2020 WNBA Season Preview: Phoenix Mercury

The Phoenix Mercury have brought in talented players, though how good they are going to be will ride on Diana Taurasi’s health. A middling team in both offense and defense a year ago, Sandy Brondello will have more offensive talent, but how to improve the defense is going to be a challenge. 

Even maintaining the defense at the level it was at last year may prove to be a challenge, given that two of the more effective defenders on the team have now moved on to other teams, in Briann January and DeWanna Bonner. While January did slip a bit, DeWanna Bonnner is a big loss. While offensively, she is better at the 4, more on that in my Sun preview, she is very valuable in her ability to ability to guard both 3s and 4s.

The Mercury were able to upgrade their point guard position with the trade for Skylar Diggins-Smith. Diggins-Smith was a no-brainer of a trade for 3 draft picks with the Dallas Wings, given their time to win is now.

While point guard is settled, they do not seem to have addressed the hole at the 3 left by Bonner leaving. Bria Hartley got the most perplexing free agency deal in the offseason. She seems prime to be an example of the winner’s curse, where the team that got her services ends up overpaying. Good for Hartley, but maybe not so good for the Mercury. It leaves the Mercury with options for the 3 who are too small, inexperienced, or not good enough.

Shatori Walker-Kimbroughis a good player, but I would have kept Jocelyn Willoughby, a rangy athlete to play on the wing. Walker-Kimbrough will likely be better than Willoughby, as a player who has already proven she can hang in the league, but she plays a position the Mercury already have depth at.

The Mercury have high hopes and are often listed as one of the new super teams. I am skeptical. This team should make the tail end of the playoffs, the 7 or 8 spot. However, unless Diana Tuarasi is able to return and still be the player she was, it is hard to see this team climbing in the standings. 

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions:

Skylar Diggins-Smith, Bria Hartley, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Jessica Breland, Nia Coffey

Notable Losses:

DeWanna Bonner, Leiliani Mitchell, Briann January, Camille Little. Kia Vaughn, Essence Carson.

Draft Picks:

2nd round: Te’a Cooper

3rd round: Stella Johnson

Guards: Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Bria Hartley

Wings: Nia Coffey, Sophie Cunningham.

Bigs: Jessica Breland, Alanna Smith, Britney Griner, Kia Vaughn. Brianna Turner. 

The Mercury only have enough space to carry 11 players, instead of 12 that they could. The Bria Hartley contract and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough trade were both somewhat befuddling moves, and this is one area where that is the case. The opportunity cost of being able to carry one more young player to potentially develop is another drawback to the Mercury’s approach. Coffey is most on the bubble, should a better wing option come available, though as the hardest position to fill in basketball, unclear who the Mercury would want. Teams have to cut down their rosters by March 26th, so this will be updated once that happens. 

Playing Time Breakdown:

Brittney Griner is the starting center. While only 29 years old, her game has been in a slow decline of effectiveness the past few years. She is still a top center, and should remain effective for as long as she wants to play and stays healthy, given that her two main skills, height and touch, don’t diminish with age. The main thing I will be watching with her is the way in which the modern basketball emphasis on shooting and spacing hurt how dominant she is, as she was quite good last year, and the team still struggled.

Skyler Diggins-Smith at point guard is the other guarantee of player and position on this roster. While a center who thrives in the half court and a point guard who likes to get out and run is a bit of an awkward fit, Diggins-Smith has experience playing with Liz Cambage and there are other other players, like Walker-Kimbrough, who can get out and run on the roster. Diggins-Smith has had an up and down career shooting the 3, but given the attention Griner draws, a better year is possible

As an aside, my personal hope is for Griner to shoot 2 threes a game. She has a nice looking shot on the 1 made three she had all last season. The image of Griner blocking a shot, Diggins-Smith sprinting to the other end, and then Griner strolling up and into a wide open trailing 3 and nailing it is wonderful. Griner is a career 80% foul shooter, she has a solid midrange game, and having her shoot 2 threes per game is absolutely doable. I definitely don’t want her to stand 25 feet from the basket whole possessions, but a couple of times a game, she should let it fly. 

What happens in between Diggins-Smith and Griner is up in the air and is where I have some questions about the roster construction of this team. Assuming health, Taurasi will play, and will hopefully be close to the Taurasi we saw in the 2018 playoffs, one of the most dangerous offensive players in WNBA history. But that is a lot to ask of a player who will be 38 whenever we have a season, should a season happen. A healthy Taurasi improves the offense in almost every category.

Who Taurasi will be asked to defend is one of the key questions, should she prove able to play. Taurasi is 6 foot, whereas Bria Hartley is 5’8” and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is 5’9”. Against quite a few teams, Taurasi will be able to handle guarding the three, or one of Hartley or Walker-Kimbrough will be able to guard a bigger player, but there are teams, such as the Sky with DeShields, or Minnesota and Napheesa Collier, where that seems unlikely to work well. Not to mention whatever kind of jumbo lineups Washington goes with, should Emma Meesseman make it over for the season.

If Taurasi is played at the 2, her natural position, that leaves Nia Coffey and Sophie Cunningham as the only two wings on the team. Modern basketball rewards having more wings, not fewer. Of course the Mercury were not going to get the kind of elite wings that have won championships in the past few years, such as Elena Delle Donne or Breanna Stewart, but I’m still confused as to their vision for this position. This is where the cost of giving Bria Hartley such a large deal comes in for me.

While based on pure production, Kahleah Copper’s contract was even less justified than Bria Hartley’s per herhoopstats, the reason I have Bria Hartley as least justifiable contract of this past offseason is because Copper is 6’1”, vs. Hartley’s 5’8”. Copper provides more defensive versatility, not to mention she is 2 years younger. Not that this was an option, but Copper on this roster makes a lot more sense.

Impossible to know if Skekinna Stricklen was open to going to Phoenix, but Stricklen is making $15,000 less this year than Hartley. Stricklen is a much better shooter, has the size to play the 3 and even some of the 4. While Stricklen is older, and not the swiftest on defense, she would have been a great fit on this roster. They are trying to win now. Brondello is a good enough coach to find a solution that I am not seeing. Let’s hope so, for the Mercury, cause Diamond Deshields ran them off the court twice in the final games last year, and I see little that changed.

Brianna Turner played fairly well towards the end of the year at the 4 for the Mercury, though she really plays like a 5, so I am penciling her in there. Alanna Smith was the Mercury’s 2019 number one draft pick, and Jessica Breland is there. Breland has the defensive reputation, though she had a rough year last year in Atlanta and at 32, may have lost a step. Alanna Smith provides the most shooting, based on college numbers, so may get a look at some point, since to maximize Griner one would want 4 shooters around her.

Phoenix has two positions sewn up, but a bunch of questions up and down the roster elsewhere. Diana Taurasi is one of the greatest players in WNBA history, but she is also turning 38 soon and coming off a year of injuries.  The lack of wings and 4s that complement Griner, make me skeptical of this team’s ceiling. Playoffs are doable, advancing will be a challenge. 

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