Ever since the retirement of all-time great Tamika Catchings following the 2016 season, the Indiana Fever’s history has been filled more frequently with lowlights rather than highlights.
The Fever did hit a high mark in 2019 under former coach Pokey Chatman when the team finished a mere two games out of the eighth playoff berth – which was earned that season by the Minnesota Lynx.
Unceremoniously, the franchise let go of Chatman following that season – and it was as if any gains that Indiana had made in that season completely went by the wayside.
The Fever have been cellar dwellers for much of their recent history. And while they have managed to stockpile a few talented youngsters via the draft – including Kelsey Mitchell, Teaira McCowan (now with the Dallas Wings), Victoria Vivians, NaLyssa Smith, Queen Egbo and Destanni Henderson, playoffs have been elusive for the WNBA’s resident Hoosier State franchise.
A few days ago, a milestone occurred for the Fever franchise. Indiana, in a draft lottery with the Lynx, Atlanta Dream, Washington Mystics came away with the first overall pick for the 2023 draft. That selection will almost certainly be star South Carolina big Aliyah Boston.
If the Fever were to select Boston, as many expect, it would be a reunion with Henderson, her teammate from the Gamecocks who won a national championship together last season. Because of what Boston and Henny were able to get accomplished in South Carolina, for the two to be teammates again may be exactly the jolt the Fever need.
Lin Dunn, the Fever’s general manager, has placed particular emphasis on attempting to change the culture in Indiana. A combination of Boston and Henderson would not only do wonders for the Fever on the court given what the former does in the frontcourt and what the latter gets accomplished in the backcourt, but it would be the sign of that culture change Indiana has been in search of since the retirement of Catchings.
Teams that typically play winning basketball do so because they have an identity. The Atlanta Dream are a perfect example of this. Since Angel McCoughtry left Atlanta following a 2019 season that saw the Dream nearly qualify for the WNBA Finals, the Dream were devoid of an identity. That was before Atlanta general manager Dan Padover engineered a trade with Mike Thibault at the Mystics (who won the 2022 draft lottery) where their lottery picks were effectively swapped.
The Dream were slated to select third in that draft (as they are in the 2023 rendition), but the Atlanta-Washington trade allowed the Dream to select Rhyne Howard with the No. 1 overall selection and cleared the way for Shakira Austin to be picked by the Mystics.
The trade was a win for both franchises. Howard was an All-Star selection and Rookie of the Year recipient in her first season. Austin proved herself to be a worthwhile player at the WNBA level and even added a gold medal in the FIBA World Cup to her resume that will soon be filled with noteworthy accomplishments.
Our guess is Dunn will not be trading the No. 1 overall pick – especially considering the transcendent on and off-court talent that awaits this franchise.
It is often talked about in sports that leagues are better when teams in the top markets are competitive. In the case of the WNBA, the three teams that occupy the top three markets are, of course, the New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks and Chicago Sky.
The Sky were WNBA champions from two seasons ago. The Liberty have treaded water the last couple of seasons but still managed to make the playoffs – and gave the Sky a scare in last season’s first-round playoff series. The Sparks recently hired former Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller to steer its ship possibly back in the right direction.
But the WNBA is also better when a team such as the Indiana Fever are competitive. Indiana is arguably a top five or three basketball state in the country alongside Connecticut, Kentucky and North Carolina. The Fever may not have drawn the attendance they may have used to because the fanbase has been demoralized because of all of the losing basketball.
But imagine if the Fever were to be competitive again and how the entire state would rally behind the team as it did during Catchings’ heyday.
Dunn should also take into consideration what happened when another franchise drafted a future great out of South Carolina and how that sparked a culture change.
When the San Antonio Stars moved to Las Vegas and became the Aces, the first-ever draft pick for the franchise as the Aces was A’ja Wilson, who was fresh off of winning a national championship at the college level under Dawn Staley with the Gamecocks.
Fast forward a few seasons later and Wilson led the Aces to, not only the franchise’s first-ever championship spanning from its days in San Antonio and Utah, but the first-ever professional sports championship in the history of Las Vegas.
Wilson, who was in the news recently for unveiling a new basketball court at Hyatt Park in Columbia and her camp at her high school alma mater Heathwood Hall, has unquestionably become the face of the WNBA.
Christie Sides, who will assume the reins with the Fever starting with the 2023 season (one that will be 40 games long), knew what she was doing when she bet on herself to go from Atlanta assistant to head coach at the Fever. She will have a golden opportunity to coach a player in Boston who could be the missing piece to change the trajectory of the Indiana franchise.
The effects of Columbia being such a robust WNBA factory have already been felt in Nevada. Indiana may be the next state that may want to send a few thank you cards Dawn Staley’s way.