In a shocking bit of news, the Phoenix Mercury announced Saturday that they agreed to a contract divorce with Tina Charles.
The team issued a press release with a statement from general manager Jim Pitman that said, “After discussions with Tina and her agent, it was best for both parties to go our separate ways at this time. Due to circumstances both in and out of our control, our season has not gone according to our plan, and we will continue to pursue all avenues for improvement.”
The season not going according to plan is an understatement for the Mercury, who are 6-12 and two games out of the final playoff spot entering Saturday’s game against Dallas. Phoenix attempted to build a super team this past offseason after losing in the 2021 WNBA Finals by acquiring Charles — a W25 honoree who was the league’s leading scorer a year ago — along with Diamond DeShields from the defending champion Sky.
However, a week after Charles was introduced as a member of the Mercury, Brittney Griner was arrested at the Moscow airport and has been wrongfully detained in Russia, per the United States government’s classification, ever since. Nothing has gone right for Phoenix since. The team’s only wins in the first 10 games came against a Seattle Storm squad missing Breanna Stewart. Things looked to be turning around to start June, as the Mercury reeled off three straight wins. That appeared to be a brief respite, though, as Phoenix just lost two consecutive games to the 11th-place Lynx.
Charles hasn’t quite found her footing with the Mercury, despite taking a discount to ostensibly compete for a championship. Her defensive rating is the second-worst of her career, she barely rates out as a positive player by win shares, and Phoenix has been 8.3 points per 100 possessions better with her off the court. The Mercury have looked most threatening this season in a four-out, one-in setup that plays at a breakneck pace; that formula is incongruous with Charles’ style of play, especially when she shares the floor with Brianna Turner.
Phoenix’s struggles can hardly be placed on Charles alone. Griner’s absence looms large over the entire franchise, both because of the severity of her situation and her status as the team’s best player. New head coach Vanessa Nygaard has been placed in an impossible situation, but she hasn’t done herself any favors with a basic offense and an inability to coax even average defensive play out of this roster. Diana Taurasi has been awful on that end of the floor, and despite another solid offensive season, has the worst on-off rating on the team.
The team’s other prized offseason acquisition, DeShields, has arguably been worse than Charles, unable to fill in the role that Kia Nurse occupied a year ago. DeShields’s 3-point shooting has fallen off of a cliff, and she hasn’t provided much in recent weeks beyond her transition attacks.
The Mercury have no choice but to try to compete this season because they traded away their first-round pick in the 2023 draft to get DeShields, so a tank is off the table.
That begs the question of why the team would let go of Charles now. Getting worse doesn’t help Phoenix now that Chicago possesses its 2023 first-round pick, so the argument would theoretically be that the Mercury expect to get better by allocating Charles’ minutes elsewhere.
The terms of a contract divorce are that the team buys out the remainder of the player’s contract, either at the full value of a contract but usually a lower number. That frees the team to use the additional cap space, a sacrifice the player is willing to make to move on to a new situation. Thus far, there has been no reporting of whether Charles gave any money back in this negotiation.
In her pregame media availability for Saturday’s game against the Wings, Nygaard seemed to indicate that it was good for everyone involved to get a fresh start.
“It’s just best for both parties and we’re ready to move forward and get out there and battle tonight,” Nygaard said. “We’re ready to move ahead. It’s a divorce. So we’re moving ahead. That’s what you do when you get divorced, right?”
Charles gets her wish of playing for an actual contender now, since she will be joining the Seattle Storm, per reporting from The Next. The Storm have perennially been a landing spot for UConn Huskies, already featuring Stewart, Sue Bird, and Gabby Williams as starters on this team. Charles would presumably be coming off the bench to fill a second-unit scoring void.
BREAKING: Multiple sources familiar with the situation confirm to @TheNextHoops that Tina Charles will sign with the Seattle Storm. The free agent center was bought-out by the Phoenix Mercury earlier today, and joins a title-hunting Storm team.— Em ️ (@em_adler) June 25, 2022
(@theballoutmedia had it first)
Meanwhile, Phoenix will search for a frontcourt replacement, and at an opportune time. Friday was the midpoint of the season, meaning unprotected contracts become fully guaranteed for the rest of the year. As a result, several teams waived players at the end of their benches — including the Mercury with Kristine Anigwe — but there is some meaningful talent for Phoenix to sift through. Reshanda Gray, Joyner Holmes, Jazmine Jones, Kennedy Burke, and Evina Westbrook are all on waivers, and any one of them would be a positive add to the Mercury rotation.
Phoenix is likely in need of a big with its frontcourt now consisting of Turner, Megan Gustafson, and rookie Sam Thomas. so Gray, Holmes, and Burke should be top priority.
Nygaard also indicated that the Mercury would look to lean into their small lineups because the “the gods of basketball have given us no choice”. She cited the team’s success with Turner surrounded by four guards in the 2020 bubble season when Griner left midway through the year but Phoenix still made the second round of the playoffs. The present starting five of Skylar Diggins-Smith, Shey Peddy, Taurasi, Sophie Cunningham, and Turner were all on that team, so at least there is some continuity in a season that has seen so much disruption.
“Well, we did have a couple games that Tina elected not to play in earlier in the season, and so we had an opportunity to work a similar lineup to what we have today,” Nygaard said. “We had one of our best games against Connecticut this year, and they had a lot of size and we didn’t have (Charles). So we try to find some different ways for us to score, try to use a little bit, lean into some of the strengths of our other players.”
Nygaard also said that the group would be relying on the leadership of its veterans, namely Taurasi and Diggins-Smith, who have seen some tumultuous times during their WNBA careers and can use that experience to steady this group. The two had a public dust-up on the bench earlier in the year, but have tried to move forward since, and that’s the mantra for the rest of the group.
It would be hard to see the Mercury getting much worse after parting ways with Charles (and Anigwe), but this also doesn’t look like a team that will be returning to the WNBA Finals, barring a swift return stateside for Griner. The talent didn’t fit together, and the situation within the locker room clearly got bad enough that the Mercury were willing to pay Charles to leave instead to finish out the season. Even if Phoenix rallies to make the postseason, the end result is unlikely to fulfill the grand plans this franchise had entering the year.
Thus ends one of the shortest reigns for a super team in recent history.