September 18, 2023
Ignore the record — Here come the Indiana Fever
Fever are on the doorstep of reaching their goal of being a playoff team
In 2022, the Indiana Fever went 5-31. They were without a doubt the worst team in the WNBA, being one of just two squads to post a net rating below -3.5. The Fever’s was -12.9. They were crummy.
Strangely, there was a sense of optimism as the team headed into the 2022 offseason. General manager Lin Dunn was of the opinion that more wins were coming, and soon. That was before the Fever won the 2023 draft lottery, or before they had made a coaching change.
Instead, that sense of optimism came from a feeling that everyone was getting into the right seat on the bus within the organization. Dunn took over in February, a few weeks into free agency. She instantly turned over more than a quarter of the roster and changed head coaches — twice. Instead of trying to grow out with the veteran core in place, Indiana opted to change directions.
Since then, everything has gone exactly according to plan. Christie Sides took over as head coach, and she is exactly what an inexperienced Fever team needed. The team returned to Gainbridge Fieldhouse full time, and having a permanent stadium made everything easier and more efficient. The Fever played in three different home arenas in 2022.
They also, perhaps most notably, won the WNBA draft lottery. Finally, after years of losses. And it was a great draft to win it. Indiana grabbed Aliyah Boston, the Rookie of the Year favorite who was an All-Star starter in year one.
Just 19 months after Dunn took the job, the franchise has been flipped on its head. Everything is where it is supposed to be now. Talent has come in the door, and each player has a clear and obvious role. The coaching staff grew just like the players and helped make the team better. The facilities are normal again.
Everything is finally where it is supposed to be for a rebuilding team. After years of toiling and going in the wrong direction, the Indiana Fever are back to being a stable franchise.
“It’s been pretty consistent on the positive side,” wing Victoria Vivians said of the team’s culture improvements. “For us to double [our win total] overnight, it’s really good.”
There is not a single individual moment that led to the Fever’s significant growth. There are some factors that are more important than others, but multiple things played a part in the team becoming a competitive group in 2023.
After Dunn took over, the place to start chronologically is the Christie Sides hire. Sides just finished her first year as a WNBA head coach after spending years on the sidelines as an assistant. For a young, inexperienced team, an inexperienced head coach that could grow with them was the perfect choice. Sides even acknowledged before game 39 that everything still all felt fresh and new to her as opposed to routine. In that way, she could grow with her team.
She also emphasized the right things. Culture. Defense. Aggression, at the right times, and hard work. A reshaped team with many young players needed to be in that environment. The veterans needed to be able to create that environment, too, and that’s why multiple players from Sides’ last stop before Indiana (Atlanta) were brought in.
As the roster improved, so did the coaching staff. That was important in getting the Fever moving in the right direction. “She’s very emotional, she’s very passionate about the things that she [does]. She grew in the area where her emotions used to take over her sometimes. I think on the back end [of the season], she kind of channeled them in different ways,” veteran guard Erica Wheeler said of Sides’ growth. “Credit to her, because she had a plan. She executed more than people thought she would do.”
Just days after hiring Sides, the Indiana Fever won the lottery. That gave them picks one and seven in the first round of the WNBA Draft, and they were able to add Boston and Grace Berger.
To say that turned out well would be an understatement. Boston became an All-Star in her first season. She got better throughout the season, so much so that she was seeing double teams as a rookie. Her two-way play was sensational, and the Fever’s net rating was 11.6 points per 100 possessions better with Boston on the court than off.
She is a star in every way. The way she treats people off the court is what stood out to her teammates. Indiana grabbed a premier talent in the draft, and that accelerated their turnaround.
Berger, meanwhile, brought stability to the guard rotation. She was reliable off the bench both on the wing and as a ball handler, and her skill both in the mid range and from outside the arc made her a versatile weapon. In some games, Sides couldn’t get her off the floor. In others, she was a steadying hand for a hobbled rotation. Dunn nailed both Fever draft picks in 2023, and they were both named to the Associated Press All-Rookie team as a result.
What made Boston uniquely special is that she wasn’t too big for her situation, yet she wasn’t too small to lead. She recognized her inexperience and gave herself grace, which allowed her to push forward and improve despite being a perfectionist on a 13-27 team. At the same time, she recognized her abilities and became a leader, particularly a vocal leader on the floor. She is going to be a pillar of the franchise going forward.
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Dunn got to work in the offseason, bringing in Wheeler, Kristy Wallace, Maya Caldwell and Emma Cannon. Three players who were with Sides on the Atlanta Dream last season and a returning veteran in Cannon. It was clear what the goals were in free agency — good culture fits who can be additive off the court just as much as they helped on it.
The three ex-Dream players — Wallace, Wheeler and Caldwell — all helped Sides establish the cultural norms that she wanted to have. Some norms came with her from Atlanta, mainly her defensive focus. Other implementations were her own doing. Either way, having 25% of the roster familiar with a new coach was beneficial for all parties, and Kelsey Mitchell and Vivians had played for Sides before, too.
A mid-season trade to acquire Amanda Zahui B. was helpful for culture reasons, too. Every move mentioned above felt like just one move, and often the right one. After the Zahui B. trade, though, taking stock was important.
Suddenly, a lot was different. From the time Dunn took over until early July of this year, a 15.5 month span, Indiana’s front office had changed. The entire coaching staff had changed. Nine of the 12 players on the roster were different, just Mitchell, Vivians and Cannon remained. The Indiana Fever did a 180 in record time, and every move made everything better.
Now, the Fever have the team they want and the culture they want.
“I feel like it’s grown tremendously… The sky’s the limit for the Indiana Fever,” Cannon said of the franchise. “Next year, hopefully they can and will be a contending playoff team. Anything is possible. I’m very happy with the movement [and] the direction that the Indiana Fever are going in.”
Cannon perfectly summarized what comes next for the Fever — expectations. They were hoping to contend for a playoff spot this year, and they did. In 2024, they want to make it.
But one more lottery pick — the Fever are guaranteed a top-three pick in the 2024 draft — and another free agency period will be better for the organization than making the playoffs now. This season was essentially perfect for Indiana in that way.
The Indiana Fever are on the precipice of being a playoff threat. They have the culture and the foundation in place. They just need a little bit more experience and a little more talent, and they will be a postseason squad.
“You’re going to want to be on this Fever train. I promise you. You’re going to want to be on it,” Sides said during the season. “It’s going to be a lot of fun in the next two, three, four, five, six, seven years. As long as we can pay y’all to stay around.”