Phoenix Mercury fire Vanessa Nygaard: What went wrong and might Skylar Diggins-Smith return?

M.A. Voepel, ESPN.comJun 25, 2023, 10:40 PM ET

CloseM.A. Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Vanessa Nygaard was named the Phoenix Mercury’s head coach in January 2022 with the typical amount of optimism. She couldn’t have known then all that she would face in Phoenix during a 17-31 tenure that ended Sunday when the team announced she had been fired.

Mercury star center Brittney Griner was arrested and jailed in Russia that February and missed the 2022 campaign. Free agent signee Tina Charles left the team in a contract divorce halfway through the season. Star guards Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith appeared to have conflict early on last year, and neither played in the playoffs.

Phoenix, coming off a WNBA Finals appearance in 2021, made the postseason with a 15-21 record and was then swept in the first round by the Las Vegas Aces.

Griner came back to the United States in December, and she has made a successful return this season, being announced as an All-Star starter on Sunday — just after the Mercury sent out news of Nygaard’s departure following a 2-10 start, tied for the franchise’s worst record through 12 games.

Here is a look at what happened to the Mercury over the past year and a half, and what’s next for them and for Nygaard.

What went wrong?

Phoenix parted with coach Sandy Brondello in December 2021 after eight seasons, a move initiated by the Mercury after a disappointing loss to the Chicago Sky in the Finals. Brondello had a new job with the New York Liberty three weeks later.

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Nygaard had pluses on her résumé, including experience as a WNBA player and assistant. But most of her coaching career had been at the high school level, which is obviously very different than dealing with pros.

There was no way to know all that things that would happen to the Mercury in 2022 after she was hired, with Griner’s ordeal unlike anything any WNBA team has ever dealt with. But the Mercury did know — or should have known — that it was going to take a coach with a strong personality to deal with the strong personalities the franchise had put together. It was a tough position for a first-year pro head coach.

Four games into last season, in the first half of an 86-74 loss at Las Vegas, Diggins-Smith was clearly upset on the Phoenix bench, which led to words being exchanged between her and Taurasi and teammates separating them.

In July, Diggins-Smith was named an All-Star and Taurasi was not. Nygaard praised Diggins-Smith but, in support of Taurasi, said it wouldn’t be an All-Star Game without Taurasi. It was a clumsy thing to say, and Diggins-Smith was offended, retweeting the remark with a clown emoji and mocking her coach publicly.

Realistically, these aren’t the kinds of disputes that a coach-player relationship can recover from without a lot of work. Add to that Charles’ remarks when she joined the Seattle Storm shortly after leaving Phoenix in late June 2022: “There’s a way I want to play in the time I have left. There’s a way I want to be coached.”



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Check out some of Brittney Griner’s 2023 highlights that made her a nine-time WNBA All-Star this season.

Taurasi (injury) and Diggins-Smith (left team for personal reasons) did not appear in the playoffs, and the Mercury then suffered another blow as guard Shey Peddy ruptured her right Achilles tendon.

Griner’s return brought a lot of positive energy to the team, but it hasn’t brought victories. At least in her public remarks, Nygaard seemed to be at a loss after defeats, often saying she would need to watch game film first to determine what went wrong. Like most coaches, there was little she could say about the team’s roster construction or personnel conflicts without jeopardizing her job.

After Saturday’s 23-point loss at Seattle dropped Phoenix to 2-10, it seemed likely that new Suns/Mercury owner Mat Ishbia and Mercury management would need to act. Now with Nygaard gone and Nikki Blue in an interim position, the spotlight is directly on the Phoenix front office, including general manager Jim Pitman, to get the Mercury back on track for the long term.

Skylar Diggins-Smith, who appeared to have a disconnect with Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard in 2022, missed the final two regular-season games due to personal reasons as Phoenix tried to lock up a playoff berth. Melissa Tamez/Icon SportswireWill Diggins-Smith now return to the Mercury?

Diggins-Smith averaged 19.7 points per game last year, the second-highest average in her WNBA career. But Diggins-Smith leaving the team for personal reasons in the final week of the regular season left observers unsure if she would ever come back to the Mercury.

Diggins-Smith had her second child during the offseason, and she is still on maternity leave. She has posted recent Instagram videos of herself working out. She will be 33 in August but still has elite skills.

Does Nygaard’s departure change anything in regard to Diggins-Smith wanting to play again for the Mercury? Are there any hard feelings from any of the current Mercury players that would stand in the way of her returning?

That’s what everyone will be watching. Diggins-Smith is one of the league’s outstanding guards, but is she still a fit for the Mercury, and vice versa?



Storm hand Mercury 5th straight loss

Jewell Loyd scores 24 points as the Storm defeat the Mercury 97-74, dropping Phoenix to 2-10 on the season.

What do the Mercury need to improve on?

Pretty much everything. Phoenix is last in scoring defense (88.4 PPG) and defensive efficiency (109.5 points per 100 possessions). The Mercury are 10th in scoring average (77.2 PPG) and have been outscored by 135 points, their worst points deficit through 12 games in franchise history. Things get even worse when Griner, who missed three games with a hip injury, is off the court.

Phoenix is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012, when the Mercury went 7-27 and faced accusations of tanking, which they denied. Phoenix ended up with the No. 1 draft pick the next season, though, which brought them a superstar in Griner.

Prior to that, Phoenix’s worst record was 8-26 in 2003, and they drafted Taurasi at No. 1 in 2004.

With talent such as national player of the year Caitlin Clark of the Iowa Hawkeyes, Angel Reese of the national champion LSU Tigers and Cameron Brink of the Stanford Cardinal potentially available in the 2024 draft (depending on whether they exercise the COVID-19 waiver to stay a fifth season in college), being a draft lottery team next year wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Mercury.

However, with 41-year-old Taurasi near the end of her career, the Mercury also aren’t likely to just throw in the towel on 2023. If the team can stay relatively healthy, take advantage of a fresh start under Blue and perhaps reintegrate Diggins-Smith, the playoff streak might not end after all. But Phoenix has a lot of work to do under Blue, who now is a WNBA head coach along with her former UCLA Bruins teammate Noelle Quinn of the Storm.

What’s next for Nygaard?

Nygaard might not have made all the right moves and at times seemed overwhelmed by some of the Mercury players’ personalities. She also was matching up schematically against several WNBA head coaches with a lot more experience at the pro level. It would have been difficult for Phoenix to keep her on longer the way this season has gone.

But as Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon pointed out last season, few coaches have dealt with the number of difficult on-court and off-court circumstances that Nygaard did in 2022.

Nygaard has an opportunity to reflect on it all. Wherever her next stop might be, it likely won’t come with anything she hasn’t faced already in a challenging time in Phoenix.

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