Skylar Diggins-Smith: Phoenix Mercury are closer to a potential rebuild than we think

In 2021, the Phoenix Mercury appeared to be a complete team. The Mercury appeared to be on the cusp of delivering one more WNBA championship for Diana Taurasi with her getting closer and closer to calling it a career. 

That team had a big three of Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith with a goal of winning a fourth championship for the Mercury franchise. 

The Chicago Sky, led by Candace Parker, Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley had other ideas as they dispatched the Mercury in four games. 

Since then, there has been no shortage of headlines that has come from the Mercury – and one of those occurred via Diggins-Smith’s Twitter account. 

She was asked about why the Mercury did not acknowledge her birthday and she mentioned that there would not be any acknowledgement of anything having to do with her. On top of everything else, Diggins-Smith also Tweeted that she is devoid of access to the Mercury’s practice facilities or trainers. 

Instead, as Girls Talk Sports TV’s Khristina Williams re-posted in one of her Instagram stories, Diggins-Smith has instead had to train at a local YMCA. All of this after she gave birth to her second child. 

One of the most recognizable and important star players in all of the WNBA from both an on- and off-court perspective – and an organization is in its feelings so deep that said player has had to make use of a YMCA facility to get herself back in game shape.

The number of ramifications from this are certainly wide-ranging, but one of those has to do with the Phoenix Mercury as an organization itself. 

The last thing the Mercury ought to be doing is ticking off one of their marquee players to the point where she has clearly had it with the organization. And between the bench-area back-and-forth that happened last year between Diggins-Smith and Taurasi as well as her clown emoji Tweet in response to former coach Vanessa Nygaard saying that last year’s All-Star Game wasn’t an All-Star Game without Taurasi, Diggins-Smith is not exactly feeling the purple and orange right now. And that is not even mentioning Tina Charles’ contract divorce from the Mercury midway through last season. 

The Mercury recently underwent an ownership change where the franchise was transferred from the dumpster fire that was Robert Sarver to Mat Ishbia. Since then, Ishbia has made headlines of his own since his purchase of the Mercury and Suns. 

Those headlines have included firing Nygaard in favor of Nikki Blue, firing Monty Williams as Suns coach in favor of Frank Vogel and announcing that next year’s All-Star weekend will take place at Footprint Center. 

It is clear that the ownership change to Ishbia has done very little – if anything at all – to change how Diggins-Smith feels about the Mercury. She wants out – and the sooner the better. And the realization that Diggins-Smith is, indeed, finished with the Mercury should allow realization to set in with many of the X-Factor.

The Phoenix Mercury are closing in on a rebuild quickly. 

That is the reality when dealing with a team that is stacked with veterans but is still formidable on paper. It should be on the franchise to mend fences with Diggins-Smith to potentially stave of a rebuild and get Taurasi that one more championship. 

But the sobering reality is that Diggins-Smith wants out, Taurasi may very well retire after playing in one more Olympics and working All-Star next year. In addition, as thankful that we are that BG is back on American soil, she is not getting any younger. 

The Diggins-Smith saga really begs the question if it is even worth it for the organization to contend for a playoff berth this season. We know it is worth it to Taurasi and Griner because they are proud competitors who want to win every game they play. 

But is it worth it to Ishbia? Is it worth it to general manager Nick U’Ren who was only named GM a few months ago after leaving his former post at the Golden State Warriors? Is it worth it to assistant general manager Monica Wright Rogers? Is it worth it to Mercury president Vince Kozar? Even if Phoenix does get into the playoffs, it will almost certainly be as the eighth seed where another two-game exit by the Las Vegas Aces awaits them on the other side. 

At least throwing the towel in on the season will give the Mercury a chance to have the ping-pong balls go their way in the lottery, win the No. 1 overall draft pick and select Caitlin Clark (Iowa) as the heir apparent to Taurasi. 

As for Diggins-Smith, this has to be incredibly frustrating for her given that this is now the second franchise that she has had issues with regarding treatment during a pregnancy. Remember, she wrote an article at The Players’ Tribune mentioning that she played a season while pregnant when she was wearing the blue and volt green of the Dallas Wings. 

Not to mention, the protections of motherhood (or lack thereof) were mentioned by former Las Vegas Ace Dearica Hamby when she went public with allegations against that organization on social media. Hamby was, of course, traded from the Aces to the Los Angeles Sparks despite women such as Becky Hammon, Nikki Fargas and Natalie Williams being key members of the Aces front office. 

What has to frustrate Diggins-Smith more than the treatment she says she is receiving from the Mercury is how the WNBPA has yet to issue a statement regarding what Diggins-Smith mentioned on her Twitter account. 

Terri Jackson, Nneka Ogwumike and the rest of the union had no problems going to bat for Hamby when she leveled her allegations against the Aces. Diggins-Smith is one of the marquee players in this league from both a basketball and a cultural perspective. It really makes it jarring why the union has not gone all in to protect a player as important to women’s basketball as SDS is. 

Protections for motherhood were supposed to be addressed in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement that was struck between players and league prior to the onset of the pandemic. That CBA lasts until 2027 but both sides have an opt-out clause after the 2025 season. The players were more than likely already going to opt-out from that CBA because of their hardening stance in favor of charter flights, but one would think that this, not to mention when prioritization really becomes a thing next year, will only make the union more determined to opt-out. 

Things like Diggins-Smith’s beef with the league make it a bit more clear why Maya Moore, Te’a Cooper and, yes, even Liz Cambage, decided to either take breaks from (or walk entirely away from) the W the first opportunities they had.  

Then there’s the matter of the trade deadline – and where Diggins-Smith will call home next. Phoenix was supposed to be the franchise that would deliver her that first championship. WNBA Twitter has been begging for U’Ren to trade Diggins-Smith to the Indiana Fever more than likely because of the Notre Dame connection plus to provide a veteran presence in that locker room that can further mold Aliyah Boston into becoming a superstar. 

But Diggins-Smith likely would not want to play long term in Indiana at this stage in her career. She is a seasoned veteran who almost certainly wants to be part of a team with a legitimate opportunity at a championship. On paper, the New York Liberty would make sense since she is signed to the Roc Nation Sports Agency, but would Jonathan Kolb have the room (cap space) for her. 

It was amazing how the Liberty worked salary cap wizardry to find the room for Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot without having to give up either Sabrina Ionescu or Betnijah Laney. 

And the Aces would likely not be an option not only because of the Hamby saga but would they also potentially want to disrupt their core of A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young, Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray for another veteran player. 

On paper, the Washington Mystics would be an option but it seems they cannot contend because they cannot stay healthy. This means a current contender such as the Connecticut Sun or even a team on the rise like the Atlanta Dream may make the most sense. 

One would think that the Mercury would rather trade Diggins-Smith rather than simply see her walk in free agency. This, of course, means finding a trade partner – or multiple trade partners – and hopefully being happy with a package said team would offer. Unless the plan is to get in a position to draft Clark next year, getting nothing in return for Diggins-Smith would potentially only quicken the onset of a rebuild and prolong how lengthy said rebuild may take place.

It is not often that one sees teams only a couple seasons removed from a Finals appearance to a potential rebuild – but the Chicago Sky are undergoing something similar today given they lost its entire core sans Kahleah Copper in one free agent period. Candace Parker joined the Aces, Courtney Vandersloot joined the Liberty and Allie Quigley is taking time away from the W. 

But when the organization let longtime coach Sandy Brondello walk to Atlantic and Flatbush, it was as if it was one last middle finger from former boss Sarver to the X-Factor. Remember, it was in November 2021 when allegations about misconduct, racism and misogyny regarding Sarver started bubbling to the surface. A month later, Brondello was let go from her post as the Mercury’s head coach and replaced by Nygaard who, as the tumultuous 2022 season displayed, never had the Phoenix locker room the way Brondello had.

The Mercury are at the bottom of the W’s standings at 7-20 as of this writing. Even recent times have been indicative of a roller coaster for the X-Factor. Taurasi recently became the first player in WNBA history to score 10,000 points. BG recently took time off to focus on her mental and there was the gruesome injury Shey Peddy recently suffered which led to her being taken off the court at Footprint Center on a stretcher. 

Prayers to Shey. 

As of this writing, 13 games remain on the Mercury’s schedule. Five of those 13 are against either the Aces, Liberty and Sun – including their final two games of the season being a home-and-home with Las Vegas. What could work to the Mercury’s advantage is if the Aces are locked in to the No. 1 overall seed and Hammon decides to play load management with Wilson, Plum, Young and Gray so they can be fresh in time for the playoffs. That load management or lack thereof may also decide if Phoenix plays a couple more games are has an early start to their offseason.

And only time will tell if that early start to the offseason is a precursor to something else. It is never pleasant for fans of a team used to winning to have to adjust to a rebuild, but that may soon be the temperature of the climate for Arizona’s WNBA franchise.