On Feb. 10, the Phoenix Mercury were celebrating one of the most successful offseasons in recent memory, introducing Tina Charles — a multi-time All-Star and gold medalist who had just won the scoring title — to a team that had just made the WNBA Finals. After re-signing Kia Nurse and Sophie Cunningham and acquiring Diamond DeShields via trade, the Mercury had done just about everything possible to make another run at the championship.
And then a week later, disaster struck when Brittney Griner was detained in Russia. The team has done all it can do to honor Griner’s community work in Phoenix, specifically her advocacy for the unhoused, and the WNBA is bringing attention to her case with BG decals on all 12 courts, but the league and the Mercury don’t know when she will return, and that leaves a huge hole on the court.
Make no mistake, Griner was the best player on Phoenix a year ago and would have been in prime position to chase her first MVP trophy this season. The tallest player in the W, her presence in the lane is the foundation of the Mercury’s defense, and she can also score from anywhere inside the arc. Whatever championship aspirations Phoenix hoped to have don’t exist without Griner — but the Mercury can still be a really good team while they wait for her return.
Phoenix’s hopes for staying afloat start with Charles, even if the Mercury envisioned her as more of a power forward than center when they signed her. A member of the W25, Charles has been a low-post dynamo for years and expanded her range to the 3-point line last season. That ability to stretch the floor makes her a natural complement to almost any big in the league.
At Charles’ introductory press conference, she had strong ideas about how she and Griner would fit, but it was apparent that she hadn’t given as much thought to her pairing with Brianna Turner, only that the two could learn from each other since Charles is more offensive-minded and Turner favors defense. Now, that duo is the starting frontcourt for the Mercury, but fortunately, their skill sets should mesh seamlessly.
One of the Mercury’s pet plays is a lob set from Skylar Diggins-Smith to Turner, and Charles can space the floor around that action. Turner is also a good roller on screens while Charles can pop. Turner has still fairly low usage as an offensive player, mostly impacting that end on the offensive glass, so it benefits Phoenix to still have a hub in Charles to soak up possessions.
Defensively, Turner played plenty of center in the bubble when Griner left early, and the Mercury’s defensive rating was improved with Turner in the middle. Phoenix can use her in a variety of ways depending on the matchup and at least has some size in Charles for help defense when Turner is on the perimeter. Kristine Anigwe and Megan Gustafson also provide some size off the bench.
Even though the the frontcourt is in flux, the Mercury know what they are getting on the perimeter. Skylar Diggins-Smith had the best season of her career in 2021, combining efficient scoring and playmaking with an impactful performance on defense. Her ability to provide pressure at the point of attack was a new element to game, and her defense held up later in the playoffs than her offense did. Phoenix needs that version of Diggins-Smith again in 2022.
Diana Taurasi took a step back in the regular season in 2021, but was once again a terror in the playoffs. Even if she can’t summon her best self every day, that iteration of Taurasi remains unguardable, as the Las Vegas Aces remember all too well. The Mercury can spell her for stretches with Sophie Cunningham, who showed that she can meet the moment on the biggest stages. Shey Peddy is still around providing solid defense and shooting at the guard spot, a steady veteran who simply gets the job done.
There are some questions on the wing with Nurse rehabbing her torn ACL from last year’s semifinals. Diamond DeShields may struggle in the half court if her shooting doesn’t come around, but she has always been devastating in transition, and Phoenix is equipped to play with pace with Turner and Diggins-Smith running the floor, and Taurasi a trail threat on the break.
Sam Thomas is an interesting wild card at forward, a rookie out of Arizona who made the roster ahead of Leaonna Odom. Taurasi has spoken highly of her, and Thomas could have the profile of a 3-and-D player. She made the Pac-12 all-defense team three times and shot at least 37 percent from three in four of her five seasons, including 42.9 percent in her fifth year. The Mercury will need Thomas to eat some minutes at the 3, lest they get too small and have to play Cunningham at small forward behind DeShields.
For all the talent Phoenix has on the floor, the team has a big question mark in its rookie head coach Vanessa Nygaard. Sandy Brondello always had the Mercury peaking in the playoffs, but that’s a tricky gambit for a first-year coach. Nygaard’s coaching philosophy is something of a blank slate at this point, and she inherits a team that doesn’t exactly have time for her to learn on the job.
It’s hard to focus purely on basketball with Phoenix considering the Mercury are synonymous with Brittney Griner, and she isn’t there. But this is a team whose identity is to never back down, and that’s what Phoenix will have to do.