It has been a very successful regular season for the Phoenix Mercury even if their 15-19 record might not jump off the page. In fact, for the defending champs to finish four games under .500 might give some cause to jump off the bandwagon, but that would be a mistake.
Coming into the season, there was a lot of concern over the health of team star Diana Taurasi, who broke her hand playing in Russia even though it was never properly diagnosed during her Spartak Moscow season. Penny Taylor also played an extended season with her team in Turkey and Tangela Smith was entering her 12th year as a pro.
The goal for the regular season for this veteran team became very simple: stay healthy and survive to defend the title come playoff time.
New faces fitting in (and scoring well)
On the court, the team had to incorporate Candice Dupree into the fold, which, understandably, took a bit of time. By July, the super-smooth forward was putting up incredibly efficient numbers. Her ability to finish on the pick and roll and score in transition allowed the Mercury to withstand a drop from a 39 percent three-point shooting team last season to 36 this year.
Any concerns about the Mercury's ability to overcome the loss of Cappie Pondexter, who was traded to the New York Liberty in a three-team deal that landed Dupree, were put to bed by the mid-point of the season.
Dupree finished with a league-leading field goal percentage of .664 (incredible) and once again is a top-ten rebounder. Candice had previously been a mid-40s shooter when she was asked to generate more of her team's offense.
In the Phoenix system, she benefits from her teammates' ability to get her the ball in scoring positions, along with frequent fast break opportunities.
Mercury assistant coach Julie Hairgrove talked about Dupree. "She does such a good job. She can catch any ball Diana (Taurasi) or Penny (Taylor) can throw to her. She's so good at coming out, setting that pick and roll (then) diving."
Julie added that Dupree has now added a free throw line jumper, which helps her stay on the floor when Kara Braxton is in the paint.
The bigger offseason loss proved to be Le'Coe Willingham, who went to Seattle as a free agent. Not only has she helped the Storm to an incredible 28-6 record, but without Le'Coe the team lost a post scoring threat and the rotation became one player shorter.
The plan was for Nicole Ohlde to step up this season and provide those productive minutes in the paint, but it became clear early in the season that Coach Corey Gaines didn't trust her on the floor.
The late July trade that sent Ohlde packing in return for big Kara Braxton filled that need.
Kara, while still working her way into "Mercury game shape" and learning the system, immediately showed how she will help this team with her size and experience on defense and on the glass. Offensively, she gives the team yet another option to generate high-percentage points.
When Taurasi is resting or if her shot is not falling, the Mercury can pound the ball inside to Braxton, who not only can score in the post, but is a tremendous passer that is able to find cutters and open shooters for easy looks.
Just like Dupree, Braxton is averaging a career-high in field goal percentage (.544) in her 13 games with the Mercury.
Best offense ever
I'm not going to get all stat-heavy here, in large part because this year's team has been too inconsistent for numbers to tell the full story.
Between the slow start while the team adjusted to life without Cappie (and with Candice) to the small number of games played with Braxton, there's just not a big enough sample size to make good comparisons to past teams.
That said, the year's .470 shooting percentage from the field is the highest in franchise history and a full point ahead of last season's mark.
The Mercury are shooting (and making) fewer threes this season, but with the addition of Dupree and now Braxton, they are scoring more effectively in the paint. Even more stunning is the ability to generate offense from literally anywhere on the court.
There are four basic ways teams can generate offense: fast break, low post, drive and kick, and pick and roll.
Good teams are effective in two or even three of these areas. The Mercury are effective at all four, thanks in large part to Coach Gaines' mid-season adjustment of playing point guard Temeka Johnson off-the-ball in the half court sets.
That allowed Taurasi and even Taylor to use their superior size and driving ability to draw help defenders and then find the open man. The Taurasi/Dupree and Taylor/Dupree pick and roll became the single-most deadly play in the game.
There are very few teams in basketball history with an attack this well balanced.
The Mercury have given up more points per game (93.77) and a higher opponent field goal percentage (.455) than last season (89.1, .424), but I still think this defense is better.
The numbers are skewed, with a lot of blowouts and the early season turnovers, which led to easy run outs.
What we've seen this year is a team that can play a big line-up in crunch time that switches most screens, which is a very effective short-term strategy.
"Our defense, I think, is better," Mercury assistant coach Julie Hairgrove said. "We're helping more, we're throwing different looks all the time. We have our man-to-man, we have our rover (zone) defense, we have where we're trapping the post. We're trying to give different looks so teams can't get comfortable."
This completely jives with what I've observed, as well. The Mercury are a much better man-to-man defensive team this season. They hedge the pick and roll and rotate well from the weak side and, as Julie said, they don't overuse any one scheme.
Good defense is about rotations, which essentially is teammates trusting each other and having a good game plan. Braxton allows the Mercury to double the post less and the big unit of Dupree, Smith, Bonner, Tuarasi and Taylor is solid.
The Mercury still want to play uptempo, but like last season, their defense should be about good enough to support a respectable playoff run.
Rebounding numbers are almost identical to last season. The Mercury should be able to turn up their defensive rebounding intensity in the playoffs and, with fresh intensity and energy, have enough size now to compete on the glass. Giving up second chance points to good teams like Seattle is still the Mercury's biggest weakness.
The same four teams made the playoffs in the West as last season and while the seeding changed, the first round matchups are the same.
Phoenix will once again face San Antonio, but while the Mercury have improved with the additions of Braxton and Dupree and the additional development in Bonner's game, the Silver Stars are not nearly as dangerous this summer.
With Ann Wauters not returning to the team and Chamique Holdsclaw going down to a torn Achilles tendon, the San Antonio team simply doesn't have the firepower, outside of Becky Hammon and Sofia Young, or the size to hurt Phoenix on the glass.
The Phoenix Suns swept the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Playoffs this year and the result should be the same for their WNBA counterparts.
We will break-down this series in more detail tomorrow.