Questions Facing Indiana Fever Entering Year 4 of the Rebuild

The Indiana Fever are in the lottery for a third consecutive season and have two key vacancies to fill after deciding to move on from head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman. 

Here’s more on what the franchise needs to do this offseason as they continue building a group that can achieve sustained success once again. 

About that lottery… 

The New York Liberty won the 2020 WNBA Draft lottery after securing the worst two-year cumulative record at 17-51, giving them the best odds to draw the No. 1 overall pick. 

Indiana, despite having the second-best odds with a 19-49 cumulative record, was leapfrogged by the Dallas Wings.

The Liberty lost 14 of their final 16 games while the Fever won four of six. New York wasn’t blatantly throwing games at any point in the season, but that lottery draw for these two teams raises important questions about how rebuilding WNBA franchises weigh their different needs, even including—you guessed it—the way they view tanking. 

Those late-season wins for the Fever included victories over the Seattle Storm, Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun.

That’s great! Those are easy to talk up as growth indicators. 

In reality, that game meant nothing to the Sun, the Aces were sputtering toward the playoffs and this banged-up Seattle team had to fight with all their might to secure the sixth seed. 

For teams that need to land some star power, the 2020 draft class will fall off after the top two if none of the top early entrants declare. New York was better protected against that possibility by at least securing the best odds. Now Dallas is sitting pretty behind them at No. 2, and the Fever may go another season without adding another potential All-Star. 

So, were those late-season wins really worth it? Short answer: No. 

It wouldd be interesting to get the entire organization on truth serum to find out if the team’s direction late in the season was a point of contention. If it wasn’t, did the Chatman decision largely happen because it’s the easiest big change to make? 

We haven’t heard much on the coach and GM search, or even floated rumors of who the top candidates were at the time of Chatman’s firing or as the college basketball season tips in November. Stay tuned on that front. 

What will the new coach/GM see in the point guard position?

Mar 24, 2018; Spokane, WA, USA; Texas A&M Aggies guard Chennedy Carter (3) celebrates a Notre Dame Fighting Irish turnover in the semifinals of the Spokane regional of the women’s basketball 2018 NCAA Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Chatman’s handling of the point guard position feels like the only other big thing worth pointing at as a possible source of frustration elsewhere in the organization. 

Kelsey Mitchell, the 2018 No. 2 overall pick, has been in and out of the starting lineup both seasons of these past two seasons. 

(To continue with the dart-throwing: 2019 No. 3 overall pick Teaira McCowan not starting the first eight games feels too small.)

Mitchell hasn’t set the league on fire, as she has work to do as a defender and in reading the floor. Thriving on her diet of off-the-bounce triples might be the hardest thing to do in basketball. 

But the Fever had to know what they were drafting and anticipate some of these hurdles, even being more intentional to embrace them while working toward the vision they had for her as their lead guard. 

Helping Mitchell further realize some of her potential is even more pressing. Could another team pursue Wheeler or Mitchell in a trade this offseason by offering the Fever an upgrade elsewhere to balance out their roster? Given the choice, which would the Fever rather invest in for the long haul? 

That question for the new coach and GM could get even more complicated by some of the key decisions in this year’s draft class. Baylor’s Lauren Cox or Oregon’s Satou Sabally (draft-eligible junior) would be easy calls. 

The former would lay the foundation with McCowan for a fearsome frontcourt defensive pairing for years to come; the latter would stretch defenses from the 4 spot and open a bunch of doors for a 4-out attack. 

But if Sabally returns to school and Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter declares, the questions hanging over that lead guard spot will intensify.

Carter may bring the highest upside of the three, so one would think other teams would have some interest in trading up for her rights. With free agency occurring before the draft, would the Fever already make a move involving one of Mitchell or Wheeler already? 

Indiana may need to act without any real intel on what Carter and/or Sabally are going to do. This could all be for nothing just as easily, with both players returning to school and the Fever opening camp with both Mitchell and Wheeler, both under contract at least through 2020, on the roster. 

Nobody should envy the position the Fever will be in when mapping their future at the position. The order of operations is anything but friendly at each step along the way. 

Remember Victoria Vivians? 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN JUN 29 2018: Indiana Fever guard Victoria Vivians (35) knows down the wide open jump shot during the game between the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever June 29, 2018, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN. The Phoenix Mercury defeated the Indiana Fever 95-77. (Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire)

Victoria Vivians missed the entire 2019 season after suffering a torn ACL playing overseas. She and Mitchell had already looked like one of the league’s premier 3-point shooting duos as rookies, both regularly bombing away from well beyond the arc and giving defenses fits with off-the-dribble shooting. 

The prior question concerning Wheeler and Mitchell wasn’t raised hoping one gets run out of town. Wheeler, Mitchell and Vivians playing together would be exciting, especially if Indiana locks in somebody at the 4 who has potential to grow and solidify the defense next to McCowan. 

The Fever have the outline of something interesting: a point guard (Mitchell), a wing (Vivians) and a big (McCowan). The versatility of that shooting duo is devastating. McCowan raises their floor defensively and on the glass while giving them real size advantages they can pick at when she establishes position inside. 

Entering her age 29 season, Wheeler made a nice leap in 2019. Indiana could easily justify wanting to see how much of it is real or pursuing a trade involving either one of their guards to clear the way for the other while upgrading the roster elsewhere. 

Narrowly missing out on the best lottery odds has to hurt, though presumed No. 1 pick Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu would drive Indiana toward some of these same questions about its other guards on the roster. 

The Fever will need to take stock of what they have once they fill their coach/GM vacancies. Moves they make just a few short months from now may give us a glimpse at what they decided and where they think they’re headed in 2020.

Note: Contract and free agency status for players derived from the High Post Hoops salary database.

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