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Fever Pitch - Part 2
Breaking down moves in the Lin Dunn-Carlos Knox era
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In Fever Pitch - Part 1, I recapped the moves Indiana made under general manager Tamika Catchings in 2020 and 2021 and also how the team fared in those two seasons. The Fever fell well short of expectations and needed to address the following issues:
How could they work towards improving the offense?
How could they work towards improving the defense?
Would the rotation be composed of older veterans or younger talent?
In Fever Pitch - Part II, I will break down the Fever’s moves in 2022 and how the team made decisions to try and address the above issues.
In economics/finance there is the idea of a sunk cost, which is a cost incurred that cannot be recouped or recovered. Why do I mention this? Essentially, when a franchise decides to waive a top draft pick early into their career, it sends the following message to the rest of the league: we see no future value in this player, we admit that the draft selection was a bust, and we can no longer recover the value that the pick once had. In waiving, a team decides to “cut their losses” and move on. The idea of sunk costs will come up when discussing what occurred in 2022.
On January 18, Indiana waived Kysre Gondrezick after only one season with the team. Many fans were stunned by the decision. On one hand, the Fever would now be without their top picks from 2020 and 2021. On the other hand, the Fever were saying the quiet part out loud that their initially valuable picks now provided no value to them. Relating to sunk costs, the organization made it clear what they felt about the selection of Gondrezick and decided to let go of her. Some Indiana fans felt as if their team had wasted two valuable draft picks.
One of the issues that Indiana needed to resolve was the direction of the team - would it be veteran-led or youth movement-led?. On February 3, the Indiana Fever made a move that struck a balance between these two options. In a multi-team deal involving Indiana, Chicago, and Phoenix, the franchise acquired:
Bria Hartley from Phoenix
Chicago’s first-round pick in 2022 (seventh overall) and 2023
Phoenix’s second-round pick in 2022 (20th overall) and 2023
Indiana sent Julie Allemand to Chicago as part of the trade. Although they were losing one of their key facilitators from the 2020 season, Indiana was getting a point guard in Hartley who in 2020 showed an ability to produce for the Mercury amid a talented roster (Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi, and Brianna Turner).
Also, Hartley was a part of the Mercury team that played in the WNBA Finals in 2021. Despite limited playing time during the 2021 season while recovering from an ACL injury, she was still able to log minutes in the postseason and Finals. One of the things that Catchings seemed adamant about in the 2020 offseason was trying to get players who were in competitive championship action. With the Hartley acquisition, Indiana was getting a player who fit Catchings’ vision: an established point guard and veteran with playoff experience who could produce in a backseat role to Kelsey Mitchell. In fact, Catchings explicitly referenced this when discussing the trade for Hartley:
“We are excited to welcome Bria’s veteran presence to Indiana. She has proven to be a key contributor on multiple teams, including last year in helping Phoenix advance to the WNBA Finals.”
This trade had one potential drawback. When Gondrezick was drafted, one of the questions many had was how she would fit with the team. The Fever were guard-heavy. With the Hartley trade, Indiana would still have a backlog of guards in the rotation.
Indiana also acquired a trove of draft picks in the deal. After the trade, the Fever had the second, seventh, and 10th picks in the first round of the 2022 WNBA Draft. Remember how the trade could satisfy both directions (veteran-led/youth-led)? Here is the youth-led aspect of it. Whereas all seemed lost after waiving Lauren Cox and Gondrezick, Indiana now had three opportunities to select players who could come in and provide the franchise with better production. With players such as NaLyssa Smith, Rhyne Howard and Shakira Austin on the horizon, this would be Indiana’s chance to get it right and develop a young core for the long haul.
The trade was Catchings’ last coup as GM. On February 14, the Fever announced that she would step down as GM and vice president. Stepping in for Catchings (on an interim basis) would be Lin Dunn, who coached the Fever during their 2012 championship run.
Whenever there is a new leader in the front office of a sports organization, the expectation is that the person will make moves to right the ship. Dunn made the following moves before the start of the season in an effort to reset the current direction and image of the Fever:
March 2: Indiana waived Aaliyah Wilson, the 11th pick in the 2021 draft, after only one season with the team. Wilson, possibly affected by the guard-heavy makeup of the roster, averaged only 8.5 minutes of gameplay in 2021. Indiana’s two first-round draft picks from 2021 (Wilson and Gondrezick) were now no longer with the organization.
March 8: Indiana traded Teaira McCowan, along with the Chicago Sky’s 2022 and 2023 first-round draft picks, to the Dallas Wings in exchange for the Los Angeles Sparks’ first-round draft pick and Dallas’ 2022 and 2023 first-round picks (which would end up leaving Indiana with the second, fourth, sixth, and 10th picks in the 2022 draft). McCowan was actually drafted under the Pokey Chatman front office but was someone that many fans thought was “untouchable”. In 2021, McCowan was one of the top rebounders and shot-blockers in the W, showing promise of being a potential top big in the league. This trade also meant the franchise was now without their third overall pick in 2019, but it did allow them to move up in the draft and acquire more future draft picks.
March 16: Indiana and Jantel Lavender decided to part ways, resulting in a buyout with a cap hit of $119,000 in 2022 and 2023. Whereas Lavender had some double-digit scoring averages in the past, she did not bring that level of production to Indiana, averaging only 6.4 points per contest. It was a far cry from her best season in 2015 when she averaged 14.5 points and 8.3 rebounds. Dunn’s decision to part with someone making guaranteed money (and taking the cap hit) instead of seeing if the productivity could increase was striking. To go back to the idea of sunk costs, Indiana indicated that they didn’t feel Lavender could provide any value and was willing to incur a cost (paying a portion of her guaranteed money) to part with her services instead of retaining Lavender. Another thing to note is the possibility of ending up paying a good player to play for another team. As we have seen with the decision to waive Betnijah Laney, releasing a player could be devastating if the player starts to produce for another franchise (also see the situation with Moriah Jefferson and the Dallas Wings). If Lavender started to pick up her level of production, Indiana would be paying a good player owed money, to not benefit from her services at all.
Free Agency: The Indiana Fever decided not to re-sign Jessica Breland after one season with the team. Breland was also signed in the 2021 free agency period under Catchings. Expectations for Breland were high going into the 2021 season; however, she saw a dropoff in her offensive production.
May 4: Indiana waived Lindsay Allen after one season with the organization. Allen was acquired by Catchings in a trade with the Las Vegas Aces. Although she was able to register career highs in minutes, scoring, and assists while with the Fever, Dunn and the front office decided it was time to part ways with Allen (especially after acquiring a talented guard like Destanni Henderson - to be discussed later).
The process of rebuilding had now begun. Within a few months, Indiana had done the following:
Removed three out of four highly touted players acquired by Catchings in February 2021 (Breland, Lavender, Allen)
Removed Indiana’s third overall pick from 2019 and 11th pick from 2021 (McCowan and Wilson)
If you count picks removed under the Catchings era, Indiana also let go of their top picks from 2020 and 2021. (Cox and Gondrezick)
With the war chest of draft picks and need to acquire replacements, Dunn looked towards the 2022 Draft to complete the reset and restructure the franchise to her liking. Out with the old, and in with the new.
In the 2022 WNBA Draft, the Fever selected NaLyssa Smith (second), Emily Engstler (fourth), Lexie Hull (sixth), Queen Egbo (10th), Destanni Henderson (20th), Ameshya Williams-Holiday (25th), and Ali Patberg (34th). Williams-Holiday and Patberg are the only picks not currently under contract with the Fever. On draft night, the Fever’s selections broke many mock drafts, especially with their selections of Hull and Egbo. Our mock draft, ESPN’s, and CBS Sports’ had Hull and Egbo outside of the first round. One of the more heralded moments was the Fever’s selection of Henderson. Henderson had recently put up a tremendous stat line (26 points, two rebounds, four assists, three triples) in South Carolina’s national championship win over UConn, a performance that had some observers thinking that she might be selected in the first round.
Let’s revisit the issues that Indiana needed to address, and how their draft selections addressed them:
How could they work towards improving the offense?
How could they work towards improving the defense?
Would the rotation be composed of older veterans or younger talent?
How did these picks help Indiana improve its offense?
The crucial pick that helped bolster Indiana’s offense was Smith. In her senior year at Baylor, she dropped 22.1 points per contest (ninth-best in the country) while shooting an efficient 55% from the field. Smith also ranked fourth in the country in offensive win shares, an advanced statistic that approximates the total number of wins a player produces for their team through their play on the offensive end of the court. By drafting Smith, the Fever got one of the nation’s best offensive players, alleviating the burden that Kelsey Mitchell would have to carry.
While their numbers were not as prolific as Smith's, the other first-round draft selections (Engstler, Hull, Egbo and Henderson) demonstrated their competence on the offensive end during their respective collegiate careers. Engstler was Louisville’s second-best scorer during ACC play, averaging 12.5 points per game, and she ranked 12th in the conference in offensive win shares. Hull ranked third in scoring on Stanford during Pac-12 play, averaging 12.2 points per game and showed proficiency beyond the arc, shooting 42%. Egbo, who played with Smith, averaged 11.8 points per game in conference play and was second-best for the Bears. Henderson, as previously mentioned, had a terrific scoring performance in the national championship game. Her quickness, ability to get to the rim, and accuracy from long distance contributed to her offensive win shares measure of 1.9, which ranked 14th in the SEC.
How did these picks help Indiana improve its defense?
An individual player whose defensive prowess shined in the 2021-2022 NCAA season was Engstler. Defensive rating, an advanced statistical measure developed by Dean Oliver, estimates the number of points allowed by a player per one hundred individual possessions individually faced by a player. Engstler ranked fourth in this statistic last season. In addition, she ranked in the top 2% of Division I players in steals and blocks per game en route to a spot on the ACC All-Defensive Team
Acquiring someone with this level of defensive ability was highly beneficial for Indiana, especially after giving up Laney in 2020 for nothing in return. Now the team had a player who demonstrated that she can play defense at a high level. That isn’t to say that the other draft picks were poor defenders. With the exception of Hull, all of the players selected in the 2022 WNBA Draft and retained by Indiana ranked in the top 50 in defensive win shares last season. Hull was barely outside of the top 50, ranking 54th. Defensive win shares approximates the total number of wins a player produces for their team on the defensive side of the court.
Thus, when you combine Engstler’s defensive prowess with how the other picks fared defensively in college, it’s evident that Dunn and the Fever placed a premium on players who could make an immediate impact defensively.
Dunn is no stranger to the benefits of a strong Fever defense. During her tenure as Indiana’s head coach from 2008 to 2014, the Fever never ranked below third in points allowed per game during the regular season. When they won the title in 2012, the Fever ranked second in that measure. In the WNBA Finals, they held the Lynx, a star-studded squad who averaged 86.0 points per contest, to just 72.5 points per outing en route to the franchise’s first title. Indiana’s stingy defense limited Minnesota to only 59 points in Game 3 of the Finals, the Lynx’s lowest scoring output for the entire year (playoffs or regular season).
Would the rotation be composed primarily of older veterans or younger talent?
The answer to this depends on how you define the terms older veteran and younger talent.
My idea of an older veteran is a player that has played seven or more seasons in the WNBA or a player who is 29 or older. When I think of a team whose rotation would be composed of older veterans, the 2021 Chicago Sky immediately comes to mind. In regards to younger talent, I consider that to be a player with less than seven seasons in the WNBA or a player younger than twenty-nine years old. The team counterpart for younger talent is the 2021 Dallas Wings.
So, which category does Indiana fall into? The only members of the current roster older than 29 or have played seven or more seasons are Hartley, Danielle Robinson, Emma Cannon, and Tiffany Mitchell (Mitchell is 27, but 2022 is her seventh season). As such, the Fever would classify as a team whose rotation primarily has younger talent.
So far, I have recapped the roster changes and the GM change, but I haven’t covered the one last major change that caps the idea of a reset/rebuild: the coach.
On May 25, Indiana announced after a 2-7 start that Marianne Stanley would no longer remain as head coach. The Fever promoted assistant coach Carlos Knox to interim head coach. There is no guarantee that Knox will have a permanent spot in Dunn’s plans for Indiana, as the Fever thus far are 2-5 under Knox.
During Knox’s tenure, the team has had their highest-scoring game of the year: a 101-96 win against the Los Angeles Sparks. Indiana has also seen its lowest scoring output as well in a 75-66 loss to Atlanta. Right now, it is too early to gauge whether Knox is the right fit for Indiana moving forward, and it will likely take time for Knox to truly adapt and get the most out of his players. But there is hope that by making the switch, Knox can inject some new life into the struggling Fever.
In another move to shore up the coaching staff, Indiana announced on May 29 that it had hired Gary Kloppenburg to fill the assistant coach vacancy left by Knox. Kloppenburg, the former head coach of the Seattle Storm, has crossed paths with Dunn, as they were a part of the coaching staff with Indiana from 2008 to 2011 and also worked together for Seattle in the early 2000s.
Per the press release upon his hiring, Kloppenburg said something that revealed the intentions behind the 2022 moves thus far: “I am so excited for the opportunity to come back to Indiana and work with my longtime friends Carlos Knox and Lin Dunn….They have put the framework in place to make an impact in the league this season with some excellent young veterans and high-energy rookies”. What was one of the issues the Fever would face going into 2022? Whether their team would be led by older veterans or younger talent. Kloppenburg explicitly referenced the direction the Fever are going under Dunn.
The decision to bring Kloppenburg back to Indiana is key, and not just for the familiarity with Dunn. Kloppenburg coached the Seattle Storm to another WNBA Championship in 2020. During that season, the Storm had the best defense in the W. They ranked first in points allowed per game, opponent field goal percentage, steals per game and defensive rating. What was one of the issues that Indiana needed to address, a problem in 2019, 2020 and 2021? Defense.
Now, Coach Knox finds himself in a situation where his top assistant is a defensive-minded coach with a winning background. His team has a young nucleus of strong defenders. Also, the general manager with whom he has a good rapport coached a stringent defensive team to a championship. All signs are pointing towards Knox adopting a defensive-oriented mindset. If the Fever can start clicking defensively, not only will the wins start to mount up, but Knox will make a strong case to be the official head coach moving forward.
In the Catchings-Stanley era, the identity of the Indiana Fever was not exactly evident. The team started with young talent, and the acquisition of Allemand paid off in 2020. But, after waiving Laney and drafting Cox, Catchings aggressively tried to swing the franchise’s direction from a team that was young and trying to find its niche to a team that had older veterans getting substantial minutes. The same defensive issues that plagued the Fever under Pokey Chatman in the 2019 season (not getting blocks, not forcing turnovers, not limiting a team’s scoring) were back and with no end in sight. The Fever botched the 2020 and 2021 drafts, leaving Kelsey Mitchell and McCowan as the only steady prospects. The organization was nowhere near where it wanted or needed to be.
Enter Lin Dunn, and there exists a Fever team that realized they needed to get back to what made them competitive. Although the Fever haven’t had the best of starts, fans must like their prospects now compared to last year.
Production from their rookies: The Fever could not get decent production out of Cox, Gondrezick or Wilson, but they are getting much better production from some of their rookies.
Current per-game stats:
Smith: 13.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 29.9 minutes
Engstler: 6.0 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 19.9 minutes
Egbo: 7.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 24.2 minutes
Henderson: 6.4 points, 1.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 16.8 minutes
Consistent direction from management/coaching: Dunn is making the hiring efforts, draft selections, and trades necessary to compile the workings of a young, high-energy team. By limiting the amount of older talent (who may not be able to render quality production on the court), Indiana is willing to let the rookies and younger talent participate in most of the action. Although the team is currently last in points allowed per game, it is crucial to remember that Coach Knox now is fortunate enough to be in a position to rectify that with his schemes and plans. With Knox and Kloppenburg on the sidelines, the next task is to see if the defensive plans will hold up.
Look at the 2021-22 Boston Celtics. At first, the team struggled under new head coach Ime Udoka, and there were some questioning if he was the right coach moving forward. Over the duration of the season, the Celtics started to gel and their defense came together to become the best in the league. Also, President of Basketball Operations (and previous head coach) Brad Stevens made a midseason move to acquire Derrick White, someone who has been lauded for his defensive efforts. The Celtics are now competing in the NBA Finals. Now, I am not saying the Fever will replicate this to a tee or complete this in the same timeframe. In fact, it may take longer to mesh. But, under Dunn, the Fever seem to be planting the seeds to try and bring the team closer to the goal of being a young and tough defensive team. In the best-case scenario, they can be a championship-caliber team in the future. In the absolute worst-case scenario, they would be better than Fever teams under the previous regime.
The reset is now complete: a new GM, coaching staff, and roster. Now it is time for the Fever to work towards their new goal.