Season Review: The Phoenix Mercury showed the value of staying healthy

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The Phoenix Mercury had high expectations heading into their 2019 campaign, even with Diana Taurasi’s back injury. Many felt that the team just needed stay afloat prior to Taurasi coming back to the lineup. Once Taurasi got back, the Mercury would take off and return to the top of the league.

The reality for the Mercury fell far short of those expectations. Taurasi never got healthy enough to provide her regular level of excellence. Without a franchise-player playing at a high-level, other players needed to step up but a team simply can’t replace the production of her caliber by committee.

After finishing the regular season with a 15-19 regular-season record, the Mercury lost 105-76 at the hands of the Chicago Sky in their lone playoff game. The game wasn’t lopsided initially as Phoenix faced just a three-point deficit at halftime. But Brittney Griner suffered an injury and the Sky managed to outscore the Mercury by a 61-35 margin in the second half.

What Went Right For Phoenix

The individual production of Brittney Griner topped the list for positives for the 2019 Mercury. She managed to earn a spot on the All-WNBA First Team with 191 total voting points, which trailed only Elena Delle Donne (215) and Courtney Vandersloot (197). Griner averaged 20.7 points (led-WNBA), 7.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 2.0 blocks.

The third member of the Mercury’s star trio, DeWanna Bonner, had a strong campaign as well. While she struggled with her scoring efficiency, she still averaged 17.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. She was the only player on the team to appear in all 34 games and was the team’s main perimeter playmaker. Without Taurasi’s regular impact, what Bonner provided was sorely needed.

It’s difficult to envision where the Mercury would have been had they not brought back Leilani Mitchell in the offseason. Mitchell became the first professional basketball player to win the award for the Most Improved Player twice. She added a secondary perimeter playmaking punch with an average of 12.8 points and 4.0 assists. There were plenty of nights when she went off for a high volume scoring night and seemed to bail out Phoenix.

The Mercury, despite missing Taurasi, still managed to produce 0.904 points per possession (3rd). They trailed only the Washington Mystics and the Chicago Sky in that department. They ranked favorably in the following play types; pick-and-roll ball-handling (2nd), post-up (1st), transition (1st), cutting (6th), pick-and-roll screener (5th), off-screens (6th), handoffs (3rd), and isolation (4th).

What Went Wrong For Phoenix

There was a steep drop in the contributions provided from the rest of the roster when looking past Griner, Bonner, and Mitchell. Aside from the obvious negative of not having Taurasi, the Mercury had to rely on a variety of rookies that naturally needed a learning curve. There was also plenty of inconsistent production from supporting cast veterans as well.

Some of the team-based deficiencies that the Mercury experienced included defensive execution, league-worst rebounding production, and overall play on the road. Managing to get Taurasi back healthy would have raised the team’s floor by supercharging their offense, in general, but especially when on the road.

However, Taurasi probably would not have been able to help the defensive side of the ball or rebounding. Phoenix asked far too much of their offense to make up for deficiencies in those areas. Regardless, having all three of their star players healthy along with Mitchell taking the next step as a player would have been very difficult to stop for any opponent.

What’s Next?

Heading into the offseason, what’s known is that Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner intends to play for the Mercury in 2020. The top priority is to retain DeWanna Bonner and its safe to declare Mitchell — the 2019 WNBA Most Improve Player of the Year — as another piece that must be brought back at all costs. Bottom line, everything is significantly simplified if Phoenix has all three members of their star trio in the lineup next season.

If Bonner were to return, the focus would then shift to modifying the supporting cast and experiencing progression from young players. It would be significant if Sophie Cunningham, Alanna Smith, and Brianna Turner are each able to enter training camp as more consistent players on both ends of the floor. The two frontcourt players could provide a real boost particularly by being impactful rebounders.

From a personnel standpoint, there is certainly room to improve from some of the pending free agents on the team such as Essence Carson, Sancho Lyttle, and Yvonne Turner. They could use more reliable shooting options to pair alongside their stars. Be as that may, they can’t sacrifice too much on the defensive end of the floor or on the boards. 

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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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