Sandy Brondello, head coach of the Phoenix Mercury since 2014, knows that winning a WNBA championship is not easy.
In five seasons as a WNBA player — two with the Detroit Shock (1998-99), two with the Miami Sol (2001-02) and one with the Seattle Storm (2003) — the one-time All-Star (1999) made the playoffs two times. In 1999, the Shock bowed out in the first round, losing their single game. In 2001, the Sol fell 2-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The beginning of her WNBA coaching career, a one-season stint with the San Antonio Silver Stars in 2010, made her more aware of the difficulty of winning at a high-level in the WNBA. Despite a 14-20 regular season, the Stars qualified for the playoffs, but were summarily swept 2-0 in the Western Conference semifinals by Brondello’s future team, the Phoenix Mercury.
However, when she took over the head job in Phoenix in 2014, she assumed control of a juggernaut. Headlined by an in-her-prime Diana Taurasi, the Mercury would unleash one of the most dominat seasons in WNBA history.
The fabulous 2014 Phoenix Mercury
A stellar starting five — Taurasi, a second-year Brittney Griner, a then four-time All-Star Candice Dupree, a blossoming DeWanna Bonner and the heady Penny Taylor — all scored in double figures as they romped through the league with a 29-5 record — the best of all time — with a net rating of 12.1. They rolled to the title, dropping only one of their eight playoff games. Brondello also was named Coach of the Year.
The Mercury looked like the next WNBA dynasty, destined to be in championship contention, if not bound for the title, for seasons to come.
However, Taurasi opted out of the next season, enticed to skip it and preserve her physical prime because of a generous pay day from her overseas team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. Taylor also skipped the 2015 season for personal reasons. The Mercury did not sink without their superstar and her sidekick, finishing 20-14 and advancing to the Western Conference semifinals. But, a repeat was not expected.
Brondello, Mercury stuck in the semis
The next season, the starting five of the 2014 title team was restored, seemingly setting the stage for the Mercury to once again claim the trophy.
Yet, the magic of 2014 could not easily be recaptured. Phoenix finished under .500 at 16-18 and behind the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks in the Western Conference standings. Able to advance to the semifinals, it was swept 3-0 by the Lynx.
The 2017 and 2018 seasons were similar stories. In 2017, with Taylor retired, Dupree departing for Indiana and Bonner out for the season due to pregnancy, the Mercury managed to finish just over .500 at 18-16 and survive to the semifinals in the playoffs. But again, they were swept, dropping three-straight games to the Sparks. The return of Bonner resulted in a stronger regular-season performance in 2018, with a 20-14 record. However, the semifinals once again stood as an insurmountable obstacle for the Mercury. In one of the most thrilling semifinals in WNBA history, Phoenix fell to the eventual-champion Seattle Storm in five games.
Despite employing the player who recently has been proclaimed the greatest in league history, Phoenix could not figure out a way to advance to another WNBA Finals.
More postseason shortcomings for Mercury
Then, even the semifinals became elusive for Phoenix in 2019 and 2020.
Injuries and absences, in large part, explain the Mercury’s regression. Taurasi missed almost all of the 2019 season with a back injury, with the Griner-Bonner tandem only able to take a still-talented Mercury to a 15-19 record and first-round playoff loss. The unprecedented-ness of 2020 prevented Phoenix’s new “Big 3,” with Skylar Diggins-Smith replacing Bonner, from rounding into a true title contender, as Griner chose to skip the second half of the season for mental health reasons. Led by Taurasi and Diggins-Smith, and a clutch three-pointer from Shey Peddy, the Mercury escaped their first-round single-elimination game before losing in the second round.
Even as the Mercury appeared further away from again winning a title season by season, Brondello, somewhat puzzlingly, largely escaped serious job scrutiny. While the Phoenix teams of 2016-20 certainly did not experience the ideal confluence of conditions that occurred in 2014, it is easy to argue that, in the aggregate, they underachieved.
Nevertheless, the organization remained committed to Brondello.
Brondello, Mercury finally back in the Finals
This season, Phoenix’s steadfastness paid off.
Although their 2021 regular season did not necessarily inspire confidence in the Mercury’s status as a true championship contender, Brondello has instilled a sense of spirit and resiliency in this team, characteristics that appeared to be lacking in seasons prior.
Earlier this season, Brondello provided some insight into her team’s mentality, telling wnba.com:
We control our own destiny and we don’t want to get too high or too low. We can’t get complacent. Every game is different, and mentally, I think we are in the right spot. I think that’s a credit to having a veteran team.
Peddy echoed her head coach, saying:
We are learning one another, what buttons to push to get somebody going. We know we have to stay in the game, limit our arguing with the refs and not get discouraged. It’s just a ‘next play, next play’ mentality.
At the beginning of a recent media availability, Taurasi emphasized the “trust” and “focus” of the team.
To make this trip to the Finals as fruitful as the one eight seasons ago, Brondello must find a way to marshal all the trust, focus, positivity and belief she has brought out of this team.
In Game 1, the combination of depletion and exhaustion led to a blowout loss, thus sacrificing Phoenix’s homecourt advantage. The tall task of winning three of the next four games is compounded by the absence of Kia Nurse due to an ACL, as well as Taurasi’s on-going management of an ankle and foot injury,
Although nothing may compare to the fated season of 2014, leading to the Mercury to the championship through this adversity would be the most impressive coaching job of Brondello’s career.
No longer stuck in the semis, Sandy and her squad have a title to win!