The 2005 Phoenix Suns were one of the most efficient offensive teams in NBA history, following the breakneck lead of MVP Steve Nash, and the 2006 Suns led the league in pace again. The 2006 Mercury are coached by Paul Westhead, whose speedy system launched Loyola Marymount into the NCAA final eight in 1990 and an NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980.
The difference between the Suns and the Mercury is that Suns coach Mike D'Antoni saw that he had a bunch of greyhounds in Nash, Shawn Marion, and Amare Stoudemire, and built a system around them. Westhead, on the other hand, insists on cramming whichever pegs he has into his run-and-gun holes, which means that if his pegs are Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he could win a title, but the Denver Nuggets pegs in '91 and '92 were Reggie Williams and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and their record was 44-120.
The Mercury gave up 96 points to the Connecticut Sun in a preseason loss on Saturday night, but Westhead can't begin to make his case until Phoenix star Diana Taurasi, trade acquisition Kelly Miller, and Australian national Penny Taylor suit up. Taurasi was the Mercury leader, or near the lead, in every offensive category, and has said she's looking forward to the running game. Miller is likely to compile the best shooting percentages by any Mercury guard from three-point, two-point, and free-throw range.
#2 draft pick Cappie Poindexter might've earned a starting role right away with a different team; free agent Tamicha Jackson seems to have hot and cold shooting streaks that last all season.
This is where the square pegs-in-round holes problem will kill the Mercury. No matter which guards are releasing on the fast break -- Diana Taurasi, Diana Prince, whomever -- the forwards have to grab the rebound and make an outlet pass. In Phoenix's loss to Connecticut, Mercury centers Sandora Irvin and Mandisa Stevenson collected one defensive rebound in 41 minutes (last season's starter Kamila Vodichkova is still playing in Europe). The Sun pulled 12 offensive rebounds against the Mercury's 15 defensive rebounds; Sun point guard Erin Phillips, all 5-foot-7 of her, gathered four offensive rebounds. Worse, Irvin and Stevenson both have career shooting percentages of 32 percent.
Taylor was the team's second-leading scorer in 2005, but the rest of the frontcourt is cloudy. The Mercury is trying to convert big guard Bridget Pettis to a forward position, while rookie Ann Strother -- Taurasi's teammate on an undefeated UConn champion -- already has the swingwoman label. Another rookie, Jennifer Lacy, made an impression against Connecticut by shooting 4-of-6 and leading the team in rebounds as the fifth player off the bench.
Outlook: The Sun-Mercury boxscore is just one preseason boxscore, and the Mercury was missing three of its best players, but it does seem rather telling. The Sun committed 35 turnovers, which a running team should feast upon, but the Mercury shot just 37 percent. Taylor is not a rebounding forward, so the Mercury's trouble gathering enough defensive boards to trigger the fast break might linger all season. A poll at wnba.com said that Phoenix would be the most improved team, but I'm thinking that Phoenix is going to lose more 96-85 games than they win.