The Phoenix Mercury entered the 2019 WNBA Playoffs with an upside-down win-loss record, and four of those losses were the team’s last four regular-season games. The 15-19 record epitomizes the Mercury’s upside-down season, which culminated on Wednesday in a 105-76 blowout loss to the Chicago Sky in a Round 1 single-elimination game. The ugly fashion of the loss — complete with a star player going down with injury — seemed to seal a doomed fate.
Phoenix ascended from the ashes in 2018 after Sancho Lyttle went down with a torn ACL, made the playoffs, beat the feisty Connecticut Sun to advance to the semifinals and converted an 0-2 deficit into a five-game series against the Seattle Storm, who would go on to win the championship. The chase was real, with the Mercury overcoming odds one year ago to make that deep of a playoff run. But the grind caught up to the aging and/or overworked players.
Lyttle, still rehabbing her surgically-repaired knee, would not make her season debut until well into the regular season. Playing well with a bulky brace on her knee, an aggravation of the injury forced her to exit the lineup for weeks. She made her return at the tail end of the regular season.
But the biggest injury-related absence was Diana Taurasi, who was projected to miss most of the season following preseason back surgery. With the all-time leading scorer in WNBA history sidelined, could the Mercury still contend for a title? After all, the Mercury’s offense ran through the Big Three of Taurasi, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner.
Could they get it done with two of their three superstars?
The absences of Taurasi and Lyttle were not the end of the team’s injury-caused obstacles, but foreshadowing of the injury wave to come. New offseason acquisition Essence Carson missed several weeks with a calf strain. And the injuries continued to pile up, hitting veterans and rookies alike, whether keeping them out of the lineup a few games or requiring surgery that would end their season early.
Taurasi (back, hamstring)
Essence Carson (calf)
Sophie Cunningham (back)
Briann January (foot)
Alanna Smith (ankle surgery)
Camille Little (ankle, knee)
In her postgame interview after Phoenix was eliminated from the playoffs, Bonner stated that the Mercury roster was down to just six players at one point this season.
“At one point we only had six people” due to injuries.— Tamryn Spruill (@tamrynspruill) September 12, 2019
-DeWanna Bonner https://t.co/IWAzYPrYne
Sadly, the Mercury were not alone in trying to make something from an injury-riddled roster. Adding insult to the injuries for Phoenix, though, were the three games Griner missed due to suspension and the time Yvonne Turner missed due to EuroBasket commitments overseas.
“We just didn’t get our chemistry where it needed to be,” said Brondello after the Round 1 elimination.
What an understatement.
Taurasi played in just six regular-season games because of back surgery and a subsequent hamstring injury that lingered. Her impeccable court vision helped her to generate offense for the team but she never found her shot, making it doubtful that she would have contributed much in scoring even if she had found a way to suit up for the Mercury’s win-or-go-home affair. For the first time in her career, Taurasi finished the season with single-digit scoring.
Here’s how Taurasi’s 4.3 points per game in 2019 compare to her 2018 season and career averages:
Taurasi, by the the numbers
4.3 — points (per game)
10.3% — field-goal percentage
4.2% — 3-point percentage
5.3 — assists
3.2 — rebounds
20.7 — points
44.6% — field-goal percentage
38.3% — 3-point percentage
5.3 — assists
3.5 — rebounds
19.6 — points
43.3% — field-goal percentage
36.7% — 3-point percentage
4.3 — assists
3.9 — rebounds
Without Taurasi, other players had to step up. If there is one upside to Taurasi’s absence it is that Leilani Mitchell got to start at point guard and remind people why she — at a petite 5-foot-5 — belongs in the league. With the consistency of starting minutes, Mitchell found her three-point shot and kept the Mercury breathing, whether her contributions resulted in a win or just avoidance of a loss by blowout.
Here’s a look at Mitchell’s production over the last two seasons:
Mitchell, by the numbers
30.4 — minutes
12.8 — points
44% — field-goal percentage
43% — 3-point percentage
4.0 — assists
3.0 — rebounds
14.9 — minutes
4.4 — points
35% — field-goal percentage
34% — 3-point percentage
2.3 — assists
1.4 — rebounds
Albeit bedraggled, Bonner, Griner and role players helped the team to the playoffs — a single-elimination game in Round 1. On the road in Chicago to face the wide-open Sky, Brondello stuck to her coaching status quo: Pound it inside to BG. Well, Griner went down with a knee injury in the second quarter, sending that plan up in smoke.
Without Griner and Taurasi, the Mercury were required to finish the game with one superstar standing: DeWanna Bonner, one of the few players on the Phoenix roster to compete in every game in the 2019 season.
Bonner’s big minutes
It isn’t talked about nearly enough just how much of a beating Bonner takes every single game: hard hits under the basket, hits to the face. Just when fans think she’s going to be knocked out of a game, she rises and banks her free throws — or protests a non-call. One of the few Mercury players to suit up for all 34 games in 2019, Bonner was Ms. Reliability, going for 32.9 minutes per contest, the same as last year. Her consistency showed up in the box score, too. Her scoring was about equal — 17.2 points in 2019 to 17.3 in 2018.
Bonner picked pockets at the same rate as last year (1.2 steals per game), her rebounding was a little higher than last year and her assisting a little lower. But there was a significant drop in Bonner’s shooting percentages this season:
Bonner’s drop in shooting efficiency
45.2% field-goal shooting
31.3% three-point shooting
37.7% field-goal shooting
27.2% three-point shooting
Bonner is a warrior and will never make excuses for a drop in performance. But a look the injuries that hit this team this season gives a strong indication that exhaustion could be the cause of her drop in efficiency.
Players win games. Teams win championships
For much of the season, it appeared the Mercury were biding their time until Taurasi returned to health and swooped in to save the day. It’s a form of magical thinking, if not delusion, that a team’s leaders (coach, general manager, whoever) should never allow to take root. Finding a way to win without Taurasi would only make the team better in her return and, future-thinking, without it.
A strong commitment toward developing younger players right after learning that Taurasi would miss most of the season was warranted. Perhaps getting offense from players outside of the Big Three, plus veterans Lyttle, Little (who made the 2019 WNBA season her last) and January, would have allowed for a smoother regular season. Perhaps a player already primed to thrive in the absence of Griner would have given the Mercury a better showing against the Sky in Round 1 of the playoffs.
If the message wasn’t clear before, Phoenix should know by now that depending on two or three players to carry the scoring isn’t an offense. Expand the offense. Get the younger players involved. Deepen the bench as an investment in the Mercury’s present and future. Fix the issues with the team’s leadership, whatever they may be.
Phoenix has used the same approach and received the same lackluster result since 2015. Loyalty is important. It would be hard to have players buy into a coach or front office if the players didn’t feel a sense of loyalty, trust and commitment coming from the decision-makers. But loyalty to individual interests — whatever they may be — can turn toxic when it damages the greater good.
The question, now, is whether someone in the franchise might have the guts to execute change for the greater good, whatever that change may be.