Phoenix Mercury make surprising moves to finalize their roster

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The degree of difficulty for a player to make the final roster of a WNBA franchise after being drafted is very high. It is not uncommon for teams to waive their second round picks even those that are coming off sensational collegiate seasons. So how did it end up being that the Phoenix Mercury managed to keep their whole 2019 draft class after fielding their final roster?

There was room on the Mercury’s roster for two of their rookies before they made any trades to free up space. It seemed like Alanna Smith was a virtual lock to take one of those spots with the final decision coming down between Sophie Cunningham and Brianna Turner. That meant that it appeared as if Arica Carter would almost surely be waived. Instead, they all performed well enough to prompt the team to try to keep them all.

“I thought our draft was excellent,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said during the team’s media day. “All rookies — including Arica Carter, our third round pick — have been really productive for us in training camp. We have some tough decisions to make as we lead into that first game.”

Phoenix did not allow tight operating room under the league’s salary cap to prevent them from keeping the 12 players that they felt were the best among their group. That is often a cliché that executives and coaches use but Mercury general manager Jim Pittman proved that was much more than that considering the choices that he made when making roster cuts.

“We are going to put the best 12 players on our roster that we have and so that’s a great opportunity for the youth and the experience to come together and in camp, we will have a chance to look at everybody,”  Pittman said during a conference call with the media following the 2019 WNBA Draft.

“With our season being 34 games in just over 100 days, you need depth, you need to have players that can play at any moment because you never know when injuries going to occur. Having that extra depth is really important to us and having youth that can contribute and recover quickly is something that winning teams have to have.”

There was a clear set of goals that the Mercury had when making their draft choices that went beyond just adding more youth into the fold. They wanted to become more athletic while also adding more shooting to maximize their floor spacing. Each player brings a cohesive set of skills to the table that could immediately fill a functional role on a winning team while enabling them to position themselves for the future.

“Our goal going into the draft was to get younger, more athletic and we think we clearly accomplished that. We wanted to add basketball players though and we think we did that with the three players that we got in the first 13 picks,” Pittman said.

“Alanna Smith, as Sandy said, really improved over her last couple of years and since spending the summer with Sandy. Her confidence level, her shooting, her rebounding, that’s something that we like, how she runs the floor. Brianna Turner had a great career at Notre Dame, had a couple injuries along the way, but really bounced back. Provides interior defense, runs the floor, is athletic, again, there’s a theme here, and rebounds. That’s important for us. Sophie’s toughness and her ability to score and run the floor. All of those things are pieces that we need to have as we move forward with our team.

“We are not a young team. We are an older team. While we are still trying to win now, and that’s our goal, to win a championship this year and we think with these three pieces, we are able to get much closer to that. We have to start thinking about the future and we think we really solidified the start of that tonight.”

It’s never easy for a WNBA franchise to make room on their roster and the Mercury were certainly no exception. They ended up doing that by trading Stephanie Talbot to the Minnesota Lynx in exchange for a 2020 second-round pick and by waiving Leilani Mitchell. Both transactions cleared the two additional roster spots that they were seeking and ultimately translated to all four of their rookies making the team.

There were some hypothetical alternatives to trading Talbot or waiving Mitchell but other teams likely did not have interest in acquiring the necessary players that would have been required. The ideal scenario likely would have been to trade Camille Little but that probably wasn’t a real option. The 34-year-old is coming off a season with averages of just 3.0 points and 1.8 rebounds and is set to earn $101,000 in 2019-20.

From a salary cap standpoint, another option could have been Sancho Lyttle but she was mentioned by both Brondello and Diana Taurasi on media day as a key piece for the team. That made it seem very unlikely that she was going to play for anyone other than the Mercury this season. The process of elimination left Mitchell as the only viable option to get under the salary cap.

“I like our team. If we can get healthy — Sancho (Lyttle) is still in the process of getting back but when she’s ready, we will get her back on the court,” Brondello said. “She’s been practicing and she looks good out there with what she’s shown us. Once we get our group back together, I like our chances. I’m sure every coach is standing up at the podium saying the same things but I believe in this team, I believe in our veterans. We’ll continue to work hard to achieve our goal of winning another championship.

“We know that’s not easy. We came very close last year. It’s a ‘what if.’ Seattle was a fantastic team and had no injuries. We had a few injuries but it was a great series. I think that just motivates us to keep working hard. We’re on the right track here and we just have to keep everyone healthy and have some luck go our way. At the same time, we have to play good basketball. I like where we’re at but at the same time, we have room for improvement.”

Last season was a genuine struggle for Mitchell from an offensive efficiency standpoint. That’s concerning considering how that occurred despite being the most efficient spot-up scorer in the whole league. The rationale likely was that Carter provides a comparable catch-and-shoot ability while being 11 years younger, three inches taller, and a more impactful defender. Making this move simply made sense.

It’s more complicated to unpack the decision to trade Talbot but it still was a logical move. The 24-year-old showed real promise as a shooter last season and even some signs of being a playmaker, which is why many are dissatisfied with this decision. However, there are plenty of players on the Mercury’s roster that can play multiple positions and that would fill the surface-level void left behind by trading Talbot.

The Essence Carson signing added an established role player on the wing that can knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers and run pick-and-rolls. Let’s not forget that Alanna Smith can play both forward positions, Sophie Cunningham can slide over a spot, and DeWanna Bonner can obviously fill the small forward role as well.

It is worth noting that Talbot was key for Phoenix in the playoffs last season and trading her away reduces their ability to field small ball lineups. This shouldn’t be too significant of a concern as long as Smith can make an immediate impact. Her ability to space the floor at the four spot coupled with her shot blocking makes for intriguing lineup combinations.

The personnel that the Mercury has currently on their roster should be enough to be a serious contender for the WNBA Finals. Receiving consistency from their young players on the big stage when the lights are shining at their brightest will certainly play a role in their efforts of winning a championship.

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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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