How the Phoenix Mercury have turned their season around since Brittney Griner left the Bubble

Phoenix is 6-1 since Griner departed thanks to a defensive breakout, a veteran big stepping up, and impressive chemistry between two-star guards.

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PALMETTO, FL - AUGUST 14: Skylar Diggins-Smith #4 of the Phoenix Mercury celebrates during the game against the Atlanta Dream on August 14, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images)

It’s no coincidence that the best season we’ve seen from these Phoenix Mercury since their last WNBA championship came with their stars completely healthy. That was 2018, when the Mercury took the eventual champion Seattle Storm to five games in the semifinals, matching Seattle’s exquisite, matchup-busting pliability with size and chemistry. 

This year, a personal matter forced Brittney Griner out of the WNBA Bubble, threatening to ruin another Mercury season after Diana Taurasi missed most of 2019.

Yet in one of the biggest surprises in the league this year, Phoenix has surged with Griner out. Griner left a 6-7 squad that in her stead is 6-1 and pushing for a first-round bye in the WNBA playoffs. The streak isn’t as simple as addition by subtraction, as Griner was not herself when she was active. But removing Griner from the roster changed key strands of Mercury DNA that have turned the season around.

Brianna Turner has been a standout

Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello recently resorted to simile when explaining Turner’s second-season breakout, comparing the performance to a blossoming flower. It’s been the type of year that only feels right to discuss in the form of poetry, an unexpected season that can be split into two obvious halves: Pre- and post-Griner.

Since Griner’s departure prior to the Mercury’s loss to the Lynx on Aug. 21, Turner is averaging -- in 33 minutes per game -- 11.8 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, and even 2.4 assists. While Turner is still not much of a scorer, she has filled just about every role imaginable. 

In this way, Turner is something of an inverse of the Griner of the past few years. As Taurasi has declined athletically, Griner increasingly has become more of a scorer and contributed less in the areas typically associated with the Baylor phenom who basketball fans were introduced to a decade ago. Turner instead looks more like the Griner of old -- an energetic interior stopper who can fill space on the court better than just about anyone and is perfectly accepting of that role.

The departure of Griner demanded a different mindset from Turner as well. She goes into every game planning to chase down double-digit rebounds and increasingly, Brondello has set Turner loose on the opposing team’s best frontcourt scorer no matter the position.

In the past week, Turner has gone from guarding A’ja Wilson face-ups to Candice Dupree jumpers to the high-usage cyclone that is DeWanna Bonner. That has meant more scouting report diligence from Turner, who despite playing incredibly intelligently and taking a forceful stand in the fight against systemic racism this summer at home and in the Bubble, is still just 24. 

That added responsibility and changing role has largely come because of the difference in fit between Turner and Griner compared with Turner and replacement starter Kia Vaughn.

A changing offense

The veteran Vaughn is a strong fit with Turner and the rest of the Mercury because she is more willing and able to fill a complementary role on offense than Griner. 

Rather than seeing this as a negative on Griner, take it as part of the sea change in the WNBA overall. Traditional post players are only successful in great teams when they have versatility around them. Liz Cambage has A’ja Wilson and multiple young Aces play-makers. And while Sylvia Fowles has continued to play with incredible energy and precision into her 30s rather than relying on simple post-ups, she also has Napheesa Collier and Damiris Dantas next to her to open up the floor.

Griner has not expanded her game in a real way since entering the league. While she jokes every season about starting to launch threes, she has not joined Cambage or even Dallas rookie Satou Sabally by stroking from deep every now and then to keep defenses honest. While Vaughn is not a three-point shooter either, she has given space to the Mercury offense by making nearly half of her shots from 10-19 feet.

Phoenix’s current starting lineup, with Vaughn, Taurasi, Turner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, has outscored opponents by 32.5 points per 100 possessions in their 82 minutes on the floor together. The group is tailor-made to the strengths of Taurasi and Diggins-Smith.

The result is a unit that is third in the WNBA in offensive efficiency. Rarely does it take more than a simple high pick-and-roll between Vaughn and one of the star guards for Phoenix to create a good shot in the halfcourt. According to Synergy Sports play type data, the Mercury are best in the league in scoring efficiency on possessions finished by the pick-and-roll ball-handler.

Accordingly, a full 40 percent of Phoenix’s offense comes either from the pick-and-roll ball-handler or on spot-up looks, showing how much Brondello has turned the offense over to Taurasi and Diggins-Smith. Last year, with Taurasi out most of the season with a hamstring injury and Griner soaking up a ton of offensive possessions, the Mercury posted up nearly twice as often.

But sometimes it doesn’t even take a screen. As Taurasi continuously expands her range and gets into rhythm following multiple injuries the past 18 months, the Mercury are also finding great offense in transition as well, where they are second in the WNBA, according to Synergy. 

For the first time in a long time, Phoenix also has role players who can consistently knock down shots. They took a hit when standout sixth woman Bria Hartley went down for the year with an ACL tear, but Walker-Kimbrough is shooting 43 percent from deep this year. 

Chemistry in the backcourt

The offense as a whole has given itself to Taurasi’s dynamic pull-up shooting, but Diggins-Smith, the newly named Western Conference Player of the Week, is the perfect running mate for Taurasi. While Taurasi dominates the ball and dictates tempo, Diggins-Smith is like a change-of-pace running back in football, someone who takes advantage of unprepared defenses with quick chunk plays. 

Diggins-Smith is, with Griner and Hartley gone, the only player on the roster who can get to the rim consistently. For an offense that is fourth-lowest in the WNBA in the proportion of offense that comes at the rim, Diggins-Smith is invaluable. While Taurasi has busted defenses with her shooting and passing in a surreal age-38 campaign, it will be another matter whether she can orchestrate elite offense in the playoffs. With Diggins-Smith playing this well and complementing Taurasi with elite catch-and-shoot efficiency and a careful drive-and-kick game, the offense has more balance.

Because of Diggins-Smith’s elite pick-and-roll game joining Taurasi’s, Phoenix also ensures that its role players are put in a better position to succeed as well. The Mercury are getting a lot of offense off kick-outs as mentioned previously, and while they don’t penetrate as much as other top teams, a whopping 60 percent of the shots they do get at the rim are assisted.

The whole thing makes so much sense if the goal is to play through two All-WNBA guards: Run as much as possible, create most of the offense in the pick-and-roll, and find shooters and finishers to put around them. 

With Griner in place, it would not be possible. The success was massive when Phoenix simply needed to get out of a rut and salvage its season, but there remains the question of how Diggins-Smith and Griner fit. Those two are the true future of the organization, both around 30 and in the prime of their careers. More than anything, the opportunity for those two to develop chemistry and grow together is what Phoenix has missed from 2020.

The team saw a big boost when it lost its best player, but unfortunately, many new questions came to the surface.