We all felt that something was going to happen eventually but the news finally broke Thursday afternoon that the Mercury have decided to make a change at the head coaching spot. Former University of Arizona and Grand Canyon University coach Russ Pennell has been tabbed by Merc brass to run the team for the rest of the season. In addition to Gaines release, assistant coach Earl Cureton was informed of the same. This change was needed but the question still remains: what is to come of the Mercury and the rest of the season?
As someone who's been calling for this change a few years now, I can't say that it'll make a huge difference at this point in the season. I am glad that the move was made but there's issues within the group of players that needs to be fixed in order for this team to improve. Even with all the injuries and mishaps so far in Phoenix, the difference between every team and the Mercury are quite obvious: the commitment level to defense, or the lack thereof, in Phoenix is a huge problem.
It's almost universally known to the WNBA faithful that if you want to get away with playing no defense, go to Phoenix. The team's "phantom" defense has seemingly become contagious. Players with a history of being quality defensive players, such as Alexis Hornbuckle and Krystal Thomas, seem to have taken on the concept after a year in the program. Phoenix defenders have made a habit crowding your man and then fouling hard to make up for the lack of effort. The players actually playing defense to get stops, Brittney Griner and Brianna Gilbreath, have had their strengths nullified by the fact that the only way the team has been able to get those stops is by sitting back in a zone that gives players a bit of help once they're inevitably beat.
To be completely honest, I've been a fan of the Mercury since 2004 when Diana Taurasi first donned the jersey and this team is probably the most talented that's ever set foot onto the floor of the US Airways Center. The problem with the defense, IMO, is that they seem to know this. But just taking the floor and being talented doesn't win you games. One can only hope that Pennell takes a page out of Minnesota's book: the league's most consistent team over the last couple years goes out and plays each night with the heart and determination of a team that doesn't have three Olympians and another player that's borderline. They leave everything they have on the floor for each other every night. Combine that with the talent they have and that's what puts them over the top each game.
If anything, this move needs to be a gut check for each and every player on the roster. The obvious difference between Phoenix and every other team in the league comes down to effort. I can't say that I've watched a game this season where a team is essentially allowing the other team to score. Pushing the other way and just trying to outscore the other team worked in 2007 when they had Diana, Cappie Pondexter, and Penny Taylor, arguably three of the top ten players in the world at that time. But this is a different league. There are no longer "scrubs" in the league nor are there any "gimme" games in the WNBA. (Although Phoenix has seemed that way of late.) No disrespect to the players in the league of old, but frankly this is the first real season where you could take a roster of players that aren't in the league and compete each night.
I've heard great things about Pennell and think that he could definitely create a home for himself if he creates an identity for this team. It's something that's been missing all year.
Yes, uptempo was the excuse this team fell back on with Gaines at the helm but this team really hasn't been that. The ball hasn't been pushed as it was back in the glory years of Mercury success. The secondary break is non-existent, which is absurd to me because if we had success running a secondary break with Le'coe Willingham and Tangela Smith being key factors in it, we could have success with Candice Dupree and Brittney Griner.
It's also high time to get Taurasi back on the wing. It's clearly weighing on her to have to be the primary ball handler and top scoring threat. With the roster that's in place now, I don't see this happening so maybe COO and now-General Manager Amber Cox has some strings she can pull but frankly the effort needs to improve or the Mercury may need to clean house this fall from number 4 on down the totem pole.
Is Pennell the answer for the future? That's to be determined. But feel free to strike up thoughts in the comments below. Here's a few names I've thrown around in my conversation about the firing earlier (my personal favorite is in Italics):
Paul Westhead's return