Ruin for Rhyne? What is happening with the Indiana Fever?

Photo Credit: Darrell Walker/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Just a few days ago, the Indiana Fever earned a huge upset win at home over the Connecticut Sun – a major victory for a rebuilding franchise over a Sun team that with roughly half of the season complete, is up there with the Seattle Storm, Las Vegas Aces and Chicago Sky among the WNBA’s elite teams.

But the win for the Fever was also one of the few bright spots that occurred in a season that has been for the most part bleak in the Hoosier State.

Outside of an earlier victory in the season against the Washington Mystics and this one over Connecticut, the Fever have run the table in reverse, prompting questions about what ails Indiana’s resident WNBA team.

Last week, the Fever pulled off a shocking move when Lauren Cox, one of the W’s young up-and-comers was unceremoniously released. Cox was the third overall draft pick in the 2020 WNBA draft – and the first major selection by coach Marianne Stanley, now in her second year as Indiana’s head coach.

This was also the same Lauren Cox who missed much of last season in the bubble because she tested positive for Covid. Cox has since taken her talents to the Los Angeles Sparks – and already appears to be averaging more minutes per game than she was doing when healthy with the Fever.

As of today, the Fever are 2-16….and stand one loss shy of clinching another losing season since Tamika Catchings, now Indiana’s general manager, retired following the 2016 campaign. This is following last year’s bubble season where the Fever finished a not-so-robust 6-16. The only team with a worse record in 2020 than Indiana?

The 2-20 New York Liberty.

Since the end of the 2019 season, the Fever have yet to approach the win total they had for that one season. In 2019, the Fever finished with a 13-21 record … and finished only two games outside of the eighth playoff spot that was claimed that season by the Minnesota Lynx.

Then – something funny happened on the way to that 2020 season. The funny thing? Its former coach, Pokey Chatman, was unceremoniously let go by Fever ownership and replaced by Stanley as its new coach. Interestingly enough, Indiana announced the same day that Catchings had accepted a role as the team’s general manager.

Stanley was an interesting hire given that the 2019 rendition of the Fever did seven games better than their 2018 showing where Indiana also concluded that campaign as a six-win team. It was also an interesting hire given Stanley was hired to Indiana after loads of experience as an assistant. The most recent season where Stanley was an assistant was with the Mystics in 2019 where Washington won a WNBA championship after a grueling five-game Finals with the Sun.

One would have assumed that given Stanley’s longtime status as an assistant that it would only be a matter of time before she got hired for a head coaching job either in the WNBA or back in college. But one has to ask of Fever ownership how it can go in another direction in the middle of a rebuilding process after a 2019 season where said process was actually going in the correct direction.

And while primary blame for that decision lays at the feet of Fever ownership, one has to wonder if Catchings is the correct general manager for the job in Indiana. One also cannot help but wonder if given the last few seasons that the Fever players are responding to Stanley the way they clearly responded to Chatman.

In fairness to Stanley, not all of the blame has to be put at her feet. After all, the Fever have been a team that has been riddled with injuries over the past few seasons – notably to Victoria Vivians and Teaira McCowan, who was heralded by many a W pundit as being the next Liz Cambage, Nneka Ogwumike or Sylvia Fowles.

Remember – this is also the same Fever organization that once cut Betnijah Laney. A few years later, Laney is thriving with the Liberty, leading New York in scoring, was recently named to Team WNBA as part of this year’s All-Star Game and has put the Lib in position to qualify for a postseason berth for the first time since 2017.

This is also the same Fever organization that saw Erica Wheeler leave – the same Erica Wheeler whose story of going from being undrafted to WNBA stardom is one of the most celebrated within W circles. Speaking of All-Star Games, she only won MVP of the 2019 rendition of All-Star. Natalie Achonwa also left this past offseason too during free agency and is now with the Lynx.

This is also the same Fever organization that made a surprising choice with its No. 4 overall pick. Following the two first picks (both Dallas Wings) of Texas’ Charli Collier and Awak Kuier and the Atlanta Dream selecting Arizona’s Aari McDonald No. 3 overall, the Fever let every WNBA mock draft board know what they thought of it by selecting Kysre Gondrezick out of West Virginia with the fourth pick.

And while Gondrezick has been good overall for the W in terms of broadening its ever-expanding social media presence, she is only averaging just over two points per game despite playing in 17 of the 18 games the Fever have played in this season.

If there is a silver lining for Indiana, it lies in the form of an event the Fever and its fans have become quite used to in recent years – the draft lottery. Unless something crazy happens between now and the conclusion of the season, Indiana almost seems destined to have the most ping-pong balls among the four teams that will be participating in the 2022 WNBA draft lottery. If Indiana wins that draft lottery – which they should, then they get the first overall selection in next year’s draft.

And the consensus No. 1 overall pick will not have far to go as Lexington, Kentucky (where Rhyne Howard plays) is only a three-hour drive from Indianapolis. There is still plenty of 2021 season to go, but the Liberty and Wings appear poised to emerge from the lottery while leaving teams like Indiana and Atlanta still in said lottery trying to figure things out.

One had to believe that if the Fever did not have a season that was an improvement over the bubble that Stanley’s seat would begin to get a bit hot – and that the decision to let Chatman go after getting Indiana to only two wins shy of the playoffs in 2019 would look like a massive airball. After all – Katie Smith was fired by the Liberty (and replaced by Walt Hopkins) after two seasons of dreadful basketball under circumstances that, in large part, were out of her control such as the impending sale to Joe and Clara Wu Tsai and being displaced to the Westchester County Center for those two forgetful seasons.

By no means are we saying any coach coming into right the ship for a losing team should only get two seasons to make things right as Smith only get in New York. But a lot of the mess that had to be cleaned with the Liberty was out of her control. Indiana appears to be the result of organizational decisions that do not appear to be panning out despite drafting promising talent.

Do not let the last few seasons fool anyone – Indiana is still Indiana, arguably the best basketball state in the country outside of North Carolina, Connecticut and Kentucky. Indiana cares deeply about its Fever. Its fans may not be as abrasive as the Phoenix Mercury’s X-Factor can be, but basketball is always a hot topic of conversation in the Hoosier State – and the state’s resident WNBA team is no exception.

The players also care. The elation that we saw from the Fever players after they upset the Sun told us the whole story. Losing, especially when going on seemingly endless losing streaks can be mentally taxing. Players and teams want to win every game with the understanding that there is no way a team can win every game. But seemingly losing every game can mentally lead to a lack of confidence within a locker room. That is where coaching (seemingly a less-thanked art in all sports) can come in and still keep a team’s mindset even-keeled even when going through on-court adversity as Indiana has.

Who knows what the answers are to turn the Fever into contenders once again – but signs have been showed recently that those answers may not necessarily be with who dons Fever jerseys, but who wears suits and pantsuits in Indiana’s front office.