Mercury falling while lottery looms

Phoenix (4-17) has lost eight straight. Sunday's 42-point defeat was the worst in team history. AP Photo/Matt York

On Sunday, Phoenix's Diana Taurasi missed her second game since the Olympics ended. The reason given for this absence was that she had undergone a dental procedure Friday.

This opens up a whole vein of rather dark humor in this root canal of a season for the Mercury, which may have hit rock bottom with an 89-47 loss to San Antonio. The 42-point margin was the most lopsided defeat in franchise history. But that doesn't mean it can't get worse.

Did management offer Phoenix fans a numbing agent before they had to endure watching the Mercury get their teeth kicked in by the Silver Stars?

Maybe for the next home game -- Thursday with New York -- the Mercury brass can pump nitrous oxide into the US Airways Center. Perhaps laughing gas will make the Phoenix players and fans feel falsely euphoric -- even if former Phoenix standout Cappie Pondexter, now with the Liberty, outscores the Mercury by herself.

Here's who is definitely not laughing, though: Those fans and observers from around the league who are furious with the Mercury's continued free fall, because they believe it to be largely intentional.

Phoenix's accusers feel the franchise is more interested in chasing lottery balls than loose balls, that the Mercury's strategy is lose now to potentially win big later -- in the 2013 draft, where Baylor center Brittney Griner is the top prize.

The Mercury have started the WNBA season's second half just as they ended the first half, on a downward spiral. They have lost eight in a row, giving them, at 4-17, the second-worst record in the league. (3-17 Tulsa has the worst record.) There were some contemptuous snorts at the vague "dental procedure" from those who believe Taurasi's absence is part of an orchestrated plan to maximize Phoenix's draft-lottery potential.

Meanwhile, it seems nobody is accusing Tulsa of not trying. Most see the undertalented Shock as doing the best they can. Similarly, the 5-16 Washington Mystics appear to inspire more pity than scorn. And they did bounce back from two consecutive losses to open the second half of the season by beating Chicago on Sunday.

After the Mercury were clobbered by the high-flying Silver Stars, which have won 11 in a row, the questions continued. I've heard from some league fans who aren't happy, to put it mildly, with the Mercury. Even some opposing players are wondering if Phoenix has started to tank.

It's not as if Phoenix hasn't had more than its share of bad breaks this season, starting with the torn ACL suffered during European play by Penny Taylor. Taurasi appeared in two games early in the WNBA season despite a hip injury but hasn't played for the Mercury since.

Candice Dupree, who started the season with knee issues, underwent arthroscopic surgery in late July. Her prognosis was a six- to eight-week recovery, which could mean her season is essentially over. Charde Houston and Alexis Gray-Lawson also missed Sunday's game with injuries. It's rumored that Phoenix mascot Scorch and his "son" Little Scorch will be forced to suit up to play the next game -- if they don't burn themselves with their fire-breathing antics before Thursday.

Will Taurasi return then? The Mercury said they expected her back this week. The grumbling will continue, though, about whether Phoenix has not only accepted an unfortunate fate this season but is also embracing it.

However, others will say, "So what if that's true? Isn't the aim to try to get better as a franchise? Why not rest Taurasi now when the playoffs are effectively out of reach? If that means a better position in the draft, so be it."

This is an age-old dilemma in professional sports. Look at the last NFL season, when Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was the No. 1 prize in the draft. Look at the final few weeks of just about any NBA regular season, when theories abound in regard to which team(s) might be doing the most blatant tanking -- something that is typically in the eye of the beholder.

It's a never-ending debate. Are teams compelled by competitive ethics to use all their resources and push themselves to the maximum to win every game, even if doing so might not necessarily be in the franchise's self-interest? Or is it OK for teams to say, "We're going to play as hard as we can with the people we put in the lineup, but we might also give our best players some recovery time. If that ends up benefiting us in the draft, that's just how it goes."

What do the WNBA fans think? Depends in part on how it affects them and their teams. Phoenix fans don't enjoy watching the Mercury get blown out, but they also might be looking long term and understand that pain now could be gain later.

Other teams' fans might be irritated by what they see as a less-than-noble way to compete. Self-interest is involved for a few reasons. One, they don't want Phoenix to get Griner. Second, their team's position in the standings might adversely be affected if Phoenix rolls over for another team. Third, they feel it's not respectful to competition in general for any team to not commit fully to winning every game.

Again, these questions come up almost every year in various pro sports' leagues. It's particularly a hot issue in the WNBA this season because Griner likely is one of the biggest impact players in league history. There are highly sought draftees other than Griner, but she is in a class by herself among 2013 seniors in terms of being such a game-changer.

Something that makes the WNBA different than the NBA or NFL is that players in those leagues aren't playing in another league in their offseason. It's an economic reality of the WNBA that most players go overseas in the winter and spring and, for many, earn a bigger paycheck.

Taurasi was healthy enough to be the leading scorer for the United States' gold-medal-winning Olympic team, but that doesn't mean she's not thoroughly worn down, considering this is her ninth year of combining WNBA and overseas play. And add in her national-team duties over that span.

She has said that the grind could force some players to take time off during the WNBA season or miss a season entirely. Some players have done that. But there's always been the sentiment that American players, in particular, owe more to the WNBA, the league based in their home country -- and that marquee players such as Taurasi owe the most.

If you look at her career going back to high school, Taurasi has never shied away from competition. She has been highly reliable and rarely injured. But when you throw together the many years of travel and nearly nonstop playing, plus the fact that the Mercury are effectively out of the playoff hunt, there might not be a better time for the franchise to give her rest.

Does that mean Phoenix is doing something wrong? What if Taurasi returns for at least a few games? Will that assuage the critics? If she doesn't, will that mean that Phoenix really plotted anything? Or did the Mercury and Taurasi accept that success wasn't going to happen this year and tried to make the best of it with her taking time off?

I'm not in fan mode in the WNBA, but these are issues where I ask myself how I would feel in a sport where I let myself be a fan. I watch nearly all the St. Louis Cardinals' games -- even excruciating 19-inning losses -- because it's a lifetime commitment. If the team were to shut down some players in a season where the playoffs were out of reach, I'd understand about trying to look ahead.

By the same token, though, the Cardinals earned their spot in what turned into an epic postseason last year in part because another team, Philadelphia, played to win despite having long since clinched a playoff spot. The Phillies' extra-inning victory over Atlanta on the regular season's final day, combined with the Cards' win over Houston, gave St. Louis a wild-card entry into the playoffs.

So I see both sides of this issue. A franchise has a responsibility to its fans and its future, but it also has a responsibility to the league in general to be competitive. Which is the greater responsibility if the two things are at odds with each other?

Has Phoenix actually chosen a path of least resistance in regard to battling for the rest of this season's games? Or was that path essentially thrust on the Mercury by their injury misfortune?

Some people have their minds made up about this, but Phoenix has 13 games to show what it has -- and what it's willing to give up -- this season.