From the players to the coaches, there was a lot of movement in the WNBA during the 2023 offseason, which arguably saw the most activity in recent years. Among those moves, the WNBA welcomed three new head coaches. Every team came into the season ready to compete and had a front office reflective of their ambitions. However, despite the commitments forged during the offseason and preseason, the coaching carousel had more circulating to do once the 2023 campaign was in full swing.
Dark Skies in the Valley
Head coach Vanessa Nygaard and the Phoenix Mercury parted ways on June 25 after completing only one full season (2022). Last year, Phoenix sported a 15-21 record and exited the playoffs in the first round. As for the 2023 season, Nygaard rounded out her tenure with the Mercury with a dismal 2-10 record. Her exit wasn’t a big surprise to WNBA fans after the tumultuous season the franchise experienced last year and Nygaard’s failure to answer the call.
Going into the 2022 season, the Phoenix Mercury were viewed as a dark-horse threat against top contenders thanks to their refreshed roster which included the likes of Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi, and Tina Charles. Additionally, Phoenix had a strong supporting cast of Sophie Cunningham, Diamond DeShields, and Brianna Turner.
However, once news broke of Griner’s wrongful detainment in Russia, the team’s title aspirations quickly diminished and a domino effect occurred.
Four games into the season, longtime teammates Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi got into a heated discussion on the bench during their matchup versus the Las Vegas Aces.
Skylar Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi had to be separated after a heated exchange on the bench. pic.twitter.com/QGCghYuHAf
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 18, 2022
When asked about the altercation postgame, Nygaard responded, “People play sports with a lot of passion. We’re not the first team to have any kind of arguments or disagreements on the bench. … Our team has even more going on with the BG situation. … That isn’t something that goes away for us.”
The story that two competitive teammates had a heated discussion about how to win the game was handed down. When viewed through that lens, it was easy to gloss over this incident.
As the season continued, the Mercury’s problems didn’t get any easier, and they logged a 2-7 record through the first quarter of their 2022 campaign. The team remained scrappy and fought night in and night out, but the cohesion on the court didn’t match their will to win.
Amidst these struggles, after only a few months with the team, Tina Charles and the Phoenix Mercury agreed to a contract divorce.
— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) June 25, 2022
There was significant speculation about the terms of the contract divorce as this was the first time a lot of the WNBA community had heard of a player and a team parting ways in this manner. But also, what exactly happened in Phoenix for Charles to want out of the franchise so quickly?
The Phoenix Mercury’s 2022 campaign was very difficult, and for a new head coach, it is easy to see how things could become overwhelming. However, Nygaard also had moments where she put more eyes on Phoenix than needed. For example, a rift between her and Diggins-Smith showed itself when Nygaard said there was no All-Star game without Taurasi as a participant even though Diggins-Smith made the cut.
Strife continued to plague Phoenix through the entire season and into the postseason. Neither Taurasi nor Diggins-Smith were available for the playoffs. While Diana was out due to injury, Skylar’s contract was suspended after she departed from the team two games before the end of the regular season for personal reasons. Two months later, she announced via Instagram that she was pregnant with her second child.
Vanessa Nygaard didn’t have much wiggle room with the hand she was dealt last year. Coming into 2023, positivity rang throughout the organization with Griner back in the states safe and healthy and the front office retooling the roster. However, that same energy didn’t translate into wins, and after a 2-10 start to the season, Vanessa Nygaard and the organization agreed to part ways. General manager Jim Pitman stated that the final straw for the franchise was the team’s losing record.
“The final straw is that we’re 2-10. That’s just not good enough. Our organization, our fans expect a lot from the Phoenix Mercury…”
— Eliav Gabay (@eliavgabay) June 26, 2023
A Shocking Shake-up in Skytown
The WNBA world collectively gasped when the Chicago Sky announced that James Wade would be stepping down as general manager and head coach due to being hired as an assistant coach for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. Wade, the only remaining dual-hat head coach/GM in the W, handed over the keys to Emre Vatansever, who was named the interim head coach and general manager in Chicago.
This coaching switch is one of many changes that the Chicago Sky have seen recently. After winning the WNBA title in 2021, the Sky fell to the Connecticut Sun in the semifinals of the 2022 playoffs, leading to a franchise-altering offseason. Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, and Azurá Stevens left the Sky during the offseason for new deals elsewhere. Allie Quigley also announced that she would not play in the WNBA this season, and Emma Meesseman has remained overseas.
Wade didn’t let the massive change send Chicago into an immediate rebuild. He conducted a four-team trade that brought in Marina Mabrey while sending out Chicago’s first-round draft picks in 2023 and 2024, a third-round pick in 2024, and a second-round pick in 2025. The Dallas Wings were also given the right to swap first-round picks with the Sky in 2025. The addition of Mabrey brought a win-now piece to help prove to franchise cornerstone Kahleah Copper that the team wouldn’t be mailing it in.
Copper will be an unrestricted free agent this coming offseason, which made the Mabrey deal a potential play to convince her to stay in Chicago beyond this year. The move, however, leaves the Sky stripped of draft capital for the next two years, an uncomfortable situation if the team isn’t able to compete and Copper ends up walking.
As for where the Sky stand now, Vatansever got a win over the Indiana Fever in his first game with the interim tag. Since then, the Sky have dropped two in a row in back-to-back home games against the Atlanta Dream, leaving them with a current record of 8-12.
Moving forward, Chicago’s leadership group will have a decision to make on whether Vatansever is their preferred pick to lead the franchise forward for the long haul. They may also decide to separate the head coach and general manager roles, which would likely mark the last of the dual-hat strategy in the WNBA.
Let’s Talk About It
With two head coaches leaving midseason, both organizations have new roads to travel. These coaching changes have caused quite the stir in the WNBA community, so it’s important to evaluate how these moves affect each franchise. Let’s have a chat.
Blake on Nygaard: Unfortunately, this was a move that had to happen. You never want to let go of your coach midseason, but getting a new lead voice in Phoenix’s locker room may have been the only way to gain some momentum this season. Although injuries have marred a large portion of the Mercury’s start, Nygaard’s 2-10 record after Griner’s return to the roster was too much for any franchise to overcome.
Phoenix will continue to struggle against the more talented rosters around the league, but the Mercury have already recorded three wins since Nikki Blue took over as interim head coach in late June. Mercury players seem to like playing for Blue, which goes a long way in developing a strong team culture and making a case for Blue’s interim tag to be stripped.
Come inside the locker room to celebrate Head Coach Nikki Blue’s first win! pic.twitter.com/mqFu8NPccl
— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) June 30, 2023
Imanni on Nygaard: One thing that shocked me personally was the timing of the firing. We don’t usually see coaches let go so early in the season. It’ll be interesting to watch how the team navigates the rest of the season in terms of their success. The Mercury currently rank last in the league in multiple categories, including turnovers, points, and team rebounding, according to Basketball Reference. It’ll take a lot for Phoenix to get back to its glory days, but with a new interim coach at the helm, the fresh start might bring the Mercury one step closer to obtaining that goal.
Jasmine on Nygaard: This was an inevitable move by the franchise considering Nygaard’s hardships with the team within only one and a half years of accepting the position. While I agree that she was dealt a difficult hand, she could have handled a few situations differently, especially her relationship with Skylar Diggins-Smith. A steadfast leader is what the Mercury needed during their tough times, and I doubt that Vanessa was prepared for any of the adversity she and her team went through. Phoenix has gone 3-5 since interim head coach Nikki Blue took over, and beat the No. 2 seeded Connecticut Sun on yesterday. While the improvement on the court has been slow, the locker room vibes are even better. Moving on from Nygaard shows that new owner Mat Ishbia wants the Mercury to prosper, even though he waited until midseason to make necessary changes that should’ve happened during the offseason.
Blake on Wade: Wade’s immediate departure was jump-out-of-your-chair shocking. After starting the season strong despite everyone writing the Sky off, no one saw this coming, even with the six-game slump prior to Wade’s departure. This move doesn’t appear to have had anything to do with the team or organization itself. Wade made the leap to a position that he felt could further himself and his family. With that said, leaving Chicago after mortgaging the franchise’s future in a win-now move can certainly leave a bad taste. Nonetheless, I’m wishing nothing but the best for Wade in his new endeavors in the NBA. I’ll enjoy seeing such a familiar WNBA face at the front of the Raptors bench next season.
I’m hopeful that Vatansever can create his own culture and steer the Sky in the right direction. The organization has a lot of decisions to make, with the largest being whether to separate the head coach and general manager positions. Vatansever and his players seem to be in favor of making these two roles independent of each other, as reported by Annie Costabile of the Chicago Sun-Times. Plus, a huge decision will be coming from Copper during this offseason’s free agency period.
Imanni on Wade: Wade’s departure was one that left me speechless, especially given the timing of it all. It seemed very rushed, and there was little transparency in terms of why he left and when he started talks with Toronto. Wade’s decision seems to be aimed at doing what is best for himself and his career. However, Wade also commented that he is furthering himself as a coach by taking on this new role, which led to lots of conversation on social media. One side felt that his comment was belittling toward the league, and others felt like what he did was a business decision for himself and his family. Personally, I feel as though Wade’s thought process might have been that he has reached the ceiling in the WNBA from a head coach’s and general manager’s perspective by winning a championship and bringing in a key piece like Marina Mabrey. With that, he might feel that his time in Chicago has been fulfilled. The timing most definitely could have been better. However, the head coach in the Raptors organization is newly hired, and newly hired assistants like Wade usually participate in Summer League in July, which might explain the timing of Wade’s departure.
Jasmine on Wade: If there’s one thing I feel very strongly about, it’s the state that James Wade left Chicago in. For one, I’m not fond of his comment about leaving the Sky to further himself as a coach when he’s taking a lesser position in the NBA after holding the highest-ranking position in the WNBA. Additionally, I don’t believe this was a position that suddenly became available overnight and needed Wade’s attendance immediately instead of at the conclusion of the WNBA season. He also mortgaged the franchise’s future by trading away top draft picks over the next three years and not committing to the plan he presented to players at the start of the season. There are so many layers to dive into when it comes to this move, but overall, I’m disappointed in how women’s sports are treated, especially the WNBA. These professional athletes should not be viewed as stepping stools. If you are not genuinely invested in these women and the league that supports them, please find another way to boost your career. I am also in support of removing the last dual-hat head coach and general manager position in the WNBA. It blurs the lines of how business should actually run, and this recent move by Wade midseason shows how detrimental it can be for a team.
It will be interesting to see how things shake out for Wade as he is one of three new coaches for the Toronto Raptors. As for his former team, the rest of the season will be one to watch in terms of how well the team responds to this disruption at the midpoint marker. This coming offseason will be an important one for the Sky, especially with Copper being an unrestricted free agent in 2024 and the decision about whether to keep Vatansever at his position looming.
Just before the All-Star break, Chicago announced updates to their coaching staff to support Vatansever. Yoann Cabioc’h was promoted to assistant coach and David Simon was hired as a player development coach. It was also announced that NBA legend and Chicago native Dwyane Wade will be joining the Sky’s ownership group, much to the liking of Kah.
— Nick Hamilton (@NickHamilton213) July 14, 2023
The Phoenix Mercury recently made a huge move by hiring a new general manager, Phoenix native Nick U’Ren. He brings a wealth of expertise with him as the former director of basketball operations for the Golden State Warriors. Parting ways with Vanessa Nygaard was likely the first change of many in hopes of restoring the Mercury franchise.
ESPN Sources: The WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury are hiring Golden State Warriors executive Nick U’Ren as general manager https://t.co/eUBJIihI9p
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 10, 2023
Coincidentally, the league announced at the 2023 All-Star Game in Las Vegas that next year’s All-Star festivities will be held at Footprint Arena in Phoenix, home to the Phoenix Mercury. New Mercury owner Mat Ishbia remarked, “As I’ve said from day one, we are going to make Phoenix one of the leading basketball destinations in the world, and the 2024 WNBA All-Star Game is going to be an unbelievable experience.”
There is also more hope for the future, and maybe this season, for the Mercury with recent sightings of Skylar Diggins-Smith at the 2023 ESPYS and putting up shots in the gym. Could she be on her way back to the court?
— Skylar Diggins-Smith (@SkyDigg4) July 11, 2023
Both Nygaard’s and Wade’s departures have been interesting to witness, and these changes show that the coaching carousel in the WNBA is everturning, everchanging. When looking at the overall impact these changes have on women’s sports, especially in this league, the players sometimes end up on the losing end. The move by James Wade, and his willingness to leave Chicago in disarray, is proof of that. Nygaard’s run with Phoenix was unfortunate but shows you have to have more than just some head coaching experience when at the helm of a professional sports team. Through it all, the players’ best interests should be at the forefront of all decision-making processes. That includes truly vetting coaches and front office personnel and their commitment to the league and its players. How can the WNBA sustain itself and appeal to new audiences or draftees when coaches are circled in and out season after season? Seeing value in the WNBA and not using it as a stepping stool or viewing it as an easy job to handle is what team owners should look at in the future. Otherwise, situations like Nygaard’s and Wade’s will continue to rear their ugly heads.