Should slow start worry Mercury?

For nearly a 24-hour period over the weekend, you could have made a statement that no one would have expected to make about this WNBA season. There was a winless team left in the league … and it wasn't Tulsa.

Instead, it was two-time WNBA champion Phoenix, which started the season 0-3. The Mercury began the summer on the road, at Seattle and Los Angeles. Because the league schedule can be so oddly staggered at the start -- Tulsa had played five games before Phoenix played its third -- the Mercury's troubles weren't necessarily standing out. Losing to the Storm and Sparks wasn't such a huge red flag.

But when the Mercury also lost their home opener to San Antonio on Friday, 101-99, and then Tulsa won its first game Saturday, 77-59, over Washington, Phoenix found itself alone in the Western Conference basement.

Yes, Phoenix … Diana Taurasi's, Penny Taylor's and Candice Dupree's Mercury. They were 0-3, with Indiana coming to town Sunday.

Staving off a full-scale panic by its fans, Phoenix was able to beat the Fever, but it took overtime. The Mercury trailed by nine at halftime and were still down seven going into the fourth quarter. It was then that Phoenix came alive, with 25 points to end regulation, then 11 in the extra period.

This means the Mercury won't go into Tuesday's game at San Antonio (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) dragging a big neon-lit zero in their record. But the fact that it took overtime at home in their fourth game of the season to secure the team's first victory is a natural concern for the Mercury.

Because the reality appears to be that the West is "back." After last season, when Seattle basically went wire-to-wire like Rory McIlroy at the U.S. Open, the summer of 2011 looks like the Western Conference race could be as I've described it before: a maniacal game of musical chairs in which somebody unexpectedly gets left out and the four who make it into the postseason breathe a sigh of relief.

Despite Tulsa's win over the Mystics -- who incidentally, at 1-4, are sharing the East basement with 1-5 Atlanta -- it doesn't seem likely the Shock are going to be in the playoff mix.

Next up for Tulsa is Seattle, which is 2-2 and coming off a 74-50 pounding at Los Angeles. The Storm actually did lose last season at Tulsa, providing the Shock with one of six wins in their debut campaign in Oklahoma.

Still, that was in early August last year, when Seattle had essentially already wrapped up the West and the game meant little to the Storm. This is a .500 Seattle team visiting Tulsa on Tuesday, one that is trying to establish itself.

Unless there's an even bigger surprise in store for us than anything we've already seen this season, Tulsa is not likely to make a playoff push. But the Shock could play spoiler in the West, because the season for one of the other five teams in the conference is sure to be spoiled.

The Silver Stars are the league's lone unbeaten team at 4-0, but Minnesota is right there at the top of the West at 5-1. The Lynx had back-to-back victories over the Dream this past weekend, as Seimone Augustus led the way, scoring 25 and 19 in the two contests.

Los Angeles, which has its "WNBA anniversary" game against New York on Tuesday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET), is 3-1 and ended a seven-game skid against the Storm on Sunday. The Sparks' defense totally clamped down on Lauren Jackson and Swin Cash, who combined were 6-of-27 from the field -- a shooting percentage (22.2) you might have thought was nearly inconceivable from that duo.

The Sparks and Liberty are meeting in L.A. on June 21 just as they did on that date 14 years ago in the WNBA's debut game. That was a Saturday afternoon, and players like Taurasi were still in high school.

Taurasi has grown up to be one of the WNBA's signature players, and the expectations entering this season were high for her Mercury. Because of the offseason turmoil in Turkey, Taurasi and Taylor both cut short their time overseas. The thought was that there could be a silver lining to Taurasi's ordeal with a botched drug test: Both she and Taylor would be more rested and ready for the WNBA season.

And, actually, the 1-3 start doesn't really indicate that that isn't the case. Taurasi is averaging 23.0 points, Dupree and Taylor are at 15.8 and 13.8, respectively. But the Mercury did lose veteran post player Tangela Smith -- she signed with Indiana in February, moving closer to her hometown of Chicago -- and that has hurt Phoenix.

Smith is like one of those people in an office whom everybody knows is good at her job, but her value is underestimated until she's not there anymore. Then stuff that she always did without it really being noticed, is suddenly not being done anymore, or not done as well.

Smith averaged 12.6 points per game for Phoenix's first championship team in 2007, and 9.9 for the second in 2009. At 6-foot-3, she is faster than a lot of posts, has a reliable face-up shot, has long since adjusted to defending players who outweighed her and implicitly understands help defense.

And there is another quality she has, cliché as it might sound, of just showing up ready for work every day.

The 6-6 Kara Braxton is now in the starting lineup for Phoenix and she is a different type of player/personality than Smith. Although she actually moves pretty well for a player her size, Braxton doesn't move like Smith. There are pluses to Braxton's physical stature, but there are also drawbacks, especially in Phoenix's system. The Mercury are adjusting to that.

And Braxton is simply not known for consistency in her career; she has been a spot starter more comfortable and effective coming off the bench. At 28, Braxton is still in her peak years as a player and it's not as if it's impossible for her to adjust. But combine that with a tough opening schedule and a subpar effort on defense, and you see where the Mercury are.

(There are those who will also point out -- with legitimacy -- that maybe Phoenix is never going to be quite the same team it was when Cappie Pondexter was there. It doesn't mean the Mercury can't win another WNBA title, just that it really can't "replace" Pondexter.)

In some ways, though, all of this might turn out for Phoenix's benefit, getting the team in "urgency mode" early on. And the time when the overseas break for Taurasi and Taylor might really come into play is not now, but later this summer when almost everyone on every team is tired.

The Mercury's record doesn't look good and the team has its legitimate concerns. But a month from now, Phoenix might think back on the start of the season and be glad for what it got out of this opening struggle.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.