The Mercury’s Winning Combo: "Hard work, togetherness and camaraderie"

 

"Winning never gets old but when you do it with a group that genuinely cares about each other and you don’t care about any of the individual stuff – our whole goal coming into training camp this summer was to redeem ourselves, as individuals, as basketball players, as teammates, as coaches, as GMs – and I think as a group we put it together."

Diana Taurasi’s post-game comments from last night's WNBA Finals victory are reminiscent of the type of team ethic that Cappie Pondexter expressed earlier this year, as I described in a post at Rethinking Basketball.

Cappie Pondexter made similar comments to ESPN columnist Mechelle Voepel the other day and really complements Miller’s thoughts well by articulating how she communicates with her teammates as a team leader and de facto lead guard. An excerpt from Voepel’s article:

    "One thing I've learned is to continue to push my teammates," Pondexter said. "Especially as one of the leaders of the team. I don't think I did a good job of keeping everybody together last year, and that's something I've focused on since training camp this season."

    When she and Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi would see each other during their playing stints in Russia, they would discuss what had to be different for 2009 when they got back to Phoenix.

    "I'd say, 'We need to challenge everybody each day, as well as demonstrating it ourselves,'" Pondexter said. "Sometimes I am a very quiet person and can be to myself. And I've learned to be more giving to my teammates.

    "You never know if someone's having a down day, so if you extend your hand and listen to that person, that can affect things on the court. There are a lot of things that happen off the court that affect what goes on on the court."

Pondexter not only articulates more precisely how she communicates with her team, but also describes two different types of communication – basketball related and just plain ol’ collegial how-ya-doin-today? communication. As a leader, the combination is what education scholars might call the disposition of a "warm demander" – building a relationship with students that lets them know that you are challenging them because you care about them and their growth as human beings.

It sounds so cheesy, but teamwork was probably the thing that ultimately defined the 2009 WNBA Finals.

Across the board, Phoenix Mercury players and coaches spoke about what a great team they were this season. It was a unified message that contradicts the way the team was hyped prior to the series.

Given the response of both fans and players to what was arguably the best WNBA Finals in history, I found Pam Richter’s argument on the Pendulum Sports blog from Sept. 20th that the WNBA has made a push to mimic the men’s game at the expense of team-oriented basketball odd.

Richter wrote the following:

Even if the teams were hard to keep up with, I might consider watching the league, but trying to watch the games for just the basketball, has become an impossibility for me.

Women’s college basketball focuses on the team, not on the individual. A pure team effort is needed for a team to be victorious. The players know the basics of the game and play within their strengths.

A few years ago, this is how the WNBA was. In recent years, the WNBA has made a push to follow the NBA style of basketball with more isolation plays and less of a team effort.

Women’s basketball is different from the men’s game, there’s no question about it. The line is closing in because the WNBA is attempting to be more like the men.

The WNBA needs to go back to team-oriented basketball and embrace the women’s basketball game.

As a NBA fan who only started following closely the WNBA last summer, I cannot really comment on the progression of the WNBA in the past few years.

However, I can say that the biggest difference between the WNBA now and what I saw in 1997 is the blend of team-oriented basketball and individual play.

By blend, I mean it’s not devoid of one-on-one plays from its stars and the number of just flat out unguardable players is growing but it’s also not entirely dependent on passing and movement as people normally assume.

If it really starts to mimic the current NBA and teams literally stick three players on the weak side near half court while a post and guard plays a two-man game to dump it inside, then I’ll take issue with it. But right now, I think we’re seeing very balanced basketball.

That seems like a good thing although perhaps saying there’s more of a blend of team and individual now means that it is less team-oriented than before.

Maybe I like that because I have been a NBA fan since childhood. Nevertheless, I don’t see how it’s a bad thing. The 2009 Finals were a perfect example of how good the game can be with this blend of individual and team-oriented basketball.

Countering the narrative

The mainstream narrative entering the 2009 WNBA Finals was that this series would feature MVP Diana Taurasi’s offense going up against Defensive Player of the Year Tamika Catchings’ defense.

Hopefully, we’ve learned something about both teams as we’ve watched the series unfold: this was not just two teams trying to hide their weaknesses by accentuating their strengths, but two very well-rounded teams whose so-called weakness are more a result of analysts underestimating their ability.

With two well-rounded talented teams going head to head, this series came down to intangibles such as energy, execution, and composure. Put together, teamwork was ultimately what decided this series.

The Phoenix Mercury are at their best when they spread the court and move the ball well to find cutters going to the basket and shooters on the perimeter. The Indiana Fever are much better in transition than the half-court but play their best when they are able to penetrate the defense and kick it out or move the ball around the court quickly.

Defensively, it was a similar story – regardless of the scheme a team employed, rotations, help defense, and rebounding often determined the outcome of the game.

Most of all, the players are so versatile that multiple players can initiate the offense and overall, skills are not nearly as siloed by position as they are in the NBA. That's not to say that there's a lack of specialists, but specialization is not quite as valuable as versatility. It's hard not to play as a team when you have so many versatile players to draw from.

It was almost impossible to watch that series – or any part of the playoffs – and argue that the WNBA isn’t team oriented without making a strawman argument that there are other teams that don't play well as a team.

That's true.

But the WNBA's best teams also play some of the best team basketball. Honestly, that's true of the NBA as well.

It's probably part of the reason I like basketball so much.

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