- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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Over the past half-decade or so, the Phoenix Mercury have been an oasis in the desert. Successful, exciting, star-driven, the Mercury have carved out their place in the Phoenix sports landscape, igniting the community with WNBA title runs in 2007 and 2009.
They made playoff appearances in four of five years, won two conference titles and made trips to the conference finals in 2010 and 2011. But 2012 was not that kind of year.
The dark clouds gathered with the news that Australian stalwart Penny Taylor would be lost for the season with an ACL injury. They thickened further when injuries to All-Star guard Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree stripped the Mercury lineup of most of its most potent weapons.
What resulted was a long and largely ugly 34-game trudge through the summer. The Mercury, leaning heavily on DeWanna Bonner, known best for her spark-plug play off the bench in the early years of her pro career, finished with a 7-27 record, good for last place in the Western Conference.
"Last year was the hardest, most difficult thing I've ever been through as a player," said point guard Samantha Prahalis, a rookie for the Mercury last season. "Losing that much, it was tough. People would say to me, 'Yeah, but you get to play a lot,' and I would say, 'No, I want to win.'
"I was excited to get drafted to come here and play with Diana and Penny and play for titles."
Just a couple of months later, the clouds parted. Oh, did they ever.
The Mercury drew the No. 1 pick in the most highly anticipated draft in league history. They got the right to pick Baylor's Brittney Griner, the game-changing center who quickly became the face of a rebranded league, not to mention the perceived ticket to a title in Phoenix.
"As soon as they said the name Brittney Griner, the vibe automatically changed around here, and all of a sudden people are talking about how they are going to beat us," Bonner said.
A 77-foot banner of Griner hangs in downtown Phoenix. She has done public appearances and media interviews while finding her place among Phoenix's crop of already-established stars at practice.
It's clear that the Mercury aren't merely looking for a comeback from the woes of 2012; they are looking for a championship. espnW will follow their journey.
Throughout the 2013 WNBA season, espnW will give readers a Total Access look at the Mercury as this mix of superstars, veterans and prodigious young talent makes a run at a WNBA championship. We will tell the story of this team through stories, photos, videos and one-on-one interviews to give you a behind-the-scenes view of what it's like to toil through the heat of the summer in pursuit of a title.
Taurasi, who played in just eight games for Phoenix a season ago, is back and healthy, seemingly ready to return to the form that pushed her to a WNBA MVP Award and seven appearances on the All-WNBA first team in nine years.
Taylor is rehabbed and ready to return, as is Dupree. And Griner's impact on coach Corey Gaines' high-octane team seems almost sure to be significant.
Bonner, who ranked second in the league last season averaging 20.6 points a game, said this season already feels like a reboot for the Mercury.
"The chemistry is totally different, and we haven't even stepped out there yet," she said. "It was good for me to grow last year and get myself out there. We have a lot of pieces this year, and it's all about how we jell. I think our roster looks great on paper, but that's true for a lot of teams. We have to get out there and work for it."
Prahalis, meanwhile, said she feels like she's getting a second-chance at a rookie season.
"With this crew, we don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but we want a ring," she said. "With the group we have, it seems really, really possible."
The Phoenix Mercury have their healthy stars back, not to mention the addition of Brittney Griner, and have nowhere to go but up after a forgettable 2012.