CHICAGO -- The Phoenix Mercury's 73-70 loss Tuesday to the Chicago Sky -- the same team that defeated them in last season's WNBA Finals -- was by all accounts a step in the right direction for a team in desperate need of a win. Diana Taurasi was ejected late in the second quarter, but the short-handed Mercury still managed to overcome a double-digit deficit to pull ahead by eight going into the fourth, positioning themselves within reach of coming away with a win. That was more than Phoenix could say for various other games this season.
But moral victories mean little amid a six-game losing streak and 2-7 start to the season that, even when considering the offseason personnel changes and hiring of first-year head coach Vanessa Nygaard, don't reflect the level of talent on Phoenix's roster.
How did a Mercury team that entered the 2022 season with championship-or-bust expectations get here through the first quarter of the season, and most importantly, how does Phoenix turn things around?
With the Mercury coming off their first WNBA Finals appearance since 2014, some anticipated that even after the surprising decision to replace coach Sandy Brondello, the squad would be as dangerous as ever after it signed former MVP Tina Charles and acquired Diamond DeShields via a three-team trade. With four Olympic gold medalists and a budding star in DeShields, the thinking was that the Mercury could be a superteam that would rule the summer.
Phoenix has had to grapple both emotionally and basketball-wise with Brittney Griner's detainment in Russia since mid-February. But even taking her absence into account, the team's record doesn't tell the full story of its woes. The Mercury's minus-9.3 net rating is second-worst in the league (they're 10th in offensive and defensive rating), and they're last in rebounding percentage (47.3%). While the offense has struggled at times, defense -- where Phoenix is allowing 106.8 points per 100 possessions -- has more consistently been the area of concern.
Remove Griner and Kia Nurse, who is still rehabbing from an October 2021 ACL tear, from a unit that was seventh in defensive rating last season without bringing in any defensive-minded additions in the offseason and it's not shocking the Mercury have ended up here.
While Charles was Phoenix's prized free-agency acquisition, how exactly she and Griner were expected to share the floor was a bit of a mystery, as Charles primarily thrives operating inside even as she has expanded her game. Even with Griner out of the equation, Charles has struggled to get going in Nygaard's system. According to Basketball Reference data, Charles' field goal percentage has particularly plummeted within 3 to 10 feet of the rim from last year to 2022 (51.9% to 34.2%). And defensively she has not been able to provide the staunch interior presence the Mercury desperately need given their deficiencies elsewhere.
Taurasi, who struggled with injuries most of last season, has been a far cry from her 2020 All-WNBA second-team performance. According to Basketball Reference research, her plus/minus net per 100 possessions sits at minus-20.2, by far a team low -- and while her offense used to make up for her defensive weaknesses, that hasn't been the case this season. Her 30.3% shooting from 3 would be a career low (not counting the 2019 campaign, when she suited up for just six games).
DeShields' fit and usage alongside the likes of Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Charles and -- were she here -- Griner was also a perplexing concept going into the season. DeShields ranks No. 7 in the league in usage rate (29.0%) despite shooting just 40.8% from the field, including 25% from 3.
Phoenix's regular-season struggles aren't necessarily new. Since 2019 -- when the roster as it appears now first began to take shape with the selection of draft pick Sophie Cunningham and trade for Brianna Turner -- the Mercury never finished better than fifth in the WNBA standings, and their net rating was also never better than fifth. That translated to the postseason, too, including after bringing in Diggins-Smith in 2020: After failing to advance past the single-elimination rounds in 2019 and 2020, the Mercury sat at 9-10 entering the 2021 All-Star break, and after earning the No. 5 seed in the playoffs, eked by a 12-20 New York Liberty team in the first round with a one-point victory. Phoenix then beat a Seattle Storm squad that was missing Breanna Stewart in overtime to advance to the semifinals.
Clutch performances from role players such as Cunningham, Shey Peddy and Turner helped the Mercury extend their postseason run, a reminder that not even the most talented of Big Threes can be relied upon to do everything for their teams to win. But last season's Finals appearance was largely fueled by MVP-level play on both ends from Griner throughout the second half of the regular season and playoffs. Although her basketball contributions are far from the primary concern for her loved ones, her absence reveals just how invaluable she has been and would be to the Mercury's success.
Phoenix has time, and the talent, to turn things around. And the Mercury have a more favorable schedule moving forward after so many matchups against top-tier teams frontloaded the first three weeks of the season. But they can't skate by on talent alone.
They need to find a semblance of a defensive heartbeat, which they demonstrated at times against a Chicago team with an offense capable of being best in the league. Nygaard and players emphasized postgame that communication, covering for one another and stringing together consecutive stops have been focuses. Getting Nurse back eventually should help, too.
"Offense is not really our problem. We know that we're a capable scoring team," DeShields said. "The biggest thing for us was our defense. We're proud of our effort [Tuesday], the way we communicated."
Last season, the Mercury showed that offensive firepower can mask defensive woes. Can they find their rhythm on that end now? Nygaard liked her team's ball movement Tuesday, movement that allowed players to hit Charles in her spots for a slew of midrange jumpers, where she thrived in the second half. But who will be the focal point moving forward? DeShields might lead the team in field goal attempts per game, but Nygaard said that if Charles "can score 25 points every game, that will help us for sure." Can Taurasi and Diggins-Smith get going from the arc, and who else can step up as the necessary complementary options all good teams have?
Nygaard described Tuesday's game as "emotional," a word that aptly applies to the Mercury's season to date. Between the on-court adjustments that need to be made and the off-court turmoil that has no doubt been taxing, Phoenix's trajectory will be fascinating as the franchise seeks to keep its nine-year playoff appearance streak intact.
Are we starting to see separation between tiers?
With every WNBA team having played between eight and 12 games and all but a handful of players expected to suit up this summer back into the fold with their teams, we seem to be getting a clearer picture as June arrives of which teams make up the upper echelon of title contenders, which are still playoff-caliber squads, and which seem destined to miss the postseason and end up in the draft lottery.
The Las Vegas Aces remain the team to beat and are in a league of their own as the only squad with fewer than three losses, bolstered by big wins over the Sky and Connecticut Sun this past week. A rematch with Connecticut, this time with Sun coaches Curt Miller and Brandi Poole back on the sideline upon returning from COVID-19 protocols, awaits Thursday.
The Washington Mystics, Sun, Storm (whom we haven't seen at full strength very much) and Sky -- none of whom have more than three losses -- have separated themselves as fellow championship contenders alongside Vegas. While the Atlanta Dream (6-3) have surpassed early expectations, they are still seeking a true résumé-boosting win, having yet to beat any teams in the upper half of the standings. Their next chances to prove themselves come Friday against Chicago and Tuesday at Seattle.
A win over the Sun on Friday at home would show the Mercury are working to get back on track. The Fever are promising but still young. The Lynx and Liberty face an uphill battle as they deal with significant injury issues, with Moriah Jefferson and Natalie Achonwa out indefinitely and Betnijah Laney now sidelined after knee surgery. In Minnesota, it's also unclear when Damiris Dantas could finally make her season debut and whether Napheesa Collier will be back at all after giving birth last week.
There's a lot of basketball left to be played, but heading into the season, very few likely had both Minnesota and New York watching the postseason from their couches on their bingo cards.
Who to start: Katie Lou Samuelson has been excellent since being inserted into the starting five for the Sparks, making 67% of her 3s in that span. The Wings' Satou Sabally is finding her groove after arriving in Dallas late from overseas, averaging 15 points across her past two games. Indiana's Victoria Vivians is playing some of her best basketball to begin her fourth season in the league.
Bria Hartley (hamstring) made her WNBA season debut Wednesday. The Next's Em Adler reported that Stephanie Talbot, Sue Bird and Ezi Magbegor should all be back from COVID-19 protocols by the Storm's game Friday.
Who to sit: New York's Laney is out for at least eight weeks after knee surgery; Minnesota's Jefferson (quad) and Achonwa (hamstring) are out indefinitely.
Atlanta's Tiffany Hayes (knee) doesn't have a timetable for her 2022 WNBA season debut.