WNBA Season Preview: The Indiana Fever’s New Era

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Strolling off Indiana’s home floor following a gargantuan performance on August 27, 2019, a smile crept onto the face of Teaira McCowan. After posting 22 points and 19 rebounds in Seattle, McCowan steamrolled the highly acclaimed Las Vegas Aces frontcourt by scoring 24 points, plucking 17 boards, swatting 5 shots, and inducing multiple Bill Laimbeer groans. The performance represented the tremendous growth McCowan displayed during her rookie season and signaled superstardom in the not-too-distant future. 

Two days later the Fever welcomed Los Angeles to town and again McCowan logged a double-double, going for 24 and 10 while shooting 14 free throws. It wasn’t enough, Indiana’s two-game win streak snapped in a four-point loss. The Fever dropped to 11-20. They would miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season, marking the longest active WNBA postseason drought. Something had to change.

Enter: Marianne Stanley, Hall of Famer, Legend, and Basketball lifer. For years, Stanley felt she had one more head coaching stint left in her. It was going to take a special situation, however, to pry her from the nation’s capital. Stanley’s ties with the Washington Mystics ran deep. She served as an assistant under multiple head coaches beginning in 2010 and actually helmed the team herself in 2002 and 2003, pocketing WNBA Coach of the Year honors in year one.

2019 came along and things finally fell into place. After years of building, Washington reached the summit and hoisted its first ever championship trophy in October. Stanley had helped bring a title to a city starved for basketball preeminence. Then, Tamika Catchings called. Here was Stanley’s chance to scratch her head coaching itch. 

On November, 26th, Indiana announced the hiring of Stanley and the promotion of Catchings, who as a player led the Fever to their own lone title in 2012, to general manager. 

That brings us to the reason I’ve gathered you all here today. What will it take for two basketball icons to nudge Indiana back down the orange and oatmeal brick road toward title town? Stanley wants you to know that these things take time. 

“We were all a part of building something really special in Washington,” she said via Zoom from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I look at it like it’s a building process. Things don’t happen overnight. But when the foundation is solid, anything can be achieved.”

The Fever sport an undeniably solid foundation. Now comes the difficult part: turning that foundation into tangible, on-court results. 

Building the Defense 

Let’s start on the defensive side of the ball. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, “eat dessert first” only works for donut shops and competitive pie eaters. Good defense spurs good offense, not the other way around. Secondly, there’s more room for improvement here than anywhere else. In the three seasons that Indiana has missed the playoffs, the team finished 12th, 11th, and 11th in Defensive Rating. 

“I think we have a willing group,” said Stanley. “I think we have a group that understands we just flat out need to be better defensively. We can be and we will be.”

Too often in 2019, simple opponent actions caused defensive breakdowns, a lack of communication laid bare by frustrated pointing and bowed heads. Intentions often were good, but players seemed to lack clarity regarding their specific duties. Stanley stresses playing “team defense” – being able to rely on your teammates for help as needed, rather than worrying about getting left on an island. 

The first possession in the clip above is telling. On the game’s opening possession, Candice Dupree gets caught on a mean backdoor screen set by Kristi Toliver. This frees league MVP Elena Delle Donne, only Betnijah Laney sticks with her original assignment – Toliver – instead of switching onto Delle Donne. 12 seconds in and Indiana has already ceded a supremely easy bucket. 

Possession number two above yields an even simpler look, only this time it’s Laney wanting to switch and Dupree staying home. Laney is often on the floor for Indiana’s most important defensive possessions. Dupree is one of the smartest and most accomplished veterans in the league. These are easily avoidable mistakes. 

Kelsey Mitchell’s Next Step

We’ll dive deeper into lineup specifics shortly. But for Indiana to realize its fullest potential, McCowan and Kelsey Mitchell will be gobbling up minutes and sharing the floor a ton. Mitchell is tethered to Kelsey Plum from a narrative standpoint – they’re the two top career scorers in NCAA Division 1 history. Entering her third WNBA season in the spring of 2019, Plum made a concerted effort to expand her game by improving her defense. Staring down the barrel of her own third professional campaign, Mitchell must follow Plum’s lead. 

Helping is a wonderful instinct, but it must be done precisely and with purpose. Here, A’ja Wilson tries to set a ball-screen for Plum on the right side of the floor. Erica Wheeler ices it, a smart move intended to stymie the southpaw. Wilson’s defender, Dupree, helps stunt Plum’s momentum. But by the time she returns to Wilson, Kelsey Mitchell is already there. 

Stanley talks about zeroing in on scouting reports. Wilson has attempted one three-pointer in two WNBA seasons. There is no reason for Mitchell to leave Jackie Young and bolt towards Wilson 24 feet from the hoop. She does anyway, prompting Laney to leave Dearica Hamby for Young. Bang. Hamby cuts baseline, Plum finds her for an easy two. 

Mitchell’s goal should be to develop into a competent, league-average defender. There’s much value in that given her offensive abilities. If she can summon a little more focus identifying her assignment in transition and hone her positive tendency to help, Indiana will have another all-star on its roster. 

The Monster In The Middle

McCowan’s goal should be to develop into an elite defender. The Mississippi State alumnus struggled guarding players who lured her outside the paint, like Hamby or Washington’s Emma Meesseman. McCowan’s shot-blocking prowess is already well-established, but keeping her feet planted on opponent pump-fakes presents its own challenge. Other times, McCowan hangs too far back, seemingly hesitant to engage in the harrowing realities of perimeter defense. 

These are minor quibbles. McCowan is just 23 years old. She’ll relax into a consistent groove with more reps. And yowzers is her shot-blocking a sight to behold. McCowan sported a 4.8 block percentage in 2019, a top ten mark among players who logged at least 200 minutes. That’s the same number posted by Defensive Player of the Year, Natasha Howard. Seattle’s Jordin Canada deserved a standing ovation just for returning to her feet after this vicious rejection:

The Fever allowed under 32 paint points per game in 2019, tied for third in the league. Add 2020 third overall pick Lauren Cox to the mix and what do you get? Beleaguered opponents. Per Her Hoop Stats, Cox ranked 20th out of 3,321 Division 1 hoopers with 2.7 blocks per game in 2019-20. The Baylor standout averaged 2.6 BPG in 2018-19, playing alongside Kalani Brown. The Bears were so hard to score against that year they won the title. 

Turning Defense Into Offense 

There’s one more player we must briefly discuss before flipping to the offensive side. Kennedy Burke floods opponent passing lanes like folks flood Target on Black Friday at midnight. She boasts a defensive acumen well beyond her 23 years. The Dallas front office must be sick. Burke played her way into seven starts last year. Her insertion into different lineup groupings will allow Stanley to encourage more switching on the perimeter. 

Earlier, I mentioned the old adage, ‘defense leads to offense.’ When Burke steals a pass and goes coast-to-coast, the cause and effect is rather obvious. But defensive rebounding plays arguably the biggest factor in jump starting an offense. Indiana ranked 8th in defensive rebound percentage last season. This despite McCowan recording the second most prolific rebounding season in WNBA history. As a rookie. 

“[Our] defensive rebounding can be better, and to me that’s an easy sell,” said Stanley. “[It’s] an easy sell because the reward is you get to transition the other way. It kind of all fits together.”

Cox will help immensely in this regard. Not only is she proficient on the glass, she’s an excellent passer. Grab the rock, land, pivot, outlet to Wheeler or Kelsey Mitchell and the Fever are off. Don’t expect Indiana to finish in the bottom third of the league in PACE for a fourth straight season.

“I was really surprised actually to see they were ninth in PACE, because I don’t think it’s indicative of what could be,” said Stanley. “I’m a person that looks at something and sees possibilities. I’m looking at the PACE and going, ‘Man, this can be way better.’ I think for me, the biggest thing is to play with pace but also play intelligently with pace, play efficiently with pace, so that you maximize your ability. 

“In both Erica Wheeler and Kelsey Mitchell, you’ve just named two of probably the fastest players in this league. That can be your greatest asset. It can also be an achilles heel, get you in trouble. I get really charged up thinking about the possibility of what we could be when they understand how to utilize that gift. Because it’s a gift. You can’t teach it. I’m going to teach them a lot of things. I’m not going to teach them that. It’s kind of fun thinking about it, really.” 

Mitchell zips up the floor like she wants to be at the front of the lunch line. The first two possessions above feature ball-screens set in semi-transition near or above the three-point line. Both Mitchell and Wheeler are adept at getting defenders on the wrong foot by appearing to go one way before crossing over into more space. The amount of space only increases in transition with opponents already backpedaling. 

In the final possession above, Mitchell’s urgency forces a switch that pays dividends ten seconds later. It’s no surprise that Mitchell, Wheeler, and McCowan formed Indiana’s most effective three player grouping (filtering out lineups with less than 150 minutes played). That trio also comprised the team’s top three two player groupings (filtering out lineups with less than 200 minutes played). Surrounding McCowan with speed and shooting is a recipe for success. 

Getting Shots to Fall

Playing with more pace is one piece of the puzzle. Improved shot selection is another. The Fever took far-and-away the most mid-range jumpers in the league last year. The gap between them and second place Washington was larger than the gap between Washington and last place Seattle, by over a full percentage point. Meanwhile, Indiana ranked second-to-last in three-pointers attempted. Stanley won’t discourage Dupree from hoisting mid-rangers, and who would? This is a top-five point scorer in WNBA history we’re talking about. But she wants the rest of her new roster to make progress from behind the arc. 

The return of Victoria Vivians from a torn right ACL will do wonders in this regard. Vivians and Kelsey Mitchell combined to nail 135 three-pointers in 2018, the most ever by a rookie tandem. Mitchell will see plenty of pick-and-roll action, and for Indiana to create the scoring opportunities Stanley craves, she must improve as a passer. Again, this is a young squad. Plenty of time to make those strides. I’m almost more intrigued to see how Stanley will utilize Mitchell and Vivians when they don’t have the ball. 

“In Victoria Vivians and Kelsey Mitchell in particular, we’ve got two great shooters that have the ability to shoot from long-range,” said Stanley. “All of our other guards can shoot, but those two I think can stretch defenses in a way that not everyone can.”

Here, Wheeler sets the initial off-ball screen for Mitchell, who strides into the lane. Her defender, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, is already on a string. As Mitchell reaches the opposite end of the restricted area, she veers back in the other direction, this time using Natalie Achonwa to free her for an open catch-and-shoot 3. Cash. 

I’d entirely understand if at this point in the article, certain Fever fans angrily shut their laptops and went on about their days. That’s because I’m around 2,000 words in and have yet to mention Tiffany Mitchell. The gall! 

“[Tiffany] maybe isn’t the most heralded player in the league, she might not be the first name that jumps out at you,” said Stanley. “It said a lot to me that she was added to the USA Basketball roster that played in lead-up games a couple months ago and that she was deemed to have advanced her game to that point. I think Tiff is ready to take another big step in her development and her growth.”

Tiffany Mitchell has a way of slithering through the lane to reach her desired destination – Bucketville – with the smoothness of a Tamia hook. Above, Mitchell rejects McCowan’s side pick-and-roll offering, but watch closely how she ever-so-slightly twitches in the direction of the screen, totally fooling Sugar Rodgers. By the time Rodgers recovers, Mitchell has turned the corner. Notice how Plum crashes into the paint to help on the drive, leaving Kelsey Mitchell wide-open in one of her favorite spots. What’s scary about this play is Indiana’s spacing could be even better. Imagine Wheeler or Cox stationed in the near corner in place of Achonwa on the opposite baseline. That’s the type of 4-out, 1-in offense Washington used to great effect, one in which everyone eats. 

Lauren Cox’s Offensive Effect 

We’ve looked at how the Fever frontcourt of the future will be able to obliterate opponents on the defensive end. To bring things full circle, we must examine how a Cox/McCowan pairing can devastate the opposition on offense, too. It doesn’t take much imagination. 

McCowan is already an immovable force on the low block. Her dominance is overt. Last year she ranked in the top 20 in true shooting percentage, top 10 in free throws attempted, and trailed only Jonquel Jones in offensive rebounds per game. You don’t go for 70 points and 46 rebounds against Seattle, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles without putting the league on notice. 

But that’s the thing – she continued to excel even as defenses began converging on her like gnats at a campfire. By late August, McCowan was finding cutting teammates out of double teams with much greater frequency than she had entering the league. If she begins to look to the corners in these situations, the sky’s the limit. 

For Cox, passing comes quite naturally. Stanley is brimming with excitement at the possibilities Cox’s vision brings. 

“I’ll look at film and I see [Lauren] get the ball on the low block and if a double-team comes or if she’s attracting more attention, she has the ability to see the floor and skip-pass the ball to the opposite corner for a 3 with ease,” said Stanley. “She’s at an advanced level in terms of her passing. That also means that she sees the game at a different level, too.” 

Indiana can utilize this skill in a number of ways. The Fever are always looking for angles with which to toss the ball to McCowan in the paint. One of their go-to sets in 2019 featured Dupree on the opposite elbow as McCowan rolled to the hoop (below). Dupree will turn 36 in August. Making the transition into an electric bench scorer not only would help preserve her body for potential playoff runs, but also would allow Cox to operate in more of these deadly high/low scenarios with McCowan. Building such a rapport is paramount. 

Both Cox and 2020 second rounder Kathleen Doyle are experts at making entry passes. Adding little variations to trusty looks, such as the screen Wheeler sets, below, make it even tougher for defenders to zero in on a singular threat. 

Though she hardly shot any three-pointers as a senior, Cox has flaunted the ability to extend her range. This could come in handy on a set like “Hammer,” with defenders forced to respect her spot-up ability as teammates fly off screens around her. 

 

“[Lauren’s] a baller,” said Stanley. “Super competitive. I would imagine playing Checkers against her, she doesn’t want to have you make one move to take a checker off of her.”

The Fever ranked 11th in assist percentage last season. Too often possessions featured lots of dribble-dribble-dribble and not enough pass-pass-pass. That’s another number I expect to rise under the tutelage of Stanley. 

Fever Expectations

So what can we expect of the Fever going forward? Long-term, the organization has steadied its ship, laying the groundwork for deep postseason runs and possibly a return to the WNBA Finals. It’s hard not to get excited at the idea of a Catchings/Stanley duo leading a squad of prodigies to the promised land. But, as Stanley said, this isn’t a dream that can be realized overnight. Simply making the playoffs in 2020 would serve as a major win. Washington, Connecticut, Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Chicago are near-locks to play postseason ball whenever the WNBA makes its glorious return. That leaves Minnesota, Atlanta, and Indiana duking it out for the eighth and final slot. This is a ludicrously deep league. 

The Fever can’t control how the standings unfold. They can forge an identity that’s been severely lacking since the dawn of 2017. As my enlightening Zoom chat with Marianne Stanley drew to a close, I asked her how she wanted others around the league to think of her new bunch. 

“Two things,” she offered. “‘Boy, they compete no matter who they’re playing against.’ And, ‘They play for each other.’ I want it to be palpable.”

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