Training Camp is over, the exhibition season is over, and the roster has been trimmed down to its final 11 for the 2012 season. That means it is time to start playing some meaningful basketball for the Phoenix Mercury.
Just before the team became available for the media on May 16th the final two cuts - very surprising cuts - were announced. Point guard Andrea Riley and center Krystal Thomas were the last two casualties as the team is ready to see if they can improve on last year's 19-15 record and the teams' third straight trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Here is the roster for the 2012 season (*Designated as starters by Coach Corey Gaines):
F - DeWanna Bonner*
F - Candice Dupree*
G - Alexis Gray-Lawson
PG - Alexis Hornbuckle
F - Charde Houston
PG - Samantha Prahalis
F/C - Nakia Sanford
C - Zane Tamane
G - Diana Taurasi*
F - Penny Taylor
C - Avery Warley
It is a talented roster, but one that has many new faces and young players to break in. The Training Camp was a tough one this year for the team going through two-a-days that at times featured no offensive practice. With new assistant Earl Cureton on board as a defensive specialist he is sure to shake things up, "Earl is defensive oriented. I am an offensive coach and he is a defensive coach. We don't agree and he tells me what he feels. We won a championship in the ABA and he is also a disciple of coach Westhead." The two coaches are sure to have numerous philosophical disagreements, but for the teams betterment.
With the cut of Riley the team will be led by a committee of point guards including potential breakout star Gray-Lawson, rookie Prahalis, and newcomer Hornbuckle. There is no definitive front line leader at point guard. It is not about who starts a game to Coach Gaines, "I didn't pinpoint one person who is going to be the starter. It is an open spot, who plays it the best will play. In the past it didn't matter who started the point, it mattered who finished the games for us."
Coach Gaines made the local connection to his rookie point guard, "I remember Steve Nash and his career. He didn't step on the court and become Steve Nash, it took some time." That is an appropriate way to describe Prahalis as she has all the "it" factors that make a great point guard, but will take some time to develop WNBA strength and instincts. Just like Steve Nash did.
The shake-up at point guard wasn't the biggest storyline coming into the season. There is a place on the roster for her, but no minutes will be played by the teams perennial all-star Penny Taylor. Her knee injury will cost her the season and led to the roster shake-ups this off-season.
"I am answering the Penny questions right now, but she is not playing this year. You guys can ask the questions, but she is not playing. She will be there in spirit and she wants us to win, but your questions should probably be going more towards the players that are playing this year," was Coach Gaines take on the potential impact of Taylor's absence this year.
Team chemistry is another factor Coach Gaines has in front of him as a challenge with two rookies and five total new players to work in. The teams' stars - Taurasi, Bonner, and Dupree - all missed some time in Training Camp and the preparation for this season. They will need to learn the new players and styles.
All of the players on the roster blend well together in the running system. Plenty of shooters on the court and play-makers to get them the ball in a good position. With a newfound emphasis on defense this could be a well balanced team. As Taurasi stated they will need to take every minute very seriously this season, "we are going to have to become that veteran team. We are going to have to be a steady team and do a lot of things right. That is a good feeling to have. This year we have to come in with that urgency of every little play, every little minute on the court is going to determine the game."
The Olympic Break is another major storyline this season. The 33 day break is essentially a "second training camp" according to Taurasi who will be in London for that time period. To Coach Gaines it is a black and white issue, "it may hurt you or help you. If you win it helped you, if you lose it hurt. We don't know yet."
Star Olympian guard Taurasi took this message home from her former college coach and current Olympic coach Geno Auriemma, "go out there and prove you are an Olympian." That message is truer than ever for the three time Olympic star as the season begins with less talent than in years past.
This season will be a tough test for the new look Mercury out West. The season starts off against the team to beat in Minnesota. Then you look across the conference at Seattle and San Antonio which will be back as good as last season. Also, Los Angeles has reloaded with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 Draft making them a threat again. Last years 19 wins may not be enough to make the Playoffs this year with the quality and depth in the West.
Entering the season Taurasi was voted as the leagues top shooting guard and the player that causes coaches to make the most adjustments by the General Managers of the WNBA. In that same survey the Mercury did not receive one vote as a team that will win the Western Conference pitting them to finish fourth in the Conference.
This team has a plenty of naysayers and people to prove wrong. The talent and coaching is there for this team to really surprise some people and vie for a fourth consecutive trip to the Conference Finals.