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What is Wrong With the Phoenix Mercury? Just Take a Look at the Numbers

While many basketball fans have spent the past few weeks focused on the NBA playoffs, the WNBA tipped off its 20th season. When the WNBA first began, there were 8 teams. Of those 8 teams, one -- the Phoenix Mercury-- holds a special place in my heart like all of my other hometown teams. In 2014, the Phoenix Mercury were the WNBA champions and in 2015, they lost to the Minnesota Lynx (who went on to be the 2015 WNBA champions) in the conference final. So for the last few seasons, the Mercury have been a great team. This season, they welcomed back Diana Taurasi who sat out last season due to international play and have a roster full of talent.

In anticipation of the start of the season, conducted a survey of General Manager season predictions. When asked which team will win the 2016 WNBA championship, 58% responded with the Phoenix Mercury. However, four games into their season, the Phoenix Mercury were 0-4. This prompted the article What’s Wrong with the Phoenix Mercury? which places blame on Penny Taylor and Taurasi for not reacclimating well. It also blames Griner for not blocking well and states “Bonner, the Mercury’s go-to perimeter stopper, looks a beat off. Ditto for Candice Dupree. And the Mercury have had to rely on some inexperience”. As of June 19th, the Mercury are now 4-9 and while some points from that article may be valid, is it backed up by the numbers?

In order to examine this, we will look at the projected wins produced for 2015 and compare it to projected wins produced for 2016 based on each player’s current performance. Wins Produced is a metric used to measure an individual player’s contributions towards wins. It was developed by David Berri and further information regarding the calculations can be found here. The following table shows the projected wins produced in 2015 (2014 for Tausari and Taylor Final Wins Produced based on 2016 performance).

If all the players performed similarly to 2015, the Mercury would be projected to have a record of 28-6. Based on their current performance for the 2016 season, they are projected to have a record of 15-19. We can look at the individual players to see where these changes are coming from.

We see that based on performance this year, if Taylor’s current performance doesn’t change, she will improve her wins produced by 1.03 wins. In fact, Taylor and Bonner (yes, same Bonner that was described as “a beat off”) have combined to produced more than 80% of the team’s wins to date. Meanwhile, both Taurasi and Griner have significantly lower wins produced calculations based on the current 2016 performance than what would have been projected based on the previous years' performance. Together, they account for more than 10 (10.4) of the missing wins; or the difference between what is projected based on previous performance what we see from current 2016 performance.

And this is the power of numbers. By looking at all the box score numbers (which go into the Wins Produced calculation) we can easily see -- you just have to look at the table to see this -- who is responsible for the outcomes we observe. The Mercury's problems are almost entirely due to Taurasi and Griner not performing as they did in the past.

We are often told that TEAMS won and TEAMS lost. But the stats allow us to see which specific players are responsible for the outcomes we see.

Now that we have discovered this, we know what has to happen for the Mercury to become the team we expected. Griner and Taurasi have to become the players we expect. Thankfully, with 21 games left in the season, there is time for these two players to improve and the Mercury to be what us fans hoped they would be!

You can follow the author of this article on Twitter at @tiffanygreer44.

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