How Diana Taurasi's absence affects the Phoenix Mercury and the Western Conference playoffs race

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It's too early to tell what's going to happen in the WNBA's Western Conference this season. From an X-Factor member's perspective, losing Diana Taurasi, who is skipping the entire 2015 season, isn't an assurance for other teams that they'll have an easy walk in the park. It is neither a guarantee for them that the Mercury will lose their Western Conference title.

With plenty of key pieces like Brittney Griner (2014 shot blocks leader), Dewanna Bonner, Candice Dupree, and Penny Taylor, the Mercury are still contenders to win not only in the West but in the entire league. In 2014, all five starters of the Mercury scored in double-digits during the regular season with Bonner and Dupree combining for over 26 points a game during the team's 16-game winning streak. Griner actually led the team in PER.

However, realistically speaking, the Mercury is losing not just a player who lights up the scoreboard; they are going to miss a leader and an anchor of a three-time WNBA champion team.

While the team is already preparing for Taurasi's looming absence by boosting its backcourt rotation with the addition of Monique Currie, Noelle Quinn, Leilani Mitchell, and Jasmine James, replacing the leadership and the impact one of the world's best women's basketball stars is giving the team is a daunting task.

That will be their toughest opponent, and how they will be able to handle an entire season without its veteran is a compelling storyline. Though the Mercury have a plethora of weapons, they still relied on the savvy play of their best asset. Taurasi was the top scorer of the squad in the regular season (16.2 PPG) and no. 8 in the league (Phoenix was the best offensive team that year). She leads the team in usage rate aside from being no. 1 in the league in assists and no. 3 in win shares.

In the 2014 playoffs she increased her totals to 21.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, and 5.8 APG, creating more than a third of her team's total points. She eventually bagged the Finals Most Valuable Player after the Mercury swept the Chicago Sky in the finals.

And even if you throw away those statistics (Hi, Charles Barkley!) the defense she attracts and her ability to create for her teammates (in short, her talent. It's all about talent, right Chuck?) will surely be missed. They wouldn't look the same without their key star. In 2012, Phoenix finished with a woeful 7-27 card with Taurasi playing only eight games.

Plus, trying to spoil that chase for back to back titles are a lot of hungry teams, led by one whose core has already taken the squad to three of the last four WNBA finals series: the Minnesota Lynx.

That three-headed monster composed of Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, and Lindsay Whalen remains a ferocious threat to the entire league. Losing Taurasi boosts the Lynx's chances of hoisting the Western Conference crown for the fourth time in five years, but they aren't the only team vying for a return trip to the promised land.

Aside from the Lynx, two more teams have reloaded for the upcoming season. The Seattle Storm are putting a premium on youth and have traded for the no. 3 and no. 15 picks to surround their franchise player Sue Bird with fresh legs and new talent. The Los Angeles Sparks recently signed Australian (another Opal!) national team member Marianna Tolo, who can give an added edge to the Sparks' already competitive frontline composed of Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, and Jantel Lavender.

In the East, the Chicago Sky are poised to return to the top assuming everyone stays healthy and that they land a good addition using the no. 5 pick. Like any other contender, the Sky can challenge the Mercury for the throne. The San Antonio Stars still have quality players even with the departure of Becky Hammon, who is now an assistant coach for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs.

In a nutshell, although there are many factors to be considered, the success of other West teams largely depends on how Phoenix reacts this upcoming season. Doors will open for Minnesota, Los Angeles and the rest of the West if Phoenix fails to fill the void vacated by Taurasi.

Taurasi's absence does not only affect the Mercury but may change the landscape of the entire playoff race. From the looks of it, the Mercury is still expected to make the postseason but they should find ways to rescue this campaign.

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