September 24, 2021 

‘Definitely a disappointing year’: Tamika Catchings reflects on Fever’s 2021 season

In a season ravaged by injuries and losing, Catchings found herself setting smaller, more attainable goals for herself and her team

Indiana Fever general manager Tamika Catchings walked into her team’s locker room on Sunday, preparing to address the players in Chicago before their final game of the 2021 season. The problem was, there weren’t many members of the team to speak to—the Fever suited up just six available players against the Sky. While winning the game wasn’t by any means an oversight, Catchings conveyed a different message on this day.

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“The most important thing I want is that we walk out of this game, we walk out this arena with six healthy players,” Catchings told the players.

These were the types of goals Catchings had to set for herself, and the team, during a season otherwise ravaged by injuries and losing. The Fever finished the campaign 6-26, including 16 losses in their first 17 games, and have now missed the playoffs in every season dating back to 2016—the last time Catchings played in the WNBA.

“Obviously this is not the position that I would hope to be in,” Catchings told reporters on Tuesday. “I would definitely not want to be at home and would want to be playing in the playoffs, but unfortunately, this is our situation. I think the biggest thing this year, definitely a disappointing year in how we ended up and where we ended up.”

The number of absences the Fever had to endure were particularly alarming. Seven players were listed on the team’s final injury report for the game in Chicago. Bernadett Hatar, the team’s prominent first-year center, missed the Fever’s final 14 games with a right ankle injury. Fellow rookie and fourth overall pick Kysre Gondrezick missed the last 12 on personal leave. Third-round pick Chelsey Perry tore her ACL in practice over the Olympic break.

 “I’ve never seen anything like this, particularly down the stretch,” admitted head coach Marianne Stanley.

Gondrezick struggled to see significant court time in her first year under Stanley’s system. The Fever selected the former West Virginia standout somewhat higher than experts had predicted, and she failed to produce in the minutes she did receive, averaging just 1.9 points in 9.1 minutes per game.

After the selection of Lauren Cox at third overall in last year’s draft, and her subsequent release midway through this season, the Fever have failed to yield significant results from back-to-back first round draft picks—one of the deepest setbacks to a timely rebuild. Catchings admitted that, amidst the ongoing evaluation process that’s included her duties as a general manager, she recognizes that she’s come up short in many ways herself.

“For me personally, you know I’m harder on myself than anyone else could ever be, so I am disappointed and frustrated as far as how we ended up this year,” she reflected.

Statistically, the Fever finished the season ranking towards the bottom of the league in several categories, most prominently offensive rating (95.3, 11th in the league) and defensive rating (107.8, 12th in the league) for a league-worst -12.5 net rating. The Fever have finished at the bottom of the league in defensive rating in three of the last five seasons and 11th in the other two, a particularly painful statistic for a general manager who collected five WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards over her career. 

“Defense has been a staple for the Indiana Fever. We’ve got to get back to playing defense the way that we know how to play,” said Catchings.

The brightest spot of the Fever’s 2021 season was a three-game winning streak at the beginning of July. The wins were impressive—two of them came against playoff teams Connecticut and New York before a road win in Atlanta—but all momentum was halted by the five-week Olympic break. 

Had the streak been better-timed and fewer players gotten hurt when the Fever returned from the time off, perhaps it could’ve served as a turning point for the season. “Everybody on our team felt like we were headed to the playoffs at that point,” Stanley said.

Indiana Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell (0) shoots a layup against the Washington Mystics on June 19, 2021. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Entering an offseason during which six of the 13 currently tenured Fever players will be free agents, Catchings is looking to beef up her existing core with players who can provide complimentary scoring. She likes most of what she already has, saying that the Fever will emerge from the offseason as “not a much different team,” but a better one.

She specifically pointed to Kelsey Mitchell as someone the franchise is insistent on building around. Mitchell wore many hats throughout the season, plugging holes at the one through three positions due to injuries and lineup changes, as well as leading the team in scoring for the third consecutive season. Most importantly, she’s been a reliable presence in the lineup throughout her career and has yet to miss a game due to injury in her four years in the league. 

“I think you can tell that we’re really serious about Kelsey and her development and her being here,” Catchings said. “We need to find better players to put around her so she doesn’t have to do everything and feel like she has to put everything on her shoulders.”

Another player whom Catchings and Stanley are both committed to developing is Teaira McCowan. McCowan is capable of putting up dominant numbers—Stanley says she’s capable of going into “beast mode”—but has yet to establish herself as a dominant post player due to stretches of inconsistency.

“She’s got to decide that she wants to be one of the most dominant posts in our game,” said Catchings. “There is nobody, and I mean nobody in our league, that can stop Teaira McCowan when she plays the game the way that we know she can play. That is something we’ve continued to press upon her.”

For Catchings, she likely can’t wait too much longer for the extended Fever rebuild to translate into winning. She only suffered through four losing seasons during her 15-year career and was often regarded as a player who would do anything necessary for her team to win. The current Fever players recognize that and strive to emulate her style, but without the complementary talent that the former 10-time All Star had on the roster, she presents a difficult standard to measure up to.

“It’s tough when we let her down and we lose,” Mitchell said earlier this season.

However, throughout the season, Catchings had to demonstrate her commitment to the team’s process in ways other than celebrating the victories, saying she would divide the losses into bits and pieces where the team excelled. It’s evident that she’s all into this organization, fully prepared to do whatever’s necessary to get it back in the postseason and return to the winning standard it used to uphold.

“I stand here, I sit here, guaranteeing that next year we will not be in this situation,” she proclaimed. “We will not be in this position, and we will find the right players that we need to have and continue to build everything else that we need to get there.”

Written by Ben Rosof

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