Tamika Catchings and Marianne Stanley reflect on the Fever's 2020 season
The first-year Head Coach and General Manager discuss playing in the Bradenton bubble, their roster, and how they'll get better
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Kelsey Mitchell #0 of the Indiana Fever shootsthree point basket against the Minnesota Lynx on September 12, 2020 at FeldEntertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images)
Last week, Indiana Fever Head Coach Marianne Stanley and General Manager Tamika Catchings held a season-ending Zoom session with reporters, during which they reflected on a number of topics concerning the 2020 WNBA season as well as the Fever’s 6-16 campaign.
Here are the takeaways from the lengthy conversation:
Catchings reflects on first year as General Manager
Tamika Catchings was in a unique position as a first-year General Manager with the Indiana Fever.
Though she traveled with the team to the Bradenton bubble and was on-site for all activities, she did not enjoy sitting on the sidelines during games. The former WNBA champion, MVP, five-time Defensive Player of the Year and 10-time All-Star watched her team lose nine of its final 10 contests and miss the postseason for the fourth consecutive season.
Though the results didn’t sit well with one of the fiercest competitors in the history of the league, Catchings did her best to focus on the bigger picture amid another summer that lacked cohesion and consistency from the roster she built.
“Every single day, my main focus as General Manager was to walk into the gym and never get too high on a win, never get too down on a loss and realize that this is the process.” Catchings said. “I can't promise you that I didn't have those days when I wanted to pull my hair out. Sitting courtside, I'm thankful for some of the masks that we had to wear... but I think it's a process.”
Catchings was present for a season that saw the players use their platforms in ways they never have before. They spoke out against racial injustice in the form of pregame messages, tearing their clothes in protest of the incident involving Jacob Blake and even boycotting games. Catchings believes the WNBA Players’ Association still doesn’t get enough credit for how they’ve paved the way for professional athletes to speak out against inequality.
“When you look at the social justice platform that the players have been able to really stand on this year, it's been phenomenal,” she said. “Being able to support our players, and what they're fighting for, social justice and equality and… change systemic racism.”
Natalie Achonwa allocated time during her media availability sessions this season to promote the Fever’s social justice programs, such as Rebound4Change — an initiative where fans pledged donations for each rebound a Fever player pulled down this season — and a player-worn sneaker auction.
“It's been great, seeing them be so forward thinking and pushing things so far,” Catchings said.
Emergence of Kelsey Mitchell
A consistent theme throughout the season was the emergence of third-year guard Kelsey Mitchell as a legitimate professional, resembling the former three-time Big Ten Player of the Year at Ohio State. Mitchell stook steps forward in every statistical category, but most notably scoring — she finished seventh in the league at 17.9 points per game. Had there been an all-star game, Mitchell would almost certainly have earned the honor.
“Kelsey Mitchell started out the year, you know, fantastically,” Stanley said. “And again, as a young player [she] has had to learn the maturity in her game that's required as a lead two-guard in this league. I think there were some really great times that Kelsey was terrific. And she learned a lot, so I think she's improving and again, a bright, very bright bright spot for the future.”
Stanley believes Mitchell doesn’t get enough credit for her overall game, and feels she still has more to offer. Catchings concurred, citing the offseason as a prime opportunity for Mitchell to expand her arsenal.
“Next year, it’s going to be a big year for her,” said Catchings. “What’s she gonna do? How’s she gonna get to that level?”
What’s next for this roster
With the accolades that Catchings possesses from her storied WNBA career, she knows quite a few things about being a “star” player. Speaking with the media, she reflected on the mindset she carried to work as a cornerstone of the Fever franchise for 15 years.
“Every single day you wake up and the first thing you think about is, ‘What can I do to be great? What do I need to do in the offseason, during the season? As the season goes along, how do I bring my teammates up to that level to be able to compete at such a high level?’ That is the commitment that you have to have an MVP,” she said.
She recalled watching the ESPN documentary The Last Dance about NBA legend Michael Jordan as well as the development of WNBA greats such as Maya Moore, Diana Taurasi and Breanna Stewart. Keeping a close eye on the big names in sports today, she said, has reminded her that “everybody’s journey is different.”
Since her retirement, the Fever have gone a combined 34-90, missing the postseason every year since 2016.
Does Indiana already have that next “star” that can help that take that next step and return to playoff contention? Catchings wouldn’t say for sure whether that was the case, but did say that postseason experience proves invaluable when searching for that level of potential in players.
“You see the example of what having veteran leadership on your team, what it gets you,” said Catchings. “When you look at the last two, two teams standing, you look at the players that are leading those teams.” “You know we guys have heard me constantly talk about wanting to have a championship caliber team… and we’re building.”
Defense a priority in the offseason
Indiana finished dead last in the WNBA in Defensive Rating (111.4) and opponent points per game (89.5). They allowed opponents to score at least 100 points on five separate occasions. It goes without saying that the Fever will need to get better at stopping opponents — both in the halfcourt and in transition — to improve their record next season.
“Obviously, our main concern is to be a better defensive team than what we showed this year,” Stanley said. “I think just the realities of all of the situation in the bubble, you know, getting there late, injuries, practice being limited… I’m not making an excuse but we were not as good defensively as we need to be. And in a significant way.”
The Fever will begin this process by establishing a goal of improving their defensive metrics to the middle of the league. Stanley specifically cited the two teams that qualified for this year’s finals, Seattle and Las Vegas, as prime examples of defensive-minded teams achieving success in the postseason. The Storm and Aces finished first and third in the league in Defensive Rating, respectively.
“Those teams thrive when they can get stops when they need to, they defend really well consistently throughout a game and, you know, that's where our defense needs to be.”
An unprecedented summer at IMG Academy
For Stanley and Catchings, their first years of their positions with the Fever could not have panned out amid a more unconventional backdrop: a global pandemic forcing the consolidation of the season into a bubble. Players, coaches, and other staff members spent over two months at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida — a state where the WNBA hasn’t owned a team since 2002.
A summer completely out of the ordinary for these players, coaches and executives went nearly as unscathed as anyone could’ve hoped, with no players testing positive throughout the course of the season after the initial quarantine period. Players lived on site, eliminating a majority of the typical travel to and from games.
Stanley, though, argued that proximity for a prolonged period of time presented its difficulties to everyone involved.
“I feel like it's kind of mixed,” she said. “When you're 24/7 kind of in the same area, sometimes you just want to kind of be by yourself for a little bit. But I think that our team was able to bond pretty well, just over the course of doing business every day. There wasn't a whole lot of free time, there wasn't a whole lot of downtime.”
Stanley said she would’ve appreciated a couple additional days off incorporated into the schedule for leisurely activities, such as a team dinner at a restaurant.
“It's just difficult because there really was so little time to do those normal kind of things,” she said. “Just having a normal experience was tough to manage in this situation.”
Catchings acknowledged that they were able to organize activities to take the players’ minds off basketball, such as beach excursions and a painting night with local school children. When it came time to focus on work, however, Catchings tried to strike a balance between playing an active role in the day-to-day operations of the team while also standing by and allowing the team chemistry to develop naturally.
“It was really important for me to kind of step aside and let Marianne, being a new coach, really have some individual time... with our players,” Catchings said.
Overall season reflections
Stanley — who served in her first head coaching role since 2003 — admitted that she was disappointed that the team didn’t reach its goal of reaching the postseason, and described the steps she’ll take this offseason to narrow the gap between where the Fever currently are and where they want to be.
“You evaluate your roster and then you have to develop a plan with each person, each player, how they're going to improve, how they're going to come back better,” she said. “Following through on the plan is really important… whether they're in the market or whether they're somewhere else.”
The Fever roster was plagued by injuries and COVID-19-related absences before they even began playing. Erica Wheeler, a first-time All-Star in 2019, missed the entire season after struggling to efficiently pass the league’s coronavirus protocol. Though Indiana long held out hope that she would eventually join the team in Florida, the reunion never came to fruition.
“We missed her leadership, we missed her play at the point and we missed having a quality guard who could play both one and two with experience in that position. That was unfortunate,” Stanley said.
A silver lining resulting from Wheeler’s inability to play was the rise of Julie Allemand, a 24-year-old Belgian rookie who wasn’t even sure if she would make the trip overseas to play this year.
Though she was originally drafted by the Fever 33rd overall in 2016, Allemand needed heavy encouragement from Stanley to even make up her mind to participate in the 2020 season. What followed was an outstanding campaign that few expected, as the point guard finished second in the league in three-point shooting (47.8%) and assists (5.8 per game).
“My hope was that she would have a good year,” Stanley said. “How quickly she adjusted and the quality with which she played consistently, you know, I don't know that anybody could have predicted that, myself included. I was hopeful, but I think Julie exceeded our expectations... kudos to Julie for all that she accomplished.”
Catchings echoed Stanley’s words, singing the praises of Allemand as well. Focusing on the season as a whole, she expressed gratitude for the way the Fever battled through their condensed schedule despite the injuries and conditions of playing in the WNBA bubble.
“I am extremely proud of our staff, extremely proud of our players,” Catchings said. “And even with that, they know and we all know that we have to continue to get better.”