The Phoenix Mercury undoubtedly boast the greatest collection of star talent in the WNBA after signing Tina Charles on Friday, a day after adding All-Star Diamond DeShields via trade to complement a roster that already reached the 2021 WNBA Finals behind stars Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi.
Phoenix was previously hailed as a superteam when Diggins-Smith came to the Valley in 2020 to join Griner and Taurasi in a star-studded starting five. After a slow start together, the Mercury came together to go 10-3 after last year's Olympic break and reach the Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Sky.
Now, Phoenix has added a second MVP -- Taurasi won in 2009 -- to the mix in Charles, whose willingness to take a substantial pay cut in pursuit of a title to go with the three the Mercury and Taurasi have already won made this accumulation of talent possible. Is this the greatest superteam the WNBA has ever seen? And, given the results from other veteran-laden collections of similar talent, does that automatically make Phoenix the title favorites?
Let's take a closer look at the 2022 Mercury.
How did this team come together?
Remarkably, we're just a few weeks removed from Phoenix having to waive forward Megan Walker (who was claimed by the Atlanta Dream) just to have enough cap room to make restricted free agent Kia Nurse a qualifying offer. The Mercury created additional breathing room by dealing center Kia Vaughn to the Dream for a third-round pick, but it wasn't until Thursday's trade that everything came together.
In the three-team deal that landed DeShields, a restricted free agent, Phoenix sent out guard Bria Hartley along with a 2023 first-round pick and second-rounders each of the next two years. As I noted in declaring the Mercury the winner of that trade, the move saved $46,100 in 2022 cap space, enabling Phoenix to make a competitive offer to Charles.
As it turned out, the Mercury didn't even need all that cap space because of Charles' remarkable decision to sign for $108,000, as reported by Rachel Galligan of Winsidr -- a substantial pay cut from the $175,000 she made last season with the Washington Mystics (per HerHoopStats.com data). Charles taking less means Phoenix could fill out the roster with players making the veterans minimum rather than needing to scrimp with players at the lower minimum for those with fewer than three years of experience.
If anything, Charles stood to increase her salary after a bounce-back performance last season, when she averaged a career-high (and league-leading) 23.4 PPG and earned All-WNBA honors (second team) for the first time since 2017. Yet with the Washington Mystics unable to make a competitive offer after re-signing restricted free agent Myisha Hines-Allen, Charles prioritized pursuit of a long-awaited championship -- she's yet to even play in the WNBA Finals -- over salary.
Because WNBA salary data wasn't widely reported until the past few seasons, it's tough to say whether this is the most substantial pay cut a player has ever taken in pursuit of a championship. However, given the increase in maximum salary under the current collective bargaining agreement, it's almost certainly the biggest in raw dollars.
Is this the greatest WNBA superteam?
Charles, the MVP in 2012, joins Griner and Taurasi to give the Mercury three members of the W25 list of the top 25 players in league history released in conjunction with last year's 25th anniversary season. Add in Diggins-Smith and DeShields and Phoenix's stars have combined for an incredible 35 All-WNBA selections and 31 All-Star appearances. (Why more All-WNBA picks? Because the league hasn't played an All-Star game every season, so Taurasi has just 10 appearances as compared to 14 All-WNBA picks.)
The 35 All-WNBA selections will be a new record for a WNBA team, surpassing the total of 30 from the 2008 Seattle Storm and 2009 Los Angeles Sparks. The 2008 Storm also jointly hold the record of 36 All-Star appearances, tied with the 2012 Seattle team. Phoenix will likely eventually claim that record too as active players continue to reach the All-Star Game.
Admittedly I'm biased, having covered those Storm teams for the team's official website, but I don't think the Mercury's selection of stars quite surpasses the so-called 2008 "Perfect Storm." All five starters from that team (Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Yolanda Griffith, Lauren Jackson and Sheryl Swoopes) were selected to the W25, and three of them (Griffith, Jackson 3x and Swoopes 3x) combined to win seven MVP awards as compared to just two for Charles and Taurasi in Phoenix.
Phoenix can surpass previous star-studded teams in terms of playoff success. With Jackson sidelined by ankle surgery after the Olympics, Seattle was upset in the first round by Los Angeles in 2008. The 2012 Storm, which featured Katie Smith and Tina Thompson as veteran stars in place of Cash, Griffith and Swoopes, also lost in the opening round. The 2009 Sparks, who added Thompson to MVPs Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker, crashed out in the conference finals.
It's worth noting, though, that those teams weren't previously as close to the title as the Mercury. In fact, all three lost in the same round the year before as they did as superteams.
How well will the Mercury's stars fit?
As is the case with any superteam, sacrifice will be required in Phoenix. Taurasi (27.5%), Griner (26%) and Diggins-Smith (25%) all used at least a quarter of the Mercury's plays while on the court last season. So too did Charles (a league-high 32%), while DeShields (22%) was higher than any Phoenix player outside the big three in 2021. Mathematically, those numbers will have to go down with only so many shots to go around.
Previously, Charles showed a willingness to concede touches and shots when she was originally traded to the Mystics in April 2020. Back then, Charles was headed to the defending champions with the expectation she'd play alongside reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne and Finals MVP Emma Meesseman in the frontcourt. Both Charles and Delle Donne sat out the 2020 bubble season, and Delle Donne then missed all but three games in 2021 with Meesseman busy playing for her national team, leaving Charles carrying a heavier load than expected.
The way Charles developed her 3-point range in Washington will be critical to her fit with Griner in the frontcourt. Having never previously made more than 31 3-pointers in a season, Charles knocked down 50 at a 36.5% clip last season, forcing defenders to play her honestly on the perimeter. More comfortable in the high post, Charles should be able to form a high-low connection with Griner.
Charles' shooting is also important because DeShields doesn't space the floor as well as the Mercury's small forward options last season (mostly Nurse, who suffered an ACL tear in the playoffs and is now a restricted free agent). DeShields has never shot better than 33% from 3-point range in a season. Getting even to league average (34%) would be a win for Phoenix.
The most interesting question is Taurasi's willingness to take a step back offensively. With so many other options, she doesn't need to be a primary scorer anymore. After making just 41% of her 2-point attempts last season, a low for a full campaign, Taurasi -- in what could be her final season at age 40 -- might be better used in more of a spot-up role. Sitting out games during the regular season could also help keep Taurasi fresh for the playoffs.
Overseeing this all is a first-year head coach in Vanessa Nygaard, a contrast to past superteams overseen by experienced champion coaches Brian Agler (in Seattle) and Michael Cooper (in Los Angeles). Nygaard will have tough decisions to make, particularly if incumbent power forward Brianna Turner emerges as a better option than Charles to finish games because of her versatile defense.
Nonetheless, the Mercury deserve to be considered favorites as things currently stand in the WNBA. Remember, Phoenix's biggest weakness last season was staying connected with their stars on the bench. Diggins-Smith and Griner both averaged 35 MPG during the playoffs because former coach Sandy Brondello didn't feel comfortable resting them. Now, the Mercury have the option of building a second unit around a former MVP who led the league in scoring last season. That's the power of the superteam Phoenix has constructed.