Diana Taurasi made her much-awaited return last week but the Mercury still have plenty of questions facing their team after a month that featured plenty of highs but also a few lows.
To be completely candid here, when I decided to write about the Mercury for this week, I fully expected to be talking about how hot Phoenix has been since late June, when it suffered a double-digit loss to the lowly Wings before really turning it on and winning five of the last six.
Yet here we are, nearly a month after that loss, and the Mercury are once again on a losing streak and facing major questions about where this team is headed as we approach the midseason mark.
The first major question surrounds what we should expect from Diana Taurasi this season. One of the greatest guards in WNBA history made her much-anticipated return Friday against the Connecticut Sun and looked understandably rusty, scoring five points—all on free throws—and missing all four of her shots during her short time on the court. She then missed the short-turnaround game Sunday against the Lynx, another loss.
It’s hard not to look at Taurasi as a type of saving grace that this team needs to fully unlock its potential. Without Taurasi, the team has occasionally lacked a killer instinct late in games, has struggled to find a true flow to the offense and has really relied on Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner to carry the majority of the team’s load and paper over the team’s limited other offensive options.
Bonner has been great, if not a bit inconsistent, this season. She has currently reclaimed her spot as the top scorer in the league from Griner, but she’s also acting as one of the few options on the perimeter for Phoenix.
Briann January’s three-point shooting has taken a bit of a step back this year—but when you go from leading the W at a 47% clip to shooting a still-awesome 39%, it’s hardly a problem—but while she's scoring more than she did last season, it hasn’t been enough. January has the capability to get hot and reach the high teens, but the games where she only gets five or less—which has happened eight times this season—typically act as a bellwether for whether the team wins or loses. The Mercury have lost seven of those eight games, with their lone win coming against the Dream, including the two most recent losses to the Sun and Lynx where January scored five and two, respectively.
Leilani Mitchell was killing it during Phoenix’s run of five wins in six games, but her averages have come back down to Earth a bit after scoring 12.8 points per game during that stretch. Both January and Mitchell can be strong options on the wing, but when shots aren’t falling, it leaves Phoenix vulnerable.
That leaves the majority of the burden on Bonner and Griner, who are averaging 19.4 and 18.8 per game, respectively, but still need support if the Mercury want to climb up the standings from their current spot at No. 8.
Griner is already playing 34.8 minutes per game and leaves coach Sandy Brondello with little choice but to leave her in for as long as possible with so little reliable frontcourt cover on the bench.
Nearly everyone not named Griner or Bonner has found time hard to come by in the Phoenix frontcourt, with Brondello hesitant to let rookies Alanna Smith or Brianna Turner get much run and Sancho Lyttle and Camille Little not providing a ton for the Mercury to work with.
That leaves Phoenix with a tight and occasionally overstretched rotation and little room for error. It’s hard to find a way for the team to keep improving that doesn’t involve getting a fully healthy Taurasi firing or one of the rookies taking a major step forward this season.
Of those rookies, Sophie Cunningham seems the most likely. She’s gotten the most time among them—including a surprise start against the Liberty on July 5—and was praised as an understudy for Taurasi to mold in her own image coming into the season.
Cunningham showcased what she’s capable of when she gets hot and gets solid minutes during her 19-point performance against the Fever earlier this season, but consistent shooting and more playing time have been hard to come by for her this season.
Smith would seem like a smart option to give more minutes as well, with her smart passing game and résumé as a shooter at Stanford making her a good fit next to Griner in the frontcourt. Yet she’s been all but stapled to the bench this season and has yet to make a major impact. Turner is in a similar spot, though with fewer opportunities and less of a pathway for playing time.
So what should we make of the past month for the Mercury? They beat two of the best teams in the W, including an absolute mollywhopping of the Mystics by 23 points on July 10. They have two of the top scorers in the league and one of the best coaches around. Yet there are still glaring issues to be addressed.
Phoenix ranks dead-last in rebounding, which is funny when you consider who its marquee center is. The team ranks ninth in assists per game and plays at the slowest pace in the league. But there is reason for optimism.
The Mercury have a favorable run of games coming up, with a home-and-home against the Wings before taking on the Fever and then the Mystics. If they can bank some wins and prove a point by beating Washington again, this team could find itself in a favorable spot after All-Star Weekend, in which its two major players should play a huge part.
But if Phoenix continues to struggle for consistency and Taurasi is slow in getting back to her true form, last month’s winning streak won’t matter. The Mercury will be struggling with hungry teams like Liberty and the Fever just to stay in the playoff hunt.
If you’re not following Meredith Minkow over at Bleacher Report, please go rectify that immediately. She’s doing some incredible work and her picture-taking game is A1. And if you don’t believe me, the GOAT recently gave her stamp of approval.
Speaking of Sue Bird, this moment was freaking incredible and if you think I’m not going to carve out a space for Megan Rapinoe as many times as I can, you clearly don’t know me well enough.
To end on a much more serious note, I believe we all saw the Natasha Howard video that was released by her wife this weekend. Howard was allowed to play on Sunday, which wasn’t a huge surprise given that Riquna Williams, who was arrested on assault charges in April, has been playing for the Sparks this season.
How the league handles these situations, however, is something we should all be invested in. There are a couple of outlets who have covered the Williams situation in great depth and we need to continue to bring attention to the issue of domestic abuse and make sure that topics like this aren’t simply swept under the rug.