How can the 2014 Phoenix Mercury get out of their own way unlike the previous incarnations from 2010-2013?
The sum of the parts will always be more important than the individual parts themselves. An age old adage that has meant more to the Phoenix Mercury in the past few years than other any other period in franchise history.
Individually they have had great talent in Diana Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner, Candice Dupree, and the most recent addition, Brittney Griner.
There has always been quality in those individual parts like an amazing steak served up with a perfect crust, seasoning, and tenderness that keeps you coming back for more. The steak the Mercury are able to serve up in Taurasi, Bonner, Dupree, Griner, and back from injury Penny Taylor is on par with any All-Star Team in WNBA history. Yes, they are that good as a collection of individual talent.
Where the problem has always lied was in the surrounding pieces. The house salad always had wilted leaves, the potatoes were lumpy, and the veggies were over-salted.
The team was never put together in the fashion that, say, the Minnesota Lynx or other contenders were in recent years. There is no denying individual talent as the Mercury proved last year with an underwhelming season, coach, and overall product still reaching the Western Conference Finals, but there is a glass ceiling on a team that relies so heavily on a few while the sum of the parts provides so little.
So having said that, this spring the team went about putting a roster together different than they have done in recent years; with more of a clear direction. Gone was the concept of, "Taurasi will carry us, just get some defenders, shooters, and bigs in here to fill out the roster." That concept and ideology died with four years of either not making the playoffs or getting swept in the Western Conference Finals. The team, or Taurasi, simply ran out of energy and sputtered to the finish line and the Mercury have learned from their mistakes.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over-and-over expecting different results. This Mercury team checked out of the insane asylum after looking to the most stable basketball franchise over the past 18 years.
"This team is stacked," Mistie Bass on team identity. "We are trying to be somewhat like the (San Antonio) Spurs where we have lots on the bench and we are coming hard. On a team like this you have to find what you are good at. Find your niche."
Since the 1997-1998 season the San Antonio Spurs have won 50+ games each year except for the 1998-1999 season where they won 37, in a strike shortened season, where they on pace for 50 wins, and won the NBA Championship. They model consistency. In the earlier years success was predicated on the star power of Tim Duncan with terrific support players surrounding him. That evolved into a "Big Three" with All-Star talents emerging around Duncan in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili putting more pressure on teams leading to five more trips to the NBA Finals (including this year) and three NBA Championships.
They got better with time, which in large part was due to the construction of the roster outside of the Big Three. They were there and they were going to do their thing regardless, but to win on a championship level again they needed the right supporting cast.
Enter in the youth of Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter, and Danny Green. Pepper in some veterans like Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, and Matt Bonner. Mix that altogether with the Big Three already in place and there is quality, depth, balance, and a team that can win in a multitude of ways on the basketball court.
During the regular season the Spurs played at the 10th highest pace, executed the 6th rated offense and defense, and were the 7th and 3rd best in offensive and defensive rating respectively. Balance.
No one player averaged 30+ minutes a night and eight different Spurs played at least 20+ minutes a night. Balance.
Role players like Belinelli, Diaw, Leonard, Spiltter, and Patty Mills give the team that balance, but more importantly they give them depth. They allow the more labored legs of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili to play 28-29 minutes a night in the regular season and take select games off for rest. Now those rested legs are marching into the NBA Finals for the second straight year with an offensive explosion (106.5 PPG) and surgical like precision that they displayed along the way taking apart the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, and Oklahoma City Thunder in 18 games.
While the Mercury have as many trips to the Conference Finals (three) as the Minnesota Lynx in the pasy four years, they have no WNBA Championships to show for it, while the Lynx have two.
Getting over that hump required a change in the chefs' mentality on the importance of the side dishes.
Yes, the Mercury have a potential G.O.A.T. in Taurasi with Bonner and Griner forming a Big Three for them. They also have Dupree and Taylor who are very high end, top shelf, role players. Building off of that was the next step in the evolution of the team and they did it very Spur like with a combination of youth and veteran experience.
Tiffany Bias, the young rookie, has provided a spark for the team with her energy in practice and on the court when she gets a chance, even if those are few and far between right now.
Veterans Mistie Bass, Eshay Murphy, and Erin Phillips all add an element to the team that was sorely lacking over the past few years. Bass has been getting her Lou Amundson on here in the Valley with her energy, rebounding, effort, and defense. She may not be the most skilled or athletically gifted player on the roster, but her energy is contagious.
"Energy is one of those things, whether positive or negative, is infectious," Bass on bench energy importance. "I just have to make sure with my energy, because it is so big, that it is always positive."
With Murphy coming off the bench the Mercury have sustained shooting and more energy with her effort on both ends of the court. The glue that ties the starting line-up together is Phillips. She brings the shooting and secondary ball-handling that the team has been trying to find year-after-year with players like Samantha Prahalis, Alexis Hornbuckle, Alexis Gray-Lawson, and so on and so on.
This is a deep team now that is more about the overall quality of the depth rather than the simplicity of a star studded Big Three. The house salad, potatoes, and veggies are all prepared to compliment the steak making this a complete meal. Elbows off the table, enjoy.