This season, post players are continuing to stretch the floor with greater regularity. Considering that the two previous champions were led by stretch fours surrounded by other shooters, the rest of the league seems to be following suit.
Posts who have never taken three-pointers in the past are now opting to space the floor with shooting and high pick-and-roll action rather than staying on the low block as they’ve done in the past. Notably, players like Tina Charles, Chiney Ogwumike, and A’ja Wilson have made a more concerted effort to play away from the basket for the first time. But not all players are following this trend.
Most notably, Brittney Griner and Sylvia Fowles have made a point to stay in the paint throughout the majority of offensive possessions. In particular, Griner has taken 71 percent of her shots from inside 10 feet and has yet to take a three-pointer. And as one of the tallest players in the league, Griner finds little reason to leave the paint when she can impose her will on other teams.
In 2021 Griner is averaging 15.7 points and a career-best 8.7 rebounds per game. She also remains a force on the defensive end, averaging 2.7 blocks per game. While this is obviously a small sample size, her rebounding remains up in comparison to the last five seasons. She is averaging 13.2 rebounds per 100 possessions and 9.5 rebounds per 36 minutes—her best since 2015.
“She’s one of the most dominant low-block players in the league,” Phoenix Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said.
While Griner is most natural in the paint, her tendency to stay in the lane poses an interesting challenge for the Mercury as they look to mesh Diggins-Smith and Taurasi with Griner. In a traditional offense, pairing good shooters with a dominant big is a perfect combination, offering a way to get points easily and efficiently.
However, with younger and faster players, defenses are switching with greater regularity and can collapse when there’s a roll to the basket, instead forcing a long two. As a result, having a big that can shoot helps exploit switching defenses.
As the season goes on, Brondello said Griner can and will start to move outside. While she has never been a primary three-point shooter, she took 10 percent of her shots in 2020 from at least 16 feet and has upped that percentage to 13.2 percent in 2021.
“That’s something we’ll continue to work on,” Brondello said. “She’s versatile. She isn’t just a low-block player.”
Although this isn’t the Big Three’s first season on the Mercury, they have relatively limited experience on the same team given that they played just 12 games together in the Wubble, and Griner arrived at the training camp with a slight delay, having played overseas for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the offseason.
So far, the first three games have provided mixed results. In the opening two games, Phoenix scored fewer than 80 points. In the last contest against the Mystics, the Mercury finished with 91 points.
Hopefully, with more time to develop team chemistry, the offense should have high-scoring games.
The challenge the Big Three face is straightforward. Taurasi and Diggins-Smith both rely on pick-and-roll action to get themselves and their teammates open, and there is certainly no better player to do it with than Griner. The dilemma, though, is this brings Griner out of the paint, where she plays most naturally, and prevents the traditional post-ups that Griner prefers. This forces forwards Brianna Turner and Alanna Smith to take responsibility for the majority of Phoenix’s high screens, so Griner can make herself open inside or hunt for easy rebounds. Brondello believes Griner has the ability to play outside, if she wants to. However, in recent games against the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun, Griner was better served in the paint due to her size being a natural mismatch.
Against both teams, Griner had a five- or six-inch advantage over her defenders; it’s hard to argue that she should leave the paint when she can easily impose her will on opposing bigs.
Moving forward, the Mercury hope that Griner’s return, as well as the addition of Kia Nurse and Megan Walker via trade, are enough to put together a championship run. But if Phoenix is going to be a title contender, it needs the trio of Griner, Taurasi, and Diggins-Smith to work cohesively, so each player can maximize their offensive potential.
If Griner can continue to dominate inside while extending her play to the perimeter, it will create match-up problems for most of the league, allowing the Mercury to play a more free-flowing, high-octane offense.