Mercury has been in retrograde all season long. At least that’s been the theme of the 2022 WNBA season. Shortly after getting bombarded by an WNBA record 23 3-pointers in a 37-point loss to the Las Vegas Aces, the Phoenix Mercury had to be breathing a sigh of relief. That record-breaking performance was the most merciful way for the basketball gods to guillotine Phoenix after a season spent under the sword of Damocles.
The Aces have been the pacesetter since day one of the season, however, the Mercury have been a NASCAR pileup who have commanded our attention. Just one season after losing to Chicago in the 2021 WNBA Finals, the Mercury became one of the biggest letdowns in the WNBA’s 25 seasons. It wasn’t entirely their fault, but their implosion was unexpected.
Assembled in the preseason to be a Western Conference counterweight to the Las Vegas Aces, the degradation of Phoenix’s season began almost immediately with Russia’s detainment of Brittney Griner. The national attention weighed on the Mercury almost as much as their hollowed out frontcourt.
Griner’s newfound role as a cause célèbre instead of as the anchor of their frontcourt left the Mercury at a disadvantage. First they were asked by The State Department to keep things on the low. Then, they were tasked with becoming Griner’s most vocal advocates. In NBA terms, the 2022 Mercury were the ‘03-‘04 Lakers if Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault trial were taking place in a hostile nation. Mix in the heavy-handed punishment hovering over Griner’s head as she awaited trial for a victimless crime compared to the serious accusations Kobe faced, and you’ve got a recipe for a season of anxiety.
Phoenix had Tina Charles, the WNBA’s scoring champion in 2021 waiting in the wings as their backstop prior to Griner’s arrest. Charles’ resume somewhat resembled early 2000s Karl Malone. At 34, she’s edged past her prime, but Charles’ post-up scoring prowess should have given the Mercury a twin tower combo that would overwhelm defenses. That plan was punctured early on when the Mercury sputtered to a 2-8 start..
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With Griner fighting for her freedom, Charles’ offense wasn’t what the Mercury needed. The Mercury needed a committed defender who could keep opposing offenses honest and add a scoring touch. Standing four inches shorter than the 6-foot-8 Griner, Charles was already a downgrade in the paint, but she reportedly drew the ire of teammates for taking plays off. Charles’ 0.3 defensive win share (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player due to defense) was the worst of her career and her 107 defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions), was the second-worst defensive rating on a team that earned the league’s third-worst defensive rating,
Charles’ “contract divorce” in late June, was a boon for Seattle’s championship aspirations, but it was the latest meteor to hit the Mercury’s crater-filled season. Even the once reliable Skylar Diggins-Smith failed to provide stability. She was so volatile in 2022, the Mercury banished despite her at the end of season in which she was honored with a sixth All-Star selection. She was cantankerous, had it out with Diana Taurasi, mocked head coach Vanessa Nygaard on social media and her contract was ultimately suspended by the Mercury even as they fought tooth and nail for the final playoff seed in the last week of the season. By all indications, Diggins-Smith will be shipped out this offseason unless the tension chills in the offseason. There’s no telling what the Mercury will look like next season or if Griner will be back on U.S. soil by then.
During the WNBA’s 25th anniversary season, Diana Taurasi was named the greatest player in history, but most of the year was a slog. A quad injury ended her season early, while starting wing Kia Nurse missed the entire season rehabbing a torn ACL. In Game 1, Shey Peddy, Phoenix’s gutsy perimeter defender, was added to the infirmary list after rupturing her Achilles tendon.
Griner’s nine-year sentence for drug possession and smuggling, amounting to double the sentences most Russians receive for getting caught with small quantities of drugs, was a crushing blow. However, Peddy rolling around in pain showing the unmistakable signs of suffering every basketball player’s worst injury left teammates on the bench in tears and was the nadir of a season submerged by off-court drama. We may never know if Griner was the cog that could have had the Mercury running smoothly, but it’s safe to say that without her presence, the 2022 campaign was an unmitigated disaster.