Sandy Brondello, head coach of the Phoenix Mercury since 2014, knows that winning a WNBA Championship is not easy.
In five seasons as a WNBA player-two with the Detroit Shock (1998-99), two with the Miami Sol (2001-02) and one with the Seattle Storm (2003) -the one-time All-Star (1999) the playoffs two stop. In 1999, the Shock bowed in the first round and lost their singles. In 2001, the Sol fell 2-1 in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference.
The start of her WNBA coaching career, a one-season stint at the San Antonio Silver Stars in 2010, made her more aware of the difficulty of winning at a high level in the WNBA. Despite a typical 14-20 season, the Stars qualify for the playoffs, but are summarily swept 2-0 in the semifinals of the Western Conference by Brondello’s future team, the Phoenix Mercury.
However, when she took over the lead job in Phoenix in 2014, she took control of a juggernaut. With the headline of an in-her-first Diana Taurasi, the Mercury would unleash one of the most dominant seasons in WNBA history.
The fantastic Phoenix Mercury of 2014
A star who started five – Taurasi, a second-year Brittney Griner, a then four-time All-Star Candice Dupree, an up-and-coming DeWanna Bonner and the exciting Penny Taylor – all scored in double figures as they beat through the league with a 29-5 record – the best of all time – with a net score of 12.1. They won the title and dropped only one of their eight playoff games. Brondello was also named coach of the year.
The Mercury looked like the next WNBA dynasty, destined for the coming seasons to be in the championship battle, if not the title.
However, Taurasi did not pick the next season, tempted to skip it and maintain her physical condition due to a generous payday from her overseas team, UMMC Ekaterinburg. Taylor also skipped the 2015 season for personal reasons. The Mercury does not sag without their superstar and her teammate, finishing 20-14 and advancing to the semifinals of the Western Conference. But a repeat was not expected.
Brondello, Mercury stuck in the semifinals
The following season, the first five of the 2014 title team were restored, which was apparently the plan for the Mercury to win the trophy again.
Yet the magic of 2014 could not be easily regained. Phoenix finished below .500 at 16-18 and behind the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks in the Western Conference position. He was able to advance to the semifinals and is swept 3-0 by the Lynx.
The 2017 and 2018 seasons were similar stories. In 2017, after Taylor retired, Dupree left for Indiana and Bonner for the season due to pregnancy, the Mercury managed to finish just over .500 at 18-16 and survive to the semifinals in the playoffs. But once again, they are swept away and dropped three games to the Sparks. Bonner’s return led to a stronger performance in the 2018 regular season, with a record of 20-14. However, the semifinals were again an insurmountable obstacle for Mercury. In one of the most exciting semifinals in WNBA history, Phoenix falls to eventual champion Seattle Storm in five games.
Despite being employed by the player who was recently proclaimed the greatest in the history of the league, Phoenix could not figure out a way to advance to another WNBA final.
More shortcomings after the season for Mercury
Then even the semifinals for Phoenix in 2019 and 2020 became elusive.
Injuries and absences largely explain Mercury’s decline. Taurasi missed almost the entire 2019 season with a back injury, while the Griner-Bonner tandem could only take a talented Mercury after a 15-19 record and a playoff game in the first round. The unprecedented nature of 2020 prevented Phoenix’s new ‘Big 3’, with Skylar Diggins-Smith replacing Bonner, from becoming a true title contender as Griner chose the second half of the season for mental health reasons. Led by Taurasi and Diggins-Smith, and a clutch three-pointer of Shey Peddy, the Mercury escaped their first round elimination match before losing in the second round.
Even though the Mercury seemed to be further away from winning another season per season, Brondello somewhat somewhat confusingly escaped the serious job search. Although the Phoenix teams of 2016-2020 certainly did not experience the ideal confluence of conditions in 2014, it is easy to argue that they underperform.
Yet the organization remains committed to Brondello.
Brondello, Mercury finally back in the final
This season, the steadfastness of Phoenix has borne fruit.
Although their usual season in 2021 does not necessarily include confidence in Mercury status as a true champion competition, Brondello instilled a sense of spirit and resilience in this team, features that seem to be lacking in previous seasons.
Earlier this season, Brondello provided insight into her team’s mentality, tell wnba.com:
We control our own destiny and do not want to become too high or too low. We can not become complacent. Every game is different, and mentally I think we are in the right place. I think it’s an honor to have a veteran team.
Peddy echoes her head coach, say:
We teach each other, what buttons we need to push to get someone going. We know we need to stay in the game, limit our arguments with the refs and not get discouraged. It’s just a ‘next play, next play’ mentality.
At the outset of a recent media availability, Taurasi emphasized the ‘confidence’ and ‘focus’ of the team.
To make this journey to the final just as fruitful as the eight seasons ago, Brondello must find a way to dispel all the confidence, focus, positivity and faith she has brought from this team.
In game 1, the combination of exhaustion and exhaustion led to a blowout loss and thus gave up Phoenix’s advantage in the home field. The big task of winning three of the next four games is exacerbated by the absence of Kia Nurse due to an ACL, as well as Taurasi’s continued management of an ankle and foot injury,
While nothing compares to the fateful season of 2014, it would be the most impressive coach of Brondello’s career to lead the Mercury to the championship through this adversity.
Sandy and her team no longer have to stand in the semifinals, and have a title to win!