After an injury-riddled 6-16 season, where are the Fever headed?
A quick season in review and offseason look ahead for Indiana
|Ben Dull||Sep 14, 2020|| 3|
Some closing thoughts on a few major themes from Indiana’s 2020 season, which came to a close after Saturday’s loss to Minnesota, along with a quick look ahead to their offseason.
Year two for T
I don’t know how any viewer could come away with anything other than some very conflicted feelings about Teaira McCowan’s 2020 season. The second-year center did shoot 54.5 percent inside the arc (up from 51.7 as a rookie) and 75 percent at the free throw line (up from 68.7 percent). We are reviewing a much smaller sample, though: McCowan played 752 minutes in 34 games in 2019 compared to just 461 in this shortened 22-game season. She drew just 10 total starts compared to 16 last season, and that feels like a natural starting point. What gives?
McCowan does not look remotely close to being ready to anchor a WNBA defense. Marianne Stanley pointed to the matchup when she was asked why McCowan didn’t start in the season opener against Washington. In the minutes McCowan did get in that game and throughout the season, the holes in her game on the defensive end were glaring. Her technique and awareness are not where they need to be. Her struggles aren’t even limited to defending pick and rolls or being out in space. Her reaction time around the rim was poor, and smaller bigs got too many easy ones going right at her in the post.
But did the Fever not just draft McCowan less than 18 months ago with the No. 3 overall pick, signaling they believed she would become their franchise center? So while McCowan didn’t appear ready even to help them get out of the cellar defensively here in 2020, Stanley’s reliance on the alternative frontcourt combinations are what still left you scratching your head. In terms of building the next Fever team that can consistently make some noise in the playoffs, we’ve seen enough of the Natalie Achonwa-Candice Dupree pairing, especially as the starters, no?
Dupree and Achonwa had logged nearly 1,700 minutes together across the last three seasons. In 499 minutes in 2017, the Fever were outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions according to WNBA.com. It’s only gotten worse since. The Fever had a minus-7.9 net rating in 758 minutes with that pairing on the floor in 2018 and were minus-10.9 in 411 minutes last season. And that paring once again was the most common starting combination as McCowan continued to come off the bench. In 252 Dupree-plus-Achonwa minutes this season, opponents scored 118.3 points per 100 as the Fever posted a minus-19.8 net rating.
Indiana has now finished in the bottom two in defensive rating for four consecutive seasons. Their 111.8 points allowed per 100 this season is the worst season-long defensive rating in WNBA history. So, I ran through all that to ask: If you can’t get stops anyway, isn’t there at least real long-term value in letting one of your most important young players log the majority of her minutes against the opponent’s best players? If conditioning even was an issue, can’t she just play three short stints each half? What did leaning on that alternative route accomplish for the franchise?
Not to mention the other end of the floor, where McCowan does give them a threat that can do a bunch of damage right at the rim regardless of the matchup, even creating open 3-pointers when she never even touches the ball because teams are so hyper-aware of her posting up with two feet right in the lane:
It might be generous to even call Indiana a middling offensive team this season, and I’d argue they failed to follow an optimal path for either of their two most important healthy young players. And yes, the defense wasn’t any good either. While McCowan isn’t where you’d like her to be in some areas, what can you really point to as reason enough to not just play her more? Teams essentially didn’t get on the practice floor at all this season as they largely played every other day. Games were your practices; that was the case for all 12 teams. That should have carried even more truth for a team still very much in rebuilding mode.
Let’s close out on McCowan with another positive seen in the minutes she did play. She managed to shoot just 57.1 percent in the restricted area as a rookie on about six attempts per game—2.2 points below the league average! That perked up in year two as McCowan shot nearly 72 percent on 71 attempts. Overall, she shot nearly 59 percent in the paint, aided by more glimpses at a turnaround jumper that would be a big asset moving forward when teams do manage to keep her from getting deep catches.
Optimizing Kelsey Mitchell
I remember wondering at the time what Indiana’s exact rationale was in deciding to move on from Pokey Chatman after three seasons as their head coach and general manager. Were they just making a change for the sake of it? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that has happened in professional sports, but I really struggled to identify potential sticking points just spitballing ideas in my head.
Ultimately, I could only land on two. The first? Frustration elsewhere in the organization that McCowan wasn’t thrust into the starting lineup earlier. Welp...so much for that. The second? That they weren’t quite optimizing 2018 No. 2 overall pick Kelsey Mitchell—a talking point I’ve brought up repeatedly while acknowledging that a big part of that simply came down to Mitchell simply doing what she needed to get better, especially as a passer and decision-maker. But look at how Stanley deployed Mitchell this season; I can’t see any truth to that sentiment, then, either! Was it more about some decisions further down the roster? Save for three 2020 draft picks, they ran it back with their 2019 roster while letting Betnijah Laney get away. Did this ultimately just come down to Chatman vs. now-GM Tamika Catchings on who would have the final say on personnel decisions?
Let’s stick to Mitchell for now. Other than simply playing more—32.1 minutes per game compared to the mid-20s in 2018 and 2019—what identifiable changes can you point to and attribute to the coaching change? I watched this team closely all season; the uptick in efficiency screams more ‘young player making better decisions and adjusting to the next level’ than anything else. They’re putting one of the most dynamic pull-up shooters we’ve seen in a long time in a box as a traditional shooting guard.
While there might be some value in getting Mitchell to do more with less, the Fever need capital ‘S’ Stars. Every team should constantly be in star-hunting mode. Look at two of the teams at the top of the 2020 standings! Los Angeles didn’t rest on their laurels this offseason; they knew they needed to get better and signed Kristi Toliver. Las Vegas added Angel McCoughtry. Beyond Mitchell or McCowan, nobody else on this roster has a star-level ceiling.
Mitchell’s usage rate only went down a tad this season. But dig deeper, and you’ll see the real changes. Pick and rolls accounted for 46 and 37 percent of Mitchell’s possessions used in 2018 and 2019 according to Synergy Sports. That dropped all the way down to 21 percent in 2020. She attempted 57 pull-up jumpers all season after making 30 pull-up 3-pointers as a rookie!
Similar to the flawed tradeoff I pointed to with the handling of McCowan’s minutes and role, the rest of Indiana’s options aren’t good enough to punt on Mitchell’s ceiling. This is a needle-pushing player that you should be encouraging to completely shatter conventional wisdom of what we think a lead ball-handler should be doing on a possession-by-possession basis in the WNBA, hunting pull-up 3-pointers in pick and roll or even in isolation at a rate that would make a young Diana Taurasi blush.
Remember, Mitchell’s case is not one of a high-volume college scorer that simply isn’t athletic enough to get open and get to the basket at the next level. She’s one of the most explosive downhill drivers in the league. Clear the way for her to attack in space, and defenders can only take so much off the table: risk watching her pull up or take that extra step forward and hope you and the help can stop her at the rim.
Mitchell and Arike Ogunbowale are different players, but why isn’t Indiana taking a similar approach to what Dallas did last season? How can a young high-usage guard learn to make the right reads more consistently without truly being given the keys to the car? Instead, Stanley put the ball in Julie Allemand’s hands for 33 minutes a night. And Allemand is a nice, table-setting point guard. But she took just six shots per game and had the 11th-lowest usage rate on the team. She’s a good shooter and is quick enough to get in the lane attacking a closeout. Allemand simply can’t put the same strain on a defense. Couldn’t she just spot up as Mitchell got more on-ball reps?
Maybe I’m just too all-in on Mitchell’s skill set to be objective anymore. But if she becomes available at some point via trade or as a restricted free agent in 2022, I have a hard time believing another team won’t come with a hard pitch making some of these same points in an attempt to pry her away.
Peeking ahead to 2021
Pending free agents: Candice Dupree, Natalie Achonwa, Erica Wheeler, Jantel Lavender, Kamiah Smalls (assumed expiring one-year deal—signed in late August)
2021 draft capital: own first-rounder (lottery), own second-rounder, second-rounder via Chicago (Jantel Lavender trade), own third-rounder, third-rounder via Chicago (Lavender trade), third-rounder via Minnesota (Shenise Johnson trade)
It’s probably time for some changes up front. It just doesn’t make sense for a team that’s been in the lottery now for four straight years to continue to lean so much on a player heading into her age-36 season. Seeing a full year for 2020 No. 3 overall pick Lauren Cox next to McCowan should be one of their biggest priorities.
If Dupree were to walk, was the idea in acquiring Lavender to have her fill in as a shooting big in the rotation? Achonwa, 27, might make sense as a third big, especially if she can stretch out to the 3-point line more consistently. She’s been with the franchise for six years, and Cox can slide up to center when McCowan rests. Smalls has some size and can really shoot it. At minimum, she should be in camp with somebody fighting for a roster spot next year.
Unfortunately, Stanley didn’t get to work with Wheeler at all this season; the 2019 All-Star wasn’t able to join the team in Florida at all. To me, questions about Wheeler’s future approaching her age-30 season may center more on their outlook on Allemand and Mitchell. First, is Allemand committed to playing in the WNBA year after year? Assuming they intend to continue to deploy Mitchell as a 2-guard, finding a way to keep Wheeler and Allemand does make some sense. But looking ahead to the draft, what if they end up getting a chance to take a ball-handler that they really like with this top-four pick?
But hey, at least they’ve amassed this cluster of late-round picks! At this point, I don’t know how you can utilize all five of those picks either in trades or selecting multiple players that will have a nonzero chance of making your team (unless they completely overhaul the roster). You shouldn’t want to ever completely dismiss the value those picks, though. Don’t forget that the Fever actually jumped up two spots in the second round in that Shenise Johnson trade but passed on Crystal Dangerfield, who fell to the team they did that deal with, to take Kathleen Doyle instead. Ouch. And did I mention that they actually re-signed Laney to a multi-year deal earlier this offseason?
One big mountain of perspective
If you read the sections on Mitchell and McCowan and felt they were a tad harsh, I hope you also stuck around to read this part. Stanley was thrust into an impossible situation in year one. Full stop. It’d be irresponsible to judge her first season solely on their win-loss record.
On top of a few minor in-season injuries and arriving at IMG's campus later than the other 11 teams, their starting point guard (Wheeler) missed the entire season. Cox, the No. 3 overall pick, logged just 183 minutes in 14 games. Victoria Vivians (knee) was shut down after appearing in just six games. Even Stephanie Mavunga (nasal fracture) appeared in just five games before she was sent to Chicago in the deal for Lavender at the trade deadline.
Cox and Vivians are two of their most important building blocks. And if they do plan on re-signing Wheeler, you have to lump her in too as a big part of what they hope to accomplish in the next couple of years. So again, the points I raised above aren’t coming from a place of wanting to prematurely come to some final verdict on the Stanley hire. However, I would argue that this chain of events should have pushed them to take the long view from the jump in the form of leaning even more on Mitchell and McCowan.
That didn’t happen. Even in a “normal” season, WNBA teams only get a few months per year with most of their players in market before they head overseas. The non-playoff teams don’t have the equivalent of an 82-game NBA schedule where you can really flip a switch to take more of a developmental angle in the second half of the season and get your young players a ton of minutes.
While sympathizing with and understanding the impact of their notable absences this season, Indiana’s process this summer was flawed. The rebuilding process will only get more painful before things get significantly better if that persists moving forward.
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