Mercury

How Nikki Blue Turned the Mercury Respectable Again

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The Phoenix Mercury were in trouble.

They just lost to the 11th-place Seattle Storm by 23. They were 2-10 and hadn’t won a game in two weeks.

Change was inevitable.

The next day, on June 25th, the Mercury announced the firing of head coach Vanessa Nygaard.

“The final straw was that we are 2-10 and that is just not good enough,” said Jim Pitman, Phoenix’s general manager.

Assistant coach Nikki Blue was tasked with getting the Mercury to be more competitive.

“Players have renewed sense of confidence and the way they’ve come in the past 24 hours has been great. We’re going to have a renewed sense of energy and just playing out there,” Blue said after being named interim head coach.

Phoenix beat Indiana 85-63 four days later. They also beat Los Angeles before the much-needed All-Star break. Blue was making progress and was 2-5 as head coach.

Then lightning struck.

The Mercury stormed out of the gates after the break with back-to-back upsets over Connecticut and Chicago.

They are 7-13 since the coaching change. They have the same number of wins as Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington and a better record than Seattle and Indiana during that same stretch.

How was Blue able to take the same roster in the middle of the season and make the Mercury respectable again?

Offense

Changes offensively were subtle but effective.

Under Nygaard, the Mercury were forcing the ball inside with over-penetration and an over-emphasis on getting 6’9” post Brittney Griner touches. By forcing it, they had an astronomical 20.2% turnover percentage.

The sets to get Griner the ball inside were simple, but the other four Mercury players tended to stand around on the perimeter and watch her go one-on-one in the post.

Blue added more flow and movement to the offense. She designed actions around sharp-shooter Sophie Cunningham and future Hall of Famer Diana Taurasi that allow them to work off the ball.

Moving Taurasi to the wing more often has cut her turnovers down while increasing her scoring average from 15.0 points per game (PPG) under Nygaard to 17.5 PPG under Blue. She is far more efficient as well. She is taking less shots but has increased her field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free-throw percentage.

Although the Mercury’s free-throw rate has decreased, they have improved at the other four factors, decreasing turnovers while increasing offensive rebounds and shooting percentage.

And shooting remains queen in the WNBA.

Better Offense Leads to Better Defense

From the beginning of the season until the day of Nygaard’s firing, sixth through 11th place in the league in defensive rating were separated by 3.7 points per 100 possessions.

The Mercury were dead last, an astonishing 7.0 points per 100 possessions BEHIND 11th place!

Under Nygaard, Phoenix was 11th in offensive rebounding percentage despite the size advantage with Griner. Even more puzzling was the number of transition opportunities they were giving up. The stagnant sets caused the perimeter players to stand around. They neither crashed the boards nor got back on defense.

Offense leads to defense, and that’s where the Mercury have flourished with the coaching change.

The increase in movement increased the Mercury’s offensive rebounding percentage from 18.8% to a more respectable 22.4%, which is 7th since June 25th. The flow on offense carried over into more effort in transition defensively. This allows Phoenix to get back and get their defense set, which is the foundation of every good defense in the WNBA.

The slight decrease in turnovers also saved the Mercury a couple of possessions of relying on transition defense.

Halfcourt Defense

Schematically, the Mercury are far more sound with Blue at the helm. Early in the season, opposing teams would force the Mercury to defend ball screens early in possessions. The Mercury would seemingly change their ball-screen coverages randomly.

For example, Griner would play drop coverage (i.e., protect the paint) while the on-ball defender would navigate around the screen. On a re-screen, Griner would switch it. The Mercury’s 6’9” rim protector was now out chasing guards around the perimeter 22 feet from the basket while the guards were getting posted up on the block.

These mismatches led to easy opportunities inside for opponents, resulting in baskets, fouls and offensive rebounds. Collectively, this led to the worst defense in the league, and it wasn’t close.

Blue served as an assistant at Arizona State under Charli Turner Thorne between 2019 and 2022. Shortly after being named interim head coach, Blue convinced Turner Thorne to end her short retirement and join the Mercury coaching staff.

“She brings more than 28 years of experience to the Mercury and will be invaluable in providing our players with every opportunity to improve individually and as a team,” Blue said.

With the help of Thorne, Blue has implemented a more connected defensive scheme. The biggest change is how the Mercury are affecting shots.

The post defenders still play in drop coverage allowing the perimeter defenders room to work through ball screens. The posts will occasionally switch, but only in emergency situations, and they will switch back as the ball moves away from the advantage.

As teams are being forced into using ball screens, Phoenix’s athletic guards frantically work to get back into defensive position. The ballhandler is now attacking a post with no other options. The post defender can play both the ball and the rolling screener.

This allows Griner to affect more shots, even as her number of blocks has decreased. She is in better position to rebound, and the Mercury defense is in better position in general.

Since the coaching change, the Mercury have increased their defensive rebounding percentage by 5.2 percentage points and are committing over two fewer fouls per game. Opponent assist numbers are down while the number of turnovers is up.

The Mercury have a defensive rating of 103.6 since June 25th, good for fifth in the WNBA during that stretch.

Lineup Changes

The easiest way to get better in a certain area is to play someone who is better in that area. Need to get better at shooting? Find more minutes for your shooters. Need better rebounding? Get your rebounders in the game.

This is over-simplistic, of course, but finding the right rotation is key to finding consistency. When dealing with lineup changes, coaches know there is a domino effect.

Good shooters don’t tend to be very good rebounders. Defensive-minded players are typically that way for a reason as they usually struggle on the offensive end. The difficult part is finding the right group where their collective strengths produce the most desired results.

Nikki Blue has done just that.

Her first major change was an increased role for 6’3” forward Brianna Turner. In the first 12 games, Turner started five games. She has started all 20 games under Blue.

Her impact on both ends goes well beyond statistics.

Turner has done a fantastic job with her attention to detail. She is very active defensively – rarely out of position. Her energy is consistent and contagious. Her defense-first mindset has brought more stability to the Mercury defense.

Offensively, she is a good rebounder and screener allowing more opportunities for Taurasi and Moriah Jefferson.

Jefferson’s minutes have also increased, as has her impact on the game. She is more of a natural point guard, handling the ball and finding open shooters while limiting turnovers.

Like Turner, her biggest impact is on the defensive end. Turner will pick up guards in the full court, eating away valuable seconds on the shot clock while forcing the opposing point guard to expend energy.

Megan Gustafson is another player who has impacted the Mercury since Blue has taken over. The 2019 Naismith Player of the Year from Iowa, Gustafson played a limited role at the beginning of the season. More of an offensive player, she averaged 4.7 points per game on only 3.1 field goal attempts per game. She hit double-digits one time in the first 12 games, scoring 10 points in a blowout loss to the Las Vegas Aces on June 21.

Since then, she has scored 8.9 points per game on more than six field-goal attempts per game. She had a seven-game stretch where she averaged 14.0 PPG. She is able to initiate offense from the top of the key, and she’s more of a threat shooting from the outside which allows her to co-exist with Griner and Turner.

The Case for Nikki Blue

The Mercury will likely miss the playoffs for only the third time since 2007. They have lost their last three games. Taurasi is 41 years old. Skylar Diggins-Smith is unhappy. Griner is back after spending 10 months detained in Russia on drug charges.

The cards were stacked against Nikki Blue from the start.

After 14 years of stability under head coaches Corey Gaines and Sandy Brondello, the Mercury will be looking for their second head coach in three years.

Blue had no head-coaching experience before this season, but she has proven herself in her short two-month stint leading the Mercury.

Management has a big hire following the season.

The person for the job is already on their bench.

About Kenyon Wingenbach

High school girls' basketball head coach and educator at West Fargo Public Schools (North Dakota).

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