Navigating roster cuts from the Phoenix Mercury’s perspective

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It’s never a bad thing for a team in any league to have a strong draft. However, pulling off an impressive haul as a WNBA franchise can complicate the decision making process for roster cuts. That’s currently what the Phoenix Mercury are facing ahead of the May 23 deadline and they need to trim their roster down by four spots to satisfy the 12 player limit.

The ultimate key to simplifying the decision making process for general manager Jim Pitman appears to be whether or not he can find a trade suitor for Camille Little. The forward depth on the roster has become congested given that they have DeWanna Bonner and Stephanie Talbot from last season, signed Essence Carson, drafted Alanna Smith, and have Sancho Lyttle returning from injury.

There is another layer that could factor into the Mercury’s decisions when fielding their final roster. They are currently facing a need to shed their payroll from $1,187,744 to get below the $996,100 salary cap limit. The numbers show that they need to cut their salary cap spending by $191,644 and that would not be accomplished by simply waiving four players that earn the league minimum.

The most likely choice for one of the final roster cuts after waiving Alexis Peterson and Emese Hof appear to be Arica Carter. All three players signed contracts that were set to earn $41,965 during the upcoming season. They would still need to reduce their salary cap spending by $65,749 and that’s where the situation gets rather complicated. That’s where the $101,000 salary that Little is set to earn would ideally come into play.

It could theoretically be an option for Phoenix to trade Lyttle since she is set to earn $80,000 this season, but it sounds unlikely based on the comments from head coach Sandy Brondello and key players about how Lyttle will help this team. She started for all 18 of her regular season appearances with the Mercury last season before suffering a season-ending ACL tear. Phoenix made due in her absence by playing DeWanna Bonner as a power forward and their small ball lineups ultimately achieved significant success.

An option that the Mercury may have at their disposal if no team ends up agreeing to a deal to acquire one of their veterans would be to trim their roster further down to 11 players. That would be a tough decision to make given that they are already dealing with injuries. That makes it even more important for them to be willing to do what it takes to trade one of their veteran role players.

Considering how Phoenix would be able to keep Smith, Turner, and Cunningham if they were to trade away an expensive veteran, it would be logical for them to even consider giving up draft capital to get it done. It is invaluable to be able to provide three talented prospects with a full year to improve. They could solidify themselves as key members of the team for the future if given a chance, which would translate to salary cap spending.

It is vital for the Mercury to keep their young talent and develop them if they are going to maintain their success in the distant future and for the financial health of their roster for the immediate future. They are already set to spend $569,001 in 2020-21 despite DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner both having their contracts expire. Being able to rely on players who are signed to rookie contracts to make legitimate contributions would alleviate most potential financial worries.

The financial landscape of the Mercury for the near future if they can whether the storm of immediate potential financial limitations and by embracing their prospects. The contracts of Camille Little ($101,000), Essence Carson ($85,000), and Sancho Lyttle ($80,000), are going to expire after this upcoming season and they could be replaced with players like Smith and Cunningham.

The promise that Smith and Cunningham have as players has already been put on display in the preseason. Both players have filled key roles in erasing fourth quarter deficits and allowing the Mercury to edge out their opposition by the time the final buzzer sounds. Cunningham even took it a step further against the Seattle Storm by converting on a game-winning three-pointer.

While Turner has struggled to contribute on the offensive end of the floor, it was expected to happen. She has a raw offensive skill-set but provides value through her athleticism and ability to do the dirty work. It would not be wise to have to part ways with her before they put time into helping her develop an impactful offensive skill-set.

There is a scenario where the Mercury would need to trim their roster down to 11 players if they did not manage to use a trade to get under the salary cap. That would likely force them to have to make a tough decision of waiving either Turner or Cunningham since Smith is presumed to be safe of being cut. It appears that choosing to keep Cunningham makes the most since given that she is best suited to make an immediate offensive impact and could be a critical piece in the post-Taurasi era.

Managing to get their roster size down to 12 players while being able to hold onto as many young prospects as possible would be the best case scenario for the Mercury. They already have plenty of veterans throughout their rotation and that has created an ideal situation to use some of their roster spots to develop prospects.

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Grant Afseth is an Indiana Pacers columnist for the Kokomo Tribune and a Phoenix Mercury writer for WNBAInsidr.

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