Mercury find their versatile starting forward with trade for Jessica Breland

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 12: Chelsea Gray #12 of the Los Angeles Sparks handles the ball against Jessica Breland #51 of the Atlanta Dream during a WNBA basketball game at Staples Center on June 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 12: Chelsea Gray #12 of the Los Angeles Sparks handles the ball against Jessica Breland #51 of the Atlanta Dream during a WNBA basketball game at Staples Center on June 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Phoenix Mercury have been one of the busiest teams in the WNBA during this month’s free agency period, but they may finally be finished after trading for Jessica Breland and Nia Coffey.

In an ongoing effort to rebuild their depth after it was exposed during a dismal 15-19 campaign in 2019, the Phoenix Mercury early Wednesday finalized a three-way trade with Atlanta and Connecticut to land versatile big Jessica Breland and young wing Nia Coffey.

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To understand how the Mercury became the busiest team in the WNBA this winter, it’s important to go back to 2016. That’s when franchise icon and Swiss Army knife Penny Taylor retired, leaving Diana Taurasi without the perimeter partner she’d always had during Phoenix’s championship peak. Since losing Taylor to retirement, the Mercury have almost entirely pivoted each offseason to craft a new team around Taurasi and perennial MVP candidate Brittney Griner.

Pivoting from Taylor in 2017, the Mercury signed veteran play-maker Leilani Mitchell in free agency, nabbed overseas lifer Yvonne Turner to make her WNBA debut at age 30, and ultimately traded for scoring wing Mo Currie at the midseason trade deadline. However, an injury to Griner during the stretch run and a lack of a clear-cut rotation meant Phoenix was swept in the semifinals during that year’s playoffs.

The next season, Phoenix found a more reliable guard to pair with Taurasi in Briann January, whom they acquired in a trade from the Indiana Fever. With January starting and Turner and Mitchell coming off the bench – plus an All-WNBA caliber season from third fiddle DeWanna Bonner — Phoenix cruised to a 20-14 record. They lost a close-fought semifinal series to the eventual champion Storm.

By 2019, two serious injuries for Taurasi dominated the narrative of the season. Taurasi appeared in just six regular season games, and the pressure on January and Bonner to create offense led to their least efficient seasons as members of the Mercury. With a bench made up entirely of players in their final season (Camille Little, Sancho Lyttle) or their rookie season (Brianna Turner, Sophie Cunningham, Alanna Smith), Phoenix was blown out in a first-round game at the hands of the Sky.

It’s easy to see the threads of that recent history in the moves Phoenix made this offseason so far. January’s fit in Phoenix had run stale (and she no longer worked as an assistant coach at nearby Arizona State), while the retirement of Little and Lyttle left a hole at forward. Having already addressed the hole on the perimeter next to Taurasi with the landmark acquisition of Skylar Diggins-Smith last week, that left the forward spots as the most urgent needs on the roster.

There aren’t many better ways to plug that spot than Breland. After struggling to find her footing in the WNBA early on, Breland has become about as consistent as they come in recent seasons. Since her breakout season in 2014, Breland has been good for around 11 points and 9 rebounds per 36 minutes. She also began to add a three-point shot last season to help the shooting-deprived Dream.

Expect that trend to continue in 2020 after Breland took 38 triples last season. The Atlanta staff spent a lot of time developing Breland’s jump shot and she is more comfortable with it now.

“It’s a mental thing, and court awareness, too,” Breland told me last season. “Knowing where you are on the court, taking shots in practice, allowing it to become a natural thing for you.”

Part of that adjustment, Breland said, was about maximizing her fit with Atlanta center Elizabeth Williams. While Griner is a more versatile offensive weapon, Breland’s ability to step out and shoot it will help immensely. Both Little and Lyttle became floor-spacers playing next to Griner, and Breland will likely lean into her perimeter game more, too.

The Mercury are learning the lessons of these past three seasons and putting them together for a team they hope will contend for a championship this season.

Even a piece like Coffey could help them immensely. After filling their roster with three maximum contracts for Taurasi, Griner and Diggins-Smith, Phoenix was in need of a young bench piece on a more affordable deal. Their 2018 draftees will compete for major reserve roles, but the Mercury now have added the versatile defender Coffey as well as scoring guard Bria Hartley to the mix as well (the Mercury also re-signed Turner).

The Mercury clearly see a couple ideal archetypes to pair with their stars, Griner and Taurasi. By adding Diggins-Smith and Breland, they found two of the best options next to each star. They also managed to find young depth pieces to ensure they don’t bottom out as easily as they did when injuries hit in 2019.

While rumors about Tina Charles trade discussions continue to circulate, the Mercury have crafted a roster that will make them a favorite for a playoff spot and put their star players in a position to succeed. The opportunity to add Charles would make them the immediate WNBA favorite, but with 10 roster spots filled, they are running out of ways to make such a trade, and may not need it to compete in 2020.

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