The Phoenix Mercury announced on Thursday that Skylar Diggins-Smith will miss the final two games of this season. Mercury has also suspended her contract, so she won’t be back in 2022 even if the team makes it to the knockout stages.
Heading into Thursday night’s games, Phoenix is drawing four sides at 14-20 on the leaderboard, with five teams vying for the final two playoff spots. The Los Angeles Sparks, the fifth player, will be eliminated with a loss. Phoenix ends hosting season Dallas Wings on friday and Chicago sky on Sunday. Since winning the franchise’s second title in 2009, Mercury has slipped into the playoffs just once in 2012.
But 2022 is tough for Mercury under first-year head coach Vanessa Nygaardstarts with Brittney Griner‘S detention in Russia in February. Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi only one confrontation on the bench in the May, Tina Charles left the group in JuneDiggins-Smith used a clown emoji on Twitter related to Nygaard in July, Taurasi is now out with a quad injury and now Diggins-Smith is done for the season.
Somehow, Mercury still has a chance in the knockout stages. What will happen to Phoenix to make post-season, and what will the future of Mercury and Diggins-Smith look like? We review.
How does Diggins-Smith’s absence from the final two games of the regular season impact Mercury’s hopes of reaching the knockout stages?
There are only so many shots a team can take, and Mercury has taken so many of them. They won the match last Saturday New York Liberty without Taurasi or Diggins-Smith. It was thanks to an excellent defensive effort that kept Liberty to 62 points, while Diamond DeShields scored the highest 25 points of the season.
Mercury scores high in his career since Shey Peddy and Megan Gustafson on Wednesday, but has dropped Minnesota 86-77. After the game, Gustafson spoke of the importance of the Mercury players continuing to encourage each other.
The next two opponents, Wings and Sky, have secured playoffs but both hope to head into the post-season with a high record. Dallas won five in a row before falling to Liberty in desperate mode on Wednesday. Chicago have been one of the strongest teams in the league throughout the season and are the defending champions. Mercury is 1-2 against Dallas this season and 0-2 against Sky.
Diggins-Smith has been one of the biggest threats in the league this season, as a goalscorer and assist. To put it bluntly, her absence could really be the difference between Mercury going after the season and not going.
Mercury played the previous two games without Diggins-Smith. How will the starting lineup continue to be adjusted without her? Who needs to step up?
Sophie Cunningham was a strong contender for the WNBA Most Improved Player award and one of the rocks for Mercury in a season where a lot has happened. Cunningham is a tireless player and teammate. Not all WNBA fans like her, going back to her college days at Mizzou, because of her aggressive playstyle. But if you’re looking for someone who always gives their best and never gives up, it’s Cunningham. Mercury wouldn’t have had a chance in the knockout stages if she hadn’t made the same strides she’s made this season.
Cunningham started the game Wednesday with Peddy, DeShields, Brianna Turner and Jennie Simmswho played 21 games this season after last appearing at the WNBA in 2017. Yvonne Turner appeared in seven games against Mercury this season, after last playing in the WNBA in 2019. The veteran keeper, who will turn 35 in October, played 10 minutes on Wednesday. And Gustafson was the most successful player on the Mercury bench on Wednesday.
In short, Mercury is like a patchwork blanket right now. They weren’t the same team that Nygaard thought she would coach when she took the job. But the Mercury players are also now in a position where they know very well the group is still standing, and they will play with a feeling of wanting to prove something.
Common sense would say that Mercury is unlikely to win either of their last two matches. But strange things can happen when a team’s back is against the wall after so much adversity. Perhaps Turner, a defensive player who has struggled as a scorer, finds that in her in these closing games. It is possible that Mercury heats up from behind the arc. Maybe DeShields will take over, as her abilities allow her to. Or maybe they lost both games, missed the post-season and then post-season this season started in earnest.
If Phoenix makes it to the post-season, it will likely face a #1 or #2 seed. Without Diggins-Smith’s 19.7 PPG – almost 20% of Mercury’s attack – and 5 High APG of your teammates, how far do you see the team progressing?
Just reaching the knockout stages at this point would be a huge accomplishment. Apparently Mercury couldn’t make it through the first round. They will have to play defensively as best they can and get hot from behind the arc.
What is the future of Diggins-Smith in Phoenix?
All season, it was clear that Nygaard and Diggins-Smith didn’t have a good working relationship. It seems almost impossible that both will be in Phoenix next season. Maybe not either.
Sandy Brondello was released after eight seasons last year following the disappointment of Mercury losing in the WNBA Finals. But Brondello almost immediately got another job, with New York, because she was a trusted veteran coach who showed she could manage players’ egos.
All of Nygaard’s previous head coach experience has been at the high school level, although she has served as a WNBA assistant. There’s so much to manage as the WNBA head coach behind the scenes, and this season may have tested even a veteran. However, Nygaard got the job, so she must complete the task, no matter how difficult. That’s how it’s applied in professional sports.
Diggins-Smith had a great season, but it ended badly. She turned 32 earlier this month and still seems to have plenty of good basketballs in front of her. According to salary cap information provided by Her Hoops Stats, Diggins-Smith has signed with Phoenix for next season and will become an unrestricted freelance employee in 2024.
Diggins-Smith was drafted number 3 after Griner and Elena Delle Donne in 2013. She began her career in Tulsa and had her 2015 season cut short after nine games by an ACL injury. She arrived in Dallas the year after the transfer franchise and was a starter with Wings in 2016, 2017 and 2018. She sat out the 2019 season after giving birth to her son and then requesting a trade from Dallas.
Diggins-Smith then spoke about dealing with postpartum depression and seemed eager for a fresh start in Phoenix. She contributed a lot to Mercury in her three seasons and is a popular player with fans. But if this is her time to end her time in Phoenix, where will she go next and what does it mean for Mercury?
Phoenix’s iconic player Taurasi, 40, and the franchise’s other longtime star is still in captivity in Russia. Now Diggins-Smith may be on her way out and Mercury has many problems to face in the coming months.