Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Season Outlook

Diana Taurasi, left, and Cappie Pondexter will look to get Phoenix back in the playoffs in 2009.
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images

After winning their first title in 2007, the Phoenix Mercury had the unfortunate fate of becoming the first defending WNBA champion to miss the playoffs in 2008, finishing the season with a 16-18 record.

To be fair, the Mercury did not return the same squad that it had in 2007 when they finished the regular season with a 23-11 mark and defeated Detroit in the WNBA Finals.

Penny Taylor, a two-time All-Star forward who averaged 17.8 points in 2007, chose not to play in the WNBA in 2008 in order to concentrate on training for the Olympics with the Australian National Team. Meanwhile, Paul Westhead, the team’s head coach, left the Mercury to take an assistant coaching job with the Seattle Sonics/Oklahoma City Thunder.

Taking over the head coaching duties was Corey Gaines, an assistant under Westhead for two seasons and a proponent of the same run-and-gun style the Mercury used during their championship run. However, he was unable to find the same success in his first year at the helm.

While the Mercury still had superstars Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter – who finished the season as the top two scorers in the league – they did not have that important third wheel that teams need in this league to achieve elite status. Tangela Smith, who played an important role in pushing the Mercury over the top in 2007, was limited by a knee injury last season that eventually required surgery and forced her to miss the final seven games of the season.

The status of Taylor, the third member of the Phoenix Big Three in 2007, remains unclear for the 2009 season. She just finished playing alongside Pondexter with UMMC Ekaterinburg and helped lead the team past Taurasi’s Spartak Moscow for the Russian Superleague title. However, it is reported that her right ankle requires surgery and that she would have the procedure done once the Russian season ended.

If Taylor is able to return to Phoenix at some point this season, she would give the team a tremendous boost. As Taurasi recently said, "Penny makes us an elite team. If there is a possibility of her coming back, the doors will be open and we'll be ready to rock."

With Taylor being such a big question mark, the Mercury aggressively pursued another elite Australian power forward – unrestricted free agent and two-time WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson. Jackson narrowed her choice to Phoenix or Seattle during the winter, but ultimately chose to return to the Storm, the only team she has played for during her eight-year career.

While the Mercury were not able to land a superstar in free agency, they did make a number of moves that should keep them in playoff contention in the competitive Western Conference.

Phoenix brought in power forward Nicole Ohlde in a trade with Minnesota that saw Kelly Miller and LaToya Pringle join the Lynx. The Mercury also acquired point guard Temeka Johnson from Los Angeles in exchange for their first-round draft pick in 2010. In the draft, the Mercury selected Auburn G/F DeWanna Bonner, whose height, athleticism and skill set should make her a great fit in the Mercury’s up-tempo system.

On the downside, the first week of training camp has been tough on the Mercury. Ohlde arrived to camp with a fracture in her left foot that will require her to miss 3-5 weeks and Murriel Page, who signed with the team on Monday, tore her left Achilles’ tendon on the same day and required season-ending surgery, which was performed on Tuesday.

With Ohlde out, incumbent Le'Coe Willingham will likely retain her starting spot in the post and join Johnson, Pondexter, Taurasi and Smith on the first unit. Gaines will bring Bonner – who can play any position on the floor other than the point – off of the bench, along with sharpshooter Kelly Mazzante and 6-7 center Alison Bales.

With Taurasi and Pondexter, Phoenix has two players that can get hot and carry the team to a win on any given night. Can they do it on enough nights to lift the Mercury back into the playoffs in 2009? Or will the additions of Johnson, Ohlde and Bonner provide enough help to take some of the load off of the dynamic duo?

Player on the Spot

The Mercury have a new floor general with the acquisition of Temeka Johnson from the Los Angeles Sparks. The 5-foot-3 speedster appears to be a perfect fit for Phoenix’s up-tempo system.

After winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 as a member of the Washington Mystics, Johnson was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks prior to the 2006 season. In three years with the Sparks, Johnson’s numbers steadily dipped as she was hampered by injuries in each of the past two years.

Now healthy, Johnson spent the offseason in Israel and performed admirably, averaging 16.0 points and 6.4 assists while leading her team (Bnot Raanana Hasharon) to the semifinals of the Israeli league playoffs.

A key to the Mercury’s success in 2009 will be how fast Johnson is able to learn Phoenix’s system and get comfortable with her teammates. Johnson will be surrounded with plenty of talented scorers, and it will be her job to get each of them their touches in the best position for them succeed.

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