September 17, 2023 

What went wrong for the Phoenix Mercury in 2023

'It was extremely frustrating, at times impossible'

Atypical, unusual and strange are words one might use to describe the 2023 Phoenix Mercury season.

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The organization, which rarely does not have great success, had its worst season since 2012. The team went 9-31 and missed the playoffs for the first time since then.

“It’s definitely different,” said Phoenix forward Brianna Turner, who is experiencing her first WNBA season without a trip to the postseason. “… I know this feeling now, and [it’s] not something I want to experience again. So we got to figure out next season how to turn that around.”

There are multiple reasons why the Mercury were the WNBA’s worst team this season, starting with injuries and absences. Guard Skylar Diggins-Smith was away from the team on maternity leave, and guard Diana Taurasi missed 14 games due to injuries. Guard Sophie Cunningham was absent for nine games, and center Brittney Griner also missed nine games. Plus, guard Shey Peddy missed 22 games and center Megan Gustafson missed six games. Phoenix brought in eight players this year for seven-day contracts or hardship deals.

“It was extremely frustrating,” interim head coach Nikki Blue said. “At times impossible. But our players continued to show up. When you don’t have a consistent lineup and you have three players — three of your top players — missing every single game, you take that away from any team and they’re going to struggle. And that’s just the position we were in this year.”

On the court, the Mercury struggled with turnovers all season. They led the WNBA in that category, averaging 14.8 per game. They were also the league’s worst rebounding team, averaging 30.9 boards per game, and finished tenth out of 12 teams in 3-point shooting percentage (32.8%).

Defensively, they tied for ninth in the WNBA in points allowed at 84.9 per game. Opponents teed off on them from distance, shooting 37% from 3-point range. Phoenix also had a league-worst point differential this season.

Taurasi, in her 19th WNBA season, proved to be both a gift and a curse for the Mercury this season. Phoenix continued to rely on the 41-year-old heavily, and when it worked, it was magical. When it did not work, Taurasi was a defensive liability and missed many shots.

The coaching situation was probably also a factor in the Mercury’s struggles. The team did not have much juice under Vanessa Nygaard, who started the season as head coach. Once Phoenix transitioned to Blue, it was already 2-10. Phoenix was noticeably better under Blue but did not stay healthy or improve enough to drastically change its record.

A few bright spots

Despite the Mercury’s struggles this season, there were still some great moments. For starters, Griner was freed in December after being wrongfully detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022. When she returned to play in the WNBA this season, she put up great numbers given her circumstances and was named a WNBA All-Star.

Taurasi became the first player to hit 10,000 career points in a 42-point vintage performance against the Atlanta Dream on Aug. 4. The 42 points were the most in regulation in her career and helped the Mercury to a 91-71 win.

On Aug. 10, Phoenix set a WNBA record with 45 points in the first quarter of a win over the Connecticut Sun. And in the Mercury’s last home game of the season against the Las Vegas Aces, guard Sug Sutton recorded the franchise’s first triple-double in 27 seasons with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.

What does the future hold for the Mercury?

Phoenix has four unrestricted free agents in Griner, Peddy, Gustafson and Diggins-Smith. Griner stated that she and her wife, Cherelle, just purchased a house in Phoenix and does not plan to play anywhere else.

Peddy is coming off an injury-plagued season in 2023 but had a career-year in 2022. She stated her desire to return to the Mercury.

Gustafson had her best WNBA season in 2023, and while she said she loves Phoenix, she did not rule out a move.

On the other hand, something would have to change dramatically for Diggins-Smith to return to the Mercury. When Taurasi was asked how she felt about a potential Diggins-Smith return, she said only, “Next question.”

If Diggins-Smith does not return, the Mercury will have enough salary cap space to potentially sign a superstar.

Phoenix also has to decide what it wants to do at head coach. The Mercury could bring back Blue, who went 7-21 in her interim role or go with an outside candidate.

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Phoenix has the second-best odds in the 2024 WNBA draft lottery, with a 27.6% chance to land the No. 1 pick. UConn star Paige Bueckers, Iowa phenom Caitlin Clark, national championship-winning LSU forward Angel Reese and Stanford’s reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Cameron Brink could all be available. If those four players declare, the 2024 event will be perhaps the most anticipated draft in WNBA history.

Taurasi, one of the most successful players to come from UConn’s storied program, was asked about the potential of Bueckers suiting up for the Mercury.

“Any team would be lucky to have someone like Paige,” Taurasi said. “There’s a lot of people who play basketball, but there’s not a lot of people who love basketball, and that’s the difference. … I’m excited for her to be back on the court. No matter what WNBA team she plays for, I’m just really excited for her to be back on the court and helping.”

Gustafson, who had a great career at Iowa, said she would stay in school rather than turn pro if she was Clark.

“That’d be really fun to be able to play with her,” Gustafson said. “[I’m] just excited to see where Iowa women’s basketball goes this year and see how they do. And I know she still has a couple of years left, though, that she could still stay. And I can’t say what she would do, but if I was in that position, I’d probably stay at Iowa.”

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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