The WNBA is locked into three tiers at this point of the season.
There's the tippy top with the contenders: the defending champion
Chicago Sky (who may need a tier of their own soon), Las Vegas
Aces, Connecticut Sun, Seattle Storm and Washington Mystics.
The Indiana Fever are in their own Tier of Woe, sporting the
worst record in the league (5-24) despite having an
All-Star-caliber guard in Kelsey Mitchell, and plenty of young
talent to be excited about moving forward.
And then there's the middle. A hodgepodge of teams seeded
6-through-11 that are a week away from earning praise or garnering
"will-they-miss-the-playoffs-altogether?" discussions. There are
six teams separated by three games, fighting for the final three
playoff spots. It's a fun or stressful race, depending on who you
The Phoenix Mercury are currently making a push in that middle
We aren't far removed from wondering if it was best to blow things up. We've
had a sideline star dustup, a future Hall-of-Famer leaving
midseason and joining one of the contenders shortly after, and a
clown emoji situation that I'm still cackling about. The Mercury
haven't just been an underwhelming team this season, they ranked
very low on the "good-vibes" scale.
Here they are though: 6-4 in their last 10 games, quietly
pushing their way to the eighth and final playoff seed. Since June 25, they have a
better offense than the Storm and Sun, and a better defense and net
rating than the Aces.
Despite ranking last in pace during this stretch, the Mercury
are going full Moreyball to give themselves a shot. Nearly 70% of
their shot attempts have come from three or at the rim; they lead
the W in three-point attempts (29.6, 36.7 per 100 possessions) and
their 20.7 free-throw attempts rank second behind the Dallas Wings
Skylar Diggins-Smith (23-5-6-2-1 in her last 10) continues to
play MVP-caliber ball. Diana Taurasi is starting to perk up,
averaging 24 points (while shooting 39.3% from three on 11.2
attempts) over her last five games after struggling beforehand
(15.5 points and 32.5% from three on 8.0 attempts).
Right behind them in production is Sophie Cunningham, whose
insertion into the starting lineup as a small-ball 4 has juiced the
offense. She's averaging a shade under 17 points during this
stretch behind ridiculous shooting. A 42.5% clip on 8.0 attempts is
typo-level good, especially when you factor how many of her threes
are coming off of movement.
To that point: Cunningham at the 4 has made life easier for
everyone around her, while putting more strain on
The Mercury's Friday night beatdown of the Seattle Storm gave us
plenty of examples. Cunningham herself had a solid outing — 19
points, including 5-of-10 shooting from three — but the way she was
used continuously put the Storm in tough spots.
Take the opening bucket from Phoenix.
The Mercury go with a high pick-and-roll between Taurasi and
Brianna Turner. Even at this stage of her career, defenses have to
respect Taurasi's ability to pull up. That's what makes
Cunningham's positioning key; she's one pass away, which puts
strain on Breanna Stewart as a helper since she's responsible for
tagging Turner on the roll.
With Tina Charles stepping up to take away Taurasi's space,
Stewart is stuck between tagging Turner on the roll or sticking
with Cunningham on the perimeter. Cunningham exacerbates this issue
by lifting higher on the floor, and eventually gets an open three
out of it.
I even think of quieter possessions like this, with Cunningham
stashed in the weakside corner. It doesn't lead to a bucket, but
look at who makes the rotation on this drive from Diggins-Smith,
where it comes from (the strong side, a general no-no), and the
difference in urgency compared to Cunningham's defender.
The Mercury have found success using Cunningham as part of their
HORNS or HORNS-adjacent sets. Using her as a screener or flare
option means involving a big; most of whom aren't used to defending
movement shooters. Stewart is a legitimate DPOY candidate and you
see how she isn't exempt from making hard choices in space.
Beyond that, Cunningham embraces contact. That leads to #antics
at times, but in general, her willingness to get her hands dirty
makes her a pretty useful off-ball threat. She doesn't mind prying
others open. And because of her shooting ability and spatial
awareness, defenses really have to be connected
or they risk giving up something easy.
I loved the Mercury going to this set on back-to-back
possessions in the fourth quarter on Friday night. Cunningham
starts in the corner this time, but the objective is for her to
screen for Taurasi and see what opens up.
On the first trip, Cunningham's lead block creates a triple for
On the next one, Cunningham slips into open space against a
switch. Remember, folks: the best way to beat a switch is with a
It's important to stress that the Mercury are generating these
looks against the Seattle Storm, the team that had the best
defensive rating in the W heading into Friday night's
Since June 25, the Mercury are
outscoring teams by 9.3 points per 100 possessions with the
Cunningham-Turner pairing on the floor. The starting unit with
those two, Diggins-Smith, Taurasi and Shey Peddy has posted a
plus-13.1 net rating in that time frame — one of the best marks in
Long term, the bellwether for Sophie-at-4 lineups will continue
to be the defense. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, Cunningham is
at a size disadvantage against most 4s. Teams haven't been shy
attacking her on the block; per InStat tracking, she's defended 16
post-ups in the last three games. She's held up for the most part;
again, she embraces physicality, and she also contests pretty well
The issue is what happens after the shot. Her opponent may miss,
but they'll likely have the fast track to an offensive rebound. And
to that point: the Mercury have by far the
worst defensive rebound rate in
the W over their past 10 games, grabbing just 62% of misses.
Overall, things have worked because Cunningham has been so good
offensively. The shooting, and the multiple platforms it can be
used in, has juiced the Mercury's attack.
As long as that continues, they'll be in good shape to hold onto
a playoff spot.