Phoenix Mercury season preview: Newcomers to watch, heightened expectations

May 13, 2024, 7:07 AM

Diana Taurasi...

Diana Taurasi #3 of the Phoenix Mercury poses for a portrait during media day at Footprint Center on May 09, 2024 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Phoenix Mercury wing Sophie Cunningham described this upcoming season as a new era.

Coming off a 9-31 season, the Mercury are under the leadership of new general manager Nick U’Ren, head coach Nate Tibbetts and boast roster reinforcements such as WNBA champions Kahleah Copper and Natasha Cloud. They join returning stars Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner, the latter of whom is another year removed from her Russian detainment.

“It’s a new era and it’s a fresh wind,” Cunningham told reporters at Mercury media day. “And I think you guys really will see. I know we struggled the past couple years, but when you bring good people in, good things are gonna happen.”

Mercury and Suns owner Mat Ishbia is entering his second season at the helm.

The Mercury’s regular season tips off Tuesday at the defending-champion Las Vegas Aces before they return to Footprint Center Saturday to host the Atlanta Dream.

Nate Tibbetts takes helm as Mercury head coach

Tibbetts is a first-time head coach who spent 12 seasons as an assistant in the NBA with the Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers and Cleveland Cavaliers. Fourteen-year WNBA veteran Kristi Toliver is his associate head coach after spending the 2023 season with the Washington Mystics as Cloud’s teammate.

“There’s gonna be situations that are different for me just because it is a new league. I think that’s the beauty of having Kristi here with me, Diana, BG, any situation that is new, I can talk through with them,” Tibbetts said at media day.

Tibbetts becomes the highest-paid coach in WNBA history and one of three male head coaches in the league. The Mercury fired head coach Vanessa Nygaard before 2023 season concluded and replaced her with interim coach Nikki Blue.

The Mercury had the worst defensive rating in the WNBA last season at 109.9 and finished 11th out of 12 teams in offensive rating (99.1).

“I’m not coming in here trying to think that anything I’m doing is going to be better than what’s been done,” Tibbetts said. “I’m just coming in here to do what I’ve seen. We’re going to compete defensively. We’re going to space the floor, offensively, we’re going to hopefully share it and we’re going to hopefully attack the rim and shoot a lot of 3s.”

Griner noted defense has been a major emphasis, saying, “I think you’ll see a different Mercury out there.”

U’Ren also comes in with an NBA background as a Golden State Warriors executive.

Mercury newcomers to watch

– G/F Kahleah Copper
– G Natasha Cloud
– F Rebecca Allen

Kahleah Copper

The Mercury made a blockbuster trade in February to acquire Copper and forward Morgan Bertsch, sending the Chicago Sky forwards Brianna Turner and Michaela Onyenwere plus first-round picks in 2024 (No. 3 overall) and 2026.

Copper is a three-time WNBA All-Star and the 2021 WNBA Finals MVP when Chicago defeated Phoenix. She scored 18.7 points per game last year, shooting 44.8% from the field and 40.4% from downtown.

“For me, it’s about being consistent. I take pride in every year getting better in some way, shape or form in my game,” Copper said. “I’ve played with with greats and I’ve been able to be a Finals MVP along greats. I’m just excited to be a part of greatness where I can also learn from these players. I don’t want to be the best player in the room, I want to be able to look at someone and learn something.”

Natasha Cloud

Phoenix signed Cloud as a free agent after she averaged a career-high 12.7 points with 6.2 assists and 1.1 steals per game last year in Washington.

She is a two-time WNBA All-Defensive Team member as the Mercury look to take significant steps forward on that side of the ball.

“Her energy, her competitive fire, the way she treats people, the way she cares about every single individual on the team, it’s all the things that make you a great player,” Taurasi said of Cloud. “And on the court, she just is going to bring this competitive spirit to both ends of the court, and it’s gonna raise the level of everyone on the court.

“(Copper) is just special. At her size in our league, there’s not many people that can do what she can do. Obviously, we saw that firsthand in the finals when she was MVP and we lost when she was with Chicago. … There was no doubt that if we could get her here, for now and for the next 10 years, (Copper) is a special special player.”

Cloud said she is looking to prove herself as a leader on the court this season. She is Washington’s all-time assists leader.

Rebecca Allen

Phoenix also added eight-year WNBA veteran forward Rebecca Allen in a sign-and-trade with the Sun, sending Moriah Jefferson to Connecticut. The Australia native played in all 40 games last year and averaged 6.4 points.

Brittney Griner’s goals in Year 2 of comeback

Griner said she wants to be the Defensive Player of the Year for a third time in her career.

After making the All-Star Game in 2023 after missing an entire season in Russian prison, Griner said she feels great physically and motivated to be that dominant rim protector again.

“Coach has challenged me to stay in front of the ball and be that rim protector,” Griner said. “When I first came into the league, that was definitely my MO. I kind of got away from that worrying more about offense. … If I’m not protecting the rim, I’m gonna be in the majority of the pick-and-rolls.

“I finally had a real offseason where I felt like myself, where I can actually work on these things that I’ve kind of gotten away from over the years. I want to be the Defensive Player of the Year, I want that title.”

Griner feels if she can accomplish that, the team will win a lot.

The 33-year-old said she thought about stepping away from the game last year and her experience in Russia will always be with her. But she explained it made her tougher.

“When adversity hits, I always can think back to real adversity that I actually went through and I can get through whatever in my day pops up,” Griner said. “Hard game, down with injuries — knock on wood but it’s part of our game — I used to think that was the end of the world until I’ve met what the end of the world is to me.”

Something to monitor: Griner was in a walking boot during Phoenix’s final preseason game on Friday. She was ruled out with a foot injury.

Why Diana Taurasi keeps playing

Taurasi has been with the Mercury since 2004, already has the WNBA’s all-time scorer baton, three championships and is a 10-time All-Star. So what keeps her going?

“I play because I love the game, I love to prepare, I love to compete, I love to come into a training camp in my 20th year and still try to prove myself to my teammates and my coaches,” Taurasi said. “I think after 20 years, there’s still more to learn about the game of basketball. Hopefully there’s still more championships to bring here to Phoenix.”

The 41-year-old is the oldest player in the league but said she is not ready to talk about next year. Taurasi only played 26 games last season, averaged 16.0 points and 4.6 assists last season.

She is also chasing a sixth Olympic gold medal with the Olympics in Paris this summer.

What happens when the Olympics start?

The WNBA will take a break from July 18-Aug. 14 because of the Olympics. Griner and Taurasi were on the USA Basketball Women’s National Team training camp roster.

Mercury, WNBA to take charter flights

A significant change for the players this year is the WNBA using a league-wide charter program for the first time.

Last year, Griner and her teammates were confronted by a “provocateur” at a Dallas airport.

“Last year, we had somebody pull up on us and that situation could have went totally different. It wasn’t as aggressive as it could’ve been, but we’ve seen in times where that can go really bad really quickly,” Griner said.

When does Caitlin Clark come to Phoenix?

Caitlin Clark was the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA Draft by the Indiana Fever after breaking the NCAA scoring record for both men and women.

The Fever come to Phoenix June 30, their only meeting in the Valley. WNBA All-Star Game weekend is July 18-20, perhaps an opportunity for Clark to return.

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