Indiana Fever Are In The Upside Down

The Indiana Fever are historically bad, sporting a .063 win percentage through 16 games. For reference, the lowest win percentage in league history is owned by the 2011 Tulsa Shock, who put up a .088 mark. That team finished with a mere 3-31 record and saw a head-coaching change occur midway through the season. The Fever are fast tracking to that sort of dismal season, having lost 11 straight.

Clearly, something isn’t working. It was easy to blame injuries and a compact schedule early on, but the Fever have been relatively healthy in recent games and are still losing. It’s time to break down which players are working well in their roles and what exactly needs to change from a rotational standpoint.

The Starters

Despite the losing streak, one huge positive has come out of the Fever’s starting lineup: The starters generally keep the scoreline close before the bench players end up losing that ground. In the team’s recent game against the Dallas Wings, the Fever’s starters outscored Dallas’ group 58-43, but Indiana still lost by 25 points. In that game, the Fever got six pointsyes, six pointsoff the bench. In order to narrow that scoring gap, one or two of the team’s starters would likely need to move to the second unit.

Kelsey Mitchell is without a doubt the heartbeat of this team, showing up nearly every night to keep the Fever in games down the stretch. In her most recent outing against the Dallas Wings, the Fever were able to bring the game to within eight points behind her game-high 24 points, but it still wasn’t enough. While Kelsey Mitchell has been amazing, her efficiency isn’t. The 25-year-old guard started the season in a three-point shooting slump before briefly improving her shooting with a 6-of-10 performance against the Chicago Sky on June 9. After the matchup against the Sky, Kelsey Mitchell’s shooting efficiency from beyond the arc plummeted again. 

There’s no reason for Kelsey Mitchell to not start or close games for the Fever. She has 73 more total points than the team’s second-best scorer, Tiffany Mitchell. If Kelsey Mitchell were to come off the bench, it would significantly hamper the amount of points the starting lineup would be able to muster, and her on-ball defense would be missed.

As for Tiffany Mitchell, the guard/wing is another staple of the team’s starting lineup. Tiffany Mitchell averages 11.4 points thus far this season and has an immaculate ability to get to the line, making 87.7 percent of her team-leading 65 free throws.

Both of the Mitchells should remain in the starting lineup as they are the primary source of the Fever’s scoring on a nightly basis.

Jantel Lavender is another member of the starting lineup that could stay, serving as one of the primary bigs like she does with Jessica Breland. Lavender averages 6.9 points per game on the year in the starting power forward role, but she also splits reps with Breland in the middle.

On the other hand, though Danielle Robinson has been a fantastic defensive stalwart for the team, it may be worthwhile to move the former All-Star to the second unit. While Robinson is certainly deserving of a starting spot, the team might benefit from moving such an experienced and skillful player to their struggling second unit. The Las Vegas Aces found success with Robinson coming off their bench as they traveled to the WNBA Finals last season, and the Fever could find a similar role for Robinson in that space. In fact, the two-player lineup of Robinson and Teaira McCowan is the best that Indy has put out this season in qualifying minutes.

Putting Robinson on the bench would present some risks, such as uncertainty about who the primary facilitator would be, but the Fever could survive those minutes with ease if the Mitchells are scoring and dishing like they have been in recent games.

Jessica Breland is another player that could benefit from a move to the bench. Breland has been an unsung hero on the Indiana squad, serving as one of the team’s best players this season. Breland can just about do it all, whether it be scoring, facilitating or defending. Breland’s defensive work has been particularly impressive this season as she owns the best defensive win share rating on the team.

If Breland and/or Robinson were to be moved from the starting lineup, who would fill those roles? If Breland were sent to the second unit, Lavender could be joined by a player like Bernadett Határ or a potential free-agent acquisition in the frontcourt. Meanwhile, Kysre Gondrezick could get an opportunity to flex her playmaking ability by taking over for Robinson.

A trio of Robinson, McCowan and Breland off the bench would present a fun group that’s capable of zipping the ball around the court. It would also allow for the bench to get some much-needed scoring and tighten up its rotation. Moving one or both of Breland or Robinson to the bench would allow for the team to close quarters—and games—with a lineup of Kelsey and Tiffany Mitchell, McCowan, Breland, and Robinson, which is by far the team’s best five-player lineup. That lineup was the starting group for the team’s only win this season and staggering them early in the game would lessen the possibility of playing from behind once the bench unit comes in.

The Bench

While the starters have connected for the most part this season, the bench has been far from cohesive. In the last four games, the bench has been outscored by a pitiful 95-53 margin. If the Fever are going to improve their record, they need to start by figuring out a way to better blend their solid starting group with their struggling and fading bench unit.

Teaira McCowan was the recipient of the team’s first big lineup change, moving to the second unit earlier in the season. While that move originally paid dividends for McCowan and the team, it’s clear to see that it isn’t enough. For one, McCowan, who has been averaging 10.5 points per game, has been the only source of offense off the bench. But when McCowan is off, the entire second unit suffers. In 20 minutes against Dallas, McCowan mustered just one point and the Fever only saw five other points contributed from the rest of the bench. Across the last four games, the Fever have gotten 21 points in total from their bench outside of McCowan. The closest games across that stretch have come when McCowan puts up 10 or more points.

Lindsay Allen has had flashes of production for the Fever, but at this juncture, her minutes need to be either reutilized or dropped altogether. For instance, two of the team’s three worst five-player lineups feature Allen running the point. Looking at points minus opponent points, those lineups are -54.7 in 19:36 minutes and -39.4 in 13:10 minutes, respectively.

While Allen’s 2.3 assists per game are valuable, the team needs to figure out how to survive minutes without Robinson or Kelsey Mitchell handling the ball. If the Fever can find a good lob threat for McCowan like what Allen provides, it may be worth it to explore reducing Allen’s minutes.

Victoria Vivians is one of the hardest players to judge on the team. Due to Indiana’s lack of three-point threats, Vivians instantly becomes one of the most valuable players on the team when her shot is falling. Vivians, the eighth overall pick by the Fever in 2018, is averaging just 5.5 points per game this season after missing most of the last two years due to injury.

Her reduced minutes this year are likely a result of easing her back into the rotation, but she has shown in the past that she can be a solid contributor for the Fever. In her rookie season, Vivians started 26 games and averaged 8.9 points while making 39.9 percent of her 4.8 three-point attempts per contest. And while that team finished with a mere six wins, Vivians was at the forefront of some of that team’s best performing lineups.

Vivians’ role this season partially rests on her ability to make her shots, but it may be worthwhile to give her a starting spot or an expanded bench role to try and get her going. As many of the great three-point shooters would say, snipers have to keep shooting to get out of a slump.

For the team’s rookies, all eyes are on the development of Kysre Gondrezick, who the Fever selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 draft. Unfortunately, Gondrezick has been relatively buried on the team’s depth chart and her 10.2 minutes per game rank just 10th on the team. However, Gondrezick has shown an innate ability to get buckets, stretch the floor, and make plays on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball.

See Also

While Gondrezick’s shooting has cooled off in recent contests, her reduced production has coincided with a downtick in minutes. If the team is out of the playoff picture, it makes sense to extend the first rounder’s nightly minutes. In fact, Gondrezick has shown potential for playmaking ability with the Fever, and she averaged 4.7 assists per game in her final collegiate season.

If the team were to move away from Allen’s minutes, Gondrezick is the likely candidate to take her place. Gondrezick is tied for third on the team in assists per 36 minutes with 4.0, behind only Robinson and Allen. Though Allen leads the team in assists per 36, Gondrezick has far more volume from deep and defensive prowess that would allow her to shore up a lead guard role.

Határ is another player deserving of an uptick in minutes. She isn’t that young, being four years older than fellow rookie Aaliyah Wilson, but she is still raw at 6’10”. Regardless, Határ has played extremely well in limited minutes and should absorb minutes if the team shortens the rotation.

It’s important to note that the Fever used its roster spot from waiving second-year forward Lauren Cox on rookie Chelsey Perry. The Fever selected Perry in the third round of the 2021 draft but waived her to give Határ a roster spot. Perry provides some of the three-point shooting this team needs after hitting a career 37.5 percent of her three-point attempts in college. It wouldn’t hurt giving minutes to both Wilson and Perry if the team continues on its poor trajectory.

As for Cox, her waiving is a huge surprise seeing as Indiana selected Cox with the third overall pick just last year. There is a chance she re-joins the team at a later date, or that her release was health-related, but that is unknown as of now.

 

A Potential Solution

As seen, Indy’s lineup of Kelsey and Tiffany Mitchell, Robinson, McCowan, and Breland has been the team’s best. But even when that group was starting, the team was still trending in a losing direction despite the win over Washington. Clearly, part of the solution involves bolstering the bench in another way that doesn’t just involve head coach Marianne Stanley’s move of McCowan to the second unit. It’s unclear which players are willing to make that move to the second unit, but according to Stanley, “I don’t think there’s anybody who cares about that. They want to win.”

That being said, the Fever should stagger their guard and wing minutes as much as possible. If Kelsey Mitchell continues to start as a lead ball handler, Robinson could make a move to the bench, which would allow the team to stay in these games. A potential bench rotation involving Breland, McCowan, and Robinson would bring the right amount of playmaking and scoring that could ease some of the team’s woes.

That would leave Kelsey and Tiffany Mitchell, the team’s two leading scorers, to play next to a capable frontcourt player in Lavender. The team could then decide which of the team’s snipers in Gondrezick and Vivians would start and plug in some Határ minutes. Regardless, Hall of Famer and one-time Coach of the Year Marianne Stanley is well-equipped to make those kinds of decisions though they are unknown as of yet.

One thing is for certain, something has to change, or the Fever’s upside-down season is going to go from bad to worse.

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