Free Agency and the Phoenix Mercury: The challenges and the needs

What does the Mercury need to do to challenge for titles?

You can always count on the Phoenix Mercury to be there when playoff time comes around. Even last year, as they waited for Diana Taurasi to recover from back surgery, it was both their goal and their ultimate achievement. It just didn’t last long once they got there. What do they need to do to make a deep playoff run and challenge for another title?

The contract situations

With free agency opening on Jan. 28, the Mercury front office can start addressing some of those needs. The first step was to designate Brittney Griner as a core player.

With an average age of 29.4 years, the Mercury was the oldest team in the league last year, outpacing the Chicago Sky by 2.6 years. So, keeping the member of the Big Three who is the youngest was a key to the future.

Griner is entering the seventh year of her professional career. As a perennial All-Star, she’s earned her new maximum contract.

The team knows that they will have second-year players Alanna Smith, Brianna Turner and Sophie Cunningham back. They also have Taurasi and veteran guard Briann January under contract. Yvonne Turner is reserved, so the team has sole negotiating rights with her. That’s all that’s sure for this team, though.

The Taurasi situation is a concern despite her stature in the game. Not only did she sit out most of last season, but she just sat out of Team USA’s exhibition against Connecticut on Jan. 27. The reported issue was once again back pain.

The Mercury will need to decide what to do about DeWanna Bonner first and foremost. As one of the most versatile players in the league, her importance to past successes cannot be overstated. Taurasi and Griner may get most of the media attention, but there’s a reason Bonner had been designated a core player for the old maximum of four years.

With the ability to core Bonner now a thing of the past, it comes down to how much the team can spend. They have $625,000 of the $1,300,000 salary cap already committed. That leaves over half of the cap available to fill six roster spots. Bonner needs to be the number one priority with the $675,000 left.

Last season, Bonner’s contract was for $117,500, tying her with January for the top contract on the Mercury. This year, both January and Taurasi get a bump in salary that puts them second on the team behind Griner, who is set to get the new player maximum of $215,000.

Whoever ends up snagging this prized free agent will be paying more this season than the Mercury paid last year. The question is how much more.

After the Bonner decision is made, the Mercury has some young players to consider. Turner was at just under $42,000 in her second season last year, so she will be in for a healthy raise of at least $15,000 under the new contract minimums. In 2021, that will have to go up to at least $68,000, making the length of her contract a consideration, as well.

The Mercury also will be looking to make decisions on Essence Carson and Leilani Mitchell. Both unrestricted free agents have over 10 years of experience but were already being paid over the new veteran minimum last year. Last season, the team cut Mitchell out of camp for salary cap reasons only to bring her back later under a new contract.

What are the needs?

The team’s needs depend heavily on the Bonner decision and the health of Taurasi. As of now, the seven players who are either under contract, reserved or cored include four guards, two forwards and a center.

Depending on the Bonner situation, there are other unrestricted free agents out there who could be enticing for the Mercury with Angel McCoughtry being one of the biggest. With very similar career numbers, McCoughtry could step in and fill most of the roles that Bonner has with the rest being addressed either by existing personnel or via the draft.

There are known holes to be filled even if both stars are healthy and back with the Mercury in 2020, though. With the retirements of Camille Little and Sancho Lyttle, the team will be looking for more help in the frontcourt. Those could be filled during free agency or they could look to the draft when the fifth pick might be turned into someone like Beatrice Mompremier or Bella Alarie.

The guard situation will have to be addressed, as well. Even if Taurasi is healthy this year, the miles on her body and the age of the team point to it being time to begin preparing for the post-Diana world. Add the possible departure of Mitchell, and the Mercury may be looking for talent all over the backcourt.

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