October 7, 2021 

A decision tree for the Indiana Fever

How will the Indiana Fever handle a pivotal offseason?

Indiana Fever general manager Tamika Catchings plainly stated her objective for the next iteration of Fever basketball in her end-of-season press conference last month. “We need to put together a team that will be in the playoffs,” she said.

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Head coach Marianne Stanley agreed, adding that not only does the organization want to be in playoffs, but it also wants to be successful once it gets there. “That’s our goal is to take the next step to get in and then do some damage once we get in there,” she detailed.

Such clearly defined goals are meaningful, especially for a franchise like the Fever. Indiana has just 12 wins across the past two seasons and hasn’t reached the postseason since Catchings was a player. Fans deserve to know that the organization is done with objectives centered around re-tooling — instead, this team wants to make the playoffs.

For that to happen, though, the Fever have to improve in a meaningful way. The 2021 version of the team finished dead last in net rating at -12.5, a step back from the -10.2 net rating the team had two seasons ago. Advanced numbers tell the story of the 2021 Fever poorly, however — they were often decimated by injuries and switched stadiums mid-season. Numerous obstacles stood in their way when it came to getting in a rhythm on the court, and that impeded the team’s development.

Still, finishing 11th in point differential per 100 possessions in 2020 and then 12th in 2021 suggests that the Fever need to tweak their roster, perhaps substantially, in order to achieve their lofty and stated goals. And Catchings recognizes that. She noted a few of her team’s biggest needs in the aforementioned press conference that took place just after the conclusion of the season.

“I think for us, the biggest need that we have right now [is] the position at the three and the four,” Catchings said. She added that the team is targeting a few stylistic changes for next season — playing a faster, more up-tempo game (the Fever have been bottom five in pace each of the last two seasons) and establishing a defensive identity. “We’ve got to get back to playing defense the way that we know how to play,” the GM noted. Indiana has conceded more points than any other team two seasons in a row.

All of these goals will shape the offseason for the Fever. Catchings detailed that six of the 13 rostered players from this past season will be free agents for Indiana, and the team has two top-10 picks to boot, so there will be plenty of opportunities for the team from the Circle City to bring in, or bring back, players who fit their goals and stylistic desires.

With the objectives defined for the winter, Indiana Fever brass must first decide which of their free agents from the 2021 team to keep. The half-dozen players hitting free agency that Catchings alluded to — Jessica Breland, Lindsay Allen, Victoria Vivians, Bernadett Határ, Emma Cannon, and Chelsey Perry, some of whom can be retained with a qualifying offer — must all be evaluated to see if they fit the front office’s craving for speed, fit at the forward spots and defensive skill.

Bernadett Hatar of the Indiana Fever
Indiana Fever players warm up before a game (Photo via The Next)

All of those players fit at least one of the Fever’s wishes for this offseason, but none of them quite check all of the boxes. For example, Breland, Vivians, Cannon and Perry can all can play at the power forward spot, and both Vivians and Perry received playing time at small forward this past season. They would all add value to the team by continuing to add forward depth, but they aren’t all perfect fits to return despite this valuable trait.

Breland, a talented defender whom Stanley praised often this past season, wouldn’t fit well in a faster style. And while her defense was lauded by coaches and players, the 33-year old isn’t what she used to be on that end of the floor — the Fever essentially had the same defensive rating with Breland on the bench and with her on the court. The numbers suggest her defensive boost was small, if it even existed. That said, season-long stats can be funky for Fever players because they played in so many unique lineups over the course of the season, and injuries make some statistical evaluations difficult.

Perry and Vivians can play both the three and the four, and both can thrive in an up-tempo setting on the perimeter. But they each have defensive weaknesses. Perry was improving on both ends of the court before tearing her ACL, and such an injury could make it harder for her to have the same impact in future seasons. It could be tough for her to earn a roster spot with Indiana next season thanks to her injury.

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Vivians is no stranger to ACL tears herself, and she occasionally struggled on defense this past season. Away from the ball, specifically, the Mississippi State product became disengaged from the play and made mistakes with some regularity. But her offensive skillset is unique and valuable, and she is perhaps the most willing 3-point shooter on the Fever, save for Kelsey Mitchell. Vivians is one of the more likely Fever free agents to return to the team, and being a reserved free agent could help Indiana in any endeavors to keep Vivians around.

“Her being able to come in, and we had to bounce around a lot with her this year, playing the three, then, you know, ended up having to move to the four, which she really really excelled at … I think that she’s another player that we kind of have not mentioned as much as we look at next year and just kind of like, what do I see?” Catchings said of Vivians after the season concluded.

Allen can play fast and has some defensive chops for a smaller guard, but she is not a three or a four. Her fate on the Indiana Fever roster next season may come down to whether Julie Allemand rejoins to the team after returning to Europe for a season. That said, Stanley is a fan of Allen and what she brings to the table, so she may be a candidate to return regardless of what happens with Allemand.

Cannon is a defensive menace on the interior and played power forward often for the Fever after joining the team midway through the season. But her skills are more typical of a center than of a forward, and her playing style would be more impactful on a slower, grind-it-out style of team. Cannon has an endless motor and can play a few different positions, so she is a candidate to return to the Fever. But if the team prioritizes speed and increasing its perimeter presence, she may not have a spot next season.

Of the six players who could depart Indiana this offseason, Vivians and Allen seem like the most likely to return. Vivians fits what the team wants to do well and has some skills that the team desperately needs, and Allen was acquired in a trade recently to help bolster Indiana’s backcourt. While neither is a franchise-altering talent, they both help contribute to winning basketball and fit what the Fever want to be next season. The other quartet of players could all be back with the team in the Circle City, but they may have smaller roles — and they might have to battle for a spot on the roster in training camp. The Fever will have tough decisions to make with each player in this group because they help achieve some of Catchings’ vision, but not all of it.

Should any of those players not return, the Indiana Fever will have some roster spots they need to fill, and that is where they can look toward external sources for help. Catchings has four draft picks at her disposal this offseason, including two inside the top 10, and has enough salary cap room to add players as team decision-makers see fit. If the front office wants to dramatically shake up the team, it can.

There are numerous free agents who could fit the Fever’s needs for up-tempo play, defense or comfortability at the forward spots. That’s another article entirely. Not many players fit all three needs, though, and that sweet spot is where the Fever will be hoping to strike this offseason so they can make it back to the playoffs.

Using a Stathead query to find forwards who were high-impact defenders last season and can shoot the ball well from 3-point range (a skill the Fever lacked this past season), one name stands out: Nia Coffey. The Los Angeles forward has canned 39% of her outside shots as a pro, and her defense has improved over the course of her career. While defensive stats can be unreliable, The Next Sparks reporter David Yapkowitz said the following about Coffey’s play on that end of the court:

“[Coffey’s] also become one of the Sparks’ best defensive players on a team that has been consistently near the top of the league defensively. She’s a capable on-ball defender but her value lies in her shot-blocking.”

Los Angeles Sparks forward Nia Coffey playing defense
Nia Coffey defends Elena Delle Donne (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

There will be other available players who could help the Fever tremendously, but the Fever need to make sure anyone they sign has a skillset that fits their needs. The team is already lopsided with numerous guards and centers, so adding the right players to balance the roster is key for Catchings. That sounds obvious, but after two inadequate seasons, it is perhaps more important for the Fever than other teams that they have a strong free agency. Finding perfect fits needs to be a constant quest this offseason.

The draft will also be a place where the Fever can add players that fit the mold they are looking for. Without knowing exactly where Indiana will be selecting just yet, it’s hard to pinpoint what they might do on draft night. But at this juncture, the Fever own the best odds to acquire the first overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft lottery, and that would give the team numerous options. Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard is the current favorite to be drafted first overall in 2022, and she fits many of the criteria for a player that the Fever want to add to their team this offseason. That could be a fate-altering draft pick if the Indiana Fever are able to land the first overall selection.

If not, Catchings and company will have to work hard to find the right fits in free agency and the draft while also bringing back the right players. “We have some work to do in January, leading up to January,” she said. “There are some really good free agents that are out there.”

There may be many talented free agents on the market, but the Fever have the challenging task ahead of them of identify the right ones for their culture and goals. After consecutive poor seasons, it is imperative that the front office gets this right. They have recognized what the team needs to build on in order to improve, but now they must actually fill out the roster with players who check those boxes. The Indiana Fever have a ton of decisions to make this winter, and failing to make them correctly could set the franchise back even further. Given the team’s current goals, that should be an unacceptable outcome.

Written by Tony East

Indiana Fever reporter based in Indianapolis. Enjoy a good statistical-based argument.

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