The Indiana Fever are ahead of schedule in their rebuild. At least, that’s what second-year general manager Lin Dunn thinks.
The Fever have missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons since Tamika Catchings retired in 2016, which is an unlikely feat for a league that puts eight of 12 teams into the playoffs. But with first-year coach Christie Sides, Dunn is hoping to push the Fever back into relevance in the near future.
The rebuild has already started showing results, as Indiana went 13-27 in 2023 — more wins than the past two seasons (5-31 in 2022 and 6-26 in 2021) combined.
“This is Year 2 of my plan to get us back to where we’re supposed to be, and I think we’re on track,” Dunn said at the Fever’s exit interviews Tuesday. “I think we’re ahead of schedule, seriously. All of our goals this year were improvement. Our goals were to build on a foundation with a great culture.
“We know we’re not where we need to be. If we were, we’d be in the playoffs. So we got to continue to grow, and I’m pleased with the progress when you go from five wins to 13 wins. That’s significant.”
Wins increased, culture improved. For Fever, 2023 was 'foundation of the house.'
'Worked her tail off from Day 1': How IU alum Grace Berger grew as Fever rookie.
The 2024 schedule will be a grind, especially for those who are also planning to play with Team USA in the Paris Olympics. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in July she plans to keep the season at 40 games with an All-Star weekend in 2024, despite the month-long break for the Olympics.
Schedule aside, what can the Fever do to be better next season? There are a couple things:
Improvement from the ‘Big Three’
The best improvement comes from within. Dunn pointed to offseason improvement of rookie Aliyah Boston, second-year forward NaLyssa Smith and sixth-year guard Kelsey Mitchell as one of the main things that will put the Fever over the top.
Mitchell, Smith, and Boston were the Fever’s three highest scorers this season, averaging 18.2, 15.5 and 14.5 points, respectively. Smith was the team’s leading rebounder with 9.2 a game, and she also recorded 13 double-doubles, a new franchise record. Boston’s 11 double-doubles this season were a Fever rookie record.
But there’s still room for improvement.
“What we already have has to come back better,” Dunn said. “They can’t be satisfied … Did they have excellent seasons? Absolutely. But they’ve got to be even better next year, and that’s how we continue to grow our franchise.”
Smith is heading overseas to Turkey this winter playing for the Galatasaray women’s basketball club. Mitchell and Boston both said they were going to take it “one day at a time” when it comes to the offseason, including some much-needed time off.
The Fever were not a threat from beyond the arc in the 2023 season.
Sure, Indiana excelled with points in the paint: the Fever averaged 36.9 points in the paint per game, fourth in the league. But while they focused on high-low post action from Boston and Smith, opponents could easily swarm them and cut off most of their scoring.
Mitchell was the only player on the Fever’s roster to attempt more than 100 3-pointers this season. Mitchell attempted 246 shots beyond the arc this season, while Erica Wheeler, the next highest, attempted 97.
“We need another shooter,” Dunn said. “We did improve our field goal shooting percentage, our 3-point shooting percentage, we improved our free-throw shooting percentage, all of those are significant and that’s why we scored those points.”
No more 'foul queens'
Sides stresses good defense, which comes from discipline. But for a young team, that discipline could be hard to come by.
The Fever were close to the bottom of the league in multiple defensive categories. They were ninth in defensive rebounding (25.1 per game) and opponent points off turnovers (16.3 per game). Indiana also had the second-worst defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) with 106.5.
“It doesn’t sit well to finish where we did defensively,” Sides said. “And that’s who I am. That’s my side of the ball.”
Indiana was also the highest-fouling team in the league this season, picking up 787 fouls. The next highest was the Atlanta Dream, with 772 fouls, and the lowest-fouling team was reigning WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces with 638.
Knowing when and how to foul, though, comes with discipline.
“We’ve got to quit fouling,” Dunn said. “We lead the league in fouling, we’re the foul queens. I don’t want to be the queens, I just want to be. I don’t want to be the queens. So, that’s discipline and that’s improving your defense.”
The Fever were a relatively young team in 2023, with an average of 2.58 years of WNBA service time. Only two starters (guards Kelsey Mitchell and Erica Wheeler) had more than two years of experience professionally.
Indiana was lacking that true veteran experience — one who had been through the playoffs and in the Finals. So, that’s what Dunn is looking for in free agency.
“Someone who's been there, done that, it would be even better if they had a ring,” Dunn said. “They can share with our players what it takes to get to that point. I look for that type of player. They don’t have to be a superstar, they just have to fit into what we want to do here.”
There are multiple high-level free agents available for the 2024 season. Skylar Diggins-Smith, who has played for the Tulsa Shock, Dallas Wings, and Phoenix Mercury in her 10-year career, is a six-time All-Star who just finished a max contract with the Mercury. The Notre Dame product and former IndyStar Miss Basketball has been in the playoffs four times between Dallas and Phoenix, including playing in the Finals with the Mercury in 2021.
Natasha Cloud, who is in the playoffs with the Mystics, is a less-expensive, yet still veteran option for the Fever. The 31-year-old guard, who has eight years of experience, has played her entire career with Washington and won a title with the Mystics in 2019. Her salary for 2023 is around $190,000. On the other side of that series, Jasmine Thomas played for the Sun through their 2019 WNBA Finals run that season. The 13-year pro played for the Sun for eight years before moving to the Los Angeles Sparks in 2023 for a one-year deal for around $190,000.
Top draft pick
The Fever have the best odds in the 2024 draft for the first overall pick (44.2%) and they won’t pick any lower than third.
Of course, the coveted presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft is Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark, but there are multiple other promising players that could fit the Fever’s needs.
“First and foremost, it’s got to be the right person,” Sides said. “The right person is going to come in here to fit in this puzzle we’ve got going on , and that’s the No. 1 importance. But there are a few positions we do have to cover.”
Fever miss playoffs... but future is bright with Aliyah Boston (and maybe Caitlin Clark)
UConn guard Paige Bueckers, the 2020 National Player of the Year, is returning this season from an ACL tear. She excels in 3-point shooting (something the Fever desperately need), and has shot 43% beyond the arc in her college career. LSU guard Hailey Van Lith, who spent three years at Louisville before transferring to the bayou, is a skilled off-ball shooter, making over 40% of her shots from the field.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s a consensus group of people with Caitlin Clark and Van Lith … Bueckers, there’s a quality group in this draft,” Dunn said.
All three of these players, however, have the option to return to school for 2024-25 because the NCAA gave all 2020-21 athletes an extra year of eligibility. No matter what, Dunn is confident.
“We don’t know if they’ll come out,” Dunn said. “We didn’t know if Boston and all the South Carolina players would come out last year, and they all did. So, we’ll have to wait and we’ll have to be prepared for whatever. But I think we will get a significant player out of next year’s draft.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Chloe Peterson on X at @chloepeterson67.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: WNBA: Indiana Fever 'ahead of schedule' but have offseason needs