Explaining the Rise of the Phoenix Mercury in 2014

Legend holds the mythical bird rises from the ashes of its own destruction. Last year, Phoenix was poised for greatness but stumbled after a slow start finishing with a 19-15 record and were swept out of the playoffs by the Minnesota Lynx in the Western Conference Finals.

This season the Mercury have the best winning percentage in the WNBA.  So clearly this team is better.  And although improvement in sports is often linked to such factors as improved leadership or team chemistry, we wish to assign responsibility to individual players.

Let’s begin by noting that the Mercury are returning five players — Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Candice Dupree, DeWanna Bonner, and Penny Taylor — who produced 16.3 wins in 2013.  That production is determined by a) each player’s productivity per minute (or per 40 minutes) and b) how many minutes each player played.  When we look at the 2014 Mercury we see changes with respect to both aspects of performance.

As the following table indicates, we have seen changes with respect to (a).  Specifically, Griner (the team’s number one pick in 2013 from Baylor) and Dupree are on pace to produce five more wins than their performance last year would suggest.

Phoenix Mercury Lag WP40* Projected

Lag Wins

WP40 Projected

Wins

Difference
Diana Taurasi 0.238 6.3 0.284 7.5 1.2
Brittney Griner 0.120 3.1 0.253 6.5 3.4
Candice Dupree 0.072 2.0 0.166 4.5 2.5
DeWanna Bonner 0.191 4.8 0.177 4.5 -0.3
Penny Taylor 0.302 5.7 0.175 3.3 -2.4
Erin Phillips 0.084 1.4 0.108 1.8 0.4
Eshaya Murphy 0.005 0.0 0.165 0.8 0.8
Tiff Bias** -0.168 -0.2 -0.168 -0.2 0.0
Mistie Mims 0.163 2.1 -0.021 -0.3 -2.4
Anete Jekabsone-Zogota*** 0.079 0.8 -0.032 -0.3 -1.1
Ewelina Kobryn*** -0.071 -0.2 -0.240 -0.6 -0.5
Summation 25.8 27.4 1.6

Numbers after 19 games in 2014

* – Lag WP40 is based on last year’s ADJP40 and this year’s position assignment

** – Bias is a rookie, so WP40 and lagged WP40 are the same

*** – Jekabsone-Zogota’s lagged numbers are from 2010.  Kobryn’s lagged numbers are from 2012.

But that isn’t the whole story.  If we look at what this team should have expected — given last year’s per 40 minute production — we see a team that should be on pace to win 7 more games in 2014.  And that leads us to the second explanation.  Although Penny Taylor is actually less productive per minute, she is on pace to produce more wins this year because her minutes have increased.  More minutes is also part of the story with respect to Griner.

One last comment on the number one draft pick from Baylor.  Griner attracted a lot of attention earlier this year via an expose written by ESPN on her adventures in China. (We commented on her $600,000 reasons to play overseas in that market). Both productive and popular, Griner earned 18,342 All-Star votes to land her on the squad for the game coming up July 19th. She joins teammate Taurasi, plus Diggins, Moore, and Parker for the West. Schimmel, Poindexter,Delle Donne, McCoughtrey, and Catchings comprise the East team. Are the rest of the All-Stars pulling their weight in wins like Griner? The answers may surprise you; that is the subject of a future post.

- Jill Harris

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