The Phoenix Mercury have been without their leader, Diana Taurasi, for most of the 2021 season due to a sternum injury. In her absence, the offense has largely revolved around Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner to provide the bulk of the scoring.
The results have been largely mixed as the Mercury currently have a 5-7 record. Despite inconsistent results, Phoenix has recorded six close games, which were all decided by four points or less.
In games where the Mercury finish on top, they normally receive a dominating performance from either Diggins-Smith or Griner and a meaningful contribution from offseason acquisition Kia Nurse.
To help analyze how the Mercury’s identity has changed this season, Winsidr enlisted the help of a former WNBA assistant coach and scout to break down Phoenix with and without Taurasi as well as what the Mercury can expect during the rest of the season.
The following analysis explores the ups and downs of the Mercury’s season from this scout’s perspective.
The Mercury with Taurasi this season:
When you have Taurasi and Diggins-Smith on the floor, they have two elite playmakers. They can score and make plays for others. Together they can average as many [as]15.0 or 16.0 assists per game. That’s pretty good. You know that as soon as Taurasi passes half court, you have to guard her because of how much of a threat she is from the perimeter. This opens up the floor for everyone else. When Taurasi is on the floor, the offense can be versatile and is one of the best in the league.
Current state of the Mercury without Taurasi:
They lost an elite playmaker and a ball-handler. Now they’re playing much more through Griner as a result. She’s getting the ball nearly every possession, and so far, she’s done a great job. Diggins-Smith and the other guards have set her up in good spots around the block, but teams are picking up on the Mercury’s tendencies, so they’re starting to clamp down on Griner now. Despite that, she’s getting 18.0 [now 20.1]points and 10.0 [now 10.3]rebounds per game, but how much more can you get from her? The offense still needs to run through Griner, but you need people to make shots.
Diggins-Smith needs to score more like she did for the Dallas Wings. I know she’s getting almost 20.0 points per game, but they need her to do more. When Taurasi is on the floor, Diggins-Smith has more freedom to be a pass-first point guard and let the game come to her. But without Taurasi, she needs to be a shoot-first, pass-second guard. She needs to be on attack mode every time she has the ball.
Mercury’s current vulnerabilities:
Teams are giving up the three-point shot because they’re focused on stopping Griner. That means the x-factors are going to be Nurse and Megan Walker who are getting open shots. They’re going to have to make threes because teams are daring them to shoot.
Teams are loading up on Diggins-Smith and Griner to force others to make shots. If I was game-planning against Phoenix right now, we would make it difficult for Diggins-Smith to get the ball back when she gives it up. We’d also force Griner to play against double teams and try to make her go middle, where she would be going against more help defense.
At the end of the day, it can’t just be a two-person show. Walker is finally getting meaningful minutes, but she is essentially a rookie because of her limited playing time for the Liberty last season. With Taurasi’s absence, she is going to need to do much more.
Nurse was one of New York’s best players in the past few years and helped them a bit defensively. She has picked up some of the scoring burden that Taurasi left in her absence but needs to be more consistent. If neither [Nurse nor Walker] are hitting open shots, it’s going to be challenging to win games.
How the Mercury can survive without Taurasi:
They’re going to need to keep playing through Griner and Diggins-Smith and relying on them to have big scoring games every night. Nurse and Walker and other perimeter players will need to make open shots. The Mercury need to control the pace of games. Push in transition when they can but if not, slow down and play inside out.
Assuming that Taurasi can come back before Phoenix faces the Las Vegas Aces on July 7, they should stay in the middle of the pack. Although, I believe Layshia Clarendon gives the Minnesota Lynx another true point guard that can control the game and create for others. The Mercury have enough to weather the storm and should be able to compete with the Sparks and Lynx, but their schedule gets more challenging right before the Olympic break.
Outlook on the rest of the season:
It’s going to come down to matchups and whether Phoenix can make plays on the perimeter. Even when Taurasi comes back, the Mercury will need to hit open shots or they won’t make much traction. This problem existed even before the injury and will prevent Phoenix from making a championship run.