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Where Will the Mercury Go Without Sandy Brondello?

After Phoenix parted ways with its longtime coach Monday, the pressure’s on for her replacement.
Sandy Brondello

On the day after suffering a demoralizing 31-point home loss to the Lynx in July, then Mercury coach Sandy Brondello knew she needed to take her players’ minds off basketball. So she invited them to her Phoenix-area home for a July 4th party. There, guests munched on catered Mexican food and swam in Brondello’s pool. She wanted them to enjoy one another’s company and flush away the numerous first-half issues that led to the Mercury’s disappointing 7–9 start.

Creating a culture in which players wanted to be around one another was instrumental to Phoenix’s success during Brondello’s tenure. “When it’s a quiet locker room, something’s wrong,” she told me in October, in the middle of her second Finals appearance with the franchise. “When it’s a locker room where there’s laughter and there’s also discussion, that’s a good thing.”

The Phoenix locker room will have a new voice leading it next season after the team announced Monday it had parted ways with its longtime coach. Brondello’s contract with the franchise had expired following the conclusion of the Finals, a series the Mercury lost in four games to the Sky. General manager Jim Pitman said in a statement that while he was “sincerely grateful for her partnership and friendship,” the organization is “confident a new voice is necessary for our team at this time.”

That new voice will inherit one of the league’s most talented rosters, featuring perhaps the sport’s single greatest player—in Diana Taurasi—and two members of last year’s All-WNBA first team in Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner. It was already fair to wonder whether the Mercury had missed their chance to bring Taurasi a fourth title before her decorated career concludes. Following Brondello’s departure, there is even more short-term pressure on whoever takes over.

Signed through the 2022 campaign, Taurasi, who will turn 40 next season, is expected to return next year. She told me during the Finals that she “plan[s] on fulfilling” her contract.

With Taurasi on the roster, expectations in Phoenix remain high. “While she’s playing at an elite level, we’re trying to win,” Pitman said during the Finals. But sooner rather than later, once Taurasi’s storied career concludes, the new Mercury coach will lead a team that has a distinctly different feel.

It’s what makes Pitman’s upcoming decision especially intriguing.

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Brondello had been with the Mercury since 2014, amassing a 150–108 record. In all eight of her seasons, Phoenix made the playoffs, a streak surpassed by only Minnesota.

Being a consistent playoff threat also helped make the Mercury the city’s most reliable franchise. The Mercury and Suns share a practice facility, and during the Mercury’s playoff run it was hard to ignore the synergy between the two teams. During Game 2 of the Finals, for instance, more than a half dozen Suns players were seated courtside, rising to their feet on multiple occasions to rally the Footprint Center crowd. Following the Mercury’s thrilling 91–86 overtime victory, they then exchanged high-fives and basked in the euphoric moment together.

Suns coach Monty Williams has grown particularly close with Brondello in recent years. “I just appreciate her insight, her friendship,” he said in mid-October. “I’m learning when I watch them practice. I see the way that her team plays for her and I watch the way she coaches them and I’m thinking to myself, I need to add more of that.”

Williams, who is regarded as one of the NBA’s top coaches, lauded Brondello’s communication approach with her players. “She doesn’t talk a lot in practice. She’s not trying to control everything,” he said, adding: “I spend a lot of time on the Peloton watching them practice, watching her and how she handles situations.”

Yet again last summer, amid a season full of adversity, she proved fully capable of guiding the Mercury through the various challenges they encountered. It’s what made Monday’s decision so surprising and why some have already linked Brondello to the newly open Liberty job.

Phoenix’s next coach will be held to a similar standard as its last one. Their voice will be tasked with breaking through promptly, and with the pressure on.

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