PHOENIX — There will be a noticeable, towering absence for the Phoenix Mercury on Friday night in their 2022 WNBA season opener — and beyond.
Friday’s game against the Las Vegas Aces will be Phoenix’s first without Brittney Griner, widely regarded as women’s basketball’s most dominant center in the world. Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17, after customs officials said they found hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.
Without a timetable for her release, the Mercury have spent the past 2½ months preparing for this season knowing they won’t have Griner, who’s awaiting a hearing on May 19, for the foreseeable future.
What was considered a superteam in early February after the Mercury signed Tina Charles in free agency and traded for Diamond DeShields to complement Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Griner was forced to reevaluate its approach to this season. The Mercury remain in pursuit of a second consecutive trip to the WNBA Finals, but gone are the grand visions of pairing last season’s top two scorers in the WNBA — Charles (23.4 PPG) and Griner (20.5 PPG), respectively — on the court together. Gone, it appears, is the hope of Griner’s first MVP award coming this season.
Griner is irreplaceable in a lot of ways, starting with her size. The 6-foot-9 center has the ability to change the complexion of a game with her defensive presence in the lane. Griner led the WNBA in blocks last season (1.9 per game), and was sixth in total rebounding, rebounds per game (9.5) and offensive and defensive rebounds.
She’s also a force on offense, and led the league in field goals and 2-point field goals, shooting 36 more than the next-closest player, and was also third in field goal percentage (.575). Griner had the sixth-most free throw attempts as well as the sixth-most free throws made. And, according to Basketball Reference, Griner had the highest player efficiency rating, the highest offensive rating, the most offensive win shares and the second-most win shares in the WNBA in 2021.
So how does Phoenix try to replace Griner’s MVP-caliber season? Charles, 33, is expected to play more in the post without Griner; Charles averaged 33.3 minutes per game last season, the fifth most in the league, and attempted a career-high 137 3-pointers. Phoenix might also end up running more on offense, with smaller lineups, and will have to rely more on Charles and Brianna Turner on the defensive end.
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While Phoenix has been figuring out what life will be like without Griner, she is constantly on her teammates’ minds. And balancing the emotions of missing Griner with the need to prepare for the season hasn’t been easy.
“We think about her every day,” Diggins-Smith said. “We love her and we’re gonna continue to carry her legacy, her voice and play in her honor until she gets back here with us.”
Despite the glaring absence, first-year Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard believes her team has been focused on the court.
“Once you bounce the ball, you start blowing the whistle, that’s all you’re really focused on when you’re a competitor,” Nygaard said. “In basketball, at any time, somebody could be injured or something could happen and they wouldn’t be available, and you got to fight with what you got in the moment …
“Once we start competing, once we start out there, the players are very locked in to their individual roles, responsibilities and the success of the group.”
Nygaard said her adjustments have been slight. A complete overhaul wasn’t needed because of a few offseason signings, a returning core and some experience playing without Griner (she left the 2020 season in Bradenton, Florida, early, and Phoenix played its final 10 games without her).
Tina Charles, who led the WNBA in scoring last season while with the Mystics, is expected to be the centerpiece of Phoenix’s offense. The 6-foot-4 center averaged 23.4 points and 33.3 minutes per game in 2021. Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
Regardless, guard Sophie Cunningham thinks it might take a few games to get used to playing without Griner, a two-time defensive player of the year and two-time scoring champion.
“No one is like B.G. in the whole world,” Cunningham said. “I think we’re gonna be just fine, but of course we would love to have B.”
Figuring out what life will look like without Griner won’t be static. It’ll be a fluid, day-by-day discovery, guard Kia Nurse said.
“Any night could be somebody’s big scoring night and someone’s biggest assist night might flip the next day,” she said. “And, so, just being able to kind of have that versatility in our roster and have that ability to come out every single night and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Adaptability and flexibility will define 2022 for the Mercury. Charles will be the centerpiece of the offense, closely complemented by Diggins-Smith and a 39-year-old Taurasi. From there, Nygaard will build out. “I don’t think you have to be super traditional in lineups as you have in the past,” the coach said.
Phoenix forward Brianna Turner has been named to the WNBA’s all-defensive first team each of the past two seasons. Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images
Charles doesn’t plan on changing her game just because her role is going to be different without Griner.
“I was still going to come in and assert myself the same way regardless,” she said. “That’s just me. Just try to be a star in my role whether that was being on the outside knocking down shots, being on the inside at times, my approach was still going to be the same — to be as dominant as I can in whatever my role was going to be for this team allotted and whatever minutes was going to be given to me.”
Replacing Griner’s height will be next to impossible, but Phoenix has Charles and forward/center Kristine Anigwe, who are both 6-4, and a pair of 6-3 forwards in Maya Dodson and Turner. And the Mercury are trying to see an upside.
“Not having a big in the paint like that might open up a lot of lanes for Dee [Taurasi] and for Sky [Diggins-Smith] to either score the ball or draw attention and kick out for the 3,” Cunningham said.
Griner left the bubble for personal reasons in 2020 after playing in the first 12 games, during which the Mercury went 6-6. Without her in the lineup, they were 7-3 in the regular season and 1-1 in the playoffs. Even though this year’s roster has largely turned over since that season, four of the five starters from the bubble plus Cunningham remain — enough to remember what it took to win without Griner and know how to use that experience now.
“Obviously, when she left the bubble, that was an adjustment,” Diggins-Smith said. “Our style of play kind of changed a little bit, I think, as far as us wanting to be an up-and-down running team and getting a lot of possessions in. Obviously defensive schemes and things like that will change, and I’m sure it’d be the other way around as far as how teams may play us. So, I think some of that is to be seen.”
Guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said she thinks about Brittney Griner every day. Both were named to the All-WNBA First Team last season. Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images
Success, Nygaard said, is in the details. Do all the little things right: execute the plays correctly, buy in, pay attention to the minutiae, play with pace, hit shots. The Mercury believe they can get back to the WNBA Finals this season and, this time, win the franchise’s first title since 2014.
But not having the backbone of their defense, one of their teammates and one of their friends, all for reasons out of their control, will take time to get through.
“It’s definitely going to be different missing the best player in the world,” Diggins-Smith said. “And so that’s something that we all haven’t come to terms with, for at least until she gets back. “But, you know, we’ll have to.”