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The 2023 Phoenix Mercury squad presented the worst season in franchise history. A dismal 9-31 record, while losing 11 straight games is not ideal to finish a season. There looks to be many changes on the horizon, with players like Skylar Diggins-Smith and Megan Gustafson set to be unrestricted free agents this off-season. One of the more underlooked questions is if interim head coach Nikki Blue is staying in Phoenix on a long-term deal.
HOW SHE STARTED?
Blue is accustomed to the Mercury culture as she was brought in by former head coach, Vanessa Nygaard. It was one of the more “splash moves” that Nygaard made to her staff, along with former assistant coach and WNBA player, Crystal Robinson. Blue has an abundance of coaching experience, traveling to four different universities. UNLV, Cal State Bakersfield, Grand Canyon University and Arizona State University were all opportunities for Blue to grow her coaching repertoire.
Then, January 2022 began a transition for the former New York Liberty guard. When Nygaard came to Phoenix, she assembled her coaching staff. After being in the college coaching ranks since 2008, Blue had her opportunity to go pro, just as she did in her playing career. The UCLA alum made an immediate impression on a team oozing with experience and craftiness. Players praised her ability to connect, understand and most importantly, listen. Taurasi explained more in detail about Blue’s unique approach to coaching.
“She has an ability to lead women and make them believe in themselves, as an individual and, and as a group,” Taurasi said. “I just chatted with her and there’s not many coaches that will listen to you and also challenge you at the same time and she’s been able to do that… personally and to this team.”
The proclaimed WNBA goat especially expressed her desire for Blue to be in Phoenix for the foreseeable future.
“Coach Blue would do an amazing job with a whole offseason to implement what she wants to do, what she visions this team looking like,” Taurasi said. “She would be an amazing asset to, to our team or to any team really.”
It wasn’t only Taurasi who expressed a true desire for Blue to stay. Just about every player had some noteworthy praise for their interim coach. It’s also worthy to mention that Brianna Turner didn’t give much sentiment towards her coaching predecessor in Nygaard when she was in Phoenix. Once Blue took the reins, Turner kept it short, sweet and honest about Blue, if she got the opportunity to keep coaching in Phoenix.
“That’d be really exciting, I’d be really happy for her,” Turner said. “I thought we saw a glimpse of what she could do. Like I said, it was really tough not having the full roster. So I think the outcome would have been different if she would have had it.”
NICK U’REN’S THINKING
Although Blue has a strong desire to come back to Phoenix, it’s still management’s decision as to who will be leading the Mercury in 2024. Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Mat Ishbia has made his presence known with the NBA counterpart, as he parted ways with Monty Williams and traded culture-changer Chris Paul for Bradley Beal. It’s not crazy to rule out if Ishbia could make himself involved within the possible reconstruction of the roster.
Ishbia would certainly have help from someone who knows all about winning. Nick U’Ren. He was with the Golden State Warriors with their four championships (2015, 2017, 2018 and 2022) as the director of basketball operations. Before he became an expert in building a winning team, he was a part of the Suns and Mercury from 2009-2014.
As the Mercury enter an interesting off-season to say the least, U’Ren is weighing all options for the next head coach of the Mercury. He credits the players input, in addition to what he has seen from Blue.
“They’ve said it to me, they’ve enjoyed being coached by her… I think she’s done a great job,” U’Ren said. “She stepped into a situation that was really difficult. She didn’t get to put her own stuff in a training camp, stepping right into being a first time head coach. I think all in all, she handled herself really well considering the hand she was dealt.”
U’Ren was asked if Blue is a candidate for the vacant head coach position going forward. He gave a very straightforward and confident response
“No doubt… no doubt,” U’Ren said. “Absolutely.”
THE MENTALITY OF NIKKI BLUE
Ever since she took over as head coach, fans could tell there was something different about the Mercury. They came out and competed, every single night. As a matter of fact, they might have been the most competitive 9-31 team in the history of sports. They had impressive wins, two of which were against the No. 3 seed Connecticut Sun.
Only 7 of the Mercury’s 40 games had every player available, which made Blue’s life more hectic than it already was. Blue wasn’t aware of the praise by her players but when she got wind of it, she couldn’t help but be grateful.
“That means everything to me… I mean, we were in the trenches together, we were fighting and I’m glad that they appreciate the efforts from myself and my coaching staff,” Blue said. “I’m glad to hear that because there are going to be some big decisions that have to be made coming up. “Hopefully, the people that make these decisions will see that if we have a full roster or we have players that can contribute from my Xs and Os and my leadership standpoint that we can do some good things.”
Regardless of record, her impact on her players and the organization won’t be forgotten in the worst season in Mercury history. Blue knows that this is her time and her case is made to be in Phoenix for many years to come.
“Absolutely… without a shadow of a doubt I do believe that I’ve made the case,” Blue said. “This is the place that I want to be. This is the place that I feel like I deserve to be a head coach but you know, it’s management decisions. I understand how this interim process could work. Sometimes, they just want somebody to finish out the duration of the season and just move on but that wasn’t my intention in the first place and that’s not my intention going forward.”
“I want to be the head coach here.”