- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Twelve months ago, Phoenix was a very different franchise than it is today.
In the year since the much-anticipated start to the 2013 season -- when the Mercury celebrated the arrival of rookie sensation Brittney Griner -- the change has been fast and big.
To start this season, the Mercury have a new general manager, a new team president, a new head coach and a new on-the-floor philosophy. And as for Griner, she's a second-year player with some things still to prove and a ton of potential.
"There are a lot of new faces around this team," veteran forward Candice Dupree said. "We've come to this point pretty quickly."
The Mercury are 2-1 heading into Friday's game at Tulsa, a matchup that opens a difficult -- and potentially defining -- stretch for Phoenix. Seven of the Mercury's next 11 games are on the road, including a pair of games against defending champion Minnesota.
The Lynx have set the bar in the Western Conference over the past three years. Phoenix failed to beat Minnesota last season in seven tries (including the regular season and a two-game sweep in the Western Conference finals) and is clearly chasing the Lynx to get back to being a WNBA title contender.
"We have to work on our small goals to build to our main goal of winning a championship," Dupree said.
Detect a little "one game at a time" in there? That is precisely what new head coach Sandy Brondello is preaching to her team at this point in the season.
"We want to win every game we are in," Brondello said, "but we understand this is a process."
Albeit an accelerated one. Brondello is hardly new to the WNBA, having spent nine seasons as a coach and 14 seasons overall in the WNBA as a coach or player. She knows many of her players well -- including star Diana Taurasi and Dupree -- after her time in the league and coaching in Russia.
"We've shown some good signs here," Brondello said of her team's start. "We have added players, we have a new style of play."
The team that averaged 89.0 points a game in 2011 is now averaging 76.3. All part of the change.
Phoenix spent the better part of eight years running Paul Westhead's run-and-gun system, first for two seasons under Westhead and then five-plus under Corey Gaines.
Brondello isn't taking it all away, but she is preaching defense first.
"We are focused more on defense and maybe our offense is lagging a bit, but I feel like that will take care of itself," Brondello said.
Both Dupree and wing DeWanna Bonner agree that everything feels more "structured" now.
"Sandy still wants us to run and gun, but there's a little more structure, discipline to it," Bonner said. "It's been a major change, but the emphasis on defense is huge and it's probably what we were missing."
As for Griner, the second-year center is healthy and off to a strong start. Griner is averaging 14.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3 blocks. Brondello is emphasizing Griner's maximum effort on both ends of the floor and trying to build her confidence after a rookie season that might have fallen short of expectations -- Griner's and others'.
"I don't think she would say she was happy with the way she played last year," Brondello said. "But it's a difficult adjustment from the college system and it was a steep learning curve. I want her to get stronger."
Griner is working one-on-one with Brondello's husband, longtime international coach Olaf Lange.
"She's been very coachable," Brondello said. "And she's started extremely well."
Dupree, who is averaging 9.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in the early going, can see things coming together already for the Mercury, even from her view in the ice bath.
"I played for seven months in Russia and I didn't really have to do much in practice," Dupree said. "I come back here and I'm so sore I can barely move.
"We haven't had a lot of time to work on our chemistry, but that will come as the season progresses."
Sandy Brondello isn't abandoning the Mercury's traditional run-and-gun system. But Phoenix's new coach is adding structure, discipline and an emphasis on defense.