Commentary

What's next for the Mercury?

With season over, franchise focuses on coaching decision, players head overseas

Updated: October 3, 2013, 8:32 AM ET
By Michelle Smith | espnW.com

Russ PennellChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesAfter Russ Pennell took over as interim coach, the Mercury went 9-4 and reached the West finals.

PHOENIX -- It's an hour before the Mercury take the court against Minnesota in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, and interim head coach Russ Pennell has just arrived at the arena.

He doesn't like to get there too soon, sometimes even avoiding the trip with the team bus on the road in order to give himself a little extra time.

Pennell heads to his office to make a few notes on his white board, pregame thoughts that turned out to be about the final matchup of the season.

And with Phoenix getting swept out of the playoffs Sunday, the question now becomes: What's next?

The Mercury hired Pennell on Aug. 8 after firing Corey Gaines. Less than 24 hours later, Pennell was on the court with the team.

"I had to ask [coach] Julie [Hairston] what everybody's name was," Pennell said. "I would call them by their school: 'Tennessee, c'mon, get in there.' "

[+] EnlargeDiana Taurasi
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsDiana Taurasi would like Russ Pennell to stay on as Phoenix's head coach. "He has my vote," she said.

Pennell was 9-4 with the Mercury, taking them from a 10-11 team when he arrived to the Western Conference finals.

He did not come in and revamp the Mercury; rather, he tweaked the team, putting an emphasis on defense end and helping the Mercury -- a team some picked to win the 2013 WNBA title -- salvage a 19-15 record and a third-place finish in the tough West.

"He's done a fantastic job," Mercury general manager Amber Cox said. "He came in under extreme circumstances, very little practice time. To his credit, he didn't try to uproot and change everything in the middle of the season. He focused on a few small things and then built a few things as we went along. You have to credit the players for buying in, and that obviously starts with Diana [Taurasi]. She, from the get-go, said, 'I'm on board.' "

Taurasi would like to see Pennell return.

"He has my vote," Taurasi said. "It's pretty impressive what he came in and did. He just came in and shored some things up and it really helped us in a lot of games. He's a steady force in the huddle that really helped us."

Whether Pennell returns to the Phoenix bench is, in reality, a two-way decision. The Mercury have to decide whether they want to offer Pennell the job. And Pennell, who has 30 years of coaching experience but had never coached professional women's basketball before this stretch with the Mercury, has to decide whether he wants to take it.

Cox said the team will sit with Pennell at the end of the season and talk it over. "We are definitely open to him staying," she said.

Pennell enjoyed the experience.

"The quality of play is just so high. As a basketball purist, I enjoy great athletes who know how to play the game," he said. "The people here have been exceptionally kind and nice. The players have bought into everything I've asked them to do. And everybody here has given me the tools, resources and advice I've needed."

Pennell is open to the possibility of removing the interim label from his title.

"Honestly, I can't say I haven't thought about it, but I have not pressed the issue and nor have they, and I wanted it that way," Pennell said. "It's a lot easier to say, 'Let's finish it out and then we'll talk about it.' I have always been open to anything."

As Mercury management begins the process of putting a head coach in place, the players begin to scatter.

Taurasi will report to the U.S. national team camp in Las Vegas, then take a little time off before heading to Russia to spend another winter overseas. Rookie Brittney Griner, with her debut WNBA season under her belt, is headed to China for her first overseas experience after the USA Basketball camp.

Pennell said Griner, who averaged 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds in 23 games (she missed seven games with a knee injury), has work to do.

"The biggest thing for her is she has got to get physically stronger, and that's going to help her more than anything," Pennell said. "Right now, she doesn't have the brawn or the strength to hold her position. She's constantly fighting to get to a spot that we've asked her to get to and right now, she's not physically able to do that. She knows that."

But Pennell admired the way Griner handled the spotlight and demands all season.

"Everyone is pulling at her," Pennell said.

The Mercury roster in 2014 is likely to look very similar to this year. Griner, Taurasi, DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree are all signed.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is what happens with veteran forward Penny Taylor, who was out of the lineup most of the year battling knee injuries. Taylor played in 12 games all season, starting five. Phoenix was at its best when Taylor was able to play.

"Penny is one of the best players in the world, and when you take her out of the mix, it hurts what we were trying to do," Taurasi said. "When she played, we looked really good. You could look around and say, 'Wow, we could do some damage.' "

Taurasi is proud of a team that moved through a "strange" season, from the Mercury receiving the No. 1 draft pick last winter, to the midseason coaching change, and to a playoff performance that fell short of some people's expectations.

"It was a little weird, the story didn't end the way we wanted it to, but everyone in that locker room fought hard," Taurasi said after Sunday's loss. "We worked through things, everyone was upbeat. When they made the coaching change, it could have been a foregone season, but we stood with it. I'm happy."

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com

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