Phoenix Mercury ‘starting fresh’ following their breakup with Tina Charles

Trouble between the Phoenix Mercury and Tina Charles seemed to be brewing throughout the season, and the two sides parted ways Saturday. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – In a season that has had more twists and turns than Desert Storm – the longest and most looping roller coaster in Arizona – the Phoenix Mercury and forward Tina Charles decided to mutually part ways Saturday.

“After discussions with Tina and her agent, it was best for both parties to go our separate ways at this time,” Mercury general manager Jim Pitman said. “Due to circumstances both in and out of our control, our season has not gone according to our plan, and we will continue to pursue all avenues for improvement.”

The Mercury (7-12) lost three straight games up to the official divorce between Charles and the team, as she grew frustrated about a lack of touches and craved a more prominent role offensively. She averaged only 14.8 shots per game, her fewest since her rookie season with the Connecticut Sun in 2010.

On NBA TV’s national telecast of the Mercury’s 83-72 win on June 25, commentators remarked that Charles has previously taken plays off defensively, to the ire of her teammates. The statistics back that up, as Charles has a career-worst 0.3 defensive win share (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to defense) and a 107 defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions), which is the second-worst defensive rating in her 12-year career.

Charles officially signed with the Seattle Storm Tuesday, hoping to make the championship push that she did not see with the Mercury.

“I have a small window, and there’s a way that I want to play with the time I have left,” Charles said in her introductory media conference. “There’s a way I want to be coached. Knowing about the culture here, having a good relationship with Sue Bird … it just made sense to me.”

Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said that players are focused and “are not happy with how we’ve been playing and so they’re ready” in the pregame media session before the win over the Wings at home.

Mercury players were initially unavailable for comments on the Charles news, as forward Brianna Turner gave an emphatic and passionate statement about the overturn of Roe v. Wade postgame. Then she and teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith immediately walked off the media session platform.

However, one of the Mercury players yelled a disparaging comment about Charles after the win against Dallas, reporters at the game in Dallas said.

“Onto the next,” Mercury wing Diamond DeShields said in the locker room after Monday night’s 83-71 win over the Fever at home. “You really can’t dwell on (the Tina Charles departure), especially now with the way the season is rolling over and over and games are coming up so quickly.”

“I wish Charles the best of luck,” Diggins-Smith said as “Return of the Mack” by Mark Morrison was playing in the locker room. “Literally in this season, you can’t worry about anything else except what’s in the locker room. Man, that’s all I’m concerned about this year and this is a business.”

This roller-coaster season has had more drops than rises.

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The challenging year started in the off-season with the February arrest of teammate Brittney Griner, who, as Nygaard mentions after every pregame and postgame media conference, has been wrongfully detained for 130-plus days. A Russian court has set a start date for Griner’s trial for Friday, and she could face 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of large-scale transportation of drugs.

The Mercury struggled to find their footing under their rookie coach, and two of their star players – Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi – were in a shouting match during a timeout against the Las Vegas Aces in May as the team stumbled to a 2-8 record. The team had various ailments – from Diggins-Smith’s non-COVID illness to Charles’ shoulder and Sophie Cunningham’s elbow injuries – resulting in the starting five accruing heavy minutes up to this point. The now-former trio of Diggins-Smith, Turner and Charles still rank in the top five in the WNBA in minutes per game.

Despite the hurdles, the Mercury are only a game away from the eighth and last playoff spot halfway through the WNBA regular season and are 2-0 in the post-Charles era. They also are led by now six-time All-Star Diggins-Smith, who the WNBA announced as an All-Star reserve Tuesday.

The team has played with a renewed vigor on defense. On Saturday, they held the Wings to 4 for 21 from 3-point range, and Wings’ players not named Arike Ogunbowale went 1 of 8 from beyond the arc

On Monday night, the Mercury only allowed 13 fourth-quarter points (five came when the game was out of reach) to stymie the Indiana Fever.

“I think this weathering of the storm earlier in the season and seeing it as an opportunity to just start fresh,” DeShields said. “I think collectively, we all kind of just decided that we were done making excuses and it’s time for us to prepare to make a playoff run to secure a spot in the playoffs.

“I think that we’ve had our fair share of just ‘woe is me,’ and just feeling bad about all the things that have come up over the course of the season. I think collectively, we just decided that we were done with that and turned it into a new leaf.”

Nygaard summed up the season to date best, quoting Mark Twain after the Wings’ win: “The reports of our deaths have been greatly exaggerated.”

Sameer Malla sam-ear mall-uh (he/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Sameer Malla expects to graduate in August 2022 with a master’s degree in sports journalism and also has a master’s in geographic information systems from University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Malla has written for the Arizona Interscholastic Association.