Coach’s Corner — What’s Working in the Mercury Defense

Many WNBA coaches have been taught that defense wins championships. If you listened to Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon last season, defense was all she wanted to focus on. One time during a media presser last year, I mentioned to her that her team had been leading the league in defensive rating over a five-game stretch, and Hammon emphatically made me repeat it for the room. It’s evident the league’s best teams recognize what good defense can do for a team. The previous five champions averaged a defensive rating of 98.4 in their glory year, with only one above 100.0—the aforementioned Aces. 

The Phoenix Mercury organization is well aware of how important defense is to a team’s championship hopes. “If you want to win in the WNBA, you have to play defense,” Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard shared with me recently. But let’s not be fooled—this team is not a very good defensive team. They are second to last in opponent points per game (OPP PPG) and last in defensive rebounding per game (DRPG). But that doesn’t mean Phoenix hasn’t shown bright spots. In fact, Nygaard remarked, “We’ve made good adjustments throughout games. That’s something we’ve done fairly well. There’s just little things [we’ve been doing well]. Our playing together and our transition defense have improved. A renewed commitment to collective rebounding [has improved too].” 

With these improvements in mind, I watched plenty of Mercury defensive tape and kept an eye out for what is working well for Phoenix defensively right now. Here are the themes that stood out to me.


Doubling Down Defensively

One of the things the Mercury can do well is double-teaming opponent ballhandlers, especially near the post. 


In the clip above, two Mercury players converge on talented big Nneka Ogwumike. This not only limits her ability to move but also restricts her vision, preventing Ogwumike from passing out of the double-team with ease. Because the players converged so quickly, Ogwumike can’t find that outlet and is forced to try and dribble around the double-team and throw up a lower-quality shot. When the corner defender is committed to dropping down and helping double the post player, the result usually works in the Mercury’s favor.


The clip above demonstrates some fortuitous and heads-up defensive work by the Mercury. On this play, the Dallas Wings don’t space the floor well, so as the Mercury defender on the guard up top drops in coverage, the defender is in perfect position to help double on Arike Ogunbowale as she cuts to the nail. Smart and quick doubling like this makes for a defense that is really tough to play against, and with more precision and communication, utilizing double-teams more could certainly help the Mercury defense improve.



The Mercury’s defensive lapses do lead to open shooters. But the Mercury use their athleticism to close-out quickly on open perimeter shooters, making it more difficult for them to see the basket and get a quality look. The Mercury are sixth in opponent made three-pointers and fifth in opponent three-point percentage. While closeouts aren’t the sole reason for that success, closing out on opponents certainly contributes to making perimeter shooting much more challenging.


While most of the above clip highlights the way Mercury defenders stay in front of their assignments (more on that later), it’s that sharp closeout on Layshia Clarendon that prevented them from getting the open look. This has served useful in preventing teams from expanding leads or building momentum from behind the arc.


Perhaps a better example is in the clip above. Yes, the Mercury were scrambling a bit because they were out of position, but their quickness to close-out turned a wide-open scoring opportunity into a far less certain outcome. The opposing shot may still be a decent one, but it’s no longer a great one because of the Mercury’s scramble and closing out capability. 


Sticking to the Assignment

In spurts, the Mercury defense has been able to stay in front of the driving opponent, preventing highly efficient looks at the rim.




The above clips demonstrate three instances when the Mercury shut down their opponents by moving their feet to stay in front of their assignment. The first shows strong defense from Michaela Onyenwere by staying on Dearica Hamby’s hip with enough contact to slow her driving attack and not foul. The second highlights Megan Gustafson’s post defense on Queen Egbo, staying in front of her and using the principle of verticality not to foul. The third shows Moriah Jefferson’s difficult assignment on the shifty Jordin Canada. Jefferson is able to rotate herself to stay in perfect position to contend Canada’s shot. In all three instances, the Mercury used their footwork to remain in a solid position to defend well.



In some cases, the Mercury’s defensive footwork has been so spot on they’ve been able to force turnovers. The above examples demonstrate how staying in front of their assignments can help Mercury defenders create turnovers or prevent good looks.


Working Together

Outside of doubling, the Mercury have been really good at working together on defense on some occasions this season. 



When the defense is communicating, it makes stopping the Mercury team a much more difficult task. In the first clip, there is good on-ball defense coupled with what I’m calling a “shadow big” hovering nearby ready to blitz and trap. Additionally, on the drive, Diana Taurasi offers a modest stunt to try and slow the driver down. In the second video, a brief blitz/ice double-team slows Ogunbowale just enough that it makes her take a less efficient route to the cup, forcing her into a jumper. By working cohesively in these examples, the Phoenix defense was able to prevent what would have likely been quality attempts at the rim.


See Also

The BG Factor


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 6’9” powerhouse in the middle for the Mercury—Brittney Griner. At 6’9”, Griner is the fourth tallest player to ever play in the WNBA. That combination of size, force, and power make BG a terrifying conundrum to solve for opposing teams. 


BG’s interior presence makes many teams wary of driving in her direction, and plenty who brave it find out real quick the kind of defender BG can be. Either as the primary defender or in help, BG’s length and instincts make her a problem for any team. If the Mercury can work to funnel more traffic her way, they can overcome some of their defensive weaknesses on the rest of the team.


Be Aggressive

When the Mercury are aggressive defensively, they become a much tougher team to play against.




Each of the examples above portrays a different aspect of Mercury aggression. The first is a defender jumping the route and getting the steal. The second is aggressiveness through active hands and suffocating on-ball pressure. The third is high-ball pressure that forces the opponent to throw the ball to a Mercury player. The Mercury play a lot of man-to-man defense, but the one-two-two zone they employ on occasion has shown flashes of quality defensive play. If they can couple the zone work with their aggressive and active actions, they should be able to improve immensely on the defensive end.

The Mercury are unlikely to become defensive stalwarts like the Connecticut Sun or Washington Mystics. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t avenues for improvement. If they can make that “collective rebounding” effort Nygaard talked about and be more communicative and consistent on the defensive end, the Mercury can make clear and tangible progress and put the heat on their opponents. 


All stats as of 6/19. Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of

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