The Phoenix Mercury’s playoff streak has come to an end, and now it’s time for the franchise to look to the future. The team’s run of 10 consecutive postseason appearances officially ended with a loss to the Dallas Wings on Sunday, though the outcome was expected for much of the season.
Phoenix lost 10 of 12 games to start the season before parting ways with head coach Vanessa Nygaard in late June. They battled injuries, and All-Star Brittney Griner missed several games on mental health leave stemming from her 10-month detainment in Russia last year. Meanwhile, veteran guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who had a career-best season in 2022-23, has been out on maternity leave.
The cards were stacked against the Mercury from the start, and they couldn’t overcome the bevy of challenges.
Interim head coach Nikki Blue said Sunday that her team would focus on winning their remaining games, despite being out of the playoffs but in the running for the top pick in the draft lottery. She also admitted that the team did not live up to the standard previously set in Phoenix.
After falling to the Atlanta Dream 94-76 on Tuesday, the Mercury have games against Connecticut, Minnesota and Washington before closing their season with two contests against first-place Las Vegas.
“It was a season that was not ideal,” said Blue, who served as an assistant coach before assuming the interim role.
Phoenix has also struggled with off-court issues this season surrounding Diggins-Smith. The six-time WNBA All-Star averaged 19.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game for the Mercury last season after helping them reach the Finals in 2021. But in 2022, Nygaard attempted to downplay rising tensions between her and Diggins-Smith over comments she made around the All-Star Game. And during a game, Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi had to be separated during a heated exchange on the bench.
This year, in early August, Diggins-Smith expressed concerns with how the Mercury have managed her maternity leave. Her comments on social media came in response to a fan who questioned why the Mercury did not wish Diggins-Smith a happy birthday on their social media accounts.
“They’re not gonna acknowledge me this year and it’s OK guys,” Diggins-Smith wrote. “We’re not affiliated unless it’s the checks….per management. I can’t even use the practice facility or any resources.”
Diggins-Smith, who gave birth to her second child earlier this year, later clarified that “resources” includes “massage therapists, chiropractor, chefs, strength and conditioning, and nutritionists.”
Sadly, no…or any massage therapists, chiropractor, chefs, strength and conditioning, nutritionist accessibility, etc… they EVERY other player has access to.However I’m still down 48lbs on my own and I’m feeling great! 💪🏽 https://t.co/rRkJpIxysF— Skylar Diggins-Smith (@SkyDigg4) August 3, 2023
Sadly, no…or any massage therapists, chiropractor, chefs, strength and conditioning, nutritionist accessibility, etc… they EVERY other player has access to.However I’m still down 48lbs on my own and I’m feeling great! 💪🏽 https://t.co/rRkJpIxysF
The Notre Dame product will be a free agent in 2024, and the recent events make it hard to envision her re-signing with Phoenix.
Meanwhile, future Hall of Famer Diana Taurasi became the first player in WNBA history to reach 10,000 career points this season. She is nearing the end of her career, though she has a year left on her contract with Phoenix and remains tight-lipped about a potential retirement.
Taurasi has been the center of Phoenix’s offense since she was drafted by the franchise in 2004. The 41-year-old is being paid $234,936 this season and next, before becoming a free agent in 2025.
The Mercury need to start looking toward the future, especially if they want to capitalize on Griner’s resurgence. She helped Phoenix to a WNBA title in 2014, and the 32-year-old can serve as a centerpiece for several more seasons if the Mercury surround her with talent.
Phoenix will be one of four teams in the lottery with a chance at earning the rights to the top draft pick in 2024, where they could select Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers, Cameron Brink, Angel Reese or another top college prospect. Despite being at the top of mock draft boards, all four players could come back for a fifth season due to an eligibility rule stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, which canceled their freshman seasons.
But before Phoenix turns to the draft, the organization needs to decide if Blue is the coach for the job. The former UCLA player was an assistant coach for four college programs between 2008 and 2022 before joining the Mercury staff last season.
“I hope that they’ve seen the transition that our team has made in the time that I’ve been head coach,” Blue told reporters on Sunday. “Once we get a full roster, I would like to see what we can do with that.”
Phoenix has gone 7-16 since Blue took over.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.