Priorities one, two and three for the Phoenix Mercury this decade have been quite simple: Reload and reshape the roster around Diana Taurasi to compete for as many championships as possible.
Phoenix came up just short in a decisive Game 5 of the 2018 semifinals against the eventual champions Seattle Storm. Taurasi, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner earned All-Star nods. Taurasi and Griner were All-WNBA selections, and Griner was named to an All-Defense team for the fifth time.
Taurasi is the main reason the Mercury will be among top 2019 title contenders heading into the upcoming season. They may be the favorite, actually, in the wake of an apparent Achilles injury suffered by Storm forward and league MVP Breanna Stewart while overseas.
Taurasi reversed a two-year downward statistical trend and played some of the best basketball of her career last season. She famously started 2018 in the best shape of her life after taking extra time off in the offseason to prepare.
Her 63.8 true shooting percentage was a career-high per Basketball-Reference. She shot north of 54 percent inside the arc after finishing below 46 percent each of the past two seasons. Her free throw attempt rate shot back up to 41.1, her highest since 2013.
Taurasi also spent a lot more time with the ball in her hands. Her assist percentage (32.8) also reached a four-year high. The role shift was seen in her number of possessions used as a pick and roll ball handler. Per Synergy Sports, she used 274 possessions—the most she has ever in a season. (However, Synergy play type data for the WNBA only dates back to 2010.)
In fact, Taurasi led the league in possessions used as a pick and roll ball handler during her age-36 season. Only Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jasmine Thomas, Kelsey Mitchell, Jewell Loyd also used at least 200, though none approached Taurasi’s efficiency. She scored to the tune of 1.117 points per possession on those 274 possessions, while Diggins-Smith finished closest scoring 0.927 points on her 205 possessions.
A perfect storm was brewing in Phoenix between Taurasi’s conditioning, her revamped shot profile, Griner and Bonner as co-stars, and the perfect fit of supporting players.
Taurasi attempted to cut long 2-pointers out of her game, instead focusing on 3-pointers, shots at the rim and earning trips to the foul line. Her 2018 shot profile featured her second-highest percentage of threes and shots right at the basket.
Per Swanny’s Stats, those looks accounted for 74.8 percent of Taurasi’s 2018 field goal attempts, second only to her 78.2 percent mark in 2007. The Mercury scored 113.1 points per 100 possessions in Taurasi’s 2018 regular season minutes per Positive Residual. (The Connecticut Sun had the best season-long team offensive rating at 110.7.)
Phoenix was even better offensively with Taurasi on the floor during the playoffs against locked in defenses, posting a 117.6 offensive rating in 247 minutes.
The problem? The offense completely folded without her—a 98.5 offensive rating in 367 regular season minutes and 84.5 through 37 playoff minutes.
Griner is an extremely efficient post scorer, midrange shooter and roll threat. Bonner is a well-rounded scorer from all three levels. But team success starts with Taurasi at the point of attack.
From there, the game becomes simple: Set a ball screen and station three people around the perimeter. The defense has to live with something.
Taurasi can make every pass imaginable and will take and make those tough 3-pointers off the dribble that send defenses into complete chaos.
Force her to give the ball up early and you’ll have to send help into the lane to stop a 6-foot-8 center from walking into a free layup. If that help arrives early to wall off Griner from the front of the rim, somebody is going to be wide open.
Taurasi forces opponents to pick their poison.
Griner scoring on rolls to the rim are the biggest eyesore. You can’t even truly take all those looks away because she’s so much bigger than many bigs, let alone those poor help defenders. Bonner also makes plays off the bounce in a pinch. Even if you survive to that point with your defense intact, you’ll need another quality on-ball defender to stay in front of her.
Phoenix’s style is easy to sell. It generates a bunch of open 3-pointers and looks right at the rim. The team’s best players get to make decisions in space. And the Mercury may enter the 2019 season even better equipped to create those looks for all 40 minutes because of what they’ve added and retained during the offseason.
Mercury general manager Jim Pitman reloaded by adding 3-and-D wing Essence Carson of the Los Angeles Sparks via unrestricted free agency. The club re-signed Bonner, starting power forward Sancho Lyttle, key reserve Yvonne Turner and starting guard Briann January, who shot 47.0 percent from deep last season after being acquired in an offseason deal with the Indiana Fever.
Pitman then added Stanford’s Alanna Smith (No. 8 overall) and Missouri’s Sophie Cunningham (No. 13 overall) in the draft. Smith is a two-way stretch 4 familiar with Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello, (who is also coach of the Australian national team). Cunningham shot over 40 percent from deep each of the last two seasons and can make decisions with the ball in their spread pick and roll attack.
The team also acquired the rights to Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner in a draft night deal with the Atlanta Dream. (Reserve center Marie Gulich, the No. 12 overall pick in last year’s draft out of Oregon State, is headed to Atlanta.) Turner is a shot-blocking big with good feet as a switch defender; she may be a better fit as a backup to keep Griner fresh.
Expect January to be even more impactful in her second season with the Mercury. Per Jeff Metcalfe of the Arizona Republic, a shoulder injury limited her as a driver and finisher, which led to her spot up-heavy role last season. January initiating more actions and running some pick and roll could ease the burden on Taurasi and even prop up the non-Taurasi units that struggled so mightily to score.
There are two big questions facing the Mercury. First, can they put more points on the board when Taurasi rests?
Don’t expect them to waiver in the league’s hierarchy, but single-elimination postseason contests await teams that cannot lock down a top-two seed. Maintaining a higher level of play with Taurasi off the floor will keep the Mercury in more games and put them in a better position to give Taurasi, Griner and Bonner more rest.
The even bigger question hanging over the entire franchise and the league at large: How long can Taurasi keep this up?
Sometimes one doesn’t know the answer to such things until it is too late. Too many factors, (especially injuries), are beyond prediction.
This upcoming season will be the 37-year-old’s 15th overall. She won her second championship and was named league MVP 10 years ago. Somehow, her level of play hasn’t veered too far from what it was at back then. Pitman and the Mercury have done their part to surround her with the right pieces. Taurasi has more than done her part to justify continue chasing championships.
But as the WNBA gears up for its 23rd season, just be sure not to spend too much time asking when Taurasi is going to hang ‘em up.
She’s too busy driving the Mercury’s pursuit of a fourth title.
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.