2020 WNBA Season Preview: Indiana Fever

The Indiana Fever had a better year in 2019 than 2018, going from 12th to 9th, and just missing the playoffs. The next step, making the playoffs, will likely need to wait another year or two. While the Fever have some good pieces, it is unclear if this is a team with a player who can be a top 10 player in the W, much less top 5. That will define how this rebuild goes, and I am not hopeful.

While Pokey Chatman knew basketball well, Marianne Stanley will hopefully bring the style of the Washington Mystics with her. More 3s and better spacing on offense. Indiana does not have Elene Delle Donne, so the results won’t be as good, but the style should be playable.

Though the offense should be more dynamic, it was league average at 7th in 2019. The defense, at 11th, was even more of a struggle. In time, Lauren Cox will be able to help with this, but asking a rookie big to make a big difference on defense is a tall order. Year 2 Teaira McCowan should be better, as well, especially near the basket.

The Fever have lots of cap space, according to Richard Cohen, and so should a disgruntled star want out they could be a destination. The difficult part is convincing said player to want to go to Indianapolis. Indianapolis is an underrated city, and is the WNBA city I live closest too, but needless to say it is no LA or Las Vegas. 

Speaking of the difficulty of getting a star, this is why I would have taken Chennedy Carter over Lauren Cox. Lauren Cox’s floor is higher than Carter’s, as a solid big she should have a good WNBA career, but her upside is not nearly as high. For a small market team like Indiana, drafting is the only way to build a championship contending team, and sometimes risks need to be taken.

Unless Cox starts shooting threes at a high volume and increases her shot creation, which is possible, if not likely, it is hard to envision her becoming the kind of star a team can build around. Even a number 2 on a championship team seems like a stretch. Carter may not figure out her shooting to reach her potential, but if she does, watch out. 

The team seems to be in about the same position as last year. Major growth from Teaira McCown and Kelsey Mitchell are the best hope for a better than expected year, but this team is likely to finish in the same spot as last year, if not lower.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions: 

Julie Allemand

Notable Losses: 

none

Draft Picks: 

First round: Lauren Cox 

Second Round: Kathleen Doyle

Third round: Kamiah Smalls (already cut)

Projected Depth Chart:

Guards: Erica Wheeler, Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Kathleen Doyle, Julie Allemand

Wings: Victoria Vivians, Bitnajah Laney, Kennedy Burke

Bigs: Teaira McCowan, Candice Dupree, Natalie Achonwa, Stephanie Mavunga. 

Julie Allemand is a 23 yr old point guard with high level experience in Europe. Given the Fever’s options at point are unsettled, she is worth a look. Kathleen Doyle and Stephanie Mavunga are the players I am least confident about making the team. 

Playing time breakdown:

Teaira McCowan is the one player guaranteed to be starting. She was an effective center last year who generated fouls at a higher rate than comparable centers like Sylvia Fowles and Liz Cambage. She shot only 57% in the restricted area, so a main goal should be to get that up into the mid 60s, where comparable top centers finish. 

She is so big at 6’ 7” that she is a deterrent at the rim, but will continue to need to work on defending in space, and the rest of the roster will need to play a style that minimizes her lack of mobility. But she is a key piece of the Fever’s future.

The swing spot for this team in terms of style of play is going to be the 4. Will Candice Dupree finally take two steps back and shoot 3s? Can Lauren Cox up the number of attempts she takes from 3 to make teams honor her out there? Either way, finding a way to add more shooting to the lineup will maximize Teaira McCowan’s effectiveness rolling to the rim and should be a priority long term for the Fever. 

My vote is for more playing time for Cox. Dupree is a smart player who has had a wonderful career, but she can be an effective backup and mentor for Cox, while Cox learns to play with McCowan. Cox will make more mistakes on defense, but also provide more rim protection.

Some analysts ($) have Candice Dupree playing the 3, but at this point in her career, her lack of foot speed and the lack of 3 point shooting makes that unworkable. A healthy Victoria Vivians would be ideal for this spot. At 6’1” Vivians was a phenomenal shooter in 2018, shooting 40% on 5 attempts per game as a rookie, before missing all of last year with an ACL injury. When healthy, she has the athleticism and size to guard the top wing scorers in the W, which would be big for a Fever team that was limited in two way players at wing in 2019.

Kelsey Mitchell will almost certainly start. The question that the Fever should be trying to answer this year is whether long term she is their point guard or shooting guard. Her assist % was low for a point guard at 19%, compared to her teammate Erica Wheeler at 35%. Her shooting and shot creation are valuable skills that are hard to find. Should she improve her pick and roll decision making, she has the outlines of a dynamic modern point guard who can shoot 3s off the dribble in the pick and roll. The hope for the Fever is in year 3 she is set for a breakout, a la Kelsey Plum last year.

Erica Wheeler is a solid point guard, especially if she shoots like she did last year, at 37% on a decent number of attempts per game. At 29 she is the second oldest player on the team, and as an undersized guard who relies on athleticism might not age well. But for this year, she and Kelsey Mitchell will likely play a lot of minutes together.

Tiffany Mitchell quietly received, after Bria Hartley, the most curious deal in the most recent free agency at $140,000 over 3 years, per High Post Hoops. She is the highest paid player on the Fever, and will likely not start this year. As previously discussed, they have the cap space to add a new player, and pay their players on rookie deals, so it might not cost them other opportunities, but I’m not sure her leaving for Atlanta would have been the end of the world. It seemed like Atlanta made out better when their offer was matched by the Fever. She would be, what, the fifth guard on the Dream?

Mitchell has more offensive ability than Laney or Burke, so she might be able to play backup minutes at the 3 as well as the 2, against certain matchups, but she lacks the size for that to be a long term option, at only 5’9”. She attacks the basket fairly well, but has shot under 30% her 3 years in the league who tends to get tunnel vision on drives.

Year 2 of Teaira McCowan and year 3 of Kelsey Mitchell give Fever fans something to look forward to. I am lower on the long term outlook of this team than some comparable teams. One of their players popping and showing unexpected growth would solve their lack of a star player. Until then, this is a team with a lower ceiling than is ideal. The rebuild continues.