Phoenix Mercury’s bold shake-up signals win-now mentality under new regime

Diana Taurasi, left, and Brittney Griner usher in the next era of Phoenix Mercury basketball under fresh faces in leadership and renewed expectations. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – After enduring a 9-31 record last season, the Phoenix Mercury could have opted to go into rebuild mode, but the team’s new regime made it clear this month that they instead have adopted a win-now strategy.

The Mercury fired head coach Vanessa Nygaard after 12 games in June 2023, so there is new leadership after the team’s second-worst season in franchise history. Owner Matt Ishbia bought the team in February 2023 and hired general manager Nick U’Ren in July as well as head coach Nate Tibbetts later in the year, so this is the first full offseason for the new regime to make its imprint before the season begins on May 14.

Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham is already seeing the impact the changes are making to the team.

“To be honest, I’m not good at beating around the bush. The last couple years we have just flat out sucked,” Cunningham said. “This year – honestly – the difference is our coaching, the ownership, the people they’ve brought in to help us be successful.

“Coach Nate Tibbetts has brought in an awesome staff. Let me tell you, we are getting our butts worked right now, but in the best way possible. I just think having the new coaches and their knowledge and their experience, it’s definitely going to be a 180-type feel for our team and for the vibe around our team.”

Tibbetts brings a wealth of experience to the Mercury. He was a head coach in the NBA’s G League for six seasons, and spent 12 years as an assistant coach in the NBA. He also has brought to the Valley some coaches with strong résumés as well.

Joining Tibbetts on the sideline are Michael Joiner, who played under Tibbetts on the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the G League as well as 10 years internationally, and Megan Vogel, who spent the last 11 years as an assistant coach of the University of Wisconsin Green Bay women’s basketball program. The Mercury also hired Kristi Toliver to be an associate head coach after the veteran guard completed her 14th season as a player in the WNBA last year.

The coaching staff endured a complete upheaval, but Phoenix is not the average rebuilding team as it still has guard Diana Taurasi, who is widely recognized as the greatest WNBA player of all time. Taurasi, 41, is still at the top of her game and has confirmed that she will be back for her 20th season, but her contract ends after 2024 and it could potentially be her last.

Phoenix does not have its 2025 first-round pick after trading it for 2021 Rookie of the Year forward Michaela Onyenwere last year, so there is no silver lining — in terms of draft compensation — if the team has a bad season. The combination of no first round pick in 2025 and the uncertainty of Taurasi’s future beyond this season creates a sense of urgency to compete now.

“She is the G.O.A.T. and she deserves it all,” Cunningham said of Taurasi. “ I just think the last couple of years, we want to win, she wants to win. We want another championship here, especially while she’s on our team. And so our new GM, our new ownership, our new coach, like they are getting some badass players to get added to our roster. That’s what we need. We need some dogs. We need people who are going to fight and who are going to play and we also need people who are going to show up.”

The Mercury are one of the most historic franchises in WNBA history, winning three championships with the last one in 2014. The only players left over from that squad are superstar center Brittney Griner and Taurasi, so the new cast of characters will have to gel quickly if the Mercury plan to get back to the promised land.

The Mercury were quick to jump into the deep end when free agents officially began signing with teams on Feb. 1. In a blockbuster move that sent shockwaves through the WNBA, the Mercury acquired 2021 Finals MVP wing Kahleah Copper and forward Morgan Bertsch from the Chicago Sky on Tuesday for four draft picks — including the No. 3 pick in 2024 — as well as Onyenwere and forward Brianna Turner.

Copper has been an all-star the last three seasons, averaging 18.7 points per game in 2023, but her real value is that she is a big guard who can stretch out to play the forward position alongside the plethora of guards in the Mercury’s backcourt.

Phoenix did lose one of its guards when four-time All-WNBA first-team guard Skylar Diggins-Smith signed with the Seattle Storm after three seasons in the purple and orange. The departure of the Notre Dame graduate was expected after she missed last season due to maternity leave and an ensuing fallout between her and the Mercury when she said the organization was not allowing her to use the team facilities.

The loss of Diggins-Smith created a void that U’Ren filled by signing guard Natasha Cloud, who is joining the Mercury after eight seasons with the Washington Mystics and was a starter on that 2019 Washington championship team. Cloud is known for her exceptional defense and playmaking ability, which should mix well with Copper, Taurasi and Cunningham.

The addition of Cloud created a logjam in the backcourt, so the Mercury sent guard Moriah Jefferson to the Connecticut Sun for forward Rebecca Allen on Feb. 3, giving Phoenix more depth in the frontcourt. Phoenix needed to make a move after losing forward Megan Gustafson to the back-to-back champion Las Vegas Aces. Phoenix is losing a contributing role player in Gustafson, but Griner is expected to re-sign with the team this offseason.

With the flurry of the offseason moves, it is also important to remember that the 2024 WNBA Draft is on April 15. There was some disappointment when the Mercury did not get the top pick because it meant they were likely to miss out on Iowa guard Caitlin Clark, who is considered to be the consensus No. 1 selection.

Phoenix could have still picked either Stanford forward Cameron Brink or Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers, but there is no guarantee that it would land one of those draft-eligible prospects. Ben Pickman, a WNBA writer for The Athletic, thought it was possible the pick could have been traded depending on the team’s draft intel.

“My guess is that I don’t think Cameron Brink will be on the board by the time the Phoenix Mercury are picking at number three,” Pickman said. “It makes too much sense – frankly – with Nneka electing to go play elsewhere for the Sparks to take Brink at number two to build around another frontcourt player like Cameron Brink right there and kind of build their system around her. At number three, sure if Paige Bueckers is available, it makes a ton of sense. She’s going to be a star in the WNBA. She’s a star in college. Frankly, I would be a little bit surprised if she ended up turning pro.”

Phoenix wants to win now. That’s the message these moves make. Pickman acknowledges that there may have been some confusion from some on the outside of how the Mercury would approach the offseason, but it makes them one of the top teams to watch closely even before the season begins.

“It creates some – on the outside – slight dissonance of what to do in the short term versus the long term,” Pickman said. “That’s kind of the challenge that those in the Mercury are now confronted with. It’s a super interesting situation to monitor around the league.”

Justin de Haas(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Justin de Haas expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. de Haas has interned as a reporter for the Walnut Creek Crawdads of the California Collegiate League and reported on the Arizona State women’s soccer and lacrosse teams for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network.