Deflecting Brondello leads Mercury rise
PHOENIX — The forecast called for extended periods of efficient offense — including a high probability for heavy rain — with intermittent defense leading to abundant lightning.
But that was what we were looking up and waiting to experience last year.
Unfortunately, the Mercury — sidetracked by injury and expectation — required a late-season rally to finish 19-15 a year ago.
So, with an allegedly aging roster flanking last season’s disappointing, once-in-a-lifetime rookie, the forecast for this season seemed more reasonable. A survey of WNBA general managers listed Phoenix as the third-best team … in the Western Conference.
Sometimes it takes a while for the weather to catch up.
And it seems to have arrived with some payback.
Now that only one game separates the WNBA from its All-Star weekend, the Mercury check in at 17-3, riding an 11-game winning streak. The team’s two hottest shots will be starters in Saturday’s All-Star Game at US Airways Center, and another will be a reserve.
Already within two victories of last season’s total, Phoenix looks every bit as dominant as the 2013 drafting of Brittney Griner suggested they would be.
(We’ll have an in-depth look at Griner’s rise later this week.)
To help explain this elevated success rate, let’s reach out to the franchise barometer.
Take it, Diana Taurasi.
"We have a lot of people playing at a high level now, which helps," the Mercury’s superstar guard said.
A healthy Penny Taylor, a maturing Griner and an upgraded core of reserves certainly increases that level. Being coaxed into elite productivity, however, requires something a bit more profound than just getting healthy and playing well.
Qualifying this profundity, we find first-year Mercury coach Sandy Brondello, a meticulous sort who prefers deflecting all of the deserved attention to her players.
"I think we have real good chemistry," Brondello said. "We have a veteran team and that certainly helps. It’s a team of winners. It’s all about winning for them; it’s not about who scores. We just play well together."
Right, the players make the plays and it’s wise for a coach to keep everyone aware of it.
"Obviously, the organization and detailed work that Sandy’s put in every day has kind of made us really focus going into games," Taurasi said of Brondello, a former world-class guard from Australia whom she played for in Russia the past two winters. "Knowing what we’re doing on both sides of the ball … that’s really helped."
The Mercury leads the league in offensive efficiency, knocking in an impressive 111.5 points per 100 possessions. That’s about nine whopping points higher than Phoenix’s fourth-place offensive-efficiency rank last season.
But the most telling hike (or decrease, depending on your perception) occurs on defense. After registering 10th (among 12 teams) with a defensive-efficiency of 103.0 last season, Phoenix moved all the way up to second this year at a stingy 98.8.
There are several reasons for this (not the least of which is more attention toward funneling any dribble penetration toward the 6-foot-8 Griner), but the keys are focus and accountability.
"From day one," Brondello said when asked about paying close attention to the defensive details. "I stress defense first. Offense will come out of that."
Right, when you take the ball from the other team or force opposing players to fire up lower-percentage shots that offer suspect court balance, your own scoring becomes easier.
"Maybe that hasn’t been a big focus for them in the past," Brondello said of the Mercury. "But they enjoy the preparation. They really have bought into it. They’re just unselfish players that enjoy the style that we play."
The preparation is apparent during something that can be as low key as the morning shoot-around. Yeah, video work isn’t rare either, but — according to Mercury players — this year’s level of attention is.
"I’m really big on preparation, attention to details," Brondello said, "because I think if we do those things well, success will come with it.
"Most people talk about championships. I talk about process — if we go through the process, the results will come."
The results include a higher level of efficiency from the amazing Taurasi, whose scoring average, turnovers and usage rate have dipped slightly while her shooting percentages have improved.
Having a healthy Taylor, the addition of guard Erin Phillips, continued strong play from Candice Dupree and Griner’s improvement reduce the team’s reliance on the former UConn star.
"We’re pretty deep this year," Taurasi said. "One through eleven, we have confidence that anyone can come in and do well."
But when it’s time for the Mercury to turn regular-season success into a run for the franchise’s third WNBA championship, Taurasi will be the translator.
"She’s the best player in the world … that helps me tremendously," Brondello said. "Diana can do everything. She’s a complete player."
The coach also credited Taurasi with turning in an upgraded level of defensive work.
"I don’t know if I’ve seen her play a better, more complete game than she’s playing now," Brondello said.
Some local observers have been saying the same about the entire team. And, based on franchise history, that’s no small accomplishment.