How Skylar Diggins-Smith’s absence impacts Phoenix’s playoff hopes and beyond
8: 22 PM ET
- M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
The Phoenix Mercury announced Thursday that Skylar Diggins-Smith would miss the final two regular-season games this season. The Mercury also have suspended her contract, so she will not be returning in 2022 even if the team makes the playoffs.
Heading into Thursday night’s games, Phoenix is in four-way tie at 14-20 in the standings, with five teams vying for the final two playoff spots. The Los Angeles Sparks, who play Thursday, will be eliminated with a loss. Phoenix finishes the season hosting the Dallas Wings on Friday and the Chicago Sky on Sunday. Since winning the franchise’s second title in 2009, the Mercury have missed the playoffs just once, in 2012.
But 2022 has been very difficult for the Mercury under first-year head coach Vanessa Nygaard, starting with Brittney Griner‘s detention in Russia in February. Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi had a confrontation on the bench in May, Tina Charles left the team in June, Diggins-Smith used a clown emoji on Twitter in apparent reference to Nygaard in July, Taurasi is currently out with a quad injury and now Diggins-Smith is finished for the season.
Somehow, the Mercury still have a chance at the playoffs. What will it take for Phoenix to make the postseason, and what does the future look like for the Mercury and Diggins-Smith? We take a look.
How does Diggins-Smith’s absence for Phoenix’s final two regular-season games impact the Mercury’s hopes of reaching the playoffs?
There are only so many hits a team can take, and the Mercury have taken a lot of them. They did win Saturday’s game against the New York Liberty without either Taurasi or Diggins-Smith. That was thanks to an excellent defensive effort that held the Liberty to 62 points, while Diamond DeShields scored a season-high 25 points.
The Mercury got career highs in scoring from Shey Peddy and Megan Gustafson on Wednesday, but fell to Minnesota 86-77. After the game, Gustafson talked about the importance of the Mercury players continuing to encourage each other.
The next two opponents, the Wings and the Sky, have already secured playoff berths but both hope to go into the postseason on a high note. Dallas won five in a row before falling to the in-desperation-mode Liberty on Wednesday. Chicago has been one of the league’s best teams all season and is the defending champion. The Mercury are 1-2 against Dallas this season and 0-2 against the Sky.
Diggins-Smith has been one of the biggest threats offensively in the league this season, as a scorer and a playmaker. To be blunt, her absence really could be the difference between the Mercury going to the postseason and not going.
The Mercury played their past two games without Diggins-Smith. How will the starting lineup continue to be adjusted without her? Who needs to step up?
Sophie Cunningham is a strong candidate for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award and has been one of the rocks for the Mercury in a season in which so much has happened. Cunningham is a tireless competitor and team player. Not all WNBA fans are fond of her, going back to her college days at Mizzou, because of her aggressive play. But if you are looking for someone who is always going to give her all and never quit, that’s Cunningham. The Mercury would have no chance at the playoffs if she had not made the strides she has this season.
Cunningham started Wednesday’s game along with Peddy, DeShields, Brianna Turner and Jennie Simms, who has played in 21 games this season after last appearing in the WNBA in 2017. Yvonne Turner has appeared in seven games with the Mercury this season, after most recently playing in the WNBA in 2019. The veteran guard, who will be 35 in October, played 10 minutes on Wednesday. And Gustafson was the most successful player off the Mercury bench on Wednesday.
In a nutshell, the Mercury are like a patchwork quilt right now. They bear no resemblance to the team Nygaard thought she would be coaching when she took the job. But the Mercury players are also in a position now where they know it’s literally down to this group that is still standing, and they will be playing with a feeling of wanting to prove something.
Common sense would say the Mercury don’t have good odds to win either of their last games. But strange things can happen when a team’s back is against the wall after a lot of adversity. Maybe Turner, a defensive whiz who has struggled as a scorer, finds that in her in these closing games. Maybe the Mercury get hot from behind the arc. Maybe DeShields takes over, as her ability allows her to do. Or maybe they lose both games, miss the postseason and then the postmortem on this season starts in earnest.
Should Phoenix advance to the postseason, it will likely face a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Without Diggins-Smith’s 19.7 PPG — nearly 20% of the Mercury’s offense — and team-high 5.5 APG, how far do you see the team advancing?
Just making the playoffs at this point would be a huge accomplishment. It seems unlikely the Mercury will go beyond the first round, obviously. They would have to play the best defense they can play and get hot from behind the arc.
What is Diggins-Smith’s future in Phoenix?
All season, it has been obvious that Nygaard and Diggins-Smith do not have a good working relationship. It seems nearly impossible that both are going to be in Phoenix next season. Maybe neither will.
Sandy Brondello was let go after eight seasons last year in the wake of the disappointment of the Mercury losing in the WNBA Finals. But Brondello almost immediately got another job, with New York, because she is a reliable veteran coach who has shown she can manage players’ egos.
All of Nygaard’s previous experience as a head coach was at the high school level, although she has been an assistant in the WNBA. There is so much to manage as a WNBA head coach behind-the-scenes, and this season would have tested even a veteran. Still, Nygaard got the job, so she has to be up to the task, no matter how hard. That’s the way it is in pro sports.
Diggins-Smith has had an outstanding season, but it has ended in a bad way. She turned 32 earlier this month and still appears to have a lot of good basketball in front of her. According to salary-cap information provided by Her Hoops Stats, Diggins-Smith is signed with Phoenix through next season and will be an unrestricted free agent in 2024.
Diggins-Smith was drafted No. 3 overall behind 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 went to Dallas the next year when the franchise moved and was a starter with the Wings in 2016, 2017 and 2018. She sat out the 2019 season after giving birth to her son and then requested a trade from Dallas.
Diggins-Smith talked then about dealing with postpartum depression and seemed eager for a fresh start in Phoenix. She has contributed a lot to the Mercury in her three seasons and is a popular player with the fans. But if this is the end of her time in Phoenix, where does she go next and what does it mean for the Mercury?
Phoenix’s iconic player is the 40-year-old Taurasi and the franchise’s other longtime star is still imprisoned in Russia. Now Diggins-Smith might be on the way out and the Mercury have many issues to face in the coming months.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.