The circumstances around 2015 are a lot different than they were in 2012.
Since Phoenix Mercury star guard Diana Taurasi decided to sit the 2015 WNBA season this past Tuesday, there has been some talk about whether the team is going to tank the 2015 season and join in on the Breanna Stewart/Jewell Loyd Sweepstakes, where the college juniors would be available in the 2016 WNBA Draft.
The main reason why some believe the Mercury would consider tanking 2015 is because they allegedly did so in 2012. In that season, Taurasi was technically not healthy enough to play, but still managed to perform quite well in the Olympics that year. In addition, the following year’s draft in 2013 featured Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne, and Skylar Diggins.
Ultimately, Taurasi’s absence for much of that season, along with injuries to other key players like Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner contributed to a Western Conference-worst 7-27 record, which helped them earn the #1 pick to draft Griner the next season.
But that was 2012, and it’s now a moot point. It’s 2015, and there are different circumstances at play. I just don’t buy that the Mercury’s tanking this season.
First, Taurasi’s decision is all about her personal financial situation. According to ESPN’s Kate Fagan, she is getting paid about $1.5 million a season to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, and that organization is paying her more money than her maximum level salary (about $107,000 per the collective bargaining agreement) to NOT play this summer. Given that she is earning about 15 times her WNBA salary in Russia, it definitely makes sense to listen, and do whatever UMMC wants, wouldn’t it? That’s exactly what Taurasi herself noted in her letter to Mercury fans earlier this week.
Second, Taurasi is currently 32 years old, and will have her 33rd birthday on June 11. She will be 34 in the 2016 season when she returns to the WNBA and plays for the Team USA Olympic Basketball Team in Rio de Janeiro. In other words, Taurasi is at the end of her prime and will inevitably decline over the next several years. After many consecutive years playing abroad in Russia and Turkey, she knows that her career is closer to the end than the beginning. That’s not to say that Taurasi plans to retire in 2016, but she is definitely thinking about that a bit more after each year.
Many of her contemporaries in the league are also past their primes, or have retired. To put things in perspective, let’s take a look at three of Taurasi’s former college teammates at UConn when she played there, all of whom are two years older than her.
Sue Bird, who missed the 2013 season due to a knee injury and doesn’t look like she completely bounced back from it. Bird is having her first real offseason in quite awhile, while serving as an ESPN college basketball analyst. Swin Cash sounds like she plans on retiring within the next season, and is focusing on her broadcasting career as well on CBS Sports Network. Asjha Jones hasn’t played in the WNBA since 2012 due to nagging injuries in 2013 and suffered a torn Achilles tendon before the 2014 season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if she never plays in the league again. Fortunately, Taurasi never had a serious injury during her career, but seeing other good players she knows declining also shows how quickly a decade flew by.
Third, let’s focus on the Phoenix Mercury. This team, even without Diana Taurasi figures to be a very strong unit, especially among the starters. Brittney Griner was the 2014 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and is poised to take another step forward in her development this summer. Even she reassures fans that Phoenix won’t be tanking:
I support Dee’s decision 100%! I will miss her so much because she is the BEST TEAMMATE! But saying we are tanking???We are playing to WIN!!
— Brittney Griner (@brittneygriner) February 5, 2015
Phoenix also has Candice Dupree in the post, and she made a good case for being the Finals MVP instead of Taurasi. I don’t expect to see her throwing in the towel as long as she’s healthy. DeWanna Bonner was cored, but I don’t think she’ll mind remaining with the defending champs. And Penny Taylor figures to re-sign with the team too despite the fact that she is an unrestricted free agent.
The Mercury also brought aboard some reinforcements Wednesday, where they signed Cayla Francis and Leilani Mitchell who were on the Australian national team for the 2014 FIBA World Championships along with Taylor and Mercury reserve Erin Phillips who was a free agent. The chemistry these players have together, along with head coach (and fellow Australian) Sandy Brondello doesn’t scream tank job to me. If anything, it indicates that the Mercury may be positioning themselves to be a destination for Australians who want to play in the WNBA.
Will I peg the Merc to win the 2015 title because Taurasi won’t be there? Probably not. But the Mercury’s still more than capable of being a deep playoff run with the roster they have in place without her.