Mercury optimistic despite turbulent offseason
PHOENIX — Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor will be in street clothes Friday night and Brittney Griner not even in the building when the Phoenix Mercury unveil their WNBA championship banner.
The banner and accompany ring ceremony will serve as reminders that, yes, the Mercury are the defending champs. Because the past four months felt like anything but.
Taurasi, the undisputed team leader and Finals MVP last year, in February announced she will sit out the WNBA season to rest while being paid by her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg.
In April, the Mercury drafted forward Isabelle Harrison in the first round with the knowledge she won’t play this year as she recovers from knee surgery.
Shortly after the draft, star center Griner and her fiancee, Glory Johnson, were arrested after a domestic dispute that eventually led to a seven-game suspension for both (Johnson plays for the Tulsa Shock).
Meanwhile, Taylor, an unrestricted free agent, hasn’t decided if she will play this season.
Without Taurasi, Griner and Taylor, the Mercury will be without their top two scorers and three of their top four from last season when they host San Antonio in Friday’s season opener (6:30 p.m., FOX Sports Arizona Plus).
"We don’t feel like we’re defending a title. This is a totally different team," said DeWanna Bonner, who along with Candice Dupree represent the only key returners until Griner’s suspension expires for a June 27 game at Minnesota.
"It’s not going to be easy," Dupree, an All-Star last season, added Monday during the team’s annual media day at US Airways Center. "People are expecting us to fail. But we have different expectations."
The Mercury remain optimistic. Sandy Brondello, the league’s reigning coach of the year, shot down the idea the Mercury already are looking to 2016.
"We’re going to embrace the challenge as best we can," Brondello said. "We have to rise up to the challenge, particularly those first seven games. We lost our two best playmakers, Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor. The ball was in their hands a lot, they created a lot. … No one can replace them. So we have to play harder and even more together in what we do.
"Any time you lose the defensive player of the year (Griner) and the player I think could be the best player in the WNBA this year, that’s a big chunk of your team. But we brought in other players to compliment the core we have back. I think DeWanna Bonner will take a step up."
The Mercury signed WNBA veteran guards Leilani Mitchell and Noelle Quinn, as well as rookie center Cayla Francis out of Australia. Brondello also said second-round draft pick Alex Harden has looked good during training camp.
"We’re going to be one team for the first seven games and then be a totally different team when BG (Griner) comes back," said Bonner, who has averaged 13.2 points during her six-year WNBA career but put up 20.6 points per game three years ago when Taurasi missed the season with an injury. "We just have to find the group that’s going to get us wins those first seven games."
Dupree said the team is shooting to win four of seven games without Griner, whom Brondello said could be the best player in the league this season.
"I think the sky’s the limit to how good she can be," Brondello said. "Now is she there yet? No. She still needs a lot of work, but I think she’s capable, and she wants to be the best player in the world."
But that will have to wait while she serves the suspension, which precludes her from taking part in the ring ceremony prior to Friday’s season opener against San Antonio.
"Somebody will be in charge of holding the phone with me on FaceTime," said Griner, who last month married Johnson. "Everyone here is more than willing to help fill that void, but no one can do it by themselves. We have to do it together."