WNBA midseason check-in: Phoenix Mercury

PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 05: Diana Taurasi
PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 05: Diana Taurasi /

The 2017 Phoenix Mercury are a premier case study in reshaping on the fly. A 2016 playoff team pivoted to surround its two cornerstone pieces with a host of different players. Now in July, Phoenix holds a slim margin over teams at the middle of the standings. They shoot the three (20.1 3PA per game, second most), they get to the line (23.3 FTA per game, third most) and keep the turnovers down (13.4 TO per game, fifth fewest).

Brittney Griner is leading the league in scoring. Griner has been eager and comfortable to use up more possessions with post ups.. She’s hitting 18 footers and turnarounds when the drop step or short hook isn’t available. Somehow, after doing all that, she’s shooting an unthinkable 58% from the field.

We now know that Diana Taurasi is an All-Star starter alongside Griner for the West. Those cornerstones are still playing at the highest level. Head Coach Sandy Brondello has made use of her entire roster, with 10 players appearing in just about every game to date.

The Mercury didn’t sit back to put their feet up after the offseason changes. A late-June trade brought in Monique Currie from San Antonio in exchange for Shay Murphy and Sophie Brunner. With the extra roster spot, Phoenix also brought on forward Angel Robinson.

The strength of Phoenix beyond its two stars starts at the point. Danielle Robinson (acquired via offseason trade) and Leilani Mitchell (free agent signee) each play 20+ minutes a night. Between them, the Mercury get 8+ assists from two complementary players that can run the show or play together.

Robinson has ridiculous burst with the basketball. She can split two defenders in the pick and roll or go hard downhill to the basket after a teammate sets a crushing screen up top:

Mitchell is an effective creator as well. Her shooting ability further stretches the defense all the way out to the arc, which can make it easy at times for her to turn the corner: .

Bringing on two solid point guards allows Phoenix to balance out its attack, especially for grueling stretches of the schedule. Taurasi also does not have to carry a huge burden to create off the bounce. She can and will take over shorter stretches or entire games, especially when she catches fire. Creating the option to play her more off the ball now is a wise maneuver and investment to ensure that everybody is as fresh as possible at the start of the playoffs.

The point guard depth was a great start. Not many teams have a duo as strong and well-rounded as Robinson and Mitchell. Phoenix also has a nice collection of forwards and wings. They can play their two point guards with Taurasi or they can go the other way and play three wings with Taurasi and Griner.

Currie is an important player to note in this conversation. She’s experienced and confident. So Currie may spend a lot of time spotting up, but her pedigree as a player makes her much more once she catches it.

Stephanie Talbot has also stood out in her rookie campaign. She’s shooting 46% from the floor and 44% from deep. Talbot has earned enough trust to draw the Maya Moore assignment in their most recent meeting with the Lynx. In addition to hitting open shots, Talbot will find the crack in a defense with a timely cut or use misdirection to set up a drive:

Cayla George, the main recipient of backup center minutes with Griner off the floor, is another player that makes for an easy fit with what she does on the margins. She is a ball mover. That label is often assumed to be condescending, but all teams need players that know to reverse the ball quickly to explore an option on the weak side when the initial stuff doesn’t lead to a shot.

Camille Little, the starting power forward, is another player that just fits. She too knows when to move the ball. She can attack closeouts or attack simply to force the help and set up her next pass.

Those not seeing Sparks-Lynx II as a foregone conclusion seem to still be feeling out the teams below them in search of a favorite to emerge. Phoenix has a pretty clear case to make that push: Griner is having a career year and nobody wants to have to guard Taurasi in the playoffs, especially a one-game elimination scenario.