Phoenix Mercury turn page with new interim coach and outlook after Vanessa Nygaard’s dismissal

The Phoenix Mercury enter Tuesday’s game against the Dallas Wings riding a five-game skid after Saturday’s loss to the Seattle Storm. On Sunday, Nikki Blue replaced Vanessa Nygaard as interim coach. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The mood around the Phoenix Mercury’s first practice Monday with interim coach Nikki Blue was one of hope and moving forward with heads held high.

Despite Brittney Griner’s and Diana Taurasi’s return from three-game absences Saturday against the Seattle Storm, the Mercury dropped their fifth game in a row, which, among other factors, sparked the organization to part ways with coach Vanessa Nygaard.

Phoenix’s current losing streak is the second longest since Griner was drafted in 2013, and their 2-10 record is the worst 12-game start since 2003, the year before Taurasi was drafted.
From management’s perspective, despite a series of injuries and misfortune, Nygaard will not be the one to attempt to make something out of this season. That duty will fall to assistant coach Nikki Blue, who was named the interim coach Sunday.

“Sometimes the simplest correction is the most beneficial,” Griner said. “Every person has their own different way that they approach coaching, and her (Blue) way, I think it’ll be good. It’s definitely a change, and people are responding well to that.”

Nygaard, in only her second season as the Mercury coach, finished with a 17-31 combined regular-season record and an 0-2 postseason record.

She continually dealt with complications beyond her control, including Griner’s incarceration last season in Russia. Over the last two seasons, the Mercury have faced a “contract divorce” (Tina Charles), maternity leave (Skylar Diggins-Smith) and a torn ACL (Shey Peddy) with starter-caliber players, in addition to countless injuries this year through the first 12 games.

So far this season, Griner, Taurasi, Peddy, Sophie Cunningham, Moriah Jefferson and Megan Gustafson have all missed at least one game. Cunningham left Seattle’s game with a back injury and did not return.

“Obviously we would love to have a full, healthy team,” Mercury forward Michaela Onyenwere said Saturday. “But that’s basketball, so no excuses from us, we just have to get better.”

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Blue was drafted 19th overall in the 2006 WNBA draft and played five seasons for the Washington Mystics (2006-10) and New York Liberty (2011). She has coaching experience at UNLV, CSU Bakersfield, Grand Canyon University and Arizona State, where she spent three seasons as an assistant coach before joining the Mercury’s coaching staff in March 2022.

Blue takes over with the Mercury in last place in the WNBA standings – 9 ½ games behind the first-place Las Vegas Aces, who took home a win last Wednesday at Footprint Center.

“There’s going to be some adjustments,” Blue said. “There’s some things offensively that need to be changed, some things defensively. The thing that we most need to do is just play our hearts out and leave everything on the floor. We’re going to have a renewed sense of urgency.”

Luckily for her, Griner and Taurasi look to be returning to full strength after their absences. Taurasi accumulated 13 points and four rebounds Saturday against the Storm, and Griner added 11 points and six rebounds.

Phoenix will also benefit from a favorable upcoming schedule. Four of its next five opponents currently have losing records, including two matchups with the Lynx, one of the two teams the Mercury have already defeated this season.

Blue is set to coach her first WNBA game in front of the Phoenix crowd Tuesday against the Dallas Wings (6-8).

“Our organization and our fans have high expectations for this team, and we have not reached those with our performance this year,” Mercury general manager Jim Pittman said. “We have confidence in the job Nikki Blue will do as interim head coach for the remainder of the 2023 season.”

Josh Bootzin jaw-sh boot-zin (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Josh Bootzin expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. He receive bachelor’s of arts degrees in statistics and creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh in 2021 and hopes to build a career in data journalism around proficiencies in statistics, print journalism and a love for sports.