Who are the 2014 Phoenix Mercury?
That does not matter.
What matters is who will the 2014 Phoenix Mercury become?
Two years ago the Phoenix Mercury came in with high hopes drafting point guard dynamo Samantha Prahalis to compliment Diana Taurasi in the back-court and make another championship run. Instead, Prahalis lasted a year in Phoenix and injuries rocked the team rolling them into uncharted territory; the top of the WNBA Draft Lottery.
Last year the circus came to town with rookie phenom Brittney Griner and the season ended in a better place than it started, but it was an overall inconsistent at best and a disappointing season at worst.
The common denominator for both of those seasons was premature hype.
It is not uncommon in a world of preseason polls, power rankings, and predictions that range from too early to laughable. Nobody other than the dot coms traffic benefit from these, but they still get written, and they still get read more than just about anything else. How often is the preseason No. 1 the last team standing in any sport at any level? Rare.
While the 2013 Mercury were dubbed "The Avengers" as a collection of great individual talents that would come together to form a great team and the 2012 Mercury were a team on the rise, the 2014 Mercury are, well, the 2014 Mercury.
No nicknames. No hype. No mention of the "C" word (Championship) until the team cuts down the nets.
It is easy to launch platitudes all over the internet with predictions and hype like a mascot holding a t-shirt gun during a timeout. Yeah this team has potentially the greatest player in WNBA history in Diana Taurasi, a dominant force in Brittney Griner, and three players that could run their own team if desired in DeWanna Bonner, Penny Taylor, and Candice Dupree. Nearly every team out west has great players, multiple great players. They also have WNBA coaches, something Mercury have for the first time in seemingly in forever.
"I think they want to win," Coach Brondello on getting the stars to buy into the team. "That comes from the type of players that they are. They know that they have more success when they are involved with the players around them and they want to win. In the WNBA there are a lot of superstars and it is about making them gel. It takes time and we will get there. At least we have the core group together and we are just adding some new faces."
Those are the things that matter. Also, adding role players that fit in with the very top heavy talented roster like Erin Phillips and Shay Murphy.
New head coach Sandy Brondello has played in the WNBA at the highest levels with the Detroit Shock, Miami Sol, and the Seattle Storm. She has coached in the WNBA with the San Antonio Silver Stars and the Los Angeles Sparks in recent years. She has coached internationally with UMMC Ekaterinburg where she led the duo of Taurasi and Sue Bird to great success. She is a four time Olympian winning one bronze and two silver medals. Suffice to say she knows the game, the players, and everything in-between as a veteran of this game of nearly 30 years.
The Mercury's last two head coaches had a combined zero games played in the WNBA, Olympics, or international women's basketball. Neither Corey Gaines nor Russ Pennell, for as talented as they are as coaching minds, knew this game like Brondello does.
While this group needs to work out the kinks of a new system heavily oriented on defense they have Taurasi who has played for Brondello while Erin Phillips and Penny Taylor are both very familiar with her as Australian Nationals themselves.
"I think that is a big thing having coached Diana for the past two years in Russia," Coach Brondello on establishing chemistry as a coach.
"We have created great chemistry and she understands obviously how I want to play. She is a coach on the court and it kinda helps that transition. It is a smooth transition."
Brondello wants to mix in a polite amount of defensive structure into this team as the pieces are already in place for them to be a juggernaut on offense as they always are.
"It is all about playing hard," Coach Brondello continues on team defense. "Making every shot a contested shot on the defensive end and being a unit. For me it is not about being the greatest one-on-one, but we have to have a team behind them all. That is really important for me. Communication, activity behind the ball, and finishing plays."
The only WNBA Champion in the last five years to not rank in the Top 3 of Defense Points Allowed was, ironically, the Phoenix Mercury back in 2009. It is not common in this league that poor defensive teams win championships. Same for the NBA as six of the last 10 champions have been in the Top 3 in Defensive Points Allowed as well. All of which were in the Top 13 in that category as well. Brondello understands that outliers exist, but defense still wins championships.
"I want to run. I think that is entertaining," Coach Brondello said with a smile" We can actually create a lot of points by letting our defense create offense so that is how I play."
Scoring is not an issue. The Mercury can score the ball. In recent years the scoring has gone from prolific and overbearing for opponents, like the Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000's, to a collection of buckets in an inefficient manner leading to losses. Like the late 2000's Phoenix Suns.
It is all about establishing chemistry.
For various reasons it was lost with Gaines. It was never really there with Pennell. Those teams in hindsight were not built well, not coached much better, and did not give themselves a chance against rising giants like the Minnesota Lynx and company across the league.
"We got a long way to go," Bonner on team chemistry after three games. "A lot of new people so it is going to take a minute, but starting out this way with a lot of new people I think we are right where need to be. We can only get better. It is kind of scary once we get our chemistry to see exactly where we will be."
That is pretty much a nail on the head there. It is not about where the team is in the pre-season, after a trade, the draft, or training camp. A team becomes who they will eventually be as the season progresses and chemistry either naturally happens or blows up in their collective faces.
Scars from the chemistry projects of recent years are finally healing and time will tell whether this new formula will mix together well now, in season, and into the playoffs for that unspeakable "C" Word. Championship.