Championship or Bust: What To Make of Vanessa Nygaard’s Hire

The Phoenix Mercury sent shockwaves throughout the WNBA after parting ways with former head coach Sandy Brondello. By all accounts, she surpassed expectations by getting the Mercury to the championship despite the team having only the fifth-best record in the league and dealing with injury problems throughout the season. 

During her eight years with Phoenix, Brondello also had the enthusiastic support of her roster and a winning record in six of those seasons. However, general manager Jim Pitman ultimately decided it was time to get a fresh voice in the locker room and let go of Brondello on Dec. 6.

“We just thought it was time for a new voice for our team,” Pitman said. “It’s a long time. Eight years is a long time to be with one group of people.”

Phoenix went through an exhaustive coaching search, with rumored finalists including Natalie Nakase, Teresa Weatherspoon and Stephanie White. The Mercury appeared to have zeroed in on Weatherspoon, but the former WNBA great and current New Orleans Pelicans assistant coach ultimately chose to stay put.

Pitman eventually tapped Vanessa Nygaard for the job, touting her extensive WNBA experience as both a player and a coach. She most recently worked as an assistant for the Las Vegas Aces in 2021 and led Winward—a prep school in Los Angeles—for the past 10 years.

Nygaard now faces the ultimate pressure cooker with the Mercury coming off a finals appearance and entering what will likely be Diana Taurasi’s last season. For Phoenix to ultimately make this a successful hire, Nygaard needs to get the Mercury to contend for a title yet again and bridge the gap to life after Taurasi.

Here is a look at what Nygaard must do to make her tenure a successful one.

 

Manage Taurasi’s Minutes

Unfortunately for the Mercury, the WNBA season extended to a 36-game schedule, which includes one back-to-back and two four-game weeks. Given Taurasi’s injury history, Nygaard and her team will be holding their breath for their leader to stay healthy throughout the season.

Phoenix appears to be better equipped to handle Taurasi’s workload this year, with recently acquired Diamond DeShields playing alongside Diggins-Smith and Sophie Cunningham. Shey Peddy has been signed to a training camp contract and would provide plenty of depth at the back end should she stick for the regular season.

One of the biggest problems for the Mercury last year was that Diggins-Smith was the only true playmaker other than Taurasi on the team. But the addition of DeShields provides another offensive weapon to the roster, which should lighten up the hefty offensive load that Griner and Diggins-Smith had to carry last year.

 

Developing Young Talent

It’s safe to say that most of Nygaard’s tenure will be without Taurasi as a part of the team. Despite her imminent retirement, the Mercury are more likely to go into a retooling mode rather than a rebuild. Both Griner and Diggins-Smith will be 32 entering the 2023 season and will have little appetite for playing on a lottery team in the later stages of their career. Fortunately, Phoenix will have some cap room available once Taurasi’s salary comes off the books. 

However, much of Nygaard’s success will ultimately come down to whether or not she can develop young talent. 

Last season, Brondello had five players under the age of 25, including Walker and Alanna Smith. These younger players struggled to see the floor in 2021. 

Although Walker is a bit raw skill-wise, she emerged as a top scorer at UConn during the 2019-2020 season and would’ve been in discussion for being a top pick had she stayed another year. However, Walker showed limited improvement throughout this past season and barely played during the 2021 WNBA playoffs, which ultimately led the Mercury to move on from her. 

Nurse is another example of a player who regressed from her last two seasons, which included an All-Star selection during her tenure with the New York Liberty. Despite averaging nearly the same number of minutes and being a regular member of the starting lineup, she averaged just 9.5 ppg, compared to 12.2 in 2020. While some of that is due to taking on a different role with the Mercury, her performance was pretty up-and-down throughout the season.

Nygaard won’t have the luxury of relying on a Big Three for production and will need the minimum signings Phoenix brings in to take some of the load off Griner and Diggins-Smith. If she can successfully coach young talent into solid rotational pieces, the Mercury will have a much less drastic drop-off once Taurasi retires.

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Keep Griner Engaged

Griner made a strong case for MVP during the 2021 season and certainly would’ve won Finals MVP had Phoenix won the championship. She’s coming off her most dominant overall season, during which she averaged 20.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.9 bpg and 2.7 apg. The center also made a point of dunking in games more than she ever has throughout her career and developed a solid mid-range jumper during the latter part of the season. 

Most notably, Griner looked like she was enjoying playing basketball again in 2021. After leaving the Wubble early to work on her mental health, Griner was locked-in, happy and playing much better basketball than she did in 2020. 

As Griner’s production goes, so goes the Mercury’s success. If Griner is engaged throughout the season and happy with the team’s direction, Phoenix can count on an unstoppable force patrolling the paint every night. However, if Griner isn’t feeling right, there is simply nobody on the Mercury—or in the league—that can match Griner’s size, athleticism and overall dominance on the floor. 

Nygaard will ultimately need buy-in from Griner if she is going to have success. That means  building an offense that will help her post player get as many touches as she did in Brondello’s offense. Given her experience with the Aces, there is no shortage of inspiration to help Nygaard achieve that.

After Phoenix’s blockbuster deal in trading Bria Hartley, it’s impossible to project the Mercury’s success for next season, given that they still appear to be active in free agency. Despite many questions that await this offseason, Nygaard can still enjoy the fact that much of the championship core will remain intact.

There are a lot of aspects of the Mercury’s 2022 season that will be totally out of Nygaard’s control, including whether or not Nurse plays next year, Phoenix’s lack of draft picks and much more. But what she can control is whether or not Phoenix hiring its first new head coach since 2014 will ultimately prove to be the right decision or if the organization will have seller’s remorse after parting ways with Brondello. 

The answer to that question will not be clear for at least the next couple of years.

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