Mercury Offense Rising With Griner’s Return


The Phoenix Mercury re-assembled their roster in the offseason after a disastrous 2023 campaign.

They brought in veterans Rebecca Allen, Natasha Cloud and Kahleah Copper to add to their returning core of Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi and Sophie Cunningham. Nate Tibbetts, hired as the Mercury’s new head coach last October, brought in a new philosophy influenced by his experience as an assistant in the NBA from 2011-2023.

Unfortunately, the plan had to be altered before it started. Brittney Griner, the six-time All-WNBA center, sustained a toe fracture in the preseason and missed the first ten regular-season games. By the time she returned on June 7th, the Mercury were reeling. They were in eighth place with a 4-6 record after dropping five of their previous six games.

“We’ve faced some adversities and injuries already, which is a good and bad thing. We had high expectations for [Griner]. She had them for herself. Unfortunately, an unexpected injury kind of forced our hand to play smaller at times,” Tibbetts said in a press conference following an 81-78 defeat at New York, the third loss in a row for the Mercury.

Mercury Without Griner

Griner is an eight-time All-Star who has been named to the All-Defensive team seven times and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 and 2015. From 2013-2023, she started all 285 games in her Mercury career. She averaged 17.7 points on 56.0% shooting while adding 7.5 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 30.5 minutes per game.

Without Griner, the Mercury were left with Natasha Mack as their starting center. Mack, a 6-foot-3 forward who played a total of four games in the WNBA (all in 2021) before this season, had big shoes to fill. She played admirably, averaging 4.5 points on 53.8% shooting along with 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 22.5 minutes per game. However, this was a far cry from the production the Mercury were expecting from their starting center.

Forced to play small, they shot a ridiculous amount of threes in order to stay competitive. Since 2018, the WNBA average for three-point attempt rate (the percentage of field-goal attempts from three-point) has been 31.0%. The Mercury were shooting 43.5% of their shots from three. At times it worked, like their 16-for-33 three-point performance in an upset at Las Vegas. Other times it was disastrous, like the losses at Connecticut (1/27 3Pt) or at Seattle (4/23 3Pt).

To their credit, the Mercury competed hard every game on both ends. But having Griner back would give them more options offensively and a more solid approach defensively.

Griner Returns

Phoenix welcomed Griner back on June 7th for a home game against the red-hot Minnesota Lynx.

With a 7-2 record, the Lynx had just crushed the Mercury 95-71 on May 31st. After giving up 95 points in their first matchup against Minnesota, the Mercury held the Lynx 80 points and came away with a one-point win.

Easing back into the lineup, Griner played 21 minutes and had a modest stat line of 11 points, four rebounds and one block. The restrictions were lifted two days later in a double-overtime thriller against the Dallas Wings. Griner dominated in the win by scoring 24 points on 11-for-16 (68.8%) from the field, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out five assists.

The Britney Griner that fans remember was back.

Although her presence hasn’t been felt on the defensive end (105.0 defensive rating in the first 10 games, 105.3 in the last five), their offense has popped. Their offensive rating has exploded from 97.9 in the 10 games without her to 109.8 with her (league average offensive rating is 102.3).

Since her first game back against the Lynx, Griner is averaging 24.0 points on 63.9% from the field with 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. The Mercury are 4-1 with Griner and now find themselves in the top half of the league in the standings.

Certainly, her individual production has helped the Mercury immensely. How she is affecting her teammates’ production, however, has stood out the most. The one player who has been positively affected the most has been Copper.

Copper Carrying the Load

Kahleah Copper is undoubtedly having the best statistical season of her career.

The 2021 Finals MVP for the Chicago Sky, Copper is averaging a career-high 23.5 points— the third most in the league. Her usage percentage (33.4%) is the highest in the WNBA this season, yet her player efficiency rating (20.2) has never been higher in her career. In the first five games with the Mercury this season, she averaged an astounding 29.2 points.

Copper averaged 22.5 points with an effective field-goal percentage of 50.0% without Griner in the lineup. The difficulty in her shot selection and her superb shot making was sensational, but help was needed.

In the five games with Griner, Copper has seen her efficiency and production increase. She is averaging 25.6 points during this stretch with an effective field goal percentage of 56.4%. Her improvement is especially noticeable inside the arc.

In the first ten games, Copper shot 44.7% from two-point land. In the last five games, she has shot 59.3%. The attention that Griner attracts allows more room for Copper to operate.

Griner’s Impact on Copper’s Drives

In the first game against the Lynx, Copper was at the top of the key with the floor spread.

Backup post Liz Dixon dove to the right block as Copper drove left. Alanna Smith ignored Dixon and came over to help. Copper tried a heavily contested fallaway jumper but was blocked by Smith.

Two weeks later, the Mercury were down four to the Aces with a little over a minute left, desperate for a basket. They gave the ball to their playmaker, as expected. Similar to the scenario against the Lynx, Copper had the ball at the top with the floor spread.

This time, Griner was in the post. She was defended by two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson. As Copper drove to the basket, eventually getting a shoulder past her defender, there was no help. Wilson stayed connected with Griner, a far better offensive player than Dixon, as Copper made an uncontested lay-up.

The mere presence of Griner, standing idly on the block, allowed Copper a much easier look inside. On shots inside four feet, Copper was shooting 52.9% on 5.1 attempts per game in the first ten games. Since Griner’s return, Copper is shooting 67.7% on 6.2 attempts per game.

Ball Screens for Copper

Another area that has benefitted Copper is on Griner ball screens. Griner does a lot of things well on the floor, one of which is being a tremendous screener.

In crunch time against the Dream on May 18th, the Mercury were down by four. The 6-foot-1 Copper was being hounded by the 5-foot-5 Crystal Dangerfield. The Mercury called for a Spain ball-screen action, where the post sets a ball screen as a shooter (in this case Taurasi) sets a back screen on the post’s defender.

Dangerfield easily navigated around the attempted screen by Mack. Dangerfield was able to stay in front of Copper, rendering the back screen element of the Spain action irrelevant. Instead of being able to get to the basket, Copper was forced into a contested pull-up from the right elbow. The ball rattled around the rim but popped out. The Dream secured the rebound.

Finding themselves in the same situation against the Lynx in Griner’s return on June 7th, the Mercury had the ball with 45 seconds left and were behind by four. Again, the Mercury called for a Spain ball-screen action. This time, Griner came up to screen at a great angle and clipped Copper’s defender. This allowed Copper to get downhill.

With the Lynx defenders occupied by the cluster in the middle of the floor, the help had to come from the weakside wing. Unfortunately for the Lynx, the help was in the form of 5-foot-8 guard Courtney Williams. As Copper extended up for a lay-up, Williams collided with her. As Copper fell to the ground and the whistle was blown, the ball dropped through the net.

The Mercury completed their comeback victory with a fitting last second shot by Copper, who scored ten consecutive points in the last 1:15 for the Mercury.

The assist on the game-winner?

Brittney Griner.

About Kenyon Wingenbach

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

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