The Mercury kick off their 34 game season tonight against the defending Western Conference champion Silver Stars.
Coming off a disappointing 2008 campaign that left the team outside of the playoffs, the hope this year is that a few key changes in personnel, system and attitude will make the difference.
Last season the Mercury were dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions. The team lacked enough size and muscle inside and were overly dependent on the rover 3-2 zone.
The addition of Nicole Ohlde to add more size in the middle and the development of forwards Le'Coe Willingham and reserve Brooke Smith will hopefully address some of those concerns. A big key will also be the health of veteran Center Tangela Smith who missed considerable time last season with a knee injury.
Perhaps more important, is a shift away from the zone which not only leaves open looks for outside shooters but has exposed seams that good teams know how to exploit. The Mercury, with a full three weeks of training camp have installed a man to man system that will feature hard ball traps on the perimeter. This should force more turnovers for the fast break team to exploit but will also lead to some wide open opportunities if the opposition can pass well out of the trap. Coach Gaines has said the zone will be limited to spot use to throw off an opponent's rhythm.
The Mercury even with Ohlde still won't match up well against the best front courts in the league. But on the perimeter the legnth and aggression of rookie DeWanna Bonner, the mobility and savvy of a healthly Tangela Smith and the tenacity and leadership of Tameka, Diana, Cappie and Maz should give this team a much improved defensive identity.
How this team responds defensively in the first 5 games could be the most telling indication of how the season might progress.
Offensively, the Mercury say they will continue to run the fan-friendly up tempo offense that lead to the highest scoring average in the league for the past several years. The team does understand that bad shots lead to an unbalanced floor and bad defense so we may see more deliberate sets in the half court as opposed to the "first open shot" approach of the past.
The loss of Kelly Miller's wing scoring will hopefully be replaced by the distribution of true point guard Tameka Johnson. With better vision and a traditional pass-first mentality, the Mercury will look to get more open looks not only for its talented stars but for other players as well. Diana Taurasi at media day talked about the need to find more balance on the offensive end. This team will not be at it's best with Cappie and Diana scoring 20+ and everyone else in single digits. Balance is the watch word offensively.
Throughout the pre-season the team's leaders all talked about the lack of trust on last year's squad. While everyone insisted there wasn't off-the-court chemistry issues, they also expressed a great deal of pleasure with how this group has come together.
Coming off the 2007 championship, the team last year lost both it's head coach and a key player, Penny Taylor. The rookies on the floor and on the side line never seemed to gel with the team's veterans. It remains to be seen if the more experienced squad and coach will find the trust needed to play great basketball.
So far, everyone's saying all the right things about being hungry to avenge last season and there have been no signs of discontent in the locker room.
This is a mature unit with several leaders. Every member of the team seems to have a great outlook and understanding of their role. All of those signs point to an improvement on the court as a result.
The ability of those leaders to keep a positive attitude through the inevitable adversity will be vital to the team's playoff chances.
The Mercury like to call their fans the "X-Factor" but those fans won't disagree that the return of foward Penny Taylor to this team would be the real game changing boost. All signs continue to point to an eventual return for Penny as soon as she's fully recovered from ankle surgery. No one on the team has been willing to say when that might be but there's a papable hope that she might be back soon.
With Taylor, the Mercury suddenly become much deeper up front and far more balanced offensively. The addition of a player of her caliber with her experience playing with the core group would propel the team's chances from fighting for a playoff spot to potential Western Conference contender.