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Highest paid coach in WNBA history: What can Nate Tibbetts bring to the Phoenix Mercury?

Hayden Cilley Avatar
October 16, 2023

A bombshell dropped Monday afternoon, with the announcement of former Orlando Magic assistant coach Nate Tibbetts becoming the 12th head coach in Phoenix Mercury history. He also made history by becoming the highest-paid coach in WNBA history, surpassing Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon and her $1 million salary. Many fans are questioning the hire, when names like Teresa Weatherspoon were available for the three-time champions. However, Tibbetts can bring something that Phoenix hasn’t seen since Sandy Brondello’s tenure.


One thing Phoenix lacked since its 2021 finals appearance was consistency. When former Mercury head coach took over, she was dealt a rough hand. Arguably her best player, Brittney Griner, was wrongfully detained in Russia in February 2022, just three months before the season started. Nygaard made it clear that her intention was to use Griner as the top option and play through her skillset.

Injuries plagued Phoenix that year, as they had signed roughly 30 replacement contracts during the season. Even with their 10th straight playoff appearance, they were swept by the eventual champion, Las Vegas Aces. Management sought to give Nygaard another crack with her star player back. That crack led to a 2-10 record through 12 games and an abrupt exit for the former Aces assistant.

With the move, top assistant Nikki Blue stepped into the role as interim head coach. She inherited a disgruntled and unenthusiastic team. Blue built a culture that will last with the players and the organization. Just about every player made it clear they wanted her back. However, the WNBA, as is most sports leagues, is a results-oriented business. The 7-21 record in Blue’s tenure certainly did not help her case.

Trend Incoming?

With the hire of Tibbetts, there’s certainly a trend worth mentioning. When Becky Hammon was hired by the Las Vegas Aces, she carried years of experience as a WNBA player, but most importantly as a coach. Hammon learned under the tutelage of San Antonio Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich for 8 seasons. When she became the Aces head coach, she immediately made her presence known. Her coaching acumen was head-and-shoulders above others in the league. As a result, Las Vegas secured its first championship in 2022.

Another very influential name is making her way across the Windy City in Teresa Weatherspoon. While she was an outstanding player with the New York Liberty and even inducted in their ring of honor but that’s not what stood out. Her coaching experience in the NBA with the New Orleans Pelicans paid dividends. She coached under Willie Green since 2020 and played a pivotal role in helping young players like Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson develop their respective games. That coaching experience, mixed with her perspective as a player made her a prime candidate for a majority of teams in the WNBA.

Nate Tibbetts basketball background

Tibbets is no stranger to basketball. His father, Fred Tibbetts was a legendary girls basketball coach, winning 11 state titles in South Dakota. Nate paved his own way as as a player for the University of South Dakota Coyotes. He is the school’s all-time leader in assists in the 88 year history of the North Central Conference Championship.

He also brings over a decade of coaching experience starting with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011, then the Portland Trail Blazers and most recently with the Orlando Magic. That experience is what Phoenix needs, considering their previous two coaches had a combined two years of professional coaching experience.

While some people are pondering at the hire, it doesn’t erase how Mat Ishbia and company want to bring the franchise back to the promised land. Perhaps this is the first step out of retrograde.

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