Corey Gaines had that Cheshire-cat smile last year at the WNBA draft lottery, the one that seemed to say, "We just got the grand prize. There's no stopping us now."
Not even a year later, though, Gaines is out of his job as Phoenix's coach and general manager. These things happen when you are guiding a team loaded with talent -- including the No. 1 draft pick -- but you're a game below .500 with a little more than a month left in the regular season.
Phoenix was expecting far, far more from this year than a 10-11 record on Aug. 7. And even though the Mercury were still in third place in the Western Conference with that mark, the frustration level in Phoenix seemed to be getting toxic.
Gaines had been head coach with the Mercury since taking over for former boss Paul Westhead in 2008. Gaines had been with the Mercury in their best times, winning a title in 2009, and also some of their worst -- specifically, last season's 7-27 mark. That record irritated fans around the league who believed Phoenix had tanked to get a chance at the draft lottery and Baylor center Brittney Griner.
Gaines vehemently denied the suggestion that the Mercury had given up in order to enter the Griner sweepstakes.
What's the truth of the Mercury's 2012 season? I doubt Phoenix actively tried to lose games, but it also seemed that the Mercury didn't always try to do everything they could to win, either. Whether that's a subtly distinct difference or an irrelevant one is up for conjecture.
Whatever the case, when the Mercury wound up atop the draft lottery, some folks were already predicting a third WNBA championship for the franchise. The veterans who were hurt for all or part of last season -- led by Diana Taurasi -- were back in the fold and ready to welcome the 6-foot-8 Griner. What could go wrong?
Well, I expected things actually wouldn't be all that smooth and easy in Phoenix. The personnel -- and their playing time -- for last season's Mercury wasn't going to match up with what the team was this year. So there were bound to be some conflicts, some bruised egos, some disappointments.
I figured Phoenix would "get it" after a while, although I still didn't think even then that the Mercury had the best shot of winning the Western Conference. That was Minnesota, a team that returned most of its very clearly defined and filled roles from the past two seasons.
The Lynx, despite their 10-game winning streak ending Thursday, indeed have been the WNBA's best team -- while the Mercury have been the biggest enigma.
Was Griner's not-bad-but-not-fantastic rookie performance so far the biggest tell-tale sign that Gaines was in trouble? It's certainly one of the most obvious. For all the years that Phoenix played without much of a "true" center, you theorized that if the Mercury got one, it would be like, "Wow, she's just what we always needed."
Instead, too often this season, it has seemed like the Mercury wanted to incorporate Griner and her strengths more, but just couldn't quite figure out how to do it. Of course, she has had some injury issues, too, providing more rough spots in her transition from college.
Ultimately, Phoenix is a team with a player who has as strong a personality as anyone in the league: Taurasi. If she and Gaines were growing distant or had friction, they likely tried to work on it … but it wasn't getting better.
Sometimes a coach loses a team over a prolonged time -- gradually but inevitably -- and when the sides finally get so far apart, the end just seems perfunctory (and almost merciful) when it happens. Other times, it's the proverbial snowball … once it starts rolling, it picks up speed and size and eventually becomes unstoppable until it crashes at the bottom.
I get the feeling the situation with Gaines was more the latter. The Mercury didn't come into this season all out of sorts. On the contrary, they seemed exhilarated and excited.
But their opening-day loss at home to Chicago now seems more prophetic than it did at the time. It wasn't a hiccup, but an indicator that Phoenix had more bugs to work out than maybe anyone knew.
Gaines leaves this job with a WNBA title on his head coaching résumé; Russ Pennell comes in having never coached a women's team before, but he is familiar with the Mercury.
Is Pennell really auditioning for a potential long-term role, or is he warming a seat for the coach that Griner will evolve and grow under starting in 2014?
Will hearing things from a new voice and seeing a different philosophy employed energize a Mercury team that surely didn't expect to be in this position?
That's what we'll watch for now. Maybe Gaines didn't do anything terribly wrong. But for a team with Phoenix's potential to not even have a winning record likely means Gaines wasn't doing enough right, either.