Editor's note: Before the 2006 season tips off, ESPN's Nancy Lieberman and ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel and Graham Hays each tackle one question facing all 14 WNBA teams. Here, the experts take a closer look at the Phoenix Mercury.
The Mercury went 16-18 in the regular season. Coach Paul Westhead enters his first season in Phoenix.
Diana Taurasi was tops in scoring (16.0) and assists (4.5). Despite playing in just 15 games, Maria Stepanova led the team in blocks (2.53) and steals (1.33). Kamila Vodichkova grabbed a team-high 7.0 rpg.
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Drafting Rutgers' Cappie Pondexter with the second overall pick is another can't-go-wrong move. But it became a curious decision when coach Paul Westhead put the ball in the hands of Kelly Miller -- and not Pondexter -- at point guard once training camp opened.
Don't get me wrong. Miller -- brought to Phoenix from Indiana in exchange for Anna DeForge -- is one of the hardest-working, most focused players in the game. She is a real talent. But she doesn't have the athleticism or length of DeForge, and Miller is not as good of a perimeter defender. And that's a big concern, because when Diana Taurasi and Miller are in the backcourt together, they could have a hard time matching up defensively. And even if they switch it up, Taurasi, for all her strengths, cannot guard the likes of DeForge, Sheryl Swoopes or Deanna Nolan.
Westhead's frenetic system paves the way for a number of different players to bring the ball up court, which means Pondexter will likely see her share of ballhandling duties. But I hope to see Taurasi and Pondexter on the court together. They are both great passers and tremendous shooters who can create their own opportunities.
Still, two other concerns weigh more heavily. First, the Mercury don't have a dominant big, and that could be a huge factor in Westhead's system. In order to run, you have to rebound, and Phoenix's interior rebounding at this point is suspect. Maria Stepanova, a 6-foot-8 Russian who played 15 games and averaged 10.8 points and 5.3 rebounds, isn't coming back. Sandora Irvin (3.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg in 12 appearances in 2005), Phoenix's first-round draft pick last year, spent too much time on the bench last summer and didn't develop the way she should have. And Phoenix lost 6-5 Ashley Robinson to Chicago in the expansion draft.
That puts most of the pressure on Kamila Vodichkova, a seven-year veteran who averaged 10.9 points and 7.0 rebounds last season after helping Seattle win the 2004 title. And in another surprising move, 6-3 rookie Ann Strother has played the 4-5 in the preseason, where her role is to take the ball out of the net, throw it upcourt and then play the drag post, hitting shots at the top of the key.
The Mercury also will greatly miss Penny Taylor, who ranked second -- one-tenth of a point ahead of DeForge -- with 13.2 points per game last season (incidentally, Taylor and DeForge also combined for 85 3-pointers). The Australian recently got married and has decided not to return, though she would have fit very well into Westhead's system.
Phoenix just missed the playoffs each of the past two years by just a couple games. Can they get it done this season? -- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
Best-case: Everything comes together with the addition of Cappie Pondexter, giving the Mercury the most dynamic scoring tandem since Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes led the Comets to glory. Diana Taurasi and Pondexter, two elite scorers who know how to pass the ball, develop a chemistry that allows the Mercury to use a backcourt free from "point" or "shooting" designations. Behind the two guards, new coach Paul Westhead's frenetic, all-out running attack gains traction, leaving other teams too exhausted to convert the offensive looks Westhead's system all but ensures they'll get. Kelly Miller and Tamicha Jackson provide effective minutes off the bench, crucial in Westhead's system, and Sandora Irvin emerges as a reliable partner for Kamila Vodichkova in the frontcourt.
Worst-case: Westhead's system flops against well-conditioned and well-coached professional players, running his own players ragged and leaving them incapable of playing anything resembling effective defense. Taurasi and Pondexter are slow to feel each other out, each used to controlling the flow of the offense with the ball in her hands. Penny Taylor opts to stay in Australia to train with the national team (all right, that part has actually already happened), leaving the Mercury painfully thin in the frontcourt. -- ESPN.com's Graham Hays
The Mercury mean "if you build it, they will come." That is, if you build a team worth watching, fans will show up. It's the opposite of Minnesota -- in Phoenix, people want reasons to stay indoors in the summer. The community will support a winning WNBA team. The fans there need to see that the Mercury are making progress under new coach Paul Westhead and his distinctive system. -- ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel
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