This year’s draft night came and went, and the Phoenix Mercury did not make any loud or noteworthy moves. Their most notable transaction decisions came earlier in the offseason.
In February, the Mercury were involved in a four-team trade with the Dallas Wings, New York Liberty, and Chicago Sky. The trade saw them deal away Diamond DeShields to the Wings and give the Liberty the right to swap first-round picks in 2025. The decision to move DeShields came only a year after acquiring her from the Sky in a three-team trade that also involved the Indiana Fever; one of the assets the Mercury sent over in this trade was their 2023 first-round pick, received by the Sky.
The absence of splashy picks in the first round is not new for this franchise. The Mercury have not made a first-round selection on draft night since 2020. That year, they drafted Jocelyn Willoughby, who they traded later that night to the Liberty. Before that, it was Alanna Smith in 2019. For three seasons in Phoenix, Smith averaged 2.8 points per game (PPG) while also averaging just under 10.0 minutes per game (MPG) off the bench, per Across the Timeline.
In addition to the Mercury’s empty cupboard of first-round selections from this draft, the loss of DeShields via trade is not insignificant for the Mercury. Last season, DeShields was one of four players on the team (players who ended the season on the roster) to average double-digit points in the regular season (13.1 PPG), according to Her Hoop Stats. She was a positive contributor for a team that went through an unexpectedly tumultuous season.
The last year and a half for the Mercury, on and off the court, can be described as nightmarish and distracting. Vanessa Nygaard was named the new Mercury head coach before last season, and she could not have envisioned what the team would have to endure in her first year.
The Mercury were dealt a devastating hand in terms of their star players’ availability. The league’s biggest story of 2022 was undoubtedly the absence of Brittney Griner, who was detained in Russia for 10 months. Griner’s detainment weighed heavily on the collective mind of the WNBA. Tina Charles signed with the Mercury that offseason with the expectation of playing with Griner in the frontcourt. But Charles ultimately played in just 16 games before agreeing to part ways midseason via contract divorce. Skylar Diggins-Smith played at an MVP-caliber level, but due to personal reasons, she missed the final few games of the regular season and the Mercury’s series loss against the Las Vegas Aces in the first round of the playoffs. Because of a quad injury, Diana Taurasi also missed the last few regular season games and postseason. The team’s core of Taurasi, Diggins-Smith, and Griner played a combined zero minutes this past postseason.
Taurasi wasn’t the only Mercury player who missed time due to injury or recovery during the 2022 campaign. During the series against the Aces, Shey Peddy ruptured her right Achilles tendon. Kia Nurse, who tore her right ACL in the 2021 postseason, did not play the entire 2022 season and left for the Seattle Storm this offseason.
Adding to the changes this organization has had to face, Mat Ishbia recently became a new majority owner of the Mercury and the NBA’s Phoenix Suns; Robert Sarver sold the teams to Ishbia’s ownership group in the aftermath of receiving both a $10 million fine and one-year suspension after conduct-related allegations came to light.
The Mercury’s 2022 campaign was a season that featured a 15-21 record, tears, frustration, injuries, and even the usage of a clown emoji. From a results perspective and by observing team morale, this was clearly not the same team that competed in the 2021 Finals and expected to build on that appearance.
What will 2023 be like for the Phoenix Mercury? This is an unknown period for them as they move forward. Diggins-Smith is currently on maternity leave, and there is no answer as to whether she will play this season. After signing a one-year deal to come back to the team, Griner is preparing to return to action this season, but the impact of her time away from playing and how she will endure the season as it progresses are all uncertain. Taurasi has dealt with a handful of injuries over the last few years, and her reliance on the three-point shot can be hit-or-miss. Last season, according to WNBA Stats, Taurasi was second in the league in average three-pointers made per game (3.0 3PM) and led the league in average three-pointers attempted per game (8.8 3PA). She attempted more than twice as many three-pointers as two-pointers (273 3PA to 129 2PA), and she shot 33.7 percent from three-point range.
With all this uncertainty, what can the team look forward to? Moriah Jefferson signed with the Mercury after a good stint last season with the Minnesota Lynx. Also, the team acquired Michaela Onyenwere from the Liberty in the DeShields trade. Onyenwere, the 2021 Rookie of the Year, will have an opportunity for a new start, playing alongside other notable young players like Brianna Turner and Sophie Cunningham.
Phoenix could also look to make some more moves. The Mercury still have their first-round pick for 2024. Also, Diggins-Smith’s name floated around in trade talks and rumors last season. Do the Mercury consider trading her to gain assets in return before her contract expires at the end of the season? Do they trade the pick for another player who is ready to be a key contributor for a team?
If Phoenix’s Big Three are on the court, the trio can still create havoc in the league. Griner may be able to pick up where she left off in 2021. During her most recent season in the league, the 6’9” center averaged 20.5 PPG and 9.5 rebounds per game (RPG), according to Her Hoop Stats. Diggins-Smith is more than capable of continuing to play at the level that got her on the All-WNBA First Team last season. Taurasi still possesses a gene in her DNA that makes her built for making big shots and creating big moments.
Right now, though, the uncertainty surrounding the availability and performance level among the Mercury’s Big Three is too heavy to bet on the Mercury making a significant postseason run this season. Is this season an assessment year to see what the team can accomplish? Could the 2024 season, in which Taurasi will be in the final year of her current contract, be a final push to win? Both Griner and Diggins-Smith are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents after the 2023 season. Has this trio’s run together reached its end?
What does Ishbia, the new owner, want to do? Are the Mercury headed for an imminent rebuild? For a team facing many questions, what is certain is that they must begin to prepare for a future without Taurasi, who has been the center of the franchise’s orbit for the last two decades.
While the past nightmares and distractions are still fresh, the Mercury are determined to overcome them and wipe the slate clean. Their future plans look cloudy at the moment, but the clouds will eventually evaporate as the Mercury begin to write the next chapter in their story.