June 15, 2021 

The Indiana Fever are facing a big problem

Can the Fever establish a consistent post rotation?

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PALMETTO, FL – SEPTEMBER 10: Teaira McCowan #15 of the Indiana Fever shoots the ball against the New York Liberty on September 10, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via GettyImages)

12 games into the 2021 season, the Indiana Fever have a big problem on their hands — and it’s not just their league-worst 1-11 record. 

Coach Marianne Stanley has yet to decide on a consistent rotation of post players, and as a result, the Fever’s bigs are struggling to establish consistency in their play.

The Fever have had issues related to playing with effort all season — they lost all five games on their recent west coast road trip by an average of 25 points — but it doesn’t help the team’s cohesion when there’s a lineup carousel that leaves players unsure of their minutes.

“It could either affect it, or it could be a positive thing, right?” Jessica Breland said unconfidently. “It just all depends.”

Indiana has already used four different starting lineups this season, shuffling guards, forwards and centers into the three, four and five positions. Here’s a peek at the breakdown of starting frontcourts this year:

The second lineup listed above — with K. Mitchell, Breland and McCowan — is the lone trio to lead the Fever to a win this season.

McCowan was benched after a blowout loss to the Los Angeles Sparks on June 3 in which she recorded just six points in 17 minutes. Stanley instead opted for a smaller lineup over the Fever’s past two games, with Tiffany and Kelsey Mitchell at the two and three positions, respectively, Breland at the four and Lavender at the five.

The first game in which that experiment was implemented, however, wasn’t exactly a success — the Fever trailed 25-12 after the first quarter against the Chicago Sky and played from behind the rest of the way.

“Right now we’re trying to find our groove,” Breland said. “We’re trying to figure out who works well together in what situations and stuff like that, so that’s why you’re seeing the different lineups and the different people coming off the bench at different times.”

It’s not as though Lavender and Breland, both in their first years in Indiana, don’t have experience in the starting lineup during their careers. Lavender started 22 of 23 games with Chicago in 2019, while Breland started all 33 games she played during the same year in Atlanta.

The issue? Those players are nearly identical in their style of play, so they clash in the starting lineup together. They both excel in the pick and pop midrange game, but will rarely post up with their backs to the basket or drift beyond the three-point line for long jumpers. Lavender has attempted just 82 threes over 10 years, and Breland just 66 three over nine years.

It’s not a secret that the Fever are struggling to shoot the ball — they rank ninth in the WNBA in field goal percentage (40.9%, and dead last in three-point shooting (27.8%). 

The latest lineup isn’t really a remedy for those deficiencies — among the five starters (Danielle Robinson, Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Lavender and Breland), Breland is leading in field goal percentage at 43.2. Tiffany Mitchell, Lavender and Robinson are all shooting sub-40%. Except for Breland’s 2-for-4 mark, all four others are shooting the three below 31%.

McCowan, meanwhile, thrived off the bench in a narrow loss to Sky on Saturday. The third-year center secured her fifth double-double of the season, scoring 20 points on 9-for-15 shooting and collecting 13 rebounds. She claims to never get rattled by her position in the lineup, and her performance effectively backed that up.

“Honestly, I don’t care if I come off the bench, I don’t care if I start,” said McCowan. “I just know when I get in, you know what I’m going to do.”

It’ll be interesting to watch if Stanley continues to bring McCowan, undoubtedly the Fever’s strongest post player, into games as a reserve. After Saturday’s game, the coach suggested that it could benefit young players like McCowan to begin games by watching opposing teams execute their defensive schemes.

“I think [McCowan] has performed well coming off the bench,” said Stanley. “Maybe it’s helped her to see the game unfolding a bit before she’s actually in it if she can see where she can take advantage of certain things.

“For us to take advantage of T’s size, timing and execution has a lot to do with it.”

Then there’s the issue of Lauren Cox, the third overall pick in 2020 center whose young career has been plagued by injuries and a lack of playing time.

After battling complications with COVID-19, Cox played just 14 games in the 2020 bubble season, averaging only 13 minutes and 3.6 points per game. The center then sustained a knee injury towards the end of the season, the lingering effects of which kept her sidelined for the first four games of 2021.

She proclaimed during a recent media session that her knee is now feeling good, so how can she get up to speed as a prominent member of the rotation?

“It’s getting reps,” Cox said. “It’s not just getting set shots, it’s getting the game shots.”

The problem is, those “game shots” have been hard to come by.

Before Saturday’s loss — when Cox played 12 minutes and turned in seven points — Stanley had previously demonstrated a reluctance to feature Cox in high-leverage situations. She had played just 65 minutes and score four total points over seven games.

Maybe Saturday was a turning point for Stanley and Cox, as she can provide a big body with greater shooting ability than McCowan — she even connected on her only three-point attempt against the Sky.

Already more than a third of the way into the Fever’s 32 game season, Stanley has yet to integrate all of her new and old pieces into a cohesive lineup. With Indiana currently sitting 4.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot, it’s safe to say the time is now to find one that works.

Written by Ben Rosof

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