What the Phoenix Mercury need to improve on in the second half of the season

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The storyline surrounding the Phoenix Mercury heading into the season was that Diana Taurasi would make her return in early July and they’d be ready to compete for a WNBA championship. While there is still time for her to return and the team to build a rhythm, it just hasn’t quite gone that way yet.

Taurasi made her season debut earlier this month against the Connecticut Sun. But she was unable to stay in the lineup beyond that performance. The good news is that the Mercury has a 10-8 record and are fourth in the Western Conference standings despite Taurasi’s absence.

It is certainly positive that the Mercury find themselves in the playoff picture given the circumstances. However, they have enough talent on their roster to hold themselves to a higher standard, even without Taurasi. They will need to build off their pre-All-Star break performance in order to make noise in the playoffs.

Here are some areas that the Mercury must improve to close out the season:

Better Rebounding on Both Ends of the Floor

The possession battle is a crucial element to a team’s success. While the Mercury has thrived at limiting their turnovers, they have genuinely struggled in the rebounding department. It’s a key reason why they are a net negative in their scoring differential in aggregate possession statistics.

The numbers behind the Mercury’s rebounding woes are truly concerning. They rank dead last in total rebounding percentage at 46.5%. Phoenix also has posted a mere 24.9% offensive rebounding percentage (12th), and a 66.4% defensive rebounding percentage (10th). Being the least efficient rebounding team in the WNBA is not going to cut it and dilutes the impact of being one of the league’s best at limiting turnovers. 

Rebounding is an area where Brittney Griner will need to focus on dominating after the All-Star break. She has averaged only 7.2 rebounds per game this season. That number would be her lowest single-season average since 2016. Her teammates, DeWanna Bonner and Sancho Lyttle, have a better rebounding percentage. Given Griner’s career figures, it is unlikely that she will have a massive spike in production to close the season.

It’s not fair to simply point at Griner and call it a day, though. Her teammates need to do a better job. If they stay in front of their assignments on the perimeter, Griner doesn’t have to rotate over to protect the rim. Not having to be as much as a paint protecting presence would enable her to get earlier rebounding positioning.

Consistent Scoring Impact from Their Stars

It is no secret that the Mercury needs their two active stars–DeWanna Bonner and Brittney Griner–to shoulder the bulk of the offensive load right now. So far, Griner’s 19.1 points per game leads the league in scoring with Bonner’s 18.7 coming in second. They haven’t consistently been at their best at the same time, though.

The location of games has had a strong impact on the individual success of the two stars. When the team is playing at Talking Stick Resort Arena, Griner scores very well as she has averaged 23.1 points (53.9% FG, 78.6% FT) at home. Her scoring production significantly drops to an average of 15.9 points (38.9% FG, 86.2% FT) when she is on the road.

The opposite has been the case for Bonner as her scoring impact has been greater on the road as opposed to when she is playing in Phoenix. She has been limited to an average of just 14.5 points (34.9% FG, 28.6% 3P, 96.8% FT) at home. But her production rises to an average of 22.1 points (42.8% FG, 34.7% 3P, 92.3% FT) during away games.

A contributing factor to both of their star players seeing a significant discrepancy in their scoring has to do with usage. The clear focus of the offense has been Griner at home with Bonner being the secondary offensive option. But the opposite has been the case on the road. However, the primary issue for both players has been the decline in scoring efficiency that they have experienced in particular settings.

Greater Perimeter Shooting Efficiency on the Road

Being able to consistently convert from beyond the arc is an important trait for a team. The Mercury is usually a team that is able to do this. However without Taurasi, they have been inconsistent in this area. Their inconsistency has also correlated with the location of their games. They are shooting a league-best 39.2% from the perimeter at home compared to 29.6% on the road, which is better than only the Dallas Wings.

There hasn’t been a more efficient perimeter shooting team at home this season than the Mercury. They have shot on average 7.8-of-19.8 (39.2%) at home and their three-point percentage leads the WNBA in that setting. Their efforts at home in this area have been led by Leilani Mitchell and Briann January as they have shot on average 4.3-of-9.0 (47.8%) from deep.

The perimeter shooting impact from Mitchell and January has declined significantly on the road. They have combined to shoot on average 2.3-of-6.1 (37.1%) from beyond the arc during away games. While that is still certainly respectable production, it certainly doesn’t help the Mercury that not a single player on their team is currently shooting even 35% from beyond the arc during their away games.

It is a generally large void left behind by Taurasi’s absence but particularly in the three-point shooting department. That only amplifies when focusing solely on their road games. Last season, she shot on average a superb 3.5-of-8.4 (41.5%) and that level of efficiency on such a significant volume normally serves as the foundation to the team’s shooting on the road.

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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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