The start of a new season for every sports team is always filled with hope and confidence. Teams that did well think they will continue to improve and teams that had poor showings are convinced their off season moves made them better.
I have no way to judge the difference in attitude between this Mercury team and those from past seasons and frankly don't know the WNBA well enough to give any kind of honest assessment of their chances going into the season.
Like most sports fans though, I appreciate a new beginning and the promise of possibility and can't help (despite my natural tendency towards cynicism) to be caught up in the optimism surrounding this Mercury squad.
The positive attitude of this team is a reflection of three people. General Manager Ann Meyers Drysdale, super star Diana Taurasi and long time Mercury player and assistant coach Bridget Pettis. These three women are as energetic, out-going and down to earth as anyone I've met in sports and right up there with some of the all time top personalities I've encountered anywhere.
The only person in the Suns organization that I can think of that even comes close to matching the dynamic personalities of these three is Alvin Gentry but he is more guarded and has a harder edge to him.
You combine the lighthearted but fiery leadership of these three with the mature veteran presence of Tameka Johnson and Tangela Smith and the quiet competent confidence of Cappie Pondexter and Coach Gaines and you have quite and interesting mix of styles that should serve the team well.
There were three themes that emerged in talking to the leaders of this Mercury team about why this season would be an improvement over last year's disappointing finish.
Attitude, trust and leadership
The general thought was that last season the Mercury experienced some hangover effect coming off their 2007 championship season and didn't play with enough desire. You combine that with four rookies and a 1st year head coach and the team didn't trust each other on the court. This lead to players trying to do too much on their own and not finding the right balance in scoring.
Diana put it this way, "We lost like six games last year by three points or less and that just comes with trusting each other and having this 'we're not going to lose' attitude and I don't know if we had that and if we don't have that this year I'll be really shocked. I think we kind of got it back."
All-star shooting guard Cappie Pondexter talked about the team's desire and the development of the head coach. "The core group is hungrier. We are showing that every day in practice. The coaches are eager to win as well. Corey, you know, him in his second year. He kind of had that 'it's the first year...' but he doesn't want to use that as an excuse. You can see it in practice with his intensity, the way he's stepping up saying things. It's different. You know you need that, especially if you're trying to win."
Ann Meyers Drysdale spun not making the playoffs last season into positive saying the team is hungrier and knows that they were better then their record showed and that, "didn't set well with them or any of us". Ann went on to say, "I think our veteran players understood that no matter what new players come in that you trust the coaching staff, you trust the ability of the players that are coming in and there's just a little bit of a different attitude about the acceptance with everybody."
Coach Gaines is still a young and inexperienced coach. So far, he seems to have the team's ear and in my observations in practice has things in hand. He does consult with Bridget and is using former Suns player and current radio announce Tim Kempton to help with the bigs.
The combination of Gaines inexperience and the team's youth was obviously what the Mercury felt were the biggest obstacles last season. As of the second day of training camp, they feel those issues have been addressed. Results to follow.
True point guard, Legit Center, Game Changing Rookie, Penny Taylor?
All the players I talked to expressed a very positive outlook on the additions of Tameka Johnson and Nicole Ohlde and so far have been very impressed with rookie DeWanna Bonner who Coach Gaines called a "game changer with what she can do on the court".
I asked everyone about the loss of Kelly Miller and while there was universal appreciation for her time in Phoenix and respect for her skills, there was even more excitement for having a "true point guard" on the team for the first time at least since Diana's been in Phoenix.
Taurasi called Temeka Johnson a "classic floor general that fits the system that Corey wants us to run to a T". She will bring a different dimension to the team with her ability to break opponents down off the dribble and create opportunities for other players.
Coach Gaines explained that while Diana and Cappie were 1 and 2 in the scoring last season, they really had to work hard to create all those shots. Tameka will make the game easier for them and demand attention with the ball and control tempo better then Kelly who is naturual two guard playing out of position.
For her part, Tameka understands that she's filling big shoes of a fan favorite. "I can understand the fans being disappointed in losing a player like her (Kelly Miller) but a the same time I think once they get a feel for and see how we'll play it, they'll get over it kind of fast...I'm happy to be here and I hope they'll have the same feeling about me once they see me play."
Up front, the addition of Nicole Ohlde is expected to take some of the pressure off Tangela and Le'Coe and allow Smith to return to her more natural 4 position. Taurasi called her the first legit center Phoenix has had since Jennifer Gillom. Coach Gaines sees her as a big that can run the middle of the floor in his offense and give the team more depth up front and while he wouldn't say if Nicole would be starting once she returns from her injury, Diana wasn't shy about weighing in.
"I think Le'Coe goes back to her natural, coming off the bench and being that spark plug, that bull dog that we need. The bench is very important in any basketball league."
Nicole thinks being on an up-tempo team is to her benefit. She explained that her injury occured while she was warming up for a game and she felt something. She played through it but learned later that it was a broken bone in her foot behind her fourth toe. She called it a "random" injury and hopes to be able to play soon in whatever role the team asks of her.
There was a surprisingly lot of excitment over DeWanna Bonner. She's made a big impression on her team mates and Coach so far with several calling her a "baller". Coach Gaines said her versatility will allow her to play any position 2 through 5 and her while her stregnth in the post is an issue, her speed against bigger players will counter act that.
Tangela Smith talked about being 130lbs coming out of college and how DeWanna will get stronger and is putting in time in the weight room. Gaines said she is a different kind of player and "runs like a deer" and is a "deffinate impact player" and can change the game in a way similar to Candace Parker. Diana was impressed with how she was getting after it in practice and wasn't afraid to mix it up.
It will be interesting to see how Coach Gaines decides to use her and how quick she gets into the rotation. It doesn't sound like WNBA fans are going to have to wait too long to see what all the fuss is about.
Penny Taylor returns?
Mercury fans know that the loss of Penny Taylor had a big impact on the team last season. Coach Gaines traveled to Russia a few weeks ago and met with her and said that she would definately come back to Phoenix if she played this season.
Diana had this to say about Penny.
"Penny makes us an elite team....We talk every day. Penny loves it here in Phoenix. Her and her husband just absolutely love Phoenix. This year she really wanted to get back...I've never seen Penny like that where she really missed it last year and she really wants to come back this year so if she's healthy enough, I'm pretty confident she'll be back."
Cappie played with Penny of course overseas and sounded even more certain about her return. "I think she's ready to come back to be honest. We should expect her."
Full Training Camp
The final consistent message from the Mercury was the benefit of having a full training camp this season with the entire team available to incorporate the new players and adjust to each other as a team.
There's a lot more info here for you Mercury fans. Enjoy and leave any questions you have for the team in the comments.
Ann Meyers Drysdale