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Season Preview: Phoenix Mercury enter 2018 with focus on franchise’s 4th title

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Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi lead Phoenix’s deepest team since 2014

Los Angeles Sparks v Phoenix Mercury - Game Three Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Phoenix Mercury enter their 22nd WNBA season with a recharged roster and title aspirations, and while championships are easy to dream about when everyone is 0-0, the Mercury have reason to be optimistic. Phoenix’s starting five is the most talented it’s been since winning the franchise’s last title back in 2014, and the team’s depth is much improved from last season, when the Mercury went 18-16 and lost to the Los Angeles Sparks in the semifinals.

Can they win the franchise’s fourth title here in 2018? That remains to be seen. But with Brittney Griner and the GOAT, Diana Taurasi, leading the charge, they’re a team you have to think twice about betting against.

Roster

The Starters

C Brittney Griner

Even missing a month of the 2017 regular season couldn’t keep Griner from taking the next step in her development. She averaged 21.9 points per game (1st in the WNBA) on 57.7-percent shooting from the field and evolved into a true MVP candidate; the same will be expected of her in 2018.

Everything for the Mercury runs through Griner. Offensively, the Mercury look for the ball to touch her hands at least once per possession, either in the post, drawing near-automatic double or triple teams to keep the 6’9 center from waltzing her way to easy baskets, or in the midrange, where her much-improved jumper keeps defenses honest. Defensively, her presence is felt even more. With a 7’3.5 wingspan, she is arguably the most fearsome defender the WNBA has seen, owning league records for blocks in a game (11), blocks in a season (129), highest season BPG (4.04), and highest career BPG (3.31) despite preparing to enter just her sixth season. She blocked a career-low 2.5 shots per game in 2017, but Griner has her sights set on breaking her season swats record this year.

Her ability to alter an opponent’s game plan is Shaquille O’Neal-esque, and with her improving strength, she sits on the precipice of being a truly unstoppable force in the league.

SG Diana Taurasi

Taurasi, the wily veteran, is the other fixture in the starting lineup. With the team since 2004, the all-everything guard has seen it all and done it all, and now at 35 years old, she has willingly stepped into the background (a la Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki) to let Griner carry the team.

But that’s not to suggest she doesn’t have anything left in the tank. Taurasi, who announced her retirement from her Russian team — UMMC Ekaterinburg — in December, can still take a blowtorch to an opposing defense, averaging 17.9 points per game (8th in the WNBA) in 2017 and scoring 30 or more points four times. She became the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer last season, presently with 7,867 points and counting, and is just four made 3-pointers away from becoming the first player in league history to drain 1,000 3s in their career.

Her wheels might not take her into the paint as much as they used to, but the GOAT of women’s basketball will be coming into a WNBA season rested — a new feeling after spending much of her career playing basketball year-round. And if she is contemplating hanging up her sneakers, she isn’t letting on.

“Every single day I’m working my tail off to make sure I’m in great shape, to make sure I can be on the court and produce,” Taurasi said at Media Day. “I still want to come to the gym every day, I still want to do training camp at 35 (years old) and go through that grind mentally, physically. You know, this is what I do. I play basketball. This is my living, this is my career, this is my life.

“So I’m not going to put a timetable on it. I’m just not. That day will come. I’m sure it will, but I don’t see it coming anytime soon.”

SF DeWanna Bonner

Bonner will be a welcome return to the lineup after sitting out the 2017 season due to her pregnancy with twins.

The rangy 6’4 forward gives the Mercury versatility on both defense and offense and a player to lean on when the big two are either off, in foul trouble, or nursing injuries. She was All-WNBA First Team and All-Defensive Second Team in 2015 when Taurasi sat out the year for rest and Penny Taylor sat for personal reasons but returned to a support role in 2016 when those key players returned in 2016.

She can be a double-edged sword with her shot selection, but her positives outweigh the negatives in Bonner’s game.

PG Briann January

For January, this season is a homecoming of sorts. She starred with Arizona State from 2006 to 2009 before beginning her pro career with the Indiana Fever, but after nine seasons — including a WNBA championship in 2012 — her playing career returns her to the Valley. Already serving as an assistant coach under ASU’s Charli Turner Thorne during the WNBA offseason, she was acquired by the Mercury in early March for the No. 8 pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft.

“This was kind of a perfect fit,” January told Jeff Metcalfe of azcentral.com after the trade. “I was hoping it would come through.”

An All-Defensive Team member in each of the last six seasons (four-time First Team), January brings perimeter toughness to a team that has been soft at the guard spots defensively. And while not a significant offensive threat (a career 9.0 scoring average), she shoots 36.9 percent for her career from 3, making her a risky player to double off of when Griner goes to work in the post.

With Griner, Taurasi, and Bonner beside her, January just needs to defend, facilitate, and hit the open shots when they come.

PF Sancho Lyttle

Following the trend of improving defensively, the Mercury added another six-time All-Defensive Team member (two-time First Team) in the form of free agent forward Lyttle. The 13-year veteran was an All Star in 2009 with the Atlanta Dream, has led the league in steals twice (2012, 2014), and ranks ninth in WNBA history for career steals with 606.

Like Taurasi, Lyttle isn’t the player she once was, but she will still rebound and defend. For a team looking for dependable players rather than another star, she fits well.

The Bench

PG Leilani Mitchell

SF/PF Camille Little

SG Yvonne Turner

SF Stephanie Talbot

C Marie Gülich

G Imani Wright

Head coach Sandy Brondello cited the importance of depth on the roster during Media Day, especially with the season-standard 34 games crammed into a truncated time frame to accommodate the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup that will be held from Sept. 22-30 in Spain. Securing that depth was a priority for Brondello and general manager Jim Pittman, and the result is a team that is at least nine deep.

Leilani Mitchell and Yvonne Turner return to the Mercury backcourt from last season. Despite her stature (5’5), Mitchell overtook incumbent Danielle Robinson as the starting point guard for Phoenix down the stretch in 2017 and played huge, shooting 48 percent from 3 and averaging 15 points per game in the playoffs as the Mercury’s third-leading scorer behind Griner and Taurasi. Turner had a similar breakout last season as a 29-year-old WNBA rookie, averaging 9.8 points in the playoffs as Phoenix’s fourth-highest scorer while shooting a blistering 52.9 percent from 3. As well, she was arguably the team’s feistiest defender. Leading her underdog Sopron Basket team to the EuroLeague Final against Griner’s powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg last month can only boost her confidence. In short, there should be little drop-off when Taurasi and January head to the bench.

Up front, the Mercury will lean on returning forwards Camille Little and Stephanie Talbot. Little, an 11-year veteran, had a down season with the Mercury in 2017, averaging 7.1 points and 3.8 rebounds on shooting percentages that were down across the board from her career numbers. Even her characteristically strong defensive numbers were lacking. But with her heading for a reserve role for the first time since 2008, the hope is she will bounce back with less load to carry. Talbot, out of Australia, was a WNBA rookie in 2017, where she averaged a modest 4.4 points per game. Her low scoring output was due more to her serving as a complementary piece than inefficient scoring, as she shot 41.5 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from 3 on less than four field goal attempts per game. The Mercury will look for Talbot, a member of the Australian national team, to step into a larger role this season.

Wild cards on the pine are rookies Marie Gülich and Imani Wright. Gülich, a 6’5 German center, was selected 12th overall by the Mercury out of Oregon State. She averaged 17.5 points on 65.2-percent shooting to go along with 9.2 rebounds for the Beavers in 2017-18 and was an AP All-American honorable mention. The Mercury are hoping Gülich, who scored 36 points on 16-of-18 shooting against ASU on Feb. 25, can provide solid minutes behind Griner as she develops this season. Wright, taken 31st overall out of Florida State, was a gunner for the Seminoles. She averaged 16.3 points while shooting 38.3 percent from behind the arc and was another AP All-American honorable mention. She won’t be counted on heavily to begin her career but will have an opportunity to grow as a shooter who provides court spacing for Griner to operate in.

The Competition

Minnesota Lynx

The Lynx won the title in 2017 and have claimed four of the last seven to tie the Houston Comets for most championships in league history — and did so with superstar Maya Moore having a subpar season. Led by Moore and reigning league MVP Sylvia Fowles, this is never a team to underestimate. Minnesota lost a number of its supporting cast in the offseason, but Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen, and Rebekkah Brunson return to try to push for a record fifth title.

Reports of their death have been grossly exaggerated.

Los Angeles Sparks

The 2016 WNBA Champions and 2017 runners-up, the Sparks enter 2018 with possibly their most talent-rich team. Aside from former MVPs Candace Parker (2008, 2013) and Nneka Ogwumike (2016), the Sparks march out the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Alana Beard, Chelsea Gray, Odyssey Sims, Jantel Lavender, Riquna Williams, Cappie Pondexter, and intriguing rookie Maria Vadeeva among others.

Beating LA is a much tougher task in the WNBA than the NBA these days.

Connecticut Sun

The Sun returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 last season on the strength of the play of 2017 Most Improved Player Jonquel Jones’ 15.4 points and 11.9 rebounds. She returns in 2018 along with the other top-four scorers from last season — Alyssa Thomas, Jasmine Thomas, and Courtney Williams. Even better, Connecticut will get Chiney Ogwumike back, whose star has been stunted due to several serious knee injuries. If this team stays healthy, last season’s No. 4 playoff seed could be poised to take the next step in its development.

Dallas Wings

Liz Cambage returns to the WNBA after a four-year hiatus, and the 6’8 center, who has been dominant in Australia and China in the interim, is expected to immediately improve the Wings’ defense. So, too, is 6’6 UConn rookie Azurá Stevens, who declared early for the WNBA Draft. They will give Dallas a formidable front line when teamed with Glory Johnson. All Star Skylar Diggins-Smith and 2017 Rookie of the Year Allisha Gray will operate in a young, explosive backcourt for a team that could improve significantly on its No. 7 playoff spot last year. And I’ll mention Aerial Powers here as well because that’s just a great name deserving of recognition.

Las Vegas Aces

Formerly the San Antonio Stars, the Aces are all about the youth. No. 1 overall pick and projected Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson joins a roster that already features the 2017 No. 1 overall pick Kelsey Plum and the 2016 No. 2 overall pick Moriah Jefferson. Plum had almost as disappointing a rookie season as fellow Washington alum Markelle Fultz but will get her first crack at rectifying the situation. The Aces also return leading scorer Kayla McBride and second-leading scorer Isabelle Harrison while adding Carolyn Swords and the WNBA’s version of Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, Shoni Schimmel. This team’s success will largely turn on the performances of Wilson, Plum, and Jefferson, but the Aces could be a wild card in 2018 (pun most definitely intended).

Seattle Storm

With Seattle mainstay Sue Bird eyeing the end of her storied career, the new guard is preparing to step up in the Emerald City. Breanna Stewart (2nd) and Jewell Loyd (9th) both finished in the league top 10 in scoring while Bird ranked third in assists. All that was only enough to earn the Storm the No. 8 seed and a first round playoff exit at the hands of the Mercury. Key contributors Crystal Langhorne, Alysha Clark, and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis return this season along with the additions of forward Natasha Howard and center Courtney Paris. Hopeful heir apparent to Bird, Jordin Canada, was drafted fifth overall and will be apprenticing behind one of the all-time greats. The Storm have a deeper team in 2018, but they will go as far as Stewart and Loyd take them.

Washington Mystics

Elena Delle Donne, the 2015 MVP and WNBA’s third-leading scorer in 2017, will have an extra heavy burden on her shoulders as the 2018 season kicks off. Emma Meesseman, the team’s starting center and second-best player last year, is taking this season off for rest. Also, point guard Ivory Latta, the 11-year veteran and two-time All Star was not re-signed. That leaves a lot of slack for the rest of the team to pick up. Tayler Hill, Kristi Toliver, Krystal Thomas, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt all return as key pieces from the team that advanced to the WNBA semifinals against the Lynx, but it will be Delle Donne who needs to be in rare form for the Mystics to make noise this summer.

Outlook

The Mercury aren’t dealing with the roster upheaval that it faced in 2017, when the only returning players were Taurasi and Griner. Yes, three-fifths of the starting lineup is different from last season, but Bonner has been with the team since 2009 and should slot back in with ease. The other additions — January and Lyttle — are veteran players who fill areas of need on the roster. There might be some chemistry in need of development early on, but entering a season with a veteran-laden team is preferable to relying on players with scant WNBA experience.

Phoenix is expected to be a vastly improved defensive team with the return of Bonner and additions of January and Lyttle, and that was the focus all along.

“We got better, but everyone else got better, too,” coach Brondello said during Media Day. “So for us it’s more we have to focus on ‘Yeah, our goal is to win a championship, but to do that, what do we need to do?’ And I think we have to get back to being a great defensive team. I think we’ve got the right kind of players to do that.”

There was clear slippage on the defensive end for the Mercury in 2017, allowing opponents to score 81.9 points per game. Contrast that to the defensive effort from the championship team in 2014: 74.1 points per game. And the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks, the two teams that met in the Finals for the second consecutive year, allowed 74.2 and 75.2 points themselves respectively last year.

That’s what this season will hinge upon. If this team wants to be taken seriously as a championship contender, the defense must return to championship caliber. The offense will take care of itself with players like Griner and Taurasi, but the Mercury, boasting the tallest and most imposing player in the league, cannot be as leaky as a slapdash roofing job. The front office put the personnel in place to address this issue; now it’s up to coach Brondello and her players to take it from good idea on a whiteboard to championship parade downtown.

2018 Schedule

Phoenix Mercury vs. Dallas Wings

Friday, May 18

7:00 PM MT

NBA TV, FSAZ Plus

Phoenix Mercury at Seattle Storm

Sunday, May 20

6:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury vs. Seattle Storm

Wednesday, May 23

7:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury at Los Angeles Sparks

Sunday, May 27

2:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury vs. Washington Mystics

Wednesday, May 30

7:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury at Minnesota Lynx

Friday, June 1

5:00 PM MT

ESPN 2

Phoenix Mercury at Atlanta Dream

Sunday, June 3

12:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury at New York Liberty

Tuesday, June 5

8:00 AM MT

Phoenix Mercury vs. Chicago Sky

Friday, June 8

7:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury vs. Las Vegas Aces

Sunday, June 10

3:00 PM MT

FSAZ Plus

Phoenix Mercury at Dallas Wings

Tuesday, June 12

5:00 PM MT

FSAZ Plus

Phoenix Mercury vs. Connecticut Sun

Saturday, June 16

7:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury at Las Vegas Aces

Sunday, June 17

5:00 PM MT

NBA TV

Phoenix Mercury vs. Minnesota Lynx

Friday, June 22

7:00 PM MT

FSAZ Plus

Phoenix Mercury at Chicago Sky

Sunday, June 24

3:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury at New York Liberty

Tuesday, June 26

4:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury at Indiana Fever

Friday, June 29

4:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury at Washington Mystics

Saturday, June 30

4:30 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury vs. Connecticut Sun

Thursday, July 5

7:00 PM MT

FSAZ Plus

Phoenix Mercury at Atlanta Dream

Sunday, July 8

12:00 PM MT

FSAZ Plus

Phoenix Mercury at Dallas Wings

Tuesday, July 10

5:00 PM MT

FSAZ Plus

Phoenix Mercury at Connecticut Sun

Friday, July 13

4:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury at Indiana Fever

Sunday, July 15

2:00 PM MT

NBA TV

Phoenix Mercury vs. Las Vegas Aces

Thursday, July 19

7:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury vs. Minnesota Lynx

Saturday, July 21

7:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury vs. Chicago Sky

Wednesday, July 25

12:30 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury vs. Seattle Storm

Tuesday, July 31

7:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury at Las Vegas Aces

Wednesday, August 1

7:00 PM MT

NBA TV

Phoenix Mercury at Los Angeles Sparks

Sunday, August 5

4:00 PM MT

NBA TV

Phoenix Mercury vs. Washington Mystics

Tuesday, August 7

7:00 PM MT

NBA TV

Phoenix Mercury vs. Indiana Fever

Friday, August 10

7:00 PM MT

NBA TV, FSAZ Plus

Phoenix Mercury vs. Los Angeles Sparks

Sunday, August 12

4:00 PM MT

ESPN 2

Phoenix Mercury vs. Atlanta Dream

Friday, August 17

7:00 PM MT

Phoenix Mercury vs. New York Liberty

Sunday, August 19

3:00 PM MT