From Mediocre to Purgatory: A Feverish Downward Spiral

At the onset of 2022 free agency, the Indiana Fever waived guard Kysre Gondrezick, the fourth overall pick in the 2021 Draft. While Gondrezick showed some promise in her rookie season, few draft experts had the West Virginia product as a first-round selection, let alone a top-five pick. Gondrezick averaged just 1.9 points per game (PPG) on 28.3 percent shooting in 19 appearances before missing the latter part of the season on personal leave. 

Gondrezick was taken two selections before Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere and a whole round before All-Rookie selections Dana Evans and DiDi Richards. The pick was a reach then, and there is certainly no justifying the pick now.

Although the Gondrezick pick was a reach, it goes much deeper than simply the players selected after her. Asking a rookie to immediately step in and make an impact as a lead playmaker and ball handler—unless it’s a surefire pick like a Sabrina Ionescu or Arike Ogunbowale—is just…baffling. Especially when it comes in the form of a team with no clear identity entering the season.

The fact of the matter is that Gondrezick was thrust into an unfortunate situation and, due to that situation, her career with the Fever was doomed before it even began.

However, the Gondrezick debacle is just the most recent in a long line of questionable and downright confusing draft picks and signings by the Fever front office. 

Midseason last year, the Fever waived Lauren Cox, the third overall pick in the 2020 draft. While the injuries Cox suffered during her stint with the Fever weren’t the team’s fault, they are absolutely to blame for her lack of production in the minutes she did play. It’s an odd decision to invest that much draft capital on a college defensive menace that needed offensive development and then bail almost immediately. A frontcourt combo of McCowan and Cox seemed like a great idea at the time, but the pairing was never given a fair shot before Cox was released. It’s pretty telling that when Cox was released, she was immediately picked up by the Los Angeles Sparks. Last season, Cox averaged 1.4 PPG and 2.0 rebounds per game (RPG) on 31.6 percent shooting. When she signed with Los Angeles, those averages immediately jumped to 3.5 PPG and 3.7 RPG, to go along with an impressive 0.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per game.

In that same draft, the Fever ended up also selecting Kathleen Doyle with the 14th pick, two spots before Crystal Dangerfield went to the Minnesota Lynx—Doyle is now out of the league, and Dangerfield won Rookie of the Year.

The Fever also did a poor job in the 2019 draft, selecting Teaira McCowan over Napheesa Collier, who would go on to immediately become an All-Star and win Rookie of the Year, as well as Arike Ogunbowale and Brianna Turner. McCowan, unlike Cox and Gondrezick, hasn’t been a disappointment by any means, but she was in and out of the starting lineup for the duration of the season. 

Sensing a theme here?

Once again, the Fever had a talented young player that was somewhat of a reach that hasn’t been afforded enough opportunity to justify said reach. If the team is trying to build around a tandem of Kelsey Mitchell and McCowan, it makes no sense that McCowan played 200 less minutes than K-Mitch, despite the same number of game appearances. The Fever don’t show nearly enough trust in McCowan. At any sign of a mistake, she is moved to the bench, forced to play her way back into the starting lineup; rinse, wash, and repeat. It doesn’t make sense.

But it isn’t just the draft that’s giving Indiana such headaches; it’s the entire team-building process. Last year’s free-agency period was another misfire, with the Fever signing veterans Jantel Lavender and Danielle Robinson to huge contracts. Both players are 32 and, while sometimes effective, are complementary pieces on a playoff-contending team, not frontline players for a team in desperate need of a youth movement. At age 33, Jessica Breland was also signed, and the three veterans combined for 56 starts, each player logging over 500 minutes on the season. The Fever’s three draft picks in 2021, along with Cox, didn’t even play 500 minutes combined.

If you need any more convincing of the absurdity of those contracts, consider that Lavender, Robinson, and Breland made a whopping $475,000 combined last season. Lavender is under contract for two more seasons at $175,000 per year, and Robinson, who is under contract for the same duration of time, is at $155,000 per year. To put these figures in perspective, Kelsey Mitchell is the highest-earning player on the roster, getting paid about $200,000 a year. Lavender is making just $25,000 less than the roster’s star player but averaged 11.4 fewer points and 13.1 fewer minutes per game than K-Mitch, along with far worse efficiency despite taking shots at the rim as opposed to Mitchell’s tendency for pull-up jumpers.

Lavender and Robinson are undoubtedly good locker room presences to help develop a young core, but there isn’t a young core in Indy, and handcuffing the team to those contracts for two more years was an awful mistake. Further, the coaching staff likely feels inclined to give those players big minutes to make the investments worth it, leading to a steep decline in the minutes of younger, potentially more dynamic prospects. McCowan, in particular, was negatively affected, as both Lavender and Breland received big minutes in the frontcourt, diminishing McCowan’s ability to have as big an impact as possible. Meanwhile, players like Chelsey Perry and Aaliyah Wilson, played well in spurts last season but were banished to the end of the bench and didn’t see many minutes. And even though Gondrezick was the wrong pick for the franchise, she barely got any run.

2019 was slightly better in terms of giving minutes to young players, with Julie Allemand seeing plenty of court time in particular, but one decision came crashing down on the Fever: the waiving of Betnijah Laney. To perfectly sum up the Fever’s fortunes, Laney averaged 5.6 PPG with the Fever in 2019 before jumping that average immediately to 17.2 PPG with the Atlanta Dream and winning Most Improved Player. Laney signed with the New York Liberty prior to the 2021 season, expanding her breakout year to a full season and earning her first-ever All-Star nod. It stings for the Fever to have missed out on that kind of production.

The Fever’s upcoming free agency prospects don’t look great either. The team has just four guaranteed contracts in both Kelsey and Tiffany Mitchell, Lavender, and Robinson, with just $370,620 in cap space, per Her Hoop Stats. Three of those players probably shouldn’t be on the team next year, and Indy is going to have a hard time getting off the contracts of Lavender and Robinson in particular, if that’s the team’s desired path forward. Tiffany Mitchell is a solid rotational player but is on a different timeline than the rest of Indy’s young group, and it would make more sense for her to be on a contending team, rather than a rebuilding one.

The combination of head coach Marianne Stanley and Tamika Catchings was supposed to bring glory days to Indiana. Stanley is a Hall of Fame coach, who helped the Washington Mystics win their first championship in 2019 as an assistant, and Catchings is obviously the franchise GOAT, one of the best to ever play the game of basketball. But Catchings’ days as a player are far behind her, and now that duo has produced a 12-42 record in two seasons, the franchise is no closer to receiving any clarity on what direction to go in.

In retrospect, the Stanley hiring may not have been the right move. Stanley hadn’t coached in the W since 2003, when she accumulated a 9-25 record with the Washington Mystics. Stanley has a 38-82 record as a WNBA head coach, though she was Coach of the Year in 2002. 

The Stanley experiment, though, raises questions beyond her coaching ability. While head coach at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanley was accused of asking an assistant to have an abortion. In 1998, Stanley faced a lawsuit due to an alleged racist outburst. According to the report, Stanley hurled racist insults at a Black man when he collided with one of Stanley’s Cal players during a pickup game. Is that the right coach for a team at the crossroad of a culture rebuild?

Regardless of who is at the helm, the Fever’s poor results stem from the front office and coaching staff, and, despite its best efforts, the franchise is in a worse position now than it was when it let go of Pokey Chatman.

So where does the team go from here?

The first course of action is to spend wisely in free agency this offseason. The Fever are currently slated to have $442,061 in cap space after releasing Gondrezick (per Her Hoop Stats), which is enough room for a supermax player. But of the players to get a supermax deal, none are particularly likely to sign with the Fever, considering the season Indiana just had.

The kind of free agents Indiana needs to be targeting are those in need of a change of scenery, giving those players a prime opportunity to be a top option on a team with nothing to lose. Diamond DeShields comes to mind, as does Sophie Cunningham, who Indiana is reportedly interested in signing.

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However, Indiana also has to be careful not to repeat what they’ve done with players like Lavender, Robinson, and Breland—they can’t overpay unless it’s a guaranteed home run. Indiana should be looking to the top tier of free agents, young players who’ve shown potential that can be had for relatively cheap. Think Shyla Heal, who was waived in the Dana Evans trade after being the No. 8 overall pick last season. Heal is just 20 years old and could be a strong developmental piece without using a draft pick.

The Fever also must make some decisions pertaining to their own free agents. Breland should walk—she did some valuable things last season, but her $145,000 price tag is just too much for a veteran at her level. From there, it would be wise to bring back Victoria Vivians and Lindsay Allen. Vivians came on late last season, averaging 8.4 PPG in her last 12 games and starting the last four of the season. Allen made some questionable decisions with the ball but also showed enough flashes—averaging 10.7 PPG and 5.0 assists per game (APG) in her last 10 games—and wouldn’t cost much.

Vivians and Allen, both 27 entering this season, could very well be starters in the future, and could potentially be had for an average annual value around $190,000. The Fever could also look to bring back Bernadett Határ and Temi Fagbenle. Határ, in particular, gave the Fever some good minutes up front.

After handling signings and re-signings, the Fever need to turn their attention to some players still under contract. Attempting to trade Lavender to free up room in the frontcourt makes a ton of sense, but it would be exceedingly difficult to find a trade partner. It should be less difficult to move Tiffany Mitchell, who would generate a good amount of interest on the trade market, should she become available. Trading Tiffany Mitchell in a 1-for-2 trade makes sense, if the Fever want to shore up depth rather than relying on their starting five to carry the load.

Then comes the draft. Though the Fever ended up with the second pick and not the top selection, it is a luxury to be picking between Rhyne Howard and NaLyssa Smith. Those should be the only two players on Indiana’s board. Howard is likely to go with the first pick, but if she doesn’t, she makes plenty of sense for the Fever, seeing as she is much more pro-ready than someone like Gondrezick.

Smith is the more likely selection—a strong consolation prize. Smith and McCowan could play together in lineups where Vivians and Kelsey Mitchell space the floor. For what it’s worth, if the Fever have concerns pairing Smith and McCowan, Smith has shown signs of improvement from deep in each collegiate season.

The Fever have a second first-rounder in this year’s draft and should look at someone that could slot in on the wing, or someone that could be developed as a ball handler. Both of UConn’s guards make sense there, as could Northwestern’s Veronica Burton. If Howard is the pick, then pivoting to a forward would make sense. Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj, NC State’s Elissa Cunane, or Louisville’s Emily Engstler would all be good fits.

There is plenty of work to be done this season, but revamping the young core around the duo of Kelsey Mitchell and Teaira McCowan, and giving ample time to these players, is priority number one. 

If not, expect another aimless season.

* Unless otherwise noted, stats appear courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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