Optimism blooms each spring at Mercury headquarters. Pessimism remains at summer’s end. Since millennium’s turn, circumstance, luck, health and their own flaws have wrecked playoff pursuits, and a vicious cycle was born. The Mercury open the 11th season of this high-to-low cycle tonight, embarking on a seventh consecutive quest to find fulfillment at season’s end.
The previous six summers have failed. Not since 2000 has this franchise seen the playoffs, a feat this year’s team believes it has the abilities and means to change.
The pieces appear in place:
• A seven-game winning streak to close 2006 has reinforced the belief that coach Paul Westhead’s wild style of play can yield success.
• A full roster is present in time (barely) for tonight’s season opener against San Antonio at US Airways Center, featuring a core of All-Stars, playoff-experienced veterans and young-uns with some playing time.
• A historically lucky bounce of the lottery ball allowed Phoenix to nab the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, which turned into another All-Star acquisition.
But if the “we’ll get there this year” chorus line sounds like a broken record to Mercury followers after the past couple season, well, this year’s team knows that, too.
“Fans are frustrated,” new general manager Ann Meyers Drysdale said. “I don’t blame them.”
Aware of the expectations, the Mercury spent training camp cautioning others not to expect miracles.
Eight new players have taken the new system crash course. The team’s frontcourt was reconstructed after Kamila Vodichkova got pregnant, and Kristin Rasmussen chose Connecticut over Phoenix in free agency.
Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter and Penny Taylor missed virtually all of training camp by finishing overseas commitments.
“I’d say we should be better,” Westhead said. “We could be better, I’m hopeful we are going to be better, but you have to make that step. You can’t pencil that step.”
Said Meyers Drysdale: “I’m a little apprehensive to make any declarations because we don’t know how good we are (without a full training camp roster). It all sounds good on paper, but paper and reality are two different things.”
How long until the coaching staff can put the pieces together remains to be seen, but the team learned the hard way about slow starts a year ago, when the Mercury started 0-4, were 6-8 by the end of June and lost four consecutive games to close July.
Not even an undefeated August was enough to get into the postseason, but the Mercury quickly became a trendy pick to make a deep playoff run in 2007.
”I don’t think it’s playoff or fold,” Taurasi said. “Sometimes we get so caught up in it, but it’s three months away. You can’t get to the playoffs if you don’t take care of every game. ... Obviously the slow start and a hole early dictates the rest of the season.
“If we could commit to that first four-game block and take care of that, then we can look forward.”
Not only is Detroit primed to repeat as WNBA champions from the Eastern Division, the West, again, looks loaded.
Without three-time MVP Lisa Leslie this year, Los Angeles lured All-Star Taj McWilliams-Franklin away from Connecticut to join a healthy Chamique Holdsclaw and the return of former coach Michael Cooper.
Sacramento returns most of its pieces in attempting a third consecutive WNBA finals appearance.
Seattle has a healthy Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird and Janelle Burse.
San Antonio added All-Star point guard Becky Hammon and Ruth Riley to All-Star Sophia Young.
What this means for the Mercury will unfold in the next three months.
Matching their high standards won’t be easy, but for once this decade, it’s time.
“I want to win,” said All-Star Tangela Smith, one of the new frontcourt veterans acquired for No. 1 pick Lindsey Harding.
“I’ve played 10 years, I want to be on a good team and win ballgames. I hate losing.”
BONUS SHOTS: The first 5,000 fans in attendance tonight will receive Diana Taurasi replica jerseys.
Pondexter’s first Mercury practice came Friday after arriving from Turkey, while Taylor was en route to Phoenix on Friday night. Pondexter is expected to see action tonight, Taylor is a gametime decision.
In a preseason survey, 73 percent of the league’s general managers voted the Mercury as the “most fun team to watch.” More than half also said Taurasi will win the league’s MVP, while Detroit and Sacramento were picked as division winners.
2007 Phoenix Mercury
General manager: Ann Meyers Drysdale
Coaches: Paul Westhead (head coach)
Corey Gaines (assistant)
Julie Brase-Hairgrove (assistant)
Bridget Pettis (assistant)
Who’s back: Jen Derevjanik, 5-10 Guard – Re-signed in the offseason, solid as Kelly Miller’s backup at point guard.
Jennifer Lacy, 6-3 Forward – Training camp invitee as a rookie last year should continue her ascension in frontcourt.
Kelly Miller, 5-10 Guard – Once healthy, she enjoyed a career season in 2006. ... Mercury went 14-9 after she moved into starting lineup.
Cappie Pondexter, 5-9 Guard – All-Star fought through balky knee at end of last season, and may see slightly fewer minutes to keep her healthy.
Belinda Snell, 5-11 Guard – Can make shots, but coaches like her willingness to do intangibles.
Diana Taurasi, 6-0 Guard – Set WNBA records for scoring average (25.3), points in a season (860) and single game (47). ... A preseason favorite for league MVP.
Penny Taylor, 6-1 Forward – Missed training camp, but arrival for season opener (six weeks earlier than 2006) needed to establish continuity.
Who’s new: Kelly Mazzante, 6-0 Guard – Sharpshooter was picked up by Mercury in Charlotte Sting dispersal draft. Limited in practice with quad/hip injuries.
Adriana Moises-Pinto, 5-6 Guard – Played overseas the past four seasons instead of WNBA. ... Was a reserve for Mercury in 2001 and 2002.
Kelly Schumacher, 6-5 Forward – Acquired from New York, veteran brings rebounding and shot-blocking to a team in dire need.
Olympia Scott, 6-2 Forward – Acquired from Indiana for Ann Strother. ... Nine-year veteran played on Sacramento’s championship team in 2005.
Tangela Smith, 6-4 Forward – All-Star was acquired from Minnesota on draft-day trade for No. 1 pick Lindsey Harding. ... 10th-year pro has played 20 playoff games.
• Teams have eight seconds to bring the ball past halfcourt, instead of 10.
• In addition to players, coaches can now call timeouts.
• Fouls involving a “clear path to the basket,” will now result in two free throws, instead of one free throw and possession.
Silver Stars at Mercury
What: WNBA season opener
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: US Airways Center
TV/Radio: FSN Arizona, KMVP (860 AM)
Silver Stars at Mercury
Silver Stars — Several teams improved in the offseason, but San Antonio could be the most improved. All-Star Sophia Young will continue to improve, and the team acquired two impact players in forward Ruth Riley from Detroit and point guard Becky Hammon from New York. Marie Ferdinand-Harris is back after missing last year for pregnancy, as is last year’s Most Improved Player in Erin Buescher. Former Mercury first-round pick Sandora Irvin is in San Antonio. She was traded from Phoenix to San Antonio for a second-round pick in 2008.
Mercury — The importance of getting off to a better start is well chronicled, but it won’t be easy. Without Penny Taylor and Cappie Pondexter for all of training camp, and Diana Taurasi for all but three practices, it’ll take time to fully acclimate everyone. How long that takes will be key, because the first five games of the season are against the West. Despite the last-minute arrival and without practicing, Taylor and Pondexter are expected to see action tonight.