Indiana Fever Must Build On Season Of ‘Small Victories’ To Get Back To WNBA Playoffs
The Indiana Fever’s recent season ended earlier than anyone within the organization wanted it to.
The Fever went 6-26 in the 2021 campaign, a last-place record that ties a franchise low for wins in one season. For an outsider, this season would almost certainly look like a failure for Indiana.
Internally, the team wanted to be better. “It’s been a rough season,” forward Jantel Lavender said near the end of the campaign. But just a zoomed-in look at the win-loss record doesn’t tell the story of the 2021 Indiana Fever well, and it doesn’t properly detail where the Fever are headed.
Indiana’s team dealt with many unusual challenges. There were some unique things they had to go through that every team in the league had to deal with, such as COVID protocols and a mid-season Olympic break. Those obstacles weren’t specific to the Fever, but they were still obstacles, and the pause for the Olympics interrupted the team’s season-best three-game winning streak.
But the 2021 Fever also had to face many challenges that other teams didn’t have to overcome.
They opened the season with six games in 12 days, an unusually short stretch of time for so many battles. By the end of May, they had played eight games, which was tied for the most in the league, and they reached ten games played faster than any other team. It was a small challenge, but one that was particularly difficult for a team with several new players.
After four home games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indiana had to switch home stadiums thanks to ongoing renovations in their typical arena in downtown Indianapolis. It caused a change to their gameday timing and routine, albeit only slightly, and that altered their season.
At the end of the campaign, the Fever played two games with just six healthy players, and they played numerous games with a half-dozen or more players sidelined with injuries down the stretch. They could barely field a team by season’s end; they had horrible luck with injuries and ailments.
“Never,” Fever head coach Marianne Stanley said when asked if she had ever coached a team with that tough of an injury situation. Stanley has been on WNBA coaching staffs for more than two decades. “It’s been one thing after the other.”
While WNBA teams were racing through the season, the Fever had to jump over multiple hurdles along the way. Sure, the roster wasn’t as talented as some others in the league, but they had to overcome a ton of external difficulties that stalled growth this season.
“I think overall, our team got better defensively. And certain people were better in that process,” Stanley said when evaluating the growth of her team after the season ended. “I think we also learned that people that had been backed up, some playing shorter minutes, were capable of giving us even more in a bigger role,” she added. Despite the poor record and countless snags, the Fever did grow. It just was slower and more arduous thanks to all the factors at play.
It would be easy for the organization to consider the last two seasons outliers thanks to the unique nature of both of them. But the Fever, who have the fewest wins in the league throughout that span, want to evaluate the process that got them here and get better. They don’t want to shrug and blame circumstance for each of the last two campaigns. Instead, they want to look internally and fix some missteps to improve.
“I think you have to evaluate yourself every year. And for me, personally, I’m harder on myself than anybody else could ever be,” General Manager Tamika Catchings said.
Catchings noted that she was frustrated and disappointed with how this season went. As GM, she signed three former All-Stars last summer — Danielle Robinson, Jessica Breland, and Lavender — with the hopes of building off of the team’s 2020 campaign, where they finished just three games out of the playoff picture. But adding in vets to a mostly young team didn’t boost the squad in the intended manner. Those three players certainly were valuable on and off the court, but they didn’t elevate the team as much as Catchings hoped.
As a result, she reflected on her decisions and will continue to do so. She wants this team to be back in the playoffs, where they so often were when she was a player for the franchise. She is hopeful that the Fever, two time finalists and 2012 WNBA Champions, can be a postseason mainstay.
“The next step will be, we need to put together a team that will be in the playoffs,” Catchings detailed.
“We don’t want to just get to the playoffs. That’s our goal is to take the next step to get in and then do some damage once we get in there,” Stanley added. “And ultimately, a championship is what this organization and this team and the people in it want.”
With the goal to extend their campaigns beyond the regular season, the upcoming free agency period will be pivotal in Indiana. The Fever have a decent starting five returning (potentially, depending on who the team brings in this offseason) in Robinson, Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Lavender, and Teaira McCowan. McCowan and K Mitchell both received a heap of praise from Catchings and Stanley during the end-of-season press conference, and that 5-woman unit played their opponents to an even draw in 86 minutes this past season. The Fever could have a solid opening lineup next year.
Behind them, though, things get weaker. Several of Indiana’s bench players are entering free agency this offseason — outside of the possible starting five, only unproven youngsters Kysre Gondrezick, Florencia Chagas, and Aaliyah Wilson are potentially under contract with the Fever in 2022. Some solid depth pieces are entering free agency, including Victoria Vivians, Lindsay Allen, and Breland. At the same time, Catchings shared that she admires how strong the bench units are for the current postseason teams. Improving depth — both by re-signing the correct players and adding in some talented free agents — will be a focus this winter for the Fever.
“We have some work to do in January, leading up to January. There are some really good free agents that are out there,” Catchings explained.
Another focus for the team will be adding in players at important positions. The Fever have numerous capable guards and ball handlers returning next season (barring trades), a group that features a combination of players that can either organize the team or create shots for others. Additionally, between McCowan and Lavender, some interior depth will be back in Indiana next season.
But on the wing and at the power forward spot, the Fever’s depth is fairly low. That extended to the poor 2021 campaign, too — Vivians was the teams only natural wing, and she and Chelsey Perry, who was re-added midseason, were the only two forwards with reliable perimeter skills. Most frontcourt players for the Fever were interior specialists, and that lack of forward depth and talent extends into next season. It’s something Catchings desperately needs to address.
“I think for us, the biggest need that we we have right now [is] the position at the three and the four,” the GM noted. She also tipped that she would prefer that any additions have perimeter skills when she added, “I want us to get up and down. I want us to be a more up tempo team.”
Fortunately for the Fever, they will have resources to add talent this offseason. The most alluring tools for the front office are two first round draft picks, one that is their own and could be the number one overall pick depending on how the WNBA Draft Lottery shakes out (Indiana has the best odds at the top selection) and another one from the Minnesota Lynx that will likely be inside the top-10. Those selections could be used to get talent on to a Fever team that needs depth and forces in the frontcourt .
But the team will also have cap space and several open roster spots to bring in free agents that fit Catchings’ vision. More than a half-dozen players could depart Indiana this offseason, depending on the team’s priorities, so Fever brass will have opportunities to add the talent they need.
Anyone added needs to be an effective defender. Stanley noted that she feels as if the team got better on defense this past season, and the numbers back that up — the Fever were four points per 100 possessions better on defense in 2021 than in 2020. But their 107.8 defensive rating was still last in the league by a few points — it’s imperative that the red and blue continue to grow on that end of the floor, and signing capable stoppers could do that.
The public-facing results from the self-evaluation done by Fever leaders will become clear within the teams’ roster changes. Beyond that, though, the Fever need to continue to build their culture and establish exactly what team they are trying to be. They did a great job of that this season — many players praised the family-style feeling they got from the team and they clearly improved at being an execution heavy, inside-out playing squad. Instituting those principles and values was one of the small victories the organization leaned on this season when things got tough.
“You have to take the small victories and the good things within. And there were a lot of good things,” Stanley said of this season. “We know that we grew and we know how close we are to being where we want to be.”
The Fever need more of those small victories. Forming a culture and an ethos is a fantastic start, every growing team needs that. But the Fever have been building their culture for a few seasons now — to achieve the stated goal of reaching the postseason, the team needs some of those small victories to come on the basketball court.
“One of the things that I had to do… is trying to find small wins. Like looking at the small victories that we had, and starting to take tab of first five minutes of every quarter, second five minutes to every quarter, and breaking up the game, which I would share with the coaches,” Catchings explained. “To really be able to break up the game like that and look at areas that we did really well and that we need to improve in. And those were kind of the thing for me that kept me focused, kept me motivated during the games.”
Those on-court small victories that happened were more frequent after the Olympic break last season, but the Fever need them to come more consistently going forward. And to do that, the team must build on this season by adding snug-fitting players at needed positions. The blueprint for improvement is staring the franchise in the face.
“We’re not the first franchise that’s had to take it on the chin a little bit to then come out the other side better, more committed, and more resilient and ready to go and ready to shine in the playoffs,” Stanley said. If the Fever truly are going to come out of the last two seasons stronger and more resilient, they need to build on the small victories they found this season. Doing that starts in the offseason.