lynx and Liberty, and the Wings and Storm. With player relationships as strong as ever and all its stars back on the floor, Phoenix seems to be finding its stride.

“We’re a new group. You know, especially with, I think this may be our fifth game with BG and Bec back,” Tibbetts said. “So I kind of hit on it. I think the team feels it, like our best basketball’s ahead of us. Getting wins like this is only going to help our group gain confidence.”

Written by Tia Reid

Tia Reid covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. Her other work has also appeared on NCAA.com, 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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