The Phoenix Mercury are the hottest and the best team in the WNBA right now. They lead the Western Conference by 2 games and they've won a franchise record 12 consecutive games. Then, once you consider the team behind the Mercury only has 11 games in the season compared to their own 13, that gap has the potential to widen even more.
Looking at the "differences" between this past season and the current one, not TOO much has changed: Diana Taurasi is still the best player in the world, Brittney Griner is improving at an expedited rate and is still 6'8", Candice Dupree is still smooth, and DeWanna Bonner is still on the weak side, waiting for you to fall asleep. The core of this team was in place for the Mercury last season, but they struggled to start the season and had to battle their way back to a 19-15 record.
One of the biggest points of discussion this off-season for the Mercury was exactly who would be the person that come to Phoenix to play the point guard spot to get Diana Taurasi off the ball. Kara Lawson's name came up. Potential rookies were considered. Even Jasmine James was thought to have a chance at the spot until she tore her ACL. Eventually Erin Phillips, who signed an offer sheet with the Mercury before the 2012 season only for the Indiana Fever to match it, was brought over in a trade that cost the Mercury promising young post Lynetta Kizer. But if you've been paying attention to the WNBA, she's not even starting for the Mercury anymore and Taurasi is back at the point guard spot yet again.
So exactly what is different?
Sure having players that can make open shots helps and this team is full of proven shot makers. (You can actually take it a step further and look back the training camp roster as the Mercury arguably had the most talented camp in the WNBA. Players like Alexis Gray-Lawson and April Sykes have a history of being what we call "bucket-getters" where I come from. Maggie Lucas came in with the reputation as a sniper. Even Chelsea Hopkins was a stat-sheet stuffer at the point guard spot that sees the floor really well.) Sure having a coach that has familiarity with the WNBA and what it takes to play at a high-level defensively that will hold players accountable helps. But the biggest spark to the Mercury's turnaround this season comes in the form of a player that has been a member of the Phoenix team since being selected number 1 overall in the Cleveland Rockers dispersal draft in 2004: Penelope Jane Taylor. Or as I prefer to call her, PFT.
Being that I became a Mercury fan in 2004 after one of my favorite basketball players ever (she and Kobe sit beside each other on seats slightly smaller than my favorite player Pistol Pete), I'm very familiar with Penny and what she's capable of. She's been a factor on the world level for a very long time and if it wasn't for time she's taken off due to injury and playing for her native Australia, Taylor could easily be one of the top five scorers all-time (she's currently 21st with just over 4,000 points scored) and have a few more all-star nods under her belt.
Since being inserted into the starting lineup for the Mercury on June 15th against the Minnesota Lynx (and I personally believe that some combination of Taylor, Taurasi and Sandy Brondello picked that date for obvious reasons), Penny has averaged just under 14 points per night (13.75) while shooting 58% from the floor, 41% from three, 83% from the free throw line all in just 24.8 minutes per contest.
This shouldn't come as a shock as Taylor has long been one of the most productive players on every team she's played for. Here's Penny's career numbers for comparison:
13.1 points 47% FG 38% 3FG 87% FT in 27 minutes a night.
Now here's a look at three wing players named to the WNBA's Top-15 Players of All-Time selected at All-Star 2011:
SHERYL SWOOPES: 15.0 points 44% FG 32% 3FG 83% FT in 33 minutes per game
KATIE SMITH: 13.4 points 40% FG 37% 3FG 86% FT in 33 minutes per game
TAMIKA CATCHINGS: 16.7 points 42% FG 36% 3FG 84% FT in 33 minutes a night
Now for comparison's sake, Penny has only played 318 total WNBA games. Smith played 482 and Catchings has played 383. The closest of the three to Penny's sample size is Swoopes, who played 324 games. While playing only 6 more total games than PT, Swoopes has taken 1,157 more shots than Penny has. I think it's pretty universally known that as the WNBA has continued forward, the level of play continues to improve each year. Swoopes' last season was in 2011 and she is now the head coach at Loyola University Chicago while Penny continues to play in the era of the "Big Three' and when dunks aren't big deals anymore. Taking almost 1200 more shots, one would expect the career PPG difference to be more than just below 2 points. Then when you consider that Penny Taylor has very rarely been a go-to player, it makes you really think about what she could have done over the course of her career had the circumstances been different.
Now, overall, this is a tough comparison to make. I've already mentioned the difference in talent-level, but also initially, the shot clock was longer and the three point line shorter. So here's something more fresh in our minds to really make you see just how much Penny's return to form has meant.
Teammate Diana Taurasi won the Western Conference Player of the Month award for June and her stats looked like:
18.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.9 assists 47% FG 36% 3FG 95% FT in 33.2 minutes a night
And Penny's stats over the last 10 games?
15.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists 60% FG 45% 3FG 85% FT in 25.1 minutes a night
Needless to say, Penny Taylor is one of the best players in the world currently and arguably one of the best ever. I think it's about time we give her the due she's earned.