Making Sense of Indiana’s Center Position

Natalie Achonwa was the starting center for the Indiana Fever when this season opened, but then a calf injury opened the door for rookie Teaira McCowan to take over the starting role. When Achonwa returned, she did not immediately regain her starting role. But the team recently made a change, moving McCowan back to the bench and Achonwa back into the starting five. The situation is so fluid that in the game notes for Sunday’s meeting with Chicago, the team listed both players in the probable starters section with a note that only one would start (Achonwa got the nod). So, what’s going on? Let’s try to make sense of things.

The Achonwa Lineup Is Playing Better

So far, the Fever are 5-8 when Natalie Achonwa starts and 1-6 when Teaira McCowan starts. Things are obviously not as simple as that. But the idea that the Fever play better when Achonwa is on the floor has validity.

Entering Sunday, Indiana has a -1.7 net rating when Achonwa is on the floor and a -3.5 net rating when McCowan is on the floor. Conventional wisdom suggests that having a player of McCowan’s size in the paint will help defensively. However, the team’s defensive rating rises up to 105.1 when McCowan is on court, while it’s a much more respectable 97.6 when she’s not on the floor. She gets caught out of position at times on that end and has struggled to keep up with faster players. This has led to issues defensively for Indiana, even if her rim protecting skills have been fine.

Still, the team does rebound better with McCowan on the floor. The team has a rebound rate of 52.6% with McCowan on the floor, while that drops to 47.9% when she sits. But opponents have a true shooting percentage that’s 3.5% higher when McCowan is on the floor, because Achonwa is better at defending outside of the paint.

Achonwa is also a more complete player offensively. This is what Teaira McCowan’s shot chart looks like:

It’s pretty clear that McCowan’s offensive game is almost entirely contained to the paint, where she’s shot either at or below league average. McCowan lacks range. Per the WNBA’s tracking stats, she’s taken just six shots outside of the paint, going 2-for-6 on those attempts. She’s 4-for-18 on non-restricted area paint shots. 77% of her attempts have come in the restricted area, and she’s tied for eighth in the league in total shot attempts from the restricted area with 81 attempts. McCowan is shooting 55.6% on those attempts, which isn’t terrible but is significantly lower than other centers. For example, Sylvia Fowles is shooting 68.3% on her restricted area attempts and Brittney Griner is shooting 64.7%. McCowan’s touch at the basket just hasn’t really developed yet.

Achonwa is just fourth on the team in restricted area attempts, but she’s converted 78.4% of those attempts. She’s had similar issues to McCowan on other paint shots. But while McCowan’s offensive game ends there, Achonwa is a capable mid-range shooter, going 25-for-56 this year on mid-range shots. Her game doesn’t extend out to the the arc, but it does extend far enough to help Indiana’s spacing, allowing the team’s guards to get easier paths to the basket.

Advanced stats favor Achonwa, as well. She has a positive offensive and defensive player impact plus/minus (PIPM). She has an offensive PIPM of 1.07 and a defensive PIPM of 0.17, giving her an overall PIPM of 1.24. That’s the highest mark of any player on this Fever team.

Second highest? McCowan, actually. She has an O-PIPM of -1.02, but a D-PIPM of 1.21. That seems high as she ranks in the top 20 in the league in that statistic when you think about how the team as a whole plays better defensively with Achonwa on court. But McCowan’s done a good job doing the things she’s been asked to do.

The WNBA’s Playoff Structure Is Partially The Reason

There’s a lot of parity across the league this year, and that’s changed how some coaches put together lineups. It’s most apparent with the Liberty and the Fever, who were both projected to be among the league’s worst but have lingered around the .500 mark.

Because two-thirds of the WNBA teams make the playoffs and the first two rounds are single elimination, anything can happen. Teams who think they have a shot at the postseason will prioritize the present over the future by playing veterans in an attempt to sneak into the playoffs.

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New York has sat rookie Asia Durr late in games for veteran Tanisha Wright and kept rookie center Han Xu on the bench unless a game is out of hand. Indiana, meanwhile, has flip-flopped between McCowan and Achonwa in the starting lineup, with the rookie not seeing the  level of minutes you would have expected from her on a rebuilding team.

You can’t really blame the coaching staff for not playing McCowan enough, because the structure of the league encourages teams to eschew rookies for players who are more ready to contribute to winning basketball. As long as a team is mathematically in the hunt, there’s no need to play for the future or to tank because improving your draft position isn’t valued as much as winning. After all, this is a league with limited roster spots and a lot of veterans, so teams don’t even always need rookie talent. If you have a shot at the postseason, you go for it.

But, What Should The Fever Do?

Ahh, the important question. We know they have been playing Achonwa, but what should they be doing?

Well, that’s complicated, but I think the answer lies in the 84 minutes that the two have shared the floor. The Fever have a 5.7 net rating when the two are on the floor together, suggesting that one potential solution to the team’s center question is to just play them together with three perimeter players more often. It’s a small sample, but 15 minutes of McCowan and Achonwa paired with Tiffany Mitchell, Erica Wheeler, and Betnijah Laney has a net rating of 34.0.

Keeping both on the floor gives the team a good rim protector and a big who can guard smaller players. Let’s face it: Achonwa’s a bit undersized to play the five against the league’s top centers, but she’s also good enough on both ends of the floor to demand minutes. It might be time for the Fever to think about moving veteran Candice Dupree into a reserve role and keeping their two best bigs on the floor together as often as possible.

While I expected offenses this year to continue the trend of stretching out to the three-point line, Las Vegas has shown that you can start a pair of players who are at their best in the post and find success. Achonwa can hit the mid-range jumper and can score efficiently inside. McCowan can crash the offensive glass and keep working to improve her game in the restricted area. If the Fever want to see what pieces they have who play a long term role on this team, finding ways to get two of their most promising players on the floor at the same time is essential.

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