By Grant Afseth
The Phoenix Mercury announced that Diana Taurasi is expected to miss up to 10-to-12 weeks after undergoing a procedure on a disk protrusion in her back.
“Diana began experiencing symptoms during offseason workouts, notified us, and in conjunction with our medical staff determined the right course of action,” Mercury general manager Jim Pitman said in a statement. “We have confidence that this procedure will not only get her back on the court but ensure she can get back to chasing around her toddler son, Leo, as well.”
The void that is left behind by Taurasi being sidelined is massive. The All-Star averaged an impressive 20.7 points (44.6% FG, 38.3% 3P, 92.5% FT), 3.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.2 blocks last season. It’s going to take a group effort to overcome individual production of that caliber.
The high-powered offensive attack that Phoenix had last season relied heavily on their three main scoring options last season. Brittney Griner (22.3%), Diana Taurasi (20.7%), and DeWanna Bonner (19.4%) combined to account for 62.4% of the Mercury’s scoring possessions last season.
Taking away a player that accounted for more than a fifth of a team’s scoring possessions is going to cause problems, especially when that player is as talented as Taurasi. The solution to getting by without the All-Star guard is going to be complex given the circumstances.
The top offensive option that the Mercury have is to attack defenses with Griner in the post. She produced a tremendous 1.135 points per possession on scoring possessions in the post last season and that trailed only Liz Cambage among high volume offensive players.
Griner is often able to create open shots for her teammates out of the post because the opposition has to send additional pressure to the paint to slow her down. Phoenix will need to use stretch-fours like Alanna Smith to spread out the defense as much as possible and it can help generate three-pointers while Taurasi is out.
Where Phoenix will likely miss Taurasi the most will be in the pick-and-roll ball handling department. She led all high-volume offensive players in this category with a truly staggering 1.117 points per possession in this area last season and accounted for an incredible 45.3% of the team’s pick-and-roll ball handling possessions.
She has an ability to use picks to create pull-up jumpers in a way that can truly demoralize a defense. While she doesn’t get to the rim nearly as often as she pulls up, her efficiency is tremendous when she does. This level of dynamic scoring impact is simply not getting replaced.
Bonner was the only player aside from Taurasi that consistently found success as a pick-and-roll ball handler for the Mercury last season. Her output of 0.939 points per possession ranked second to only Taurasi when compared to the 26 players that logged at least 100 of these possessions last season.
There is a key distinction between the approach that Taurasi and Bonner have when scoring in pick-and-roll situations. Bonner drives to the basket significantly more often and isn’t nearly as effective at knocking down pull-up jumpers.
It makes sense for the Mercury to utilize Bonner-Griner pick-and-roll sequences heavily while deploying lineups with a stretch-four to spread the defense out as much as possible. The size and skill combination is quite difficult to guard and is arguably their most dynamic option.
The two players did not connect with one another often in pick-and-roll situations last season but that should change without Taurasi. This is their best way of breaking down the defense from the perimeter and if the defenses pre-rotates to stop Griner, there will be wide open pass outs to spot-up shooters.
There is a real concern regarding who else will be able to pick up some of the pick-and-roll ball handling production because Bonner can’t do it alone. Lelani Mitchell and Briann January were the team’s only other players that accounted for at least 10% of their possessions in this area last season and they both struggled.
Phoenix is going to miss the dynamic ability that Taurasi has to score in off-screen situations. She produced a sensational 1.182 points per possession during these plays and that all high volume players. Nobody else from last year’s roster was used often in this area since it’s not their strength.
The ways that Taurasi scores when coming off screens are not easy. There are times when she will come straight off the screen into a catch-and-shoot jumper from deep. She also converts on difficult looks from mid-range and is aggressive in her pursuit getting to the rim.
The team’s best bet of filling some of the off-screen void is Sophie Cunningham. She was frequently used in this way by Missouri last season and her output of 1.23 points per possession was elite compared to all NCAA Division I women’s players.
The efficiency that Cunningham had in these situations at the collegiate level is definitely not going to carry over into the WNBA. She at least shows that she is comfortable with not having to be set before firing catch-and-shoot attempts and that’s an asset.
Giving Cunningham playing time and using her in this manner would maintain some diversification within their half-court offense. Without a dynamic shot maker like Taurasi, it’s crucial that Phoenix takes advantage of everything at their disposal.
Another area where the Mercury’s offense will suffer without Taurasi is transition. She generated 1.215 points per possession while shouldering the ball handling load and was responsible for 26.4% of their transition possessions.
What she does in transition situations is a true sight to behold at times. She has an uncanny ability to stop on a dime to knock down difficult pull-up jumpers and is more than capable of getting to the rim and finishing in traffic.
There really is not a viable replacement for Taurasi’s ball handling impact in transition situations that is currently on the roster. Phoenix will need someone to step up unexpectedly or even embrace more of a half-court approach.
The final main component of Taurasi’s regular offensive repertoire is spot-up. While her output of 1.063 points per possession in this category was not elite, it was still highly impressive considering the degree of difficult of a lot of her attempts.
Without a dynamic shooter like Taurasi, the Mercury are going to need to be more precise with how they are creating perimeter jump shots. It is much easier to have such a dynamic talent that is able to save broken plays by making tough shots.
Since Phoenix will not be able to benefit from transcendent guard skills, it would be wise to use some of the additional aspects of Griner’s abilities that are very difficult to contain. In addition to areas like post-ups and the pick-and-roll, there is more that can be utilized.
With a four-out offensive attack and effective ball movement, the Mercury could maximize Griner’s impact as a cutter and not many teams have the personnel to stop her. This option could help free up spot-up shooters since opposing teams would pre-rotate at times.
It would help the Mercury for Griner to be as aggressive as possible on the offensive boards while Taurasi is sidelined. Their jump shooting ability likely will decline noticeably at least and having someone inside to be ready to clean up those extra misses is important.
There already is a need for Phoenix to improve as an offensive rebounding team and Griner could lead the way. They ranked ahead of only the Los Angeles Sparks in offensive rebounding percentage last season and working to improve that would be ideal.
The fact of the matter is that the Mercury are going to have to change their offensive approach while Taurasi is sidelined. They will need to embrace the unique capabilities that Griner brings to the table while also leaning on Bonner more as a playmaker.
Phoenix will undoubtedly experience a drop-off in their success without a franchise player. What is important is that they manage to stay afloat until she is able to return to the lineup.