PHOENIX MERCURY

Absence of Mercury’s Brittney Griner leads WNBA storylines ahead of season

May 5, 2022, 12:05 PM

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury celebrates with fans following Game Two of the 2021 WNBA...

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury celebrates with fans following Game Two of the 2021 WNBA Finals at Footprint Center on October 13, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Mercury defeated the Sky 91-86 in overtime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (AP) — The WNBA will begin its 26th season this weekend with several intriguing storylines, including the potential retirement of Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles, the return of Becky Hammon as a coach and the absence of Brittney Griner.

There is no bigger headline engulfing the league than Griner.

The Mercury’s All-Star center remains in Russia after being detained following her arrival at a Moscow airport on Feb. 17. Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Griner’s status has been changed to “wrongfully detained” and she has a hearing scheduled for May 19.

But Griner’s presence will be felt even in her absence.

The league plans to honor Griner and keep her ongoing situation front and center with a floor decal that will feature her initials along with her number 42. It will appear on the home court of all 12 teams starting with Friday’s season openers. The regular season ends Aug. 14.

Teams will play a record 36 games this year.

“The 36-game schedule will provide fans greater opportunities to see the best players in the world compete at the highest level,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said when the schedule was announced in December.

Before Griner’s arrest the Mercury made many moves in the offseason to put the team in contention to win another championship after losing to Chicago last season in the Finals. Phoenix added Tina Charles and Diamond DeShields to the roster to compliment Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith.

DeShields joins the Mercury from the Sky, who will try and become the first team to repeat as champions since the Los Angeles Sparks did it in 2001-02. Chicago added Emma Meesseman — the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP — to its roster.

Then there is the looming retirement of All-Stars Bird and Fowles.

Bird, the league’s all-time assist leader, has said all signs are pointing toward this year being her last with the Seattle Storm, but she does not want the upcoming season to be a farewell tour.

Fowles has stated she will retire after this season. The WNBA’s all-time leading rebounder said it was a tough decision whether to come back for a 15th season or not.

With Fowles and Bird having a foot out the door, the league welcomes back Hammon this season.

Hammon took over as coach of the Las Vegas Aces, replacing Bill Laimbeer, after serving as an NBA assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs since 2014. She’s one of six former players who are now head coaches in the league.

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