Mercury seek to avoid another slow start in quest for championship
MAY 13, 2014 6:16p ET
PHOENIX -- This time a year ago, expectations were understandably high for the Phoenix Mercury. The team had appeared in four of the past five Western Conference Finals, returned perennial all-star and former MVP Diana Taurasi and had added No. 1 overall draft pick Brittney Griner.
Somehow, nothing went right when the season got underway.
"That first half, we didn't really see it coming, honestly," Griner said Tuesday. "We didn't start off too strong, and we know what we did wrong last year."
The slow start led to the dismissal of coach Corey Gaines 21 games into the season. His replacement, Russ Pennell, led a turnaround that carried the Mercury to the Conference Finals.
Now with a new coach and new perspective, the Mercury seek a different start to the 2014 season, which begins Saturday, as they chase the franchise's third WNBA Championship.
While Mercury players and coaches are confident they have the ability for a stronger start, they're also realistic about the building process that comes with a new coach and a disjointed training camp in which player arrivals were staggered.
"We're notorious slow starters, I don't know why," Taurasi said at Mercury media day Tuesday. "It might be because we do always have a lot of new faces, and there's really not all that much time to get ready and all on the same page."
The Mercury opened training camp with just 10 players due to overlap with international seasons. New coach Sandy Brondello didn't arrive until the fourth day of training camp as she finished the season as an assistant coach with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. Taurasi, who plays for Ekaterinburg, didn't start practicing with the team until about a week ago. DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree just joined the team over the weekend.
The team even added three new players Tuesday, meaning the practice that followed media day was the first with the roster that will meet the Seattle Storm on Saturday at US Airways Center. Given all that and the work-in-progress team chemistry, Brondello is realistic about what her team will look like early on.
"We're not going to be our best at the start, we know that, because of the chemistry factor," Brondello said. "But hopefully we're good enough to win games."
The past week and a half for Brondello has been as much about preparing for the season as it has building trust and relationships with her new team. After six seasons in the league as a player and another nine as a coach -- one as head coach of the San Antonio Silver Stars -- Brondello knows the WNBA and its players well, so getting adjusted hasn't been too difficult.
"The great thing is I've been in this league for so long, so I know most of these players," Brondello said. "And I just coached a lot of them over in Russia, so that certainly helps. They know me, they know my background. I'm a player's coach."
Taurasi called Brondello the "most prepared, detailed coach" she has ever played for, and Taurasi's understanding of Brondello's system from their time together in Russia should prove crucial to a quick adjustment.
Griner said her takeaway from the start of last season is the need to tighten up on defense.
"We definitely need to play as a unit, and it starts on the defensive end," Griner said. "You can score pretty good, but if the other team's scoring too, it just comes down to who outscores the other team. So it's just being a unit on defense, getting down and guarding and helping.
"I think that's how we're going to avoid those losses that we had earlier in the season."
The Mercury lost a pair of exhibition games at the WNBA Tip-Off event in Orlando last week, and Brondello said they are still in the process of grasping the style of defense she wants it to play. Transition defense was a particular concern, though that was in part due to excessive turnovers.
While there seems to be agreement that the Mercury will need a little time to find themselves early in the season, there doesn't seem to be much concern about a slow start, as long as it's not as slow as the 10-11 start that jettisoned Gaines.
"It's a short but long season," Taurasi said. "We've started 0-4 before or 0-5. The season ends up rounding its way into form. As long as we're improving and toward the end we're ramping up, that's the most important thing."
Taurasi on Tuesday refused to look too far ahead -- "No 'C' word," she said -- and Brondello was careful with her words in describing expectations for the team. Griner, who said she's much more comfortable this season without the attention of being a No. 1 draft pick and after the release of her book, didn't mince words when asked about her expectations.
"I expect a championship," Griner said. "Western Conference Finals last year, that was good, but that's not what we set out for. We set out to get to the championship and win it. That's my goal again this year."
Griner has also set a personal goal, which she said she usually doesn't do, in response to Brondello's challenge to average a double-double for the season. In her rookie year, Griner averaged 12.6 point and 6.3 rebounds per game.
Brondello said her focus is on the smaller steps that contribute to the bigger picture.
"For me it's more about the process," she said. "I try not to look at the end result. Yes, we want to win the championship, but there's a lot of steps we have to go through to get there."