It became apparent a few weeks ago that the phrase "It is what it is" was going to be a mantra around the Phoenix Mercury's camp.
The phrase is less about resignation than an acknowledgement of reality for the defending WNBA champions, who will begin the 2015 season not at all resembling the players who finished a remarkable run with confetti raining down on their heads.
No Diana Taurasi ... no Penny Taylor ... no Brittney Griner for the first seven games of the season ... breathe and reboot ahead of Friday's season opener at home against San Antonio. "At this point, I think that more than defending a championship, it's just about trying to win a championship," said veteran guard DeWanna Bonner. "We just want to get to the point where we can win another title. Really, we have so many different faces, this team hasn't won a title."
During Friday night's championship ceremony, more rings will be shipped out to former players than will be handed out to the current ones. Heading into the start of the regular season, the Mercury's camp has been an exercise in getting to know one another. "We've had our moments," said Mercury coach Sandy Brondello. "The hardest thing is there are so many new faces. They are learning a new system, playing against new players. We have made a lot of improvement. I expect more."
Brondello, in her second season at the helm in Phoenix, first absorbed the news that superstar guard Taurasi was going to take the season off. Then came Griner's arrest on assault charges after an altercation with then-fiancée (now wife) Glory Johnson, and her subsequent seven-game suspension. And Australian star Taylor chose not to re-sign this season as an unrestricted free agent.
"The hardest thing is there are so many new faces. They are learning a new system, playing against new players. We have made a lot of improvement. I expect more." Mercury coach Sandy Brondello
That series of events left the Mercury scrambling to fill roster spots, plugging holes and picking up slack. Brondello was looking for versatility. She thinks she achieved that. "It was a matter of what kind of players we could bring in," Brondello said. "It was a matter of who was available at that point and if they could complement the players we have. But I'm happy with our signings. Everyone that's come in here can offer us something."
Brondello admits, however, the impossible task of replacing what's been lost. "We will never replace Diana or Penny, but we will fill the gaps as well as we can," Brondello said.
And much of that burden will fall on Bonner and Candice Dupree, two of only four players who returned from last year's roster.
"Absolutely," said Dupree, the 10-year veteran. "Sandy has had conversations with us about leadership and communicating and teaching and setting an example. There is a lot more we are going to have to do here, scoringwise and trying to help the new players."
Bonner has done this before. Three years ago, when Taurasi missed most of the season with injury, Bonner stepped up offensively and averaged 20.6 points a game in 2012. It may be what's called for again.
"For sure, I'm going to have to be a little more aggressive, but not trying to force it," Bonner said. "There is not pressure. Just go out and do what I normally do, but try to score a little more."
The Mercury have been working early on running plays for Bonner and Dupree and learning how to play a smaller lineup without Griner on the floor to account for her absence at the start of the season. Monique Currie, a nine-year veteran signed in the offseason from Washington, is going to fill a big role inside.
"[Bonner] is going to get more of a green light to shoot, but that's nothing new to her," Brondello said. "We have another veteran in Currie and we have a smart point guard out there with Leilani Mitchell, and we've got Noelle Quinn, who we can use as the point as well. I don't want to put too much pressure on any one player. But this is our situation at the moment. We are just going to focus on being the best team we can be."
Bonner believes the key to any early transition in Phoenix is shoring things up defensively.
"Our defense is going to create offense for a while until we get to know each other," Bonner said. "Right now, we are learning who is good at the backdoor [play], and coming off screens, who can shoot. Some of the players we have, I'd never heard of them before they got here."
The Mercury know well how competitive things can be in the Western Conference, and that a slow start with Griner out might put them in a position to scramble for a playoff spot in a league that seems to have gotten younger this offseason.
"The more I look around, the older I feel," Dupree said. "I think it's going to be very interesting for us. But we need to win now rather trying to make up ground at the end of the season when everybody is tired and worn down and beat up. We don't want to be in position to be neck-and-neck come playoff time."
Brondello said she believes her team is going to have to "grind" early, while the Mercury wait for Griner's return and her new team to settle in.
"We really need to get off to a good start," Brondello said. "It's going to be a different mindset. It's where we are right now."