The Indiana Fever Won A Game, And Then Another One, And Then Another One!
12:50 PM EDT on July 13, 2021
I've thought on a couple occasions this season that I'd maybe rather die than write about the Indiana Fever. Thanks to some uninspired free agent signings, a strange draft, and a coach intent on letting young talent languish on the bench, the Fever arrived at the WNBA season's midpoint two weeks ago with an incredible 1–16 record. If the plain, boring badness weren't dispiriting enough to fans, they had only to check up on former Fever player Betnijah Laney, waived by Indiana two years ago and now thriving in New York, where she recently earned her first All-Star selection. But I'm alive and this post exists! What's going on?
What's going on is the Fever are now 4–16! At precisely the moment it looked like a moonshot for them to win three games all season, they've won three in a row. Indiana enters the WNBA's monthlong Olympic break with the second-longest win streak in the league, for whatever that's worth. And while you could quibble about the "quality" of the wins—the second came over a Liberty team tired from spending much of the previous day in an airport, and the third over the shorthanded Atlanta Dream—the one nice thing about being the very worst team in the league is that all wins count as quality. We haven't even gotten to the improbable victory that kicked off this hot stretch: beating the very good Connecticut Sun 73–67 last Saturday. No matter the team on the other side, that's about as quality as wins get.
The Fever's big improvement since the beginning of the season has come on defense, where it could sometimes feel like they weren't playing up to their potential. In the last month, they showed they can be a fine rebounding team, but even being locked in defensively hadn't been enough to string together wins until this last stretch. The Fever have a league-worst 26.4 three-point percentage; often they'd play 35 competitive minutes before letting an opponent win the outside shooting battle late. So it makes sense that their wins followed strong offensive showings from guards Kelsey Mitchell and Danielle Robinson, and from center Teaira McCowan, who looks (in the quality minutes she's finally getting!) more and more like the dominant frontcourt player she should be. (Her game against the Sun also featured one of the funnier blocks I've ever seen.) "At the end of the day, we work just as hard as anyone else, and we knew that eventually we would turn it around," Robinson said on Sunday.
It's a bit oh-so-Fever that they've hit their stride just when the season is coming to a very long pause, but head coach Marianne Stanley said after the game against Atlanta on Sunday that her team could use the time off. "The break at this point is much needed,” she told media. “We’re kind of dinged up and I have to give all the credit to the players for playing through that.” The Fever will be able to take full advantage of the break, too; the Storm, Mercury and Aces, meanwhile, each have several Olympians who won't be getting much rest.
When they come back, ah, I don't know. The truth is that the Fever have problems much more existential than making the playoffs this year. While it's a nice story now, the evolution from egregiously, painfully, world-historically bad to regular bad doesn't feel like much reason for optimism in the long run. One key to building a winning franchise is getting some fortunate breaks here and there, and if anything stands out from Indiana's last five years in the league's underclass, it's their complete lack of luck the whole time. The Fever have missed out on chances to draft A'ja Wilson and Sabrina Ionescu, and the players they have selected haven't formed the young core a team in the Fever's position ought to have developed by now. Lauren Cox, a third-overall pick out of Baylor in the 2020 draft, struggled with injuries and was waived at the end of June. Kysre Gondrezick, considered a reach when she was selected fourth overall this year, plays single-digit minutes most nights. In a league where the dominant teams are anchored by homegrown superstars, it's not an encouraging sign that the Fever don't have anyone even resembling one.
They did have a superstar, once, and now she's found herself with a job even more difficult than hauling a team to a title win over the Lynx. In a strange sense, you can trace the Fever's current woes right back to general manager Tamika Catchings. As a player, she led the Fever to 12 straight playoff appearances and a championship; since her retirement in 2016, the Fever haven't finished a season above .400 or appeared once in the WNBA playoffs, which are not especially difficult playoffs to make. I mean it both as a compliment and a rude burn when I say that the 41-year-old Hall of Famer would probably be of more help to the Fever as a player this year than she's been in the front office so far. Hiring the best player in the history of your franchise to be general manager can be awkward like that. But sometimes franchise-changing luck strikes when you least expect it. That no one on this team has completely given up yet is also no small feat.