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Phoenix Mercury: A Look Ahead

The defending WNBA champions return seven of the nine rotation players from their playoff run last season and their fast paced style will obviously be returning as well, but the Mercury will obviously be a different team without Cappie Pondexter and to an extent Le'coe Willingham as well.  How different?  Probably not fundamentally different given the returning players and the well defined system of play, but noticeably different with the changes and shifting of roles.

The Mercury are still going to be an offensive juggernaut like their NBA counterpart in Phoenix, but something will be undoubtedly lost from the Mercury's transition game without Cappie Pondexter.  Pondexter led the league by a wide margin in fast break points scored and also led the league in assists on the fast break.  A full 20% of her points and assists came on the fast break, and no one will be able to replicate that on this year's roster.  The team will also particularly miss being able to slide Pondexter to the point in half court situations where Tameka Johnson was less effective particularly in the playoffs.  That move also allowed the Mercury to put their five best scorers on the floor something that may not be possible this season.

Still most of what makes the Mercury a great offensive team remains even though they no longer have two players in Pondexter and Willingham that combined to score nearly a third of the team's points last season. Diana Taurasi's individual brilliance remains, but her shift back to shooting guard will likely mean an increase in her playmaking role after being able to concentrate more narrowly on scoring these last few seasons.  Passing isn't exactly a burden for Taurasi, but it is a shifting of roles.  A healthy Penny Taylor is a complete and very efficient offensive player, which is what the Mercury will hopefully have on the wing for a full season this year.  Tangela Smith will still be able to open up the floor with her long range shooting from the center position.  Temeka Johnson needs to prove that last season wasn't a fluke, particularly her shooting, but she can keep the Mercury offense in gear.  The team expects more from DeWanna Bonner in her second season mostly in her terms of minutes on offense, but also an expanded role on defense.  Last season Bonner was among the most efficient offensive players by playing her role as an athletic front court finisher very well and reaping the rewards of the defensive attention draw by Taurasi and Pondexter.  Of the seven key returning players those are the five that were integral to the Mercury's record setting offense last season.

What's New Then?

Added to that core will be Candice Dupree acquired though the trade of Cappie Pondexter.  For almost her entire time in Chicago, Dupree seemed to be an oasis in the desert, a sophisticated and skilled offensive player on a team that was typically lacking those qualities.  She continued to make the correct pass or the correct cut even though her teammates rarely executed well enough to make doing the correct thing meaningful.  As a rookie she was compared to Tim Duncan in terms of her fundamental style, and that's a comparison her new coach Corey Gaines has also been using as well four years later.

How that translates to playing in Phoenix will be interesting.  There is a possibility that Dupree seemingly explodes if she adapts well to the style change after spending almost her entire career playing on slow paced teams.  For the first time she will be playing with players that can reward making the correct play with their execution.  And she will be playing within great floor spacing for the first time, while also still being able to space the floor for her new teammates. 

"I think over the years she's been getting double teamed in Chicago and people have been trying to keep the ball out of her hands," said Gaines in last week's WNBA pre-season media teleconference. "The difference with us is we'll have Penny Taylor and we'll have Diana Taurasi out on the wing. So you can double her if you want, but I think she'll see a lot of single coverage and Tangela [Smith], my five, shoots threes so it should be very interesting."

Dupree also extended her range to beyond the arc last season and acquitted herself quite well shooting 39% on 62 three point attempts. That means the Mercury will still be able to play with four and even five long range shooters on the court the majority of the time. 

The unknown is to what degree Dupree can capitalize on the opportunities in Phoenix . Can she be efficient enough offensively to take full advantage of her opportunities in Phoenix?  There is no doubt that Amare Stoudemire benefits from playing with Steve Nash in an uptempo system, but there are also few players that are able to so consistently finish those opportunities.  Dupree has to be more efficient than she was in Chicago if she is going to effectively help to compensate for the loss of Pondxexter.  And she should be for the reasons previously discussed, but does a player that seemed content to mostly play her role in mostly losing situations in Chicago have the aggressiveness to seize those opportunities and finish shots? 

Pondexter led the league in fast break scoring not just because of her skills, but also her aggressiveness.  The Mercury may miss some of that aggression driving the pace of the offense even with Taurasi still there there to control the show. Dupree will likely excel, but there is always that unknown when the context around a player's performance dramatically changes.

How About Some Defense?

Last season the Mercury scored 1.096 points per possession last season, way ahead of the second place Minnesota Lynx's 1.023 points scored per possession.   In fact the gap between the Mercury and the Lynx was bigger than the gap between the Lynx and the WNBA's least efficient offensive team the Washington Mystics.  That' gap will likely close this season.  The Lynx would have narrowed the gap last season had Seimone Augustus not suffered an ACL injury, but this season with the addition of the efficient Lindsay Whalen and the eventual return of Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins to the lineup the Lynx should be even better offensively than they finished last season.  Still the Seattle Storm, a team that finished in the  middle of the pack last season, may be the team to watch out for because a healthy Lauren Jackson is basically an efficient offense by herself.  The last time Jackson played close to a full season in 2007 the Storm scored 1.04 points per possession and with the offseason additions to strengthen the roster that's certainly an attainable efficiency again. If the Mercury are going to lead the league in point differential again there will likely need to be some defensive improvement from a team that finished at the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency. 

And there are some places where that little bit of defensive improvement in the changes brought on by the trade of Pondexter for Dupree.  Dupree rightfully does not have a reputation for defensive greatness, but they do not need to attain defensive greatness in Phoenix.  They just need to improve a little.  Dupree adds another shot blocker to the team that led the league in blocked shots last season, but more importantly Dupree is a solid defensive rebounder and likely the best on this season's team.  Adding Dupree and sliding Taurasi to the backcourt should provide a solid boost to the Mercury's rebounding performance on defense.   And with Pondexter and Willingham having departed the Mercury will simply be longer on defense with the lineup shifts created by their absence.  Putting Bonner on the floor more adds another long athlete, but she'll likely have to adjust to defending on the wing more this season as the primary backup for both Dupree and Taylor.  It's a lot easier to go from the bottom of the league to simply below average on defense than it is to improve the best offense in league history, and the Mercury have a chance to make that kind of defensive improvement.

What About the Other Five Players?

The Mercury will be thin behind their top six.  Nicole Ohhlde will also return at center as well as Ketia Swanier at the backup point.  Ohlde is needed at times as a bigger body in the post defensively.  Ohlde's role is somewhat reminiscent of Bill Cartwright on the early 90s Chicago Bulls teams.  She's primarily needed on the roster for certain matchups come playoff time.  Like the Bulls did with Cartwright, the Mercury will run a little offense through Ohlde, despite her inefficiency, because she's a fairly skilled post.  And this could be a crucial year for Swanier

Last season Swanier found a team that need her in the Mercury after being cut by the Connecticut Sun.  This season the Mercury need her even more with the departure of Pondexter.  Her defense as a bigger point guard will be needed by the team, but her offense will likely determine her playing time.  If she finds the shooting stroke she had as a senior at the University of Connecticut then she can play with Johnson as well as back her up at the point.  There's certainly plenty of playing time available with the last three roster spots seemingly wide open with less than a week until the regular season opener.  

The Mercury were guaranteed to be fun to watch, but now they are a bit more intriguing with the roster changes than if the Mercury had simply been able to return the same team as much as Mercury fans would have loved that scenario.  The margin of error was already likely to shrink with several contenders in the West improving their rosters, but the thinner roster due to salary cap limitations for the Mercury shrinks it further.  Still their top six players in Taurasi, Taylor, Dupree, Smith, Bonner, and Johnson are still likely the best core in the league.  In a sport where the best players typically determine the outcome, that's not a bad way to go into the season.