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How Skylar Diggins-Smith’s absence impacts Phoenix’s playoff hopes and beyond

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  • M.A. VoepelESPN.com

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      M.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, along with other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and contains been with ESPN since 1996.

The Phoenix Mercury announced Thursday that Skylar Diggins-Smith would skip the final two regular-season games this year. The Mercury likewise have suspended her contract, so she’ll not be returning in 2022 even though the team makes the playoffs.

Heading into Thursday night’s games, Phoenix is in four-way tie at 14-20 in the standings, with five teams vying for the ultimate two playoff spots. The LA Sparks, who play Thursday, will undoubtedly be eliminated with a loss. Phoenix finishes the growing season hosting the Dallas Wings on Friday and the Chicago Sky on Sunday. Since winning the franchise’s second title in 2009, the Mercury have missed the playoffs only once, in 2012.

But 2022 has been very hard for the Mercury under first-year head coach Vanessa Nygaard, you start with Brittney Griner‘s detention in Russia in February. Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi had a confrontation on the bench in-may, Tina Charles left the team in June, Diggins-Smith used a clown emoji on Twitter in apparent mention of Nygaard in July, Taurasi happens to be out with a quad injury and today Diggins-Smith is completed for the growing season.

Somehow, the Mercury still have the opportunity at the playoffs. Exactly what will it take for Phoenix to help make the postseason, and what does the near future appear to be for the Mercury and Diggins-Smith? We take a peek.

So how exactly does Diggins-Smith’s absence for Phoenix’s final two regular-season games impact the Mercury’s hopes of achieving the playoffs?

You can find only so many hits a team may take, and the Mercury took many of them. They did win Saturday’s game contrary to the NY Liberty without either Taurasi or Diggins-Smith. That has been thanks to a fantastic defensive effort that held the Liberty to 62 points, while Diamond DeShields scored a season-high 25 points.

The Mercury got career highs in scoring from Shey Peddy and Megan Gustafson on Wednesday, but fell to Minnesota 86-77. Following the game, Gustafson discussed the significance of the Mercury players continuing to encourage one another.

Another two opponents, the Wings and the Sky, have previously secured playoff berths but both desire to go in to the postseason on a higher note. Dallas won five in a row before falling to the in-desperation-mode Liberty on Wednesday. Chicago has been among the league’s best teams all season and may be the defending champion. The Mercury are 1-2 against Dallas this year and 0-2 contrary to the Sky.

Diggins-Smith has been one of the primary threats offensively in the league this year, as a scorer and a playmaker. To be blunt, her absence really may be the difference between your Mercury likely to the postseason rather than going.

The Mercury played their past two games without Diggins-Smith. How will the starting lineup continue being adjusted without her? Who must intensify?

Sophie Cunningham is really a strong candidate for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award and contains been among the rocks for the Mercury in a season where so much has happened. Cunningham is really a tireless competitor and team player. Not absolutely all WNBA fans are keen on her, heading back to her university days at Mizzou, due to her aggressive play. But in the event that you are searching for somebody who is always likely to give her all rather than quit, that’s Cunningham. The Mercury could have no chance at the playoffs if she hadn’t made the strides she’s this year.

Cunningham started Wednesday’s game alongside Peddy, DeShields, Brianna Turner and Jennie Simms, who has played in 21 games this year after last appearing in the WNBA in 2017. Yvonne Turner has appeared in seven games with the Mercury this year, after lately playing in the WNBA in 2019. The veteran guard, who’ll be 35 in October, played 10 minutes on Wednesday. And Gustafson was probably the most successful player off the Mercury bench on Wednesday.

The bottom line is, the Mercury are such as a patchwork quilt at this time. They bear no resemblance to the team Nygaard thought she’d be coaching when she took the work. However the Mercury players may also be ready now where they know it’s literally right down to this group that’s still standing, and they’ll be using a sense of attempting to prove something.

Good sense would say the Mercury don’t possess good odds to win either of these last games. But strange things can occur whenever a team’s back is contrary to the wall following a large amount of adversity. Maybe Turner, a defensive whiz who has struggled as a scorer, finds that in her in these closing games. Maybe the Mercury get hot from behind the arc. Maybe DeShields gets control, as her ability allows her to accomplish. Or possibly they lose both games, skip the postseason and the postmortem with this season starts in earnest.

Should Phoenix advance to the postseason, it’ll likely face a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Without Diggins-Smith’s 19.7 PPG — nearly 20% of the Mercury’s offense — and team-high 5.5 APG, what lengths do you start to see the team advancing?

Just making the playoffs at this time will be a huge accomplishment. It appears unlikely the Mercury will exceed the initial round, obviously. They might need to play the very best defense they are able to play and obtain hot from behind the arc.

What’s Diggins-Smith’s future in Phoenix?

All season, it’s been obvious that Nygaard and Diggins-Smith don’t have an excellent working relationship. It appears extremely difficult that both will be in Phoenix next season. Maybe neither will.

Sandy Brondello was release after eight seasons this past year in the wake of the disappointment of the Mercury losing in the WNBA Finals. But Brondello almost immediately got another job, with NY, because she actually is a trusted veteran coach who shows she can manage players’ egos.

Most of Nygaard’s previous experience as a head coach was at the senior high school level, although she’s been an assistant in the WNBA. There’s so much to control as a WNBA head coach behind-the-scenes, which season could have tested a good veteran. Still, Nygaard got the work, so she’s to depend on the task, regardless of how hard. That is the way it really is in pro sports.

Diggins-Smith has already established a superb season, nonetheless it is finished in a negative way. She turned 32 earlier this month but still seems to have plenty of good basketball before her. In accordance with salary-cap information supplied by Her Hoops Stats, Diggins-Smith is signed with Phoenix through next season and you will be an unrestricted free agent in 2024.

Diggins-Smith was drafted No. 3 overall behind Griner and Elena Delle Donne in 2013. She began her career in Tulsa and had her 2015 season cut short after nine games by an ACL injury. She visited Dallas another year once the franchise moved and was a starter with the Wings in 2016, 2017 and 2018. She sat out the 2019 season after having a baby to her son and requested a trade from Dallas.

Diggins-Smith talked then about coping with postpartum depression and seemed looking forward to a fresh begin in Phoenix. She’s contributed too much to the Mercury in her three seasons and is really a popular player with the fans. But if this is actually the end of her amount of time in Phoenix, where does she go next and what does it mean for the Mercury?

Phoenix’s iconic player may be the 40-year-old Taurasi and the franchise’s other longtime star continues to be imprisoned in Russia. Now Diggins-Smith may be along the way out and the Mercury have many issues to handle in the coming months.

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