“A lot of times I would sit there and say, ‘Man, I wish I could play; I wish I could help,'” Phoenix Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner said last month at WNBA All-Star weekend.
Bonner was referring to the 2017 WNBA playoffs. Her Phoenix Mercury survived two single-elimination rounds to make it to the semifinals before being swept by the Los Angeles Sparks. Bonner missed the entire 2017 season after announcing in a team statement last March that she and Candice Dupree were expecting. Four months later, Bonner gave birth to twins.
366 days later, Bonner took the floor at the Target Center after being named to her second All-Star team.
The Mercury have matched last season’s win total of 18 with two games still to play. The four seed (and the ever-important single bye that comes with it) is still in play. Through the first six weeks of the season, Phoenix appeared to be in position to aim even higher. Then starting power forward Sancho Lyttle went down June 30 in Washington with a torn ACL. They won their next game at home over the Alyssa Thomas-less Connecticut Sun, improving to 14-5 before dropping seven of eight.
Head coach Sandy Brondello had seen enough — it was time to make a change. Second-year wing Stephanie Talbot replaced veteran power forward Camille Little (Lyttle’s initial replacement and full-time starter in 2017) in the starting lineup, and Bonner was moved to the four spot.
“We were losing. Simple as that. If anyone loses a main player, you lose,” Brondello told High Post Hoops earlier this month in Los Angeles, citing recent remarks of a similar ilk by Sparks head coach Brian Agler. “And that’s how good this league is. Sancho is to the Phoenix Mercury what Alana Beard is to the LA Sparks. If you lose them, you lose some games.
“We weren’t playing as well as we could, so I decided to make the chance and move [Bonner] to the four,” Brondello said.
Before diving any deeper into the lineup change, it is vital to take stock of just how good Lyttle, in year 14, had been in her first season in Phoenix. The 6’5 forward signed with the club this past offseason as an unrestricted free agent after spending nine seasons with the Atlanta Dream. Lyttle was the team’s top target in free agency, and brought the necessary defensive pedigree to help Phoenix combat the likes of Elena Delle Donne, Breanna Stewart, Candace Parker, Tina Charles, Alyssa Thomas and A’ja Wilson.
Per Positive Residual, the Mercury posted a 102.6 defensive rating (sixth best) and a 5.8 net rating (third best) in the first 18 games of 2018 with Lyttle. In the 14 games since the injury? Phoenix has posted a 111.2 defensive rating (11th) and a -1.4 net rating. They’re also forcing fewer turnovers. The turnover percentage of their opponents has dropped from 14.9 percent (slightly higher than the league average) to 11.1 (more than three points below it).
One of the biggest imprints Lyttle left on this year’s Mercury bunch is easy to say but tough to quantify — they wouldn’t need to scramble to send a boatload of help every time she got stuck on an island with one of those players. Opponents mustered just 21 points on 31 post up possessions (0.667 points per possession) in the 18 games Lyttle played this season. According to Synergy, only Kelsey Bone and Kayla Thornton have been as stout among players that have defended 20+ post ups this season.
Lyttle’s timing, size and length allowed her to make both plays that are shown in the box score in addition to the ones that aren’t. She stood out on the glass, too, where she was able to still box out any new assignment when Brittney Griner had to switch out to contest a jump shooter 25-some feet from the basket:
There were flashes early on of their potential to switch more, including a May 27 game in Los Angeles. Switching actions against the Sparks without giving up much would give any team a leg up in preventing some of Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray’s downhill opportunities. You could tell that approach had really gained traction June 30 against Washington, where Phoenix managed to nix most of the screening actions involving one or both of Kristi Toliver and Elena Delle Donne.
The Mercury were making a pretty sound bet. Lyttle and Bonner in particular give you a shot of defending anyone from Toliver to Parker to Gray to Delle Donne one-on-one.
Lyttle’s contributions on the offensive end may not have been spectacular but are still worth noting. Opponents did not pay much attention to Phoenix’s fours last season, especially in the playoffs. The Sparks regularly doubled Griner on the catch, leaving Little/Emma Cannon/Angel Robinson free to fire away as they pleased. Lyttle is not a 3-point shooter, and was a league-average shooter from the midrange this season.
But where Little at times would hesitate and even pass wide open shots up, Lyttle let it fly. That matters for a player playing with Griner, Bonner and Diana Taurasi because several times per game, and even more often in the playoffs, top notch defenses will send extra help to funnel the ball to Phoenix’s other two players with the shot clock winding down. There is no time for a record scratch in those moments.
“It’s unfortunate we lost Sancho. She was a huge part of our success at the beginning of the season so right now we’re just trying to figure it all out. I think we’ll find it and get it back,” Bonner said.
Bonner acknowledged over All-Star weekend that the team had talked about sliding her up to the four spot. GM Jim Pitman had the current look (Briann January, Taurasi, Talbot, Bonner, Griner) in mind dating back to the offseason.
“We knew when we put the team together that this was always a possibility,” Pitman told High Post Hoops. “Sometimes you have to put your best players on the court at a certain time. [Bonner] has played the four a lot overseas, she’s done some of that in the W, but we knew that was always an option for us.”
How then, does the lineup change affect the team’s style of play?
“I think we can play a little faster,” Brondello said. “I think teams can’t just not guard our fours because [Bonner] can shoot it. She moves well, she’s a great rebounder at the four. It’s probably more upside than downside moving her to the four. She plays big minutes anyway, it just means some of our guards are getting more opportunity to play.”
The move has an obvious impact on Griner’s attempts to score inside. Help has to creep over sooner and travel further to arrive in time. There are more 3-point shooters on the floor to make teams pay for sending that help if Griner delivers a timely skip pass.
Same goes for any attempt to keep Taurasi from getting all the way to the rim coming off a ball screen without leaving somebody all alone on the backside. Things get really tricky when opponents switch on the perimeter early in possessions, or just depending on how Phoenix’s five on the floor configure themselves. Sometimes the nearest weak side helper is going to be a guard, faced with a near-impossible task of getting over soon enough to bother Griner enough on the roll for it to matter.
But Bonner is the swing piece. This cannot happen without her. She’s a legitimate 6’4 — see enough of these players standing side-by-side in person and you’ll really understand how much that matters.
This has been Bonner’s best shooting season since becoming a full-time starter in 2012 and her most efficient since 2014, the year of Phoenix’s most recent championship. Bonner has been even better across the board when you stack those two seasons up against each other. Her defensive rebounding (19.6% up from 11.5%) and usage rates (23.6% to 17.5%) are way up.
Bonner is creating more for her teammates (17.9% assist rate, highest of her career if you exclude the 2015 season played without Taurasi) and has been one of the most prolific high volume pick and roll players in the league, per Synergy Sports. 129 such possessions have led to 119 points (0.922 points per possession).
Taurasi exists in her own stratosphere — 1.108 PPP on 259 possessions. The only other players that approach Bonner’s level of production on a similar number of possessions are Kayla McBride and Sue Bird. Jasmine Thomas, Kayla McBride, Tiffany Hayes and Chelsea Gray have each been slightly less efficient by comparison but have been asked to use (a lot) more possessions for their respective teams.
Aesthetically, this latest Mercury starting unit is the kind of thing modern fans dream of — a four out, one in offense that actually has the personnel to capitalize on all the theoretical advantages gained from playing with that sort of look. Griner has room to attack her matchup one-on-one or can spray it out to the open shooter/cutter when teams send extra bodies. Taurasi can operate in pick and roll with less congestion in the lane and enough shooting around her to constantly force teams to pick their poison.
Layups and threes won’t always be there. Sometimes you’ll need a player to go make a play that isn’t easy to see at the start of the possession. Bonner and Talbot have filled those gaps for the Mercury, knowing when to cut hard and hit the offensive glass to give their offense the balance every team needs.
There’s an easy case to make that this lineup change is as much about Talbot as it is about Bonner. Now Talbot, if not January, is the player likely to be tasked with assignments of guarding Maya Moore, Chelsea Gray or Kayla McBride in a potential playoff matchup.
“I’m really proud of Steph staying ready to play,” Pitman said. “She didn’t get a lot of minutes in the beginning of the season but she was always working on her game, ready to play when called upon. And she’s really stepped up here over the last couple of weeks and provided us a big lift and that says a lot about her as a person and her growth as a player. I’m really proud of that.”
Talbot logged 15+ minutes just three times in the team’s first 25 games. She has delivered thus far in a bigger role, playing 30+ minutes in each of her last five after not playing at all in several games earlier in the season.
This conversation also would not be complete without mentioning Briann January. The Mercury shipped out the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft to acquire the six-time All-Defense selection back in March.
“She’s been good,” Brondello said. “I moved her into the two spot. She’s our defensive stopper, she’s our 3-point shooter. She brings us energy, she always plays hard. She’s feeling healthy now. She had a little stretch when we couldn’t play her many minutes so that was a bit of a struggle, but she’s healthy not and shooting the ball confidently. And that’s what we need. So she’s been huge for us because she brings the intangibles just like Sancho Lyttle did.”
“When you play with Diana and BG you get a lot more open looks, and she’s been able to take advantage of that,” Pitman added. “And we’ve been very fortunate that she’s come in and played the defense we expected her to play and then provided us this shooting that while we knew she could do it, at this level is a nice surprise.”
Through 31 games, January has connected on a career-high 44.6 percent of her threes (41-of-92). Her defense has been key, sometimes drawing bigger perimeter scorers like Gray or Moore when she isn’t assigned to contain opposing point guards. Losing Lyttle naturally tilts the balance of their team more toward offense, but they have the individual pieces to still compete.
Bonner will now be tested even more having to bang more in the paint giving a few pounds to a lot of bigs. Brondello will be able to mitigate that some by always tasking Griner with the toughest assignment, whether that’s a nominal four or five, something she acknowledged before bringing the focus back to their positional team defense.
“She has to,” Brondello said of Griner taking on those assignments. “She’s versatile enough, she knows what’s expected of her.”
Even that may still leave Bonner on a big body, but the Mercury won’t be all that worried if teams really go out of their way to chip away at her inside.
“Last game [against the Aces on August 1] we started her on [Carolyn] Swords, and they tried to just isolate her down there which took them away from trying to get the ball to [A’ja] Wilson,” Brondello said. “So if they wanna keep doing that, it’s taking them out of the flow of their offense. As long as [Bonner] is fighting she’s fine. We will just make adjustments as we see fit — what’s good for us, what’s not good for us — and go from there.”
Phoenix will need to win at least one single-elimination playoff game to get back to the semifinals. The WNBA’s new playoff format is just three years old, but we’ve already seen the Mercury walk that path twice to reach the semis. Over the last several years, Pitman and Brondello have reshaped the roster and rolled with the punches to adjust on the fly to put their team in the best position possible to make it back to the Finals in pursuit of another championship. Taurasi and Griner may collect more individual hardware by season’s end, but Bonner is the unsung third star that gives them a shot to aim for the one trophy that matters most.
“It’s funny because when I came in the league I was just a legit post player, a four,” Bonner said. “As the teams changed I was a three, I was a four, I kind of bounced all over the place. There’s so many great fours in this league right now that if I had to play there I would.”
Bonner’s there now, and she’s the biggest reason why — even with Lyttle gone for the season — the Mercury still can’t be counted out just yet.