WNBA Dissected: How do you solve a problem like the Fever? Plus more from 2021 Week 6
Examining how Indiana might turn things around, Nneka Ogwumike's omission from Team USA, the lack of WNBA trasparency and more from around the league
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A Fever that’s so hard to bear
Let's not equivocate here: the Indiana Fever are bad. The WNBA quickly split itself into three basic tiers this season, with Seattle, Las Vegas and Connecticut (while Jonquel Jones was around) at the top, a morass of eight teams in the middle, and one lone straggler in a league of their own at the bottom. It's not like the placement was a surprise - the Fever were last in practically every preseason prediction list you could find - but the clear gap from them to everybody else has been wide and worrying. How do you fix things when you're this far behind and no one else even seems close enough to chase?
The path to improving a bad team is always easier if you can pinpoint specific areas that need to be worked on - a position of need on the roster, offense or defense, coaching, culture, whatever it may be. But that's not easy with this Fever team. On the court, the numbers say they've been bad everywhere this year (and the eye-test doesn't argue). Their defensive rating of 107.9 is comfortably the worst in the league, while their offensive rating of 90.1 is in a tight battle with Los Angeles for last. Those combine for a net rating of -17.8 that would put them among the worst teams in league history, with only the 1998 Washington Mystics team that finished 3-27 producing a worse figure over a full season.
The roster looks disappointingly threadbare, which again is scary for a team that should be rebuilding from the ground up. Kelsey Mitchell is the shining light but has been struggling herself this season, shooting 40% from the field and 28% from three. It's hard to maintain high performance when defenses have little else to worry about. Teaira McCowan remains a tantalizing prospect, but her numbers have remained remarkably flat over three seasons in the WNBA. The defensive inconsistencies remain, and the dominant presence that she can be in the paint continues to emerge only in occasional flashes. When you're a rookie, that's promising; when you've been doing the same thing for three years, observers understandably become impatient about it turning into something more.
Elsewhere on the roster, there are a lot of mid-level veterans on their third or fourth teams. The sort of player good teams don't mind having as a 5th starter or solid insurance as rotation players, but who can't be key starters if you're expecting to win. The Fever gave three-year guaranteed deals to Danielle Robinson and Jantel Lavender this offseason, before also bringing in Jessica Breland and Lindsay Allen on short-term deals. The first three in particular have been playing a lot of minutes this year and largely done exactly what you'd expect - they're okay. But surrounded by each other and a few prospects, rather than the superstars that have been at several of their previous teams, they're significantly less effective. Plus, should they be playing this much anyway?
That's the central conflict in trying to rebuild this team. Where's the rebuild? In American sports, unless you're going to attract multiple high-end free agents, that typically means draft picks and developing your youth. In the WNBA, with still-limited free-agent movement and in a relatively small middle-America market like Indiana, the path via attracting big-name vets looks unlikely. So it's picks and youngsters. First, you have to make the right selections, and despite her status as a playing legend, Tamika Catchings is starting to take some understandable criticism as a general manager. Most observers seemed to agree with the selection of Lauren Cox at No. 3 in 2020 but a combination of various injuries and illnesses have led to thoroughly underwhelming performance so far - and the excitement offered by Chennedy Carter in Atlanta, taken immediately after Cox, makes the pick look even worse. This year at No. 4, Kysre Gondrezick was a shock selection to almost everybody, and so far she's done little to suggest it was any kind of masterstroke by Catchings. Rookie performance in general has been very weak this year, but the play of Michaela Onyenwere - taken two picks after Gondrezick - has looked a lot more promising to this point.
However, part of the problem is that we're not even seeing much of these young players. One of Catchings's other big moves was hiring Marianne Stanley as head coach, and she doesn't seem to be in on the youth plan (if there is one). Gondrezick and Cox are barely playing on most nights, currently 10th and 11th on the team in minutes per game. Victoria Vivians, a draft pick from before Catchings became general manager but another who was meant to be a building block and has suffered with injury, has also seen limited time. It doesn't seem like the level of play could get much worse, given the results they've been producing. It's not like the heavy use of the vets is actually getting them anywhere. So surely they should be letting the youngsters play, show whether they can produce at all at this level, and if nothing else gain some experience for the future. You don't take players in the lottery without anticipating they'll be part of your future, but you then have to give them a chance to grow and find out whether they were worth selecting in the first place. If they don't play, you're never going to find out.
Of course, the easy and common reaction when a team is bad is to start firing everyone. The GM would usually start with the coach, and if ownership is paying any attention they might start with the GM. Outside of my issues with the rotation, it's honestly a little difficult to tell how bad of a job Stanley is doing. The team simply doesn't have that much talent compared to most of the rest of the league, so how much better would anyone else do? But they do seem to be going backwards, both from when Pokey Chatman was in charge up to 2019 and from last year to now. I doubt the Pacers/Fever organization would ever fire a legend like Catchings, but it surely wouldn't be hard to find her another role in the company if everyone agrees that general manager of the Fever hasn't proven to be a good fit. Both might get another year to see if things start to turn around, but sports franchises aren't generally famed for their patience.
Unfortunately, fans aren't patient either. They tend to stop showing up to the arena, buying your merchandise or paying any attention if you stay bad for long enough. In the WNBA, where sale and relocation are still a common possibility, that can be an even bigger issue than in more established leagues. The Shock-now-Wings are finally starting to emerge from their long rebuild, but in their third city. The Stars-now-Aces were also terrible for a long time, and moved before turning things around. Luck could play a big role in digging them out of this hole, whoever's in charge. Catchings was so good as a player that their draft picks were low for a long time, but even since her retirement they've had no help from the ping-pong balls. A'ja Wilson or Sabrina Ionescu would've given the rebuild a significant boost both on the floor and in terms of fan interest (although the No. 1 this year wouldn't have helped much, illustrating again how much luck is necessary - you also have to get it in the right year). The problem again is how long that path is going to take, even if it's the only route available. They've already been bad for several years (albeit mostly not quite at the depths of this season), and waiting on draft picks could mean at least a couple more, even with some luck. That's a lot of time in the world of sports.
There have been some positive moves by the front office. Belgian point guard Julie Allemand was a success last season, and will hopefully be back in future years (although her expected return makes the three years and significant money given to Robinson even stranger). The trade with Minnesota that took on Odyssey Sims's contract in return for moving up in the 2022 draft made sense (although the immediate waiving of Sims, who likely would've negotiated a buyout for less, didn't). Even the addition of Hungarian giant Bernadett Határ looks like a reasonable gamble. But these are moves around the edges. Bringing in mid-level free agents and a mediocre at best draft record has dug this hole, and it's going to take a while to dig out of it, whoever's at the controls. We can only hope that fans and ownership stick with them while it plays out.
The night before USA Basketball announced their squad for the 2020 Olympics, I posted this:
Unsurprisingly, when they selected 11 of that group, a lot of people went crazy about the primary name left out (Elena Delle Donne, who hasn't played basketball in nearly two years at this point, was a fairly easy omission that few objected to). Leaving Nneka Ogwumike off the squad was a surprise more because she fulfilled all the extra criteria that USA Basketball have often required over the years than because of her play on the court. She was part of the core group that they established a couple of years ago to stay home in the offseason for training and some exhibition games, she showed up to camps whenever requested, and she's been part of two successful World Cup squads. Yes, she's been injured this season, but everyone connected to the Sparks and Ogwumike herself has been very clear that she's on-course to be ready in time for Tokyo. The injury undoubtedly wouldn't have helped her chances, but it feels more like an excuse for USA Basketball than the central reason for her not making it in.
The problem that a lot of Ogwumike's defenders don't want to address is that purely on merit and recent performance, it's relatively easy to argue that she shouldn't be on the roster. Griner, Fowles, Charles, Stewart and Wilson have all been very good in recent times, and Collier already gives them insurance as an extra post if necessary. Nneka hasn't been bad, but her genuinely elite peak years were 2016-17 and she hasn't been quite the same force since. Even this year, before she got hurt, she didn't look like enough of a star to be the No. 1 piece on a contending team. She was certainly in the discussion for this squad, but Team USA is very much the best of the best, and it's a hard group to break into. She was by no means a shoo-in.
In some ways, it was a brave selection by USA Basketball. The easy, uncontroversial move would've been to take Nneka and leave Ariel Atkins at home. That would've left them with a less balanced roster, and likely Breanna Stewart spending a lot of time on the wing. Stewart was successful there for Team USA at the World Cup three years ago, but it isn't her natural or most effective position. Taking Atkins creates a more balanced group, offering another wing player who can shoot and defend on the perimeter, rather than yet another post. It's not something that was necessary - Team USA would be the overwhelming favorites for gold either way - but there is a clear logic to it. They also could've left out Collier or Charles for Ogwumike but again, based on recent performance, those two are both in on merit.
From the perspective of a foreigner, a lot of the discussions and arguments around USA Basketball squads seem, well, foreign. If our occasional superstar players want to hang around for tournament after tournament well after their peak, we're generally delighted - not worrying about who they're blocking from coming through. For example, Laia Palau unretired and went straight back into the Spain team at 41 years of age, for one of the favorites for silver in Tokyo. But having to leave out maybe 30 of the top-50 players on the planet from your Olympic squad clearly creates issues of its own. Ogwumike has every right to be upset, given the parameters USA Basketball has established for inclusion in the past. But I also can't really blame them for the squad that they've picked.
Seeing through the lack of transparency
I'll likely come back to this later in the year, but the NBA have been releasing their end-of-season awards lately, and they put out this every year - a detailed breakdown of not only the voting totals, but how each and every person voted for each award. It creates a level of transparency which forces every voter to own their selections, and if a choice is particularly strange or different from the consensus it often forces them to defend it when the public calls them to account. The AP does the same with their Top 25 poll.
The WNBA doesn't do this, and never has. Arguably it's even more necessary for this league, where it sometimes seems glaringly apparent that a lot of local media members only watch their own team's games (and if they're on the road, not always those). That means the award selections are sometimes being made by people with a limited knowledge base, and over the years has led to some strange selections (although in most cases the wisdom of the crowd wins out and overwhelms individual weirdness).
I'd love to see the WNBA make votes public, and have been asking for it for years. Make people own their picks, and defend them if necessary. If they're not capable of defending them, give the vote to someone else in future years. And yes, I admit that I am not part of the voting pool but would like to be. I promise that if given an official vote, I'd make my selections public, and defend each and every one in print. Whether the league required me to do so or not.
Let's address the Hardship issue yet again. Firstly, teams have to release hardship exception signings once the injured/absent player returns. There was a lot of clamoring about Reshanda Gray being released by the Liberty despite some solid performances, but the rules are the rules. That said, we saw similar complaints around the treatment of Lexie Brown earlier in the season in Chicago, and the Sky have gone on to illustrate that if you wait at least ten days, you can re-sign a hardship player to a standard contract. However, in Gray's case in New York, there's additional context. Due to all the extra money on their books this season - the various hardship contracts, and particularly paying out Layshia Clarendon when she was waived - the Liberty are now over the salary cap by nearly $10,000. This is perfectly legal, because they arrived there via the hardship exceptions, but it means that there's no room for Gray at all. Even if they wanted to replace someone like Kylee Shook or DiDi Richards with her, it's an impossible move because of the negative cap space.
Moving elsewhere but sticking with hardships, it does become interesting when replacement players end up higher in the rotation than the ones on existing contracts. That's exactly what's happened in Connecticut recently, where Emma Cannon was brought in while Jonquel Jones is in Europe. Cannon almost immediately jumped ahead of Stephanie Jones and Beatrice Mompremier as the first post off the bench. The Sun are going to struggle to find a way to bring Cannon back because they're also over the cap. It creates an awkward situation, because the Sun may feel that their chances of winning games would improve if Stephanie Jones happened to turn an ankle, thereby creating the circumstances for another hardship exception and allowing them to bring Cannon (or someone else) back. But they created this situation themselves with their initial roster moves, so they have no one else to blame.
There's not a lot new to say on this one, but Dallas continues to be a work in progress. Kayla Thornton has been moved into the starting lineup of late, and they're using her as the initial defender on point guards, which allows them to switch ball-screens at the start of possessions while minimising mismatches. But there's still an awful lot of inconsistency from game to game in terms of who gets to play and how much time they see. Sometimes this is good - you can go with the hot hand, or stick with whoever's being effective defensively on a given night. But it can also leave players untethered, or confused about their roles. Isabelle Harrison has dropped down the pecking order lately after being their best post for most of the early games. Satou Sabally sat for the entire second half against Minnesota after starting the game and playing over 15 minutes in the first half (no injury was reported and she started their next game three days later). They're playing quite well and winning a bunch of games for a team that still hasn't settled, but it feels like we're still waiting on Vickie Johnson and the Wings to figure things out.
This isn't technically from this week, but it's an illustration of one of my favorite Alysha Clark-esque players in the WNBA. Bridget Carleton hasn't shot the ball nearly as well so far this season as we saw in last year's bubble, and that's going to hurt her prospects long-term unless it turns back around. But it's stuff like what we see in the video below that's keeping her in the lineup in Minnesota regardless. It's edited, but all within a couple of minutes of action against LA.
First there's an opportunistic steal; then she makes the right play from the corner, beating the close-out with a hard dribble, drawing a second defender and kicking to a hot shooter who's now wide open; then there's some solid wing defense, keeping her chest to a driving Brittney Sykes to force the miss; and finally diving in from the wing for an offensive rebound to keep a possession alive.
They're all individually fairly basic things, but she makes lots of these plays, and it's the kind of thing coaches love. You need players to do the dirty work while your stars are lighting up the scoreboard, and it's remarkable how many of the positive moments in Lynx games tend to involve Carleton. Not quite Alysha Clark-level just yet, but she makes the same types of plays. Now the Lynx just need a little more from the people who are supposed to be doing the glamorous stuff around her.