Where is the urgency in Indiana? — Kellie Harper talks We Back Pat — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, January 19, 2022

On December 15, 2021, Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon convened an emergency meeting with members of the media who cover that team. He answered 38 questions over 41 minutes, covering what he clearly views as an inflection point in the franchise’s progress, a potential rock bottom.

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The Pacers, at the time, were 12-18, which is a winning percentage of .400. The last time the Indiana Fever, also owned by Herb Simon, even reached a .400 winning percentage in a single season was back in 2016, when Tamika Catchings still played for the team.

What’s happened since continues to puzzle insiders in the WNBA and observers alike, with head-scratching moves begetting additional mysteries. This week’s release of Kysre Gondrezick, with a single sentence press release, would be odd enough, smack in the middle of the offseason, with a non-guaranteed contract and Indiana possessing plenty of cap room.

That it came less than a year after Indiana used its latest lottery pick, fourth overall, on Gondrezick, only amplifies the problem.

And perhaps most problematic is how little urgency there appears to be about it all.

Ask around the league, and there’s very little understanding of exactly what the Fever are trying to do — not whether the plan will succeed or not, but even what the plan is. And that’s fine, really: you don’t build a team for mass acceptance, you build it to win. There are some folks who never understood what Bill Laimbeer Aces teams were trying to build, and you’d look up and they’d be atop the standings. There are always dissenters on virtually every individual move, regardless of who’s doing it.

But if you’re going to confound the league, as the Fever did with Gondrezick — you better get it right. And for the second consecutive year, an Indiana Fever lottery pick, after Lauren Cox in 2020, didn’t come close to even playing out her rookie contract, the part of a WNBA player’s career that should offer the most surplus value to a team. That’s before dealing with the reality that convincing big-time free agents to relocate to Indiana has proven to be difficult at best, making the draft the best way to find a superstar. It’s how Catchings arrived, for instance.

Lauren Cox. (screenshot via WNBA Media Central)

There’s no snickering or glee over Indiana’s troubles in other front offices. Marianne Stanley is rightly respected as an icon in this game — as those of you who read here regularly know — and that isn’t going to change, however things shake out in Indiana. The same, of course, is true for Catchings, the easy selection, to me, as the greatest player of all time, also loved in many corners, respected in others (folks didn’t like losing to her, after all). But it’s escaped no one’s notice that Pokey Chatman was shown the door three years into a tenure that produced lottery picks like Kelsey Mitchell and Teaira McCowan and clear progress on the floor, with the Fever of Chatman’s final few weeks playing like a team on the cusp of the playoffs.

Catchings, when she was still a player, spoke about wanting to be a general manager. Still, sometimes greatness in one area doesn’t translate to another. Ted Williams might have been the greatest hitter who ever lived, but he was a lousy manager. Phil Jackson, Bulls coaching genius, did not cover himself in glory as team president of the New York Knicks. Stephanie White, the last coach to take Indiana to the playoffs, did not do as well trying to build the Vanderbilt program.

Now there’s a whole other question, which is whether the timeframes we give people in coaching or front office gigs is appropriate — essentially, they get one shot at a build, when so much of how a team comes together is beyond the control of any 1-2 people. It took, if you’ll forgive this point of privilege, entirely too long for Marianne Stanley to get this opportunity. I don’t think these two years — especially these two years — have changed that reality.

But the vibe emanating from Indiana isn’t that ownership on down is simply being patient with a leadership that features far more about basketball than I’ll ever know. It isn’t that there’s simply a longer timeline. Instead, it’s hard to escape the feeling that no matter what happens in Indiana during WNBA season, there’ll be indifference from the owner’s box. How many moves are coming as a result of more limited opportunities to recruit players — for a Fever team already in a hole due to recent results and market — we’ll never be able to quantify. But it has to make the jobs of Catchings and Stanley harder.

We’re obviously at an inflection point in the WNBA. Cathy Engelbert is navigating a 2022 with new owners eager to push forward, and a league that’s actively considering how many teams to deploy. Despite what you may have heard, expansion is absolutely on the table, further adding to the group looking to take the WNBA to a place where it’s hard to see the Herb Simon Fever competing.

As long as Indiana is a market with an owner who turned 87 in October 2021 and doesn’t seem particularly checked into the progress of the team, well, success in Indiana just might not be possible.

This week in women’s basketball

At FiveThirtyEight, I previewed WNBA free agency.

Gabe Ibrahim spoke to Kevin Pelton about WNBA free agency.

Aerial Powers talked basketball and gaming on WCCO.

UConn finally got a high-level recruit, score one for the underdog.

Really interesting look at parity in the NCAA game.

Madi Williams is the real deal.

Dorothy Gentry thinks it is time to bring a big-time veteran to Dallas.

Tom Mulligan joins the 600-win club in New Jersey girls basketball. (And yes, this is an excuse to show how far ahead of everyone Jeff Jasper is.)

RIP, Lusia Harris.

Tweet of the week

We’re always happy to see Imani McGee-Stafford back in the basketball world.

Five at The IX: Kellie Harper, Tennessee coach

On putting aside the emotions of a We Back Pat game…
“In terms of the emotions of the game, I think one of the things that I learned from Pat and playing here was really how to lock in and how to stay focused in a moment when a lot is going on. At Tennessee, there was always a lot going on. There were a lot of people at practice, or there was a lot of talk about our games versus some opponents, or practicing and playing in the Final Four – there was just so much going on around our program. But when it was game time, we were locked in, and we were locked in because our leader was locked in, and I think it’s important for our team, that when it’s game time, that everyone – including me – no matter what is going on, is focused on the task at hand.”

On appreciating what goes on this week…
“I think, for us, we’ll talk about it in our pregame. What we do, we talk a little bit about the upcoming game during our pregame meal, and I think that will be an appropriate time to talk about some things. You know, this particular team was able to watch… this summer we watched the Cinderella Season documentary on our team, and I think they have a pretty good understanding of who Pat Summitt was and what she stood for. But it’s just now a reminder for everybody that after her coaching, and then after her diagnosis, what else she stood for, and I think that’s important as well.”

On not letting success get in the way of continuing to improve…
“I think our approach has been to be very honest with our team. We do compliment them. We do allow them to be excited. We’re excited about what we’ve been able to do, but we’ll be the first to call them out when we need to get better at something. And our staff will challenge our team in practice. We have to find ways to get better. The really cool thing about this team is that’s what they want. The voice and the attitude in practice when things aren’t going well is that it’s not acceptable. And it’s not just unacceptable from the coaches, it’s from the players. That’s a good space to be in. I think it’s hard sometimes, but our team has done a really nice job of continuing to strive for more, and that’s what you want to keep doing.

On winning over parents in the recruiting process…
“We have great parents. They have been so supportive. As a parent, I understand where they’re at. You know, they want to see their child succeed; they want to see their child be happy. They’re not here. So, they go from with them every single day, multiple hours throughout the day, to they’re not. They’re not there daily, and they don’t know what goes on, and the next thing they know, they’re watching a game. And for our players’ parents to buy in and trust that we are taking care of their child and that we are doing what’s best for them as well the team, it’s a big deal. You know, when players can call home and their parents are supportive, not just of them, but of the team, it matters. Our players’ parents are awesome. Awesome. I love every one of them.”

On Tamari Key progressing as a shot blocker…
“You know, she’s not just swatting them out of bounds and then we have to play defense. She’s blocking them in a way that we can actually get to it, either her or a teammate can get to the ball. I think she’s a little bit more calculated. I think her timing is really good. I think she tracks the ball when she needs to track the ball. I think she does a good job there. Obviously, our system hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last couple years for her defensively, but she’s just very comfortable right now. And I tell you what, boy her teammates have a lot of faith… I would (too). I’d feel good about guarding knowing she’s behind me. That’s pretty solid. I think she’s confident, they’re confident, and it’s a snowball effect.”

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.