June 28, 2022
What the Phoenix Mercury gained, and lost, when Tina Charles left
'Sometimes what's best for the team is not what's best for you'
PHOENIX — It was all joy and commitment after the Phoenix Mercury won their second straight game in the post Tina Charles era against the Indiana Fever on Monday, 83-71.
You wouldn’t have guessed how tumultuous the weekend that preceded it was.
On Saturday, Tina Charles and the Phoenix Mercury agreed on a contract divorce, or in layman’s terms, a buyout. The eight time all-star left the three-time WNBA champions after starting 16 games she appeared in. Hours later, she headed for the rival Seattle Storm.
Head Coach Vanessa Nygaard spoke carefully about Charles’s departure before the team’s game against the Dallas Wings the same day. “We’re ready to move on. It’s a divorce. So we’re moving ahead,” Nygaard said.
Charles shined statistically in the Valley of the Sun, averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 36.4% from three on 4.1 attempts a game. Coming from the Washington Mystics without their best player in Elena Delle Donne, Charles joined a star-studded roster with Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner.
She posted a career-high 29 points against the Indiana Fever earlier in the month. The 2010 first overall pick also had seven games of scoring 20+. But the Mercury struggled to win, and many analysts questioned the fit.
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What was the problem?
A low-post oriented scorer with capabilities beyond the three-point line is great — but with two combo guards who initiate the offense and only one ball, the math didn’t always add up. A 26.1% usage rate for Charles is the eighth highest in the WNBA, ahead of Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Some of her former teammates cheered the departure. After their victory over the Wings, Sophie Cunningham loudly proclaimed, “Fuck Tina Charles.” Monday was the second straight game without Charles and a second straight win. Inside the Phoenix locker room on Monday night, the dominant emotion was happiness.
When asked about her thoughts about Charles moving on from the team, Phoenix guard Diamond DeShields presented no ill-will and had a straightforward response to the sudden move.
“It’s onto the next. You know, you can’t really dwell on things like that,” DeShields said, sitting at her locker as she listened, vibing, to “No Diggity” by Blackstreet. “You really can’t, especially now with the way the season is rolling over, and games are coming up so quickly. I wish her (Charles) the best but like, just gotta focus on the people in this locker room.”
Nonetheless, that focus translated over from Saturday’s game, where Nygaard described the team as more focused than ever before. There have been a plethora of distractions. Injuries, a minor COVID-19 outbreak throughout the league and most significantly, the detainment of Brittney Griner in Russia.
DeShields sat up on her chair and was pragmatic when describing the sustained focus over the past two games. “The focus is still there, the focus is still the same. But I think right now, we’re trying to just stack small victories on top of each other,” DeShields said.
Right next to her sat Diggins-Smith, who was anticipating more of the same types of questions. And yes, that is what she got. The five-time all-star had a more lighthearted approach to Charles leaving the team.
“Yeah she told me…. Y’all ain’t gonna get me,” Diggins-Smith said, laughing. “I just told her that we wish her the best of luck and you can’t worry about anything else.”
How will the team fare without Tina Charles?
Even with the sudden departure, Phoenix is familiar with not having Charles in the lineup. As a matter of fact, according to Nygaard, the team had two of their best games without the 2021 scoring champion.
“We had a couple games, one of our best games against Connecticut this year, when they had a lot of size and we didn’t have her,” Nygaard said. “So we try to find some different ways for us to score. Try to lean a little bit into some of the strengths of our other players.”
The two games without Charles resulted in a 92-88 loss against the Connecticut Sun, and a 81-74 win over the Los Angeles Sparks. Within those games, they severely missed her rebounding, as the Mercury were out rebounded 35-23 and 28-24 respectively.
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Phoenix is ranked dead last with 31 rebounds per game. Losing the second leading rebounder in Charles can’t help. She also had seven or more rebounds in 12 games, an area that will be missed dearly.
“We were going to need those rebounds,” Nygaard said.” Obviously, we were able to go into her to get some key buckets during the game.”
With the subtraction of Charles, Phoenix added fan-favorite player in Reshanda Gray and brought back Jennie Simms before Monday’s game. They were key players in the win, with Gray registering two points in three minutes with a +/9 rating. Nygaard reflected and emphasized the foundations of the team moving forward.
“What we’re looking forward to is every player on our team stepping up in whatever way they can to help us be successful,” Nygaard said. “Sometimes what’s best for the team is not what’s best for you, and willing to accept those things and buy into those things and then do whatever you can to help your team be successful. That’s what our team is focused on right now.”
Written by Hayden Cilley
Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.