When Tina Charles signed with the Phoenix Mercury this past free agency, expectations soared of what the Mercury, fresh off a trip to the 2021 WNBA Finals, could do after forming an apparent superteam. Charles, the 2012 WNBA MVP, would be joining forces with the league's all-time leading scorer in Diana Taurasi, five-time All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith, seven-time All-Star Brittney Griner and a budding young talent in Diamond DeShields.
But four months later and 18 games into the 2022 season, Phoenix is 6-12, and any hope of a juggernaut -- or a team capable of winning a WNBA title -- emerging has seemingly been extinguished. The final blow came Saturday with Charles and the Mercury parting ways after agreeing to a contract divorce.
Things started to go awry in February, when Griner was wrongfully detained in Russia, according to the U.S. State Department, while attempting to enter the country to play for her overseas team. Having to replace a 6-foot-9 veteran who had been playing some of the best basketball of her career was never going to be an easy task, particularly for a first-time WNBA coach in Vanessa Nygaard, who took over in Phoenix after the Mercury decided not to renew the contract of Sandy Brondello.
Phoenix has struggled with injuries and illnesses to start 2022, but even with the talent it was able to field, the Mercury have largely underperformed. And after a heated mid-game exchange between Diggins-Smith and Taurasi on the bench in mid-May, fans speculated that something was amiss in Phoenix.
Now, the squad sits at 10th in the WNBA standings entering Saturday's game in Dallas -- the top eight teams advance to the playoffs -- and suddenly without their second-leading scorer and rebounder.
"Due to circumstances both in and out of our control, our season has not gone according to our plan, and we will continue to pursue all avenues for improvement," Mercury general manager Jim Pitman said in a statement announcing Charles' departure.
We look at how this impacts Charles, a 12-year veteran who is averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds this season, and her future in the WNBA, as well as what it means for the Mercury.
What's next for Charles in the short- and long-term? How likely is it that she ends up on another roster this season?
Charles needs to clear waivers, and it is expected that she will, as no team likely has cap space to claim her. When she does, she becomes an unrestricted free agent, and it's expected she would sign a rest-of-the-season contract. She would get a prorated amount of a base salary that is between the league minimum and maximum, based on when she signs the deal. The WNBA's 36-game regular season ends Aug. 14, and all teams entering Saturday had played between 16 and 20 games.
Charles desperately wants a WNBA championship, the only major accolade missing from her career résumé. She will have that top-of-mind in looking to join another team this season. Seattle seems likely to be her destination; the Storm are looking for the franchise's fifth championship. They only have cap space left for a minimum deal, but title potential and not salary look to be her primary concern.
Tina Charles drills the trey
Tina Charles drills the trey
Charles turns 34 in December, but is still playing at a high level. From a basketball standpoint, she remains an elite talent. From a chemistry standpoint, a team has to balance what she brings vs. potentially disrupting the team they have now. The Storm also have Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, three of Charles' U.S. Olympic teammates, which could make it an easier transition.
Let's be frank: Charles left Phoenix because this isn't the team she was expecting it to be when she signed as a free agent in early February. When the Mercury put together their hoped-for superteam, they had to know they were also combining a lot of big personalities and big egos. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. It clearly isn't working for the Mercury.
Charles, the No. 1 draft pick in 2010, started her WNBA career playing for the Connecticut Sun. They looked like title favorites in 2012, when Charles was league MVP, but lost to the Indiana Fever in the Eastern Conference finals. After coach Mike Thibault was let go, Charles spent one more year in Connecticut and then threatened to sit out if she wasn't traded to her hometown of New York, which she was in 2014. In the 2015 East finals, once again Charles was thwarted by Indiana.
She was ready to move on from the Liberty in 2020 and was traded to the Washington Mystics, but ended up not playing in the COVID-19 bubble season in Bradenton, Florida. She played last season with the Mystics and led the league in scoring. But with Elena Delle Donne missing all but three games of the season, the hoped-for pairing of MVPs in D.C. didn't happen.
It might sound harsh to say Charles is ring-chasing now, but it's probably the most realistic way to put it. She will go down as a great player and will be a Hall of Famer regardless of whether she wins a WNBA title. But she wants one, and it's not easy to get. -- Voepel
Already without Griner and hobbled by injuries this season, how does Charles' departure impact the Mercury on court?
Charles was hardly the silver bullet to solve all of the Mercury's problems -- in fact, her individual defensive struggles were part of the team's issues on that end of the floor. Nonetheless, it is tough news for a team that was already dealing with depth problems -- some from injuries, others more of a product of roster construction -- and a frontcourt that was already without Griner is now without a former MVP (and potential All-Star reserve come next week).
We'll see which players Phoenix ultimately brings in, but the squad is currently left with just two players above 6-foot-1: Brianna Turner, a defensive standout and starter, but one of the lowest usage players in the league, and Megan Gustafson, who has never averaged more than 10 minutes and 4.0 points per game a season in her career. Rookie Sam Thomas is the only other player with a forward designation currently on the roster.
Nygaard said prior to Saturday's game that Charles' departure has forced the Mercury to play more "small ball" -- something she seemed optimistic could work for them, pointing to how the team fared well and nearly beat Connecticut when Charles missed a game in early June.
"There was the bubble season in which BG left at one point, and they went with a similar situation like this," Nygaard said. "[Turner] played the center, and they played that four-guard group and made it pretty far in the playoffs. So there's a core group of players who have experience with this. And that's how it is. The Warriors seem to do okay this way."
When Charles missed two games earlier in the season with a shoulder injury, Phoenix started Cunningham in her place alongside Turner; that lineup has a net rating of -23.4. They could also pair Turner down low with Gustafson. Neither option seems particularly ideal as a long-term solution. Neither Cunningham nor Gustafson are equipped to replicate the offensive production and usage the Mercury were getting from Charles, whose 14.8 field goal attempts per game were a team high.
DeShields, Diggins-Smith and Taurasi were (alongside Charles) already some of the top usage players in the league, and now more of the scoring load will undoubtedly be on their shoulders without Charles' shot generation. But defenses can more easily key in on them without an established presence like Charles demanding attention on the interior. Additionally, Phoenix was already last in the league in rebounding percentage with Charles on the team (46.2%); that doesn't bode well with her 7.3 boards per game now gone. -- Philippou
Which free agents might the Mercury look to sign?
It's late June, and there are not a lot of high-quality players sitting around waiting for a call, and certainly none of Charles' level of accomplishment. The Mercury waived forward Kristine Anigwe on Friday, and they clearly need post help.
Forwards Joyner Holmes (Connecticut) and Reshanda Gray (Seattle) were both waived Friday. Rookie center Elissa Cunane (hardship release June 21) and forward Stephanie Jones (hardship release June 3) could be options, but none bring big numbers. Of those, Gray has the most experience; she has played 125 games for six teams since being drafted in 2015, and has averaged 4.1 PPG and 3.3 RPG.
Forward Lauren Cox, the No. 3 pick in the 2020 draft by Indiana, spent last season with the Fever and Sparks, but was waived in May. She is currently playing on the U.S. team in the 3x3 World Cup in Belgium. -- Voepel
Given Saturday's news, how does this change the Mercury's playoff hopes? And what challenges does the immediate schedule hold?
Even given how poorly things have gone in Phoenix up to now, it's crazy to think the Mercury were just a couple games out of playoff contention when the Charles news broke.
From a morale standpoint, it's not as if the Mercury's playoff hopes were sterling before Charles' departure. Just when the injury report was beginning to thin out with Cunningham back from injury and Kia Nurse supposedly returning somewhat soon, Phoenix now has to learn how to adjust to life without Charles.
Phoenix doesn't have the toughest of schedules coming up; it plays just two teams currently at or above .500 before the All-Star break, starting with Dallas on Saturday and then Chicago on July 2. But with 18 games left and teams like the Liberty and Lynx looking like they could be starting to find their strides, the Mercury are facing an uphill battle if they want to make up some ground and ward off other teams fighting to make the postseason.