November 6, 2022 

What Diana Taurasi’s 2023 return means for the Mercury — and Skylar Diggins-Smith

One question is answered, but many remain in Phoenix entering offseason

There are many, many questions for the Phoenix Mercury to address this offseason. But on Saturday, one of the biggest got an answer that purple-and-orange fans will love to hear.

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Star guard Diana Taurasi told AZ Family’s Nick King that she will be returning for her 19th playing season – and 20th as a professional – for the Mercury in 2023.

“You know, I started working out. So the minute I start working out, that means I’m all in,” Taurasi said to King on Saturday at the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation basketball court dedication event in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix. “Like anything, when you get to a certain point in your life, in your professional career, you start taking different things into account.

“Having two kids, a family, you start weighing different things about where your time and your energy goes. I’m lucky to have an amazing family that are always pushing me to do what I love to do, and that’s to play basketball.”

Taurasi, who is now 40 and will turn 41 during the 2023 season, has been giving the same type of answer when asked about retirement for years. When she no longer enjoys doing the daily work to play basketball — the training, the conditioning, all of the shots, even some dietary changes — that’s when she’ll know it’s time to hang it up.

That’s why, to Taurasi, the start of workouts is the key signal that she’s coming back – yes, even with six months until the WNBA season begins.

Taurasi has left the retirement question open-ended at the end of the last two seasons, but those around her in Phoenix have always expected her to keep coming back to basketball.

“I can’t even picture a world with Diana not even playing basketball,” teammate Shey Peddy said in 2021. “I feel like she’s not going to retire and just keep playing, playing, playing.”

Mercury general manager Jim Pitman added, “I expect Diana Taurasi [will be] playing until she tells me she isn’t.”

But while Taurasi coming back does answer one question, many other questions remain.

What Phoenix does with its roster from here

The last thing Taurasi said to King on Saturday was a statement that shouldn’t surprise anyone, from her end.

“I’m ready to bring another championship here,” Taurasi said.

“Here” has always meant Phoenix for Taurasi, though she is a free agent entering the offseason. But with Taurasi returning, it’s pretty clear that the edict to the organization will, once again, be about chasing its fourth championship.

“This is the Phoenix Mercury. We’re going for it every year. We’re not taking off-years in going for it,” Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said in February. “The urgency of the feel of being in the Finals and not winning, plus these new players who also want to get to that level and want to be there again. I think this is what you want: a very competitive environment where people are focused on one thing, which is winning.”

That mentality was understandable entering 2022, when the Mercury were coming off of a run to the WNBA Finals and had added two of the league’s better players in Diamond DeShields and Tina Charles.

But after a proverbial season from hell in 2022, when seemingly everything that could go wrong did, can Phoenix pull off a rapid resurgence?

Per the great Her Hoop Stats database, there are only three players currently under contract for 2023: Skylar Diggins-Smith ($234,950), DeShields ($154,000) and Brianna Turner ($150,000). Only Turner is under contract beyond 2023, with one extra year at the same amount.

The status of Brittney Griner, still held in Russia under what the United States says is a wrongful detainment, lingers over everything for the Mercury. The utmost importance is being placed on getting Griner home safely as soon as possible, and everything beyond that is secondary.

But from a basketball perspective, Griner’s ability and desire to play again will impact how Phoenix operates, and what the league decides to do with her contract — which was honored in 2022 but didn’t count against Phoenix’s cap — is a major uncertainty.

Beyond Griner’s status, Phoenix also has key wing players Sophie Cunningham and Kia Nurse entering free agency. Nurse didn’t play in 2022 after a major injury in the 2021 WNBA playoffs, electing to come back to Phoenix on the qualifying offer. But Nurse returned for Team Canada at the 2022 FIBA World Cup and showed well. She will be an interesting free agent to follow, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see her return to Phoenix.

The same could be said for Cunningham, who made more money than Turner in 2022 because her fourth-year option was not picked up by Pitman and the Mercury in 2021. She got a slight increase in money and a significant increase in role and responsibility, as Phoenix thrust her into the starting lineup in a small-ball look after agreeing to a contract divorce with Charles.

The feisty forward from Columbia, Missouri has continued to grow at the WNBA level, more than doubling her career highs in per-game averages in points (12.6) and rebounds (4.4). She’s a big fan of living in the Phoenix metro area and would likely be welcomed back, though expect another pay raise.

And that’s where a question will be asked of Taurasi, who has been a maximum or supermaximum contract player for a long time for Phoenix. The supermaximum number would be $234,936 in 2023. Would she entertain taking less money to help Phoenix build a roster around her?

If she doesn’t, it’s tough to see how the Mercury will be able to convince free agents to sign for a team that barely snuck into the playoffs last year. And without a first- or second-round pick (both traded in the deal that brought DeShields to Phoenix and cleared the cap space to sign Charles), it will be hard to add an impact player in the draft, too.

But the Mercury do have one major move to make.

What Taurasi coming back means for Diggins-Smith

Before the 2021 season, Taurasi and Diggins-Smith were both talking up how much their offseason workouts together in Phoenix were helping them build their chemistry and find a fit next to each other.

Flash forward a year later, and the star guards were seen yelling at each other on the sideline five games into the season, which led to Diggins-Smith taking time away from the team for a few games. By midseason, after Diggins-Smith used a clown emoji on a quote-tweet of a video of her head coach, the Mercury were shopping Diggins-Smith around the league. 

Diggins-Smith did not play in the final four games of the regular season or either playoff game for “personal reasons,” and Diggins-Smith later announced that she is pregnant on social media. In the aftermath of a First-Team All-WNBA season, Pitman said he expects Diggins-Smith back in 2023.

“Sky’s under contract for next year,” Pitman said. “She’s obviously not with us for personal reasons that I really can’t talk about, but she is under contract, so, yes.”

But Pitman, as a general manager, has been a big proponent of team chemistry over the years, and the mix in Phoenix appeared to be rather toxic in 2022. It could be rooted in the Mercury deciding not to bring back former head coach Sandy Brondello, whom Diggins-Smith was close to.

After Phoenix hired Nygaard to her first professional head coaching job, Diggins-Smith was asked about her relationship with her new head coach at the team’s media day in May. Her answer: “It’s fresh, it’s really fresh. We’re learning each other, we’re learning our personalities. It’s great that she has experience in this league as a player, and I was really pleased with the staff that she put together.”

After Diggins-Smith complimented assistant coaches Crystal Robinson and Nikki Blue and the way that Nygaard had been soliciting feedback from the veterans on the team, she added, “There’s a lot of questions. It’s a lot of dialogue right now, and that’s what you need early. And realistically, some of [the learning] is going to be on the job still. But I think she’s doing a good job of coming into camp and putting a plan out.” 

Clearly, things didn’t go according to plan in 2022. And after the head coach she was close with was replaced by someone else, Diggins-Smith saw “clutch” situations — which the league stats define as games where the margin is within five points with less than five minutes left — focus more on Taurasi, even after Diggins-Smith was one of the best players in the clutch in 2021.

According to the league’s stats website, in the 15 games where the Mercury were in “clutch” situations in 2022, Taurasi had one more field goal attempt than Diggins-Smith, despite Diggins-Smith shooting far better than Taurasi in those situations:

  • Diggins-Smith: 14-for-34 from the field (41.2%), 5-for-13 from 3-point range (38.5%), 20-of-21 from the free-throw line (95.2%)
  • Taurasi: 12-for-35 from the field (34.3%), 6-for-24 from 3-point range (25%), 12-of-13 from the free-throw line (92.3%)

And that doesn’t include the other side of the ball, where Diggins-Smith was one of the better defenders in the league again and Taurasi … was very much not.

How that impacts things in 2023 will unfold over the coming weeks and months. But Pitman hasn’t been shy about trading away players he felt were key pieces entering the offseason. Even after complimenting Bria Hartley after the 2021 Finals ended, consider this quote:

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

The best — and maybe the only — way Phoenix could truly make an impact move to improve its team in 2023 is to trade Diggins-Smith, and there will likely be some teams interested in her services. But the pregnancy does add some uncertainty to her status.

Diggins-Smith hasn’t publicly commented beyond the Instagram post announcing her pregnancy and showing her bump, so details are scarce. But another pregnant player in the WNBA, Las Vegas’ Dearica Hamby, said she expects to play in 2023. It’s reasonable to think Diggins-Smith could play, too.

Where she would play in 2023 was going to be one of the more fascinating questions of the offseason. Now, with Taurasi announcing she’s returning, it seems less and less likely that Diggins-Smith will be back on the floor in Phoenix.

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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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