Basketball is coming back, and even sooner than the July 30 NBA start date. The WNBA this week announced an agreement between players and owners on a 22-game slate starting July 24 in Bradenton, Fla. at the IMG Academy campus.
Players will be housed in small villas nearby, be allowed to bring children and caregivers to the bubble, and undergo quarantine procedures similar to those in the NBA. It’s a breath of fresh air for a league that got a lot of publicity during the offseason with a Team USA national tour and signed a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in January.
This agreement means the Phoenix Mercury, at long last, will retake the court. After a disappointing 15-19 showing and first-round playoff loss in 2019, the Mercury revamped their roster almost entirely in the offseason.
The team parted ways with longtime contributor and 2014 champion DeWanna Bonner, who was due a maximum contract and ended up in Connecticut. They replaced her with point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who will give the legendary Diana Taurasi a running mate she hasn’t had since Cappie Pondexter a decade ago. Phoenix also acquired veteran depth pieces like forward Jessica Breland, guards Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Bria Hartley, and defense-first options Nia Coffey and Kia Vaughn.
Anchoring the whole thing will be Brittney Griner, fresh off a new maximum contract of her own, a $215,000 deal made possible by the compensation increases in the new CBA. Many will remember that last year, Griner threatened to leave the WNBA if on- and off-court conditions (including refereeing) did not get better. Her commitment to the Mercury is as strong as ever, though, and as long as Taurasi is on the team, you can bet Griner will be, too.
The biggest swing piece on this roster is Diggins-Smith, who has not played since 2018 after giving birth to a son. No one will doubt her abilities, having made four All-Star teams in six WNBA seasons, but sitting out a full year and then dealing with this bizarre stoppage would be hard on anyone physically.
Diggins-Smith was one of the first to get to work at the Madhouse once the WNBA allowed players back into team facilities.
The smooth point guard ought to take some pressure off Taurasi, who missed nearly all of 2019 with back and hamstring injuries. At 38, Taurasi’s health will be something to monitor.
Around the WNBA, teams upgraded and deepened. Bonner jumping to the Sun gave the 2019 WNBA finalists another bona fide star, while the 2019 champion Washington Mystics added onetime MVP and UConn great Tina Charles.
The perennially tough Los Angeles Sparks, who already employ MVPs Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker, signed Kristi Toliver, who won a title with the franchise in 2017 and helped the Mystics win theirs last year. The Sparks also signed the four-time WNBA champ Seimone Augustus, who surprisingly jumped ship from Minnesota, where she’d spent her entire 14-year career.
The 2020 season is shaping up to be a blitz. Teams will only get 22 regular-season games to ready themselves for the WNBA playoffs, which feature single-elimination games in rounds one and two. The squads that can adjust on the fly and develop chemistry quickly will be best-suited for a title.
With longtime teammates Griner and Taurasi, the Mercury figure to be in that mix, but the WNBA is unforgiving and incredibly deep this year.