‘It’s been exhausting’: Challenges on, off court for Phoenix Mercury lead to disappointing season

(Video by William Trey Matthews/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Mercury entered the 2023 season facing the toughest task of any WNBA team. Reincorporating a star center under a lame-duck coach and leaning on an aging future Hall of Famer, the deck was stacked before the first tipoff against reaching the postseason for an 11th straight season.

Add in the enlarged spotlight on the first game of the season, pressure was at an all-time high in the Valley. On Monday, the Mercury finally let out all of the emotions that the players had held in over the course of a disappointing 9-31 season that ended with an 11-game losing streak.

An emotional Brittney Griner shed tears when asked about Iran’s plans to release five U.S. citizens, Diana Taurasi shared only two words about her teammate Skylar Diggans-Smith and everyone reflected on the difficulty of navigating injuries and the season during exit interviews.

“The biggest obstacle this year has been injuries,” said interim Mercury coach Nikki Blue. “We’ve only played seven games with our full roster, which has been a very difficult task. So each game is a different lineup. There are different matchups. We really weren’t able to get a flow this entire year.”

In 2012, the Mercury faced a similarly bleak season, finishing with a dismal 7-27 record. Taurasi, the franchise cornerstone, played only eight games due to a debilitating hip flexor injury. The team was marred by injuries throughout the season, preventing them from finding any semblance of rhythm.

Fast forward to 2023, and the Mercury’s season has been tainted by injuries again, hindering their performance.

Phoenix desperately missed guard Skylar Diggins-Smith (maternity leave), who has averaged 16.7 points and five assists in her career. Taurasi, when asked about Diggins-Smith potentially returning to Phoenix, answered: “Next question.”

Players in and out of the lineup challenged the team’s morale.

“Having a new person on your roster every other day it feels like, it’s just been exhausting,” Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham said.

Overall, it was a mentally draining season for players, coaches and fans. The emotions started with Griner’s return to start the regular season after her detainment in a Russian prison for nearly 10 months. Twelve games into the season, Vanessa Nygaard was fired after a 2-10 start and replaced by Blue. Mercury general manager Jim Pitman announced his retirement at the end of the season in July, with the franchise tapping Nick U’Ren as his replacement.

“It’s not good at being at the end of the standings, but it’s better than where I was a year ago,” Griner said.

Added Mercury center Megan Gustafson: “It’s been quite the roller coaster, to say the least. But you have to ride with whatever you’re given and you have to keep going and know what you bring to the team every single day.”

There is hope on the horizon. After that dismal season in 2012, the Mercury were awarded the No. 1 overall pick and selected Baylor’s dominant center, the 6-foot-9 Griner. Now the Mercury hold another top-lottery selection in what is expected to be a strong draft class with which to revitalize the team.

Among the presumptive top prospects in the 2024 WNBA Draft are guards Caitlin Clark (Iowa) and Paige Bueckers (UConn), and forwards Cameron Brink (Stanford) and Angel Reese (LSU).
The offseason presents a chance to pair a promising player with Griner in 2024, similar to the dynamic duo Taurasi and Griner formed in 2013.

Amid their disappointing season, the Mercury found solace in the unwavering support of their loyal fans, who continued to pack the stands during the final home stretch. The Mercury finished second in regular-season attendance across the league this season.

Eight of the Mercury’s nine wins this season came in front of its home crowd, the X-Factor, at Footprint Center, where the Mercury drew an average of 9,197 fans. In the team’s home and season finale against the Las Vegas Aces, 13,206 loyal fans were in attendance.

“Our fans are amazing,” Blue said. “We draw one of the best crowds in the WNBA, and our fans are extremely rowdy. We’re very comfortable at home. They just bring the energy and we follow suit.”

Finding themselves in uncharted territory, the Mercury will have a head start to a busy offseason. The offseason storylines to follow include:

The impending head coaching search: The team parted ways with Vanessa Nygaard after losing eight of 10 games to start the season. Blue, who joined the Mercury coaching staff in 2022 after serving three seasons as an assistant coach at Arizona State, took over as interim head coach. While the circumstances were not ideal, Blue demanded “energy, attitude and effort” from her team every game and gained the trust of the locker room. Taurasi voiced her support for Blue and believes she could be an asset for any team.

Interim Head Coach Nikki Blue Interview

Mercury players want interim coach Nikki Blue to return for the 2024 WNBA season after she stepped in to replace former coach Vanessa Nygaard following a 2-10 start. (Photo by William Wilson/Cronkite News)

“She has an ability to lead women and make them believe in themselves, as an individual and as a group,” Taurasi said. “She would be an amazing asset to our team or to any team really.”

Phoenix will conduct an in-depth coaching search to determine Nygaard’s replacement.

WNBA Lottery: The Indiana Fever, who won the lottery last year, has the best odds (44.2%) for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft, while the second-worst record (Mercury) has a 27.6%, third-worst (Los Angeles Sparks) at 17.8% and fourth-worst (Seattle Storm) at 10.4%. The WNBA combines the records from the past two seasons to determine which teams receive the best odds in the lottery.

Upcoming roster decisions: Phoenix has three unrestricted free agents this offseason: Griner, Diggins-Smith and Gustafson. Retaining Griner will be a top priority for general manager Nick U’Ren and owner Matt Ishbia. U’Ren takes over the GM duties from Jim Pitman, who the team announced in July would retire from that role while remaining as the team’s executive vice president and chief financial officer.

“Phoenix is home,” Griner said during her exit interview. “My wife and I literally just got a place (here).”

The relationship between Phoenix and Diggins-Smith appears to be irreparable. Ishbia is no stranger to splash moves. Days after buying the Phoenix basketball teams, Ishbia acquired NBA superstar forward Kevin Durant, and most recently two-way guard Bradley Beal for the Suns. As an exciting offseason approaches, Phoenix is eyeing a quick turnaround on the WNBA side as well.

The return of Diana Taurasi: The all-time leading scorer in the WNBA announced that she plans on returning for her 20th season. In 26 games, the 41-year-old proved she could still play at a high level, averaging 16 points, 4.6 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game this season. Taurasi has delivered three championships to the Valley and is a five-time Olympic gold medalist. The “White Mamba” has made a monumental impact not only on the league but across the globe.

There’s plenty to take away from the 2023 Mercury season.

Griner reached a significant career milestone, surpassing 5,000 career points. After being detained in Russia for nearly 10 months, averaged 17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in her first season back.

Taurasi surpassed 10,000 career points in her 19th season in the WNBA. No other player has reached 8,000 career points.

For the first time in team history, guard Sug Sutton recorded a triple-double (18 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds). The final pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft persevered her way to this moment.

“The journey to get back here wasn’t easy at all,” Sutton said. “I thank God to be in this position. To look back and see how far I came is crazy. I’m speechless to see how much I accomplished.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Sebastian Sanchez expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Sanchez is a content creator and is working toward a job as a beat writer.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

William Trey Matthews expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s in sports journalism. Matthews is a play-by-play announcer at Arizona State University, primarily for the hockey programs. He is one of the only full-time Black hockey play-by-play announcers in the country. He has been featured in NHL.com, USA Today, USCHO and other media. He’s also the host of the Locked On Devils podcast, which is part of the Locked On Podcast Network. Matthews graduated from Adrian College in 2022 with a bachelor’s in communication arts and science.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

William Wilson expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Wilson has worked with companies such as Nike, William Morris Endeavor, Ballislife and more.