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2021 WNBA Season Preview: Indiana Fever aim for defensive improvement in ongoing rebuild

The Indiana Fever have some exciting young players, but a shoddy defense and poor ball security kept them from reaching the playoffs in 2020. How quickly can these issues be resolved for 2021, and which member of the Fever’s latest draft class can be expected to make an impact?

Minnesota Lynx v Indiana Fever
Julie Allemand dribbles the ball against the Minnesota Lynx.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The Tamika Catchings era of the Indiana Fever — that is, with Catchings as the team’s general manager and vice president of basketball operations — has not yet reached the lofty heights once enjoyed by Catchings as a player. A coaching change to Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Marianne Stanley prior to 2020 did little to guide Indiana back to contention, with the Fever missing their fourth consecutive postseason.

As typical of many young management regimes, Catchings and Stanley opted to make significant roster changes heading into the 2021 season. Candice Dupree, who currently ranks fifth on the WNBA’s all-time scoring ladder, decided to join the Seattle Storm as a free agent, while respected veterans Erica Wheeler and Natalie Achonwa moved on to the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx, respectively.

While the Fever filled those gaps by signing point guard Danielle Robinson and bigs Jantel Lavender and Jessica Breland in free agency, the team is still firmly planted in the throes of a rebuild, one that is likely taking longer than Catchings had in mind. Indiana is expected to once again miss the playoffs, ranking dead last in the Swish Appeal preseason power rankings, and while most WNBA teams currently considered to be lower-tier at least have the potential to make the postseason if everything goes right, not even that seems to be a possibility for the 2021 Fever.

Potential promise of the Fever

Frontcourt size

Minnesota Lynx v Indiana Fever
Teaira McCowan (center) may only be entering her third WNBA season, but she’s already proven herself to be arguably the league’s best rebounder.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

If there’s one thing that immediately stands out about the Fever, it’s how much size they have up front. The 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan, who will be entering her third season in the WNBA, is an imposing paint presence, and chances are she’ll be starting alongside either Lavender or 2020 first-round draft pick Lauren Cox, both of whom are 6-foot-4.

McCowan, in particular, uses her size to her advantage. In 2020, she led the league in both offensive rebounding rate (18 percent) and total rebounding rate (21 percent), the second consecutive season in which she accomplished that feat. The Fever as a unit ranked third in the WNBA in offensive rebounding rate at 32.3 percent last season, averaging 14.9 second-chance points per 100 possessions.

As long as McCowan is getting meaningful minutes, expect this to continue. While there are a few WNBA players as tall as McCowan, none of them have been as consistently dominant on the boards as she has in the past two seasons. We’ll see if one of her fellow bigs can join her in creating the league’s most fearsome frontcourt rebounding tandem. Rookie forward Unique Thompson, who the team drafted at No. 19 overall in April, would fit the bill if she makes the team; Thompson averaged no fewer than 4.2 offensive rebounds per game in each of her four collegiate seasons at Auburn.

Encouraging young core

Minnesota Lynx v Indiana Fever
Fourth-year guard Kelsey Mitchell can light it up from anywhere on the court.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Many of the Fever’s recent draftees — by bad injury luck or other circumstances — are still unknown quantities, but there’s still plenty of room for them to blossom into solid contributors.

Leading the way for the 2021 Fever will be Kelsey Mitchell, who is the most proven of the bunch. A crafty combo guard with a quick trigger and unlimited range, the 5-foot-8 Mitchell’s 17.9 points per game ranked sixth in the WNBA in 2020. She’s vastly improved her scoring efficiency, too, recording career-highs in both 2-point field goal percentage (50 percent) and 3-point field goal percentage (38.9 percent) last season.

With Wheeler now in Los Angeles and 2020 All-Rookie performer Julie Allemand not currently with the team due to Belgian National Team commitments, the Fever will need to find a consistent backcourt partner for Mitchell. 2021 No. 4 overall pick Kysre Gondrezick should get her fair share of opportunities; the West Virginia product scored 19.5 points per game in her senior season and, like Mitchell, can bomb away from long range.

Both Cox and Victoria Vivians missed large chunks of the 2020 season, but if healthy, they’ll also have vital roles on this iteration of the Fever. Vivians, in particular, showed promise as a large wing and 3-point shooter before suffering a series of knee injuries after her rookie year in 2019. If she’s finally back to full strength, a lineup including her, Mitchell and Gondrezick will have the potential to light up the scoreboard.

Potential problems for the Fever

Defense — or lack thereof

Indiana Fever v Minnesota Lynx
The Fever’s poor interior defense was one of the main reasons why the franchise was once again lottery-bound prior to 2021.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The Fever may have plenty of size in their frontcourt, but that didn’t exactly translate to defensive success in 2020. Indiana gave up 111.8 points per 100 possessions, which, according to, was the least efficient defensive performance in league history.

“We recognize that we’ve got some size this year that allows for us to protect at the rim and to do some different things defensively,” Stanley remarked during the Fever’s media day. “But overall as a team, each and every player on this team needs to buy into the defensive end of the floor and make sure that they’re doing everything they can to improve and to make us a team that is stingy on defense, makes it difficult for other teams to come in and run the stuff they want to run and really values that end of the floor.”

Defending ball screen action would be a good start. According to Synergy Sports, no team had more pick and rolls run against it in 2020 than the Fever (pick and rolls accounted for 38.3 percent of opponents’ halfcourt possessions), and no team had less success defending the pick and roll, either. Indiana simply could not keep teams from getting to the rim, whether it be pick and roll ball handlers or beneficiaries of interior passes, and surrendered a league-high 50.9 points in the paint per 100 possessions.

It’s an area in which, as Stanley said, nearly every Fever player must improve. While the team’s on-ball defense was porous in 2020, its rim protection — even with all of that height — might have been even worse, with help defenders constantly finding themselves late on rotations or out of position. Breland is a former All-Defense award winner and the team acquired pesky point of attack defender Aaliyah Wilson on draft night, but a project as big as making the Fever’s defense acceptable is much more than a two-player job.

Turnover differential

New York Liberty v Indiana Fever
Julie Allemand’s scoring was impressive as a rookie, but her floor game still needs polishing.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Not only did Indiana struggle to defend ball screens in 2020 — it also failed to generate turnovers, forcing them on just 13.8 percent of opponents’ possessions.

A lack of defensive playmaking combined with shoddy perimeter and interior defense illustrates just how bad the Fever were on the defensive end of the floor in 2020, but there’s more to the turnover battle than defense. Incidentally, Indiana was also poor at taking care of the ball on offense, turning it over 19.7 percent of the time — 11th in the WNBA.

These may be seen as two separate issues, but they come together to form one bigger problem: The Fever simply turn the ball over too often and can’t make up for it on the other end by forcing opponent miscues.

As any coach will be quick to mention, losing the turnover battle on a consistent basis is not a recipe for winning basketball. Perhaps Stanley will lean on young draftees Gondrezick and Wilson to dictate tempo defensively; it would be hard for Indiana’s halfcourt defense to perform much worse than it did last season, so we’ll see if the team shakes things up and tries to form an identity in order to force more turnovers.

Playoff prospects

Since it’s so difficult to see the Fever getting their defense to an acceptable level in such a short period of time, the road to the 2021 playoffs will be filled with obstacles. Besides Mitchell’s scoring and McCowan’s rebounding, there aren’t many sure things Indiana will be able to lean on; in-house improvement from Cox and Vivians will be essential, while Gondrezick and Wilson will need to contribute immediately if the Fever’s rebuild is to be accelerated.