The Fever’s Season Has Been A Disappointment So Far
By Tyler Berry
Sunday night’s 87-83 loss to Atlanta marked the halfway point of the season for the Indiana Fever. Merely looking at the standings will show that, at 1-15, the team is in the basement, with little chance to make up the ground needed to sneak into the playoffs. However, it’s been a much more interesting, eventful first half of the year for this young, rebuilding squad. Let’s take a deeper look at how Indiana has fared through 17 games.
In 2017, the Fever were 11th in points per game (75.1) with four scorers averaging double figures for the season. A year later, the PPG hasn’t improved much (77.0) but there’s been consistent offensive output from more players than in 2017. While only rookie Kelsey Mitchell (15.2) and Candice Dupree (12.9) average double figures thus far, four other players – Victoria Vivians, Natalie Achonwa, Tiffany Mitchell and Erica Wheeler – all average over 8.5 points per game.
Unfortunately, that’s where the scoring production pretty much stops. After Wheeler (8.5 PPG), no Indiana bench player averages more than 3.5 points per game. With Vivians firmly inserted into the starting lineup, this makes Wheeler the only true scorer coming off the bench.
This problem often became painfully obvious in late first quarter and early second quarter scenarios, when offensive production came to a screeching halt. On multiple nights, head coach Pokey Chatman was forced to essentially run a seven-woman rotation because of the lack of bench production, and that made playing complete games much tougher.
Speaking to that point, playing consistent basketball minute one to minute 40 proved difficult for the Fever. With the exception of the win against Atlanta, the home loss to New York, and the OT loss to Vegas, Indiana allowed opponents to build huge leads via poor quarters. Against Phoenix on June 29, it was a horrendous second that saw the Fever outscored 29-13 that all but solidified a loss. Similarly against Connecticut, the Fever went down 30-14 after the first and, despite outscoring them by four the rest of the way, still lost by 12. There are multiple other examples of this, including some cringe-worthy single-digit point quarters, and it’s those 8-to-10-minute stretches that have hampered a lot of otherwise great team performances.
Coach Chatman said it best after a June 2 loss to the Liberty that featured a 25-10 second quarter in favor of New York:
“We have to maintain a higher level of play at both ends of the floor for longer than 32 minutes. We continue having lapses in play that seem to bury us.”
And, truly, the Fever often play winning basketball for 32 minutes. However, WNBA basketball doesn’t often allow you to take a quarter off and still win games. Sixteen losses in 17 games is proof of that.
We’ve used many, many words to describe Mitchell’s impact on the Fever, so we’ll keep it concise this time. Mitchell adapted quickly to the professional game, bringing her quick motor and fearless shooting ability to a team that desperately needed a spark on the offensive end. Three games into the season, she was inserted into the starting lineup and has been a huge factor for Indiana ever since. Despite some recent shooting woes, the future is bright for the team’s leading scorer.
It took a bit longer than it did for Mitchell, but Vivians found her footing in the league and solidified her place as a starter. In her last eight games, she averaged 15 points and surpassed her career high three times – most recently, on Sunday against the Dream where she finished with 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Vivians has proved to be a dangerous perimeter threat. In that same eight-game stretch, she made five threes on three different occasions.
With Vivians and Mitchell both thriving in the starting lineup, Indiana has two future stars in the making, which should have opposing teams worried for years to come.
Mitchell’s Ohio State teammate Stephanie Mavunga is the rookie we’re still waiting to see take that next step in her first season. As she was starting to see some consistent minutes as part of the second unit, her year came to a halt when she hurt her ankle against Atlanta back on June 16. She hasn’t played a minute since and there’s currently no timetable for her return. In the limited sample size we’ve seen, it’s clear that Mavunga is a solid inside presence. Defensively, she has the ability to alter shots and force turnovers, while also pulling down rebounds. The hope is that she gets healthy soon, so she can continue to grow. If she can, she’ll be a crucial role player for Indiana over the next few years.
It wasn’t until after the Fever’s first win of the season that roster changes started happening. A struggling Jazmon Gwathmey, who never found her stride in the lineup and struggled immensely shooting the ball, was waived to make room for fourth-year small forward Asia Taylor. In Taylor’s six games with Indiana, she’s averaging 3.2 points on 33.3 percent shooting in 12 minutes. While she hasn’t made a huge impact in the scoring column, Taylor gelled a bit better with the Fever second unit than Gwathmey did, so the change has been a positive one.
The other big roster change came Sunday morning – July 1 – prior to the home game against Atlanta. Days after veteran guard Cappie Pondexter was waived by the Los Angeles Sparks, the Fever signed her to a free-agent contract. This was a huge get, as the 35-year-old has had a brilliant career, one that has her as the fourth-leading scorer (6,638) in WNBA history as well as the sixth-leading player in assists all-time (1,534). While her minutes and production as part of the Fever remains to be seen, her veteran impact on the team’s rookies will certainly be an important factor during the second half of the season.
With the Pondexter signing, Indiana announced that the team waived guard Hind Ben Abdelkader, an unsigned rookie out of Belgium. While she showed a few signs of WNBA-caliber talent – including the ability to shoot from distance – the 22-year-old never found any consistency and, as the season progressed, her minutes fell off.
A youthful team is often a healthy team and that’s what Indiana has been so far this season, with a couple of exceptions. There’s of course the injury news that dates back to last season involving guard Shenise Johnson, who is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in June 2017. She’s yet to play a minute this year and, as chances of a playoff berth become slimmer and slimmer every night, you have to wonder if the organization will risk putting her out on the court at all in 2018.
The big – and only – major injury this season was a heartbreaking one. Mavunga, who was seeing more minutes and more production on both ends of the court, suffered a tough ankle injury in the team’s win against Atlanta. Hopefully, we’ll see her back in the lineup before season’s end.
At this point, it would take a drastic shift in the entire league for the Fever to make the playoffs. But, that’s okay. This is a team deep in rebuilding mode and there’s still a lot of positives that can come out of this season. Veteran leadership the rest of the way is key, as the rookies have the opportunity to learn from veteran players like Candice Dupree and Pondexter. Soaking up everything these vets tell them will help mold them into future Fever leaders and WNBA stars.
Now, that’s all well and good, but it’s still vital that the young Fever players experience some more wins. They got a taste of what it feels like to close out a W, but that happened a long time ago in this short, 34-game season. If Indiana can even pick up five or six wins over the next 17 games, it will instill good habits in the team and offer up an end-of-season finish that can be built upon over the next year.