For the first time since 2012, the Phoenix Mercury did not make the WNBA playoffs. A 9-31 record also gave the 2023 Mercury the worst winning percentage in the franchise’s 27-year history.
Here’s a look at what went right, what went wrong and what’s next for Phoenix:
What went right?
But one, very important thing did go right: Brittney Griner was back in the United States and back on the basketball court. Regardless of all the many ways the Phoenix season was a disappointment, the presence of Griner makes it a success. Although the Mercury would fall to the Chicago Sky, the home opener, when Griner returned to the floor in Phoenix for the first time, arguably was the season’s high point.
Brittney Griner announced in the home opener vs. the Chicago Sky. pic.twitter.com/ZGJFxUJVq2— Jenna Ortiz (@jennarortiz) May 21, 2023
A close second? The night Diana Taurasi became the first player in WNBA history to score 10,000 points. The 41-year-old Taurasi dropped a regular-season career-high 42 points as she surpassed the 10,000-point barrier, and the Mercury treated the fans in Footprint Center to a rare, dominant victory.
Last night, Diana Taurasi become the first WNBA player ever to reach 10,000 points. She dropped *42* points on the night (despite only needing 18 to hit the mark).— Daniel Connolly (@DanielVConnolly) August 4, 2023
There’s only one DT.
The home finale was a third night worthy of celebration, as Sug Sutton attained the first triple-double in franchise history with 18 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds. The performance was an appropriate capper to Sutton’s season, her first in the WNBA since playing for the Washington Mystics in 2020, the franchise that selected her with the 36th and final pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft. Sutton played in all 40 games for the Mercury, starting 12 and coming off the bench for 28. Although too-often overburdened as a 5-foot-8 primary ball handler with an inconsistent jumper, Sutton maintained her moxie, seeking to maximize her opportunity back in the W at every moment despite less-than-ideal surrounding circumstances.
What went wrong?
After a 2-10 start, new owner Mat Ishbia fired second-year head coach Vanessa Nygaard. Things improved little under interim head coach Nikki Blue, as too many turnovers and too few rebounds remained persistent problems for the Mercury.
These foibles also cannot be waved away as the faults of a young, yet promising, team. The Mercury have continued to seek to maximize Diana Taurasi’s timeline, using assets and executing transactions to keep a contender-quality team around the all-time great. That intention failed spectacularly this season. Whether or not it is wise to prioritize an aging Taurasi, who can more frequently be found on the injury report than on the court in recent seasons, this approach to team building has left the Mercury bereft of young talent with star-level upside.
However, any drama from an in-season coaching change or on-court struggles paled in comparison to the on-going frostiness between the organization and Skylar Diggins-Smith. Diggins-Smith’s dissatisfaction with and distrust of the Mercury stems back to last season, and seemingly was exacerbated over the offseason and into this season, with Diggins-Smith, who remained away from the team after giving birth to her second child, alleging that the organization has prevented her from using its facilities and resources. An impending unrestricted free agent, it is all but guaranteed that Diggins-Smith has played her last game in a Mercury jersey.
They’re not gonna acknowledge me this year and it’s ok guys. We’re not affiliated unless it’s the checks….per management. I can’t even use the practice facility or any resources. But I still love the X-Factor!! https://t.co/lcDb05fVVg— Skylar Diggins-Smith (@SkyDigg4) August 3, 2023
Fortunately, Phoenix, after not owning their own first-round draft pick since 2019, hung on to their 2024 first rounder, which will be a lottery pick. They will have the second-best odds of landing the No. 1 pick. If a majority of the star collegians eligible for the 2024 draft chose to make the jump to the WNBA, the Mercury will have an opportunity to add a blue-chip talent regardless of where the pick falls in the lottery. Of course, the last time Phoenix was in the lottery, it worked out pretty well, as they won the No. 1 pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft and used it to bring Brittney Griner to the Valley.
The Mercury also will enter the offseason with a projected $633,042 in cap room, although some of that available space likely will be allocated to the five players on the Mercury’s 2023 roster who are free agents. While Diggins-Smith (unrestricted free agent) will be finding a new home, it is hard to imagine Brittney Griner (unrestricted free agent) suiting up for another team. At exit interviews on Monday, Griner all but confirmed that she will be back with the Mercury, telling reporters, “Phoenix is home. Me and my wife literally just got a place. This is it.” Megan Gustafson (unrestricted free agent), Shey Peddy (unrestricted free agent) and Sug Sutton (reserved free agent) also could return to Phoenix.
Diana Taurasi, who will turn 42 years old soon after the start of the 2024 season, will be in the final season of the two-year maximum contract she signed last offseason, making $234,936. At exit interviews, she not only made it clear she intends to play but also expressed optimism for Phoenix’s future, saying:
Sometimes you can do all the right things, offseason, in season. That doesn’t mean you’re always going to get what you want. I’ve got another year on my contract and I’m definitely going to fulfill that. I’m excited with what we’ll be able to do in free agency and having some salary cap space to make some moves.
A new leadership team will be tasked with deciding on a much-needed refreshed vision for the franchise, and then doing their best to realize it. In early July, the Mercury announced that Nick U’Ren, who most recently served as executive director of basketball operations for the Golden State Warriors, would be replacing Jim Pitman as general manager after the 2023 season; Pitman is remaining with the organization as CFO.