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On the heels of a five game losing streak and a league-worst 2-10 record, change was necessary. Sunday morning, the Phoenix Mercury and head coach Vanessa Nygaard parted ways, the team announced. Phoenix also stated that assistant coach Nikki Blue will be the interim coach for the remainder of the 2023 season.
“We have chosen to make a change at head coach,” Mercury General Manager Jim Pitman said in a press release. “We thank Vanessa Nygaard for the way she endured and managed the adversity of the last year-plus. Our organization and our fans have high expectations for this team, and we have not reached those with our performance this year. We have confidence in the job Nikki Blue will do as interim head coach.”
Beginning of the end
The move doesn’t come as a surprise. Actually, Saturday’s game seemed to be the beginning of the end for Nygaard. Her stoic demeanor and short responses were unlike what people are used to. She appeared dismissive of the 2-10 start in her answer following Phoenix’s loss to Seattle.
“I really think about what’s right in front of me, our team, how to make our team better, how to improve,” Nygaard said. “Sometimes people feel like the past predicts the future. I think right now that our intention is to focus on improving this team right in front of us.”
With names like Teresa Witherspoon on the open market before her hire, Nygaard had lofty expectations. They soon took a turn from winning a championship to surviving the season. The list of circumstances were too abundant to count.
To start, the wrongful detainment of Brittney Griner, the calamity between Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith. Also, the Mercury dealt with a contract divorce from former center Tina Charles. After making the playoffs in 2022 and losing in two games to the eventual champion Las Vegas Aces, the season was as a victory.
Her grace and calm demeanor paved the way for hope for the next season. It also felt that the Phoenix front office would give Nygaard a true season in 2023 to prove why they selected her over 20 other candidates.
Once Griner returned home, it sparked the perfect opportunity to revert to the winning ways of Phoenix. Nygaard continually stated that the offensive system was designed to support her star player. While Griner played well, the wins didn’t add up. The team posted two straight 3+ game losing streaks within the first 12 games.
Phoenix hasn’t started a season 2-10 since the 2003 season, showing the model of consistent winning for the franchise. Following the 27-point loss to the Seattle Storm on Saturday, Griner didn’t shy away from the issues and expressed her frustration.
“We still trying to figure that out honestly,” Griner said. “It’s just, what’s happening just isn’t gonna cut it first time, like you said, since ’03, we’ve had this record like this. First time I’ve ever had a record like this, that’s for sure. So, it’s really frustrating honestly and I don’t know, I guess tear it down and, and rebuild it back up. I really don’t get it. It’s not the Phoenix Mercury basketball that we all know.”
This hasn’t been the first time a player was frustrated for the Mercury. Diggins-Smith went as far as to call Nygaard a clown in a now deleted tweet on Twitter. The former Notre Dame standout averaged 19.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4 rebounds a game while playing in 30 games. Many fans believing that Diggins-Smith was the reason Phoenix made the playoffs.
A new voice might make all the difference, as Blue brings 15 years of coaching experience from the WNBA and four different universities. Her insight might be the spark necessary to propel Phoenix out of retrograde and into the playoff race.
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