Sandy Brondello's squad was the best team in the WNBA this season and proved that by dropping just one game in defeating the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx -- both teams projected by many media outlets to finish ahead of the Mercury -- to advance to the franchise's fourth WNBA Finals series.
The balance of the starting lineup and their productivity all season became a running discussion, especially after swapping Penny Taylor into the starting lineup for Erin Phillips.
Phoenix Mercury X-Factor: Penny Taylor
The team took off, winning the second-most consecutive games (16) in the history of the W. Taylor is an Olympian and was an integral part of Mercury championships in 2007 and 2009. It's a bit much to put so much on a player's shoulders but since drafting her first overall in the Cleveland Rockers dispersal draft in 2004 -- ironically the same year that Diana Taurasi was drafted -- the Phoenix Mercury's best basketball has only come when PFT has been healthy and productive. Much to my delight, Penny has stripped herself of all the doubters that were questioning her returning at a high level this season by picking her spots and being extremely efficient, even recording the second-highest blocks total in her career.
Taylor, just 7 years removed from a First Team All-WNBA and 3 years from a Second Team selection, will need to continue her strong play and could potentially spend extended time guarding the Sky's Elena Delle Donne if Brondello continues past defensive assignments with DeWanna Bonner guarding Courtney Vandersloot or Epiphanny Prince.
Chicago Sky X-Factor: Courtney Vandersloot
Allie Quigley would be the easy choice here -- as was Brondello or Griner above -- but I decided to eliminate individual award winners from the X-Factor category. Jessica Breland is a 2014 All-Star who saw only 40 minutes in the first two rounds and has become a non-factor. So what direction do I go for the Sky? Very easy.
Courtney Vandersloot was heavily criticized coming into the W. There were questions about every facet of the game for Sloot: Could she handle the physicality? Could she keep up with the faster, more athletic guards of the WNBA? Could she guard the likes of Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen? Admittedly, Sloot struggled initially. But here we are in Sloot's fourth WNBA season and she's received little to no love but she's a huge key to the Sky's success.
Before suffering a knee injury that sidelined her for the rest of the regular season, Sloot was averaging career-highs in assists and three point field goal percentage through 17 games while tying a career-high in free throw percentage in just under 27 minutes per game. Sloot has raised her levels in the playoffs and will need to take it to yet another level when she laces up opposite not only the best player playing her position but the best player in the world. Sloot likely won't be matched up with Taurasi often, that job will probably become Tamera Young's, but she will need to play the best basketball she's ever played to steal a game on the Mercury's home floor.