With the best WNBA Draft Lottery odds at another No. 1 pick, the Fever’s rebuild is coming together around Aliyah Boston

INDIANAPOLIS — The night the Indiana Fever introduced Christie Sides as their next head coach, 14 lottery balls bounced in the franchise’s favor for the first time in history. The No. 1 pick in a 2023 WNBA Draft long destined to feature a franchise-defining center who would immediately alter a team’s trajectory belonged to the Fever. It was all coming together for a franchise mired in disappointment for nearly a decade.

Except Aliyah Boston, the 2022 Naismith Award winner and national champion who lost a mere nine games in her four-year collegiate career, had the opportunity to stay at South Carolina one more season under the NCAA’s COVID-19 eligibility guidance that granted athletes an extra year.

It was Sides’ first head-coaching job, and she was tasked with a complete rebuild to finally bring the Fever out of the basement of the 12-team WNBA standings. They had not had a winning season since 2015, went 17-73 the previous three years combined and their lottery draft picks were questionable. It was not her job to make draft selections, but it was her responsibility to forge strong relationships with them.

She had never met Boston face-to-face, so during South Carolina’s week off before the NCAA tournament, the coach flew to Columbia. There was one month until the WNBA Draft, and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley had been honest with Sides. She didn’t know what option Boston would choose. So Sides wanted to sit in the gym to see how Boston responded and reacted to her presence, if only to get an idea of her leanings.

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“I go to the practice, and I’m nervous as all get out, because, like, what do I say?” Sides told Yahoo Sports. “Like, ‘Hey, please don’t, please don’t stay. Hey, you know,’ like … I really don’t know what angle to go.”

Christie Sides recently completed her first season as Indiana Fever head coach, leading a young squad that includes the 2023 No. 1 overall pick and the 2022 No. 2 overall pick. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)Christie Sides recently completed her first season as Indiana Fever head coach, leading a young squad that includes the 2023 No. 1 overall pick and the 2022 No. 2 overall pick. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Christie Sides recently completed her first season as Indiana Fever head coach, leading a young squad that includes the 2023 No. 1 overall pick and the 2022 No. 2 overall pick. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

She sat at the scorer’s table and watched as Boston and Victaria Saxton went to shoot free throws after practice wrapped. When the coach turned around, she was suddenly met with Boston in front of her. They exchanged the standard “nice to meet you” pleasantries.

The coach delivered her pitch.

“Listen, I’m only here because I hope if it’s either this year, or next year, whenever you decide to come out, but [that] I have the opportunity to coach you, whatever that is. You do you,” Sides said she told Boston. “I hope you’re not stressing at all about what you’re about to do, because you have nothing but great options on the table right now. Right? So that stress, I’m not here to [urge you to leave]. I just want you to meet me and see who I am. And maybe we’ll have a chance to work together and be on the same team in the future.”

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Boston appreciated the visit and that Sides made her feel comfortable that she could make a choice either way. Boston called her mom, Cleone, back in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, after practice with a new energy.

“[Cleone] was excited about it, too, and she wanted me to understand that whatever decision I made was going to be the decision for me,” Boston said. “She also just appreciated the fact that Coach Sides said that and didn’t really say, ‘Oh, we want you to come out,’ or anything like that.”

“It’s who Christie is. It’s who we are,” Fever general manager Lin Dunn said. “We’re not going to push Aliyah or any player to do something they don’t want to do.”

“That would have been selfish of me taking that risk,” Sides said.

Even if the franchise’s trajectory and Dunn’s three-year plan could hinge on that one decision.

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The day after South Carolina was upset in the NCAA semifinals, Boston announced she would declare for the draft. A week later, she held up the No. 1 Fever jersey, rising the tides of a franchise whose last generational talent, Tamika Catchings, led them to their one and only WNBA championship in 2012. Since Catchings’ retirement in 2016, it had been six seasons of rudderless struggle. Outsiders questioned the vision.

“I think we all knew it was going to be hard once Tamika Catchings retired,” Dunn, who coached the team for seven seasons, including that title year, said. “I don’t think we knew it was going to be quite as hard.”

“I think we all knew it was going to be hard once Tamika Catchings retired. I don’t think we knew it was going to be quite as hard.”Lin Dunn, Fever general manager

In Boston, who earned the 2023 Rookie of the Year in a unanimous vote, the Fever have the building block they’ve always needed to make moves back to the top. The 6-foot-5 center is only one piece of Dunn’s three-year plan that began when she was hired as interim general manager ahead of the 2022 season. The interim tag was pulled off last winter.

Dunn’s plan involves steady growth from improving the culture in the first year to reaching the playoffs in the third. She added an asterisk to the goals because of a new coaching staff hired a year into it and an injury last season to 2022 No. 2 overall pick NaLyssa Smith. But there is one thing Dunn wants to make clear was never part of the plan: The Fever were not tanking for a chance at another generational talent.

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“You can write that down,” she said in August. “We are not tanking. We’re fighting in every game. We’re close in every game. If some teams are tanking, that’s their business, but that’s not who we are. We don’t tank; we fight.”

Aliyah Boston, the 2023 WNBA Draft's No. 1 overall pick, has provided the Indiana Fever a building block during the second year of a three-year rebuild. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)Aliyah Boston, the 2023 WNBA Draft's No. 1 overall pick, has provided the Indiana Fever a building block during the second year of a three-year rebuild. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Aliyah Boston, the 2023 WNBA Draft’s No. 1 overall pick, has provided the Indiana Fever a building block during the second year of a three-year rebuild. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Though they weren’t tanking, they hold the best odds in Sunday’s draft lottery for the No. 1 pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft. It could speed along the franchise’s quest for its second championship. Yet, Sides and Dunn have stressed it’s a process that takes time and similar patience they showed waiting for Boston.

In an era of super-teams, the Fever’s plan is to slowly build from the basement back to the top. The close losses, the mini improvements and the overall fight Boston and the young team put up show it’s working.

Year 1: ‘Right the ship’ with draft, coach, culture

The 2023 draft lottery aired during a major nonconference matchup between Maryland and South Carolina. When Staley heard who won in a postgame news conference, she quipped, “[Boston] said she’s staying another year.”

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It was played off by Staley as a joke, but it was rooted in the truth the Fever organization has missed its opportunities with young talent.

“I think it’s fair to say that there’s been some mistakes with some of our draft picks,” Dunn, the winningest coach in Fever franchise history (119-85) and a Hall of Famer, said. “We could have done a better job. But we know that. Now we’re trying to kind of right the ship and get back on track. But there’s no quick fix.”

The Fever drafted 12 players in the three drafts between 2019-21 and few stuck on the roster more than a season. None of the three lottery picks in that span started 2023 with the team, and two are out of the league. They stockpiled seven picks for 2021 and seven for 2022, and only three were on the 2023 end-of-season roster. One was traded for veteran Amanda Zahui B.

They also struggled to keep a long-term coach. Stephanie White (37-31), Pokey Chatman (28-74) and Marianne Stanley (14-49) all coached a maximum of three seasons since Dunn left her head-coaching position after 2014.

When Dunn came on as GM ahead of the 2022 season, she wanted to add pieces and improve the culture. That was Year 1 of her three-year plan. In her first draft, she selected Smith, a national champion at Baylor, at No. 2 overall behind the Atlanta Dream’s Rhyne Howard.

Drafting NaLyssa Smith with the No. 2 overall pick in 2022 was the first step for the Indiana Fever to move out of the bottom of the WNBA standings. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)Drafting NaLyssa Smith with the No. 2 overall pick in 2022 was the first step for the Indiana Fever to move out of the bottom of the WNBA standings. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Drafting NaLyssa Smith with the No. 2 overall pick in 2022 was the first step for the Indiana Fever to move out of the bottom of the WNBA standings. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images) (Steph Chambers via Getty Images)

At No. 4, they took Louisville star Emily Engstler and added Lexie Hull, Queen Egbo, Destanni Henderson, Ameshya Williams-Holliday and Ali Patberg. Hull is the only player still rostered, though that also speaks to the difficulties in sticking to a WNBA roster with so few spots.

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“Some of the picks that we took didn’t work out, but that’s not unusual,” Dunn said. “Everybody’s picks don’t work out.”

Nine games and seven losses into Year 1 of the plan, the organization fired Stanley and interim coach Carlos Knox stepped in to go 3-24. He was not kept on after the season and a coaching search began. Dunn said she wasn’t happy with the improvement, so she made changes in the offseason.

They brought in Sides by the end of the calendar year to be ready for free agency. Sides was an assistant coach for the Fever from 2017-19 and had most recently been an assistant for first-year head coach Tanisha Wright in Atlanta in 2022. In the team’s news release, Dunn highlighted Sides as an “excellent teacher” and “a relationship person and a connector.”

“I’m really excited about her and her energy and just who she is and how she wants to be part of reloading [and] rebuilding this franchise,” Dunn said.

Sides views Dunn as a mentor who waits to give advice until she’s asked. Dunn will email inspirational quotes, thoughts and game-situational questions to ponder. After practices, they’ll gather together to discuss. As refreshing as it was to have Sides in place, it meant an asterisk to Dunn’s plans for Year 2. Sides and the coaching staff needed time to put in their system, and Dunn’s smaller goals had to adjust accordingly to reach the bigger one.

Lin Dunn has coached the Indiana Fever and now is the team's general manager with an ambitious three-year plan. (Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)Lin Dunn has coached the Indiana Fever and now is the team's general manager with an ambitious three-year plan. (Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Lin Dunn has coached the Indiana Fever and now is the team’s general manager with an ambitious three-year plan. (Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Year 2: Close, with an asterisk

Dunn read WNBA news on a tablet from her folding chair in the corner of the Fever’s facility as an August practice wrapped up its final 30 minutes. The team in front of her was the second-youngest opening day roster by age and the lowest in terms of average service time (2.08 years to the Las Vegas Aces’ 6.67 and New York Liberty’s 5.09).

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Seven of the 12 were in their first or second years as a pro. It was a team that in 17 straight games to begin the season started a rookie (Boston), two second-year players (Smith, Hull) and only two veterans at the time who were in at least their fifth seasons (Kelsey Mitchell, Erica Wheeler).

“What I’ve always found is young teams are extremely resilient,” Dunn said. “They’re thinking about how they can get better, they don’t get discouraged, they tend to maintain a high effort, high energy. Because they’re always thinking about the future, you know what I’m saying? Which is kind of a different mentality than a veteran team.”

In the moments she looked up or listened, she would evaluate the team’s energy and effort. If they’ve gotten better in the session, the week, the month. She liked what she saw this season, even if at the mini August break the Fever hadn’t won as many games as she would have liked in Year 2 of her reload/rebuild plan.

Not only did they have a new coaching staff, but the roster wasn’t experienced or deep enough yet to overcome being without Smith for nine games due to a stress fracture in her foot. By the Commissioner’s Cup break, they were 8-23.

“The state of Indiana can be real tough at times with how much they love their basketball for sure,” Sides said. “I came in here with the mindset of how can [we] win 11 games in this first season? That would be a good starting point for us just because [it was] the total amount from the last two seasons.”

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“The state of Indiana can be real tough at times with how much they love their basketball for sure.”Christie Sides, Fever head coach

The Fever surprised teams early with their tenacity and closely contested losses to the Connecticut Sun and Aces, the 2022 Finals teams that were largely intact. In their third game May 28, they snapped their record 20-game losing skid that was tied for longest in WNBA history and dated to June 19, 2022. In the three losses between their first and second wins of the season, they lost by three, four and five points.

By season’s end, they had lost 16 games by single digits and only three by 20 points or more. They lost eight games by single digits and seven by at least 20 points in 2022.

The winning margins were similar. They won six games by at least double digits in 2023 compared to winning all six games in 2022 by six points or fewer.

“The wins and losses don’t show how much we’ve grown,” Boston said. “I think the way we compete in games can show [the growth].”

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The Fever were not the first team eliminated from the 2023 postseason picture, one of the mini victories for a franchise that was so used to bowing out early. They finished 13-27, matching their only double-digit win total in the seven seasons since Catchings retired. Their offensive rating was sixth, also better than any season since 2016. They gave heavy minutes to a group they plan to keep and build upon.

Aliyah Boston, center, helped the Indiana Fever take a big leap in Year 2 of their rebuild. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)Aliyah Boston, center, helped the Indiana Fever take a big leap in Year 2 of their rebuild. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Aliyah Boston, center, helped the Indiana Fever take a big leap in Year 2 of their rebuild. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Boston was as advertised in her first season as a pro, averaging 14.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.32 steals and 1.25 blocks per game. She became the first rookie to lead the league in field-goal percentage (57.8%).

That early success, and the Fever’s early close losses, led to higher expectations that Boston could pull the Fever into a playoff spot. And that if she didn’t, at least from outsiders, it was a failure. Boston said she puts the most pressure on herself, but it was still hard to get on a plane or a bus after the losses, especially close ones, thinking, “What else can I do to help us continue to rise up together?”

It was a learning process for Boston, who was 129-9 in her four collegiate seasons. By her 14th professional game, she had as many losses as her previous four seasons combined.

“You expect so much and you want a lot of great things, and when it doesn’t always happen in a time that you want, it’s just really hard,” Boston said.

She began talking to a sports psychologist regularly as the losses and noise mounted. She said she felt pressure from “Twitter coaches” and found herself taking a deep breath, crying and then talking about it “because I’ve normalized it and I think it should be a normal thing.”

Year 3: Playoffs or bust

The free agency market will be warmer for the Fever this offseason than it has in years past because of Boston’s presence and the organization’s improvement. Indiana also quietly has an attractive asset like trendier big markets in New York and Las Vegas, which drew the biggest free agents in 2023.

The Fever have a team-specific training facility available to players all year, which is still a rarity in the league. In 2021, a construction crew raised the Fever’s practice floor from the bottom level of Gainbridge Fieldhouse up to the main level because the ceiling was tall enough to accommodate it. It opened space below for facilities that are purely for the Fever.

“It’s great to know you have the spot [to train], because you want to get better, you want to get in, you want to work all the chances you can,” Boston said. “It’s just really important knowing that if I stay just around the area that I have a workout gym regardless.”

The Aces built their own standalone facility that opened in April. The Seattle Storm are building one and the Mercury announced one. The Liberty have team-specific facilities at Barclays Center and a practice court they share with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. Players are increasingly opting not to go overseas in their WNBA offseasons and instead chase opportunities at home while training.

Aliyah Boston and the Indiana Fever will wait for Sunday's WNBA Draft Lottery results to see how Year 3 of their rebuild will unfold. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)Aliyah Boston and the Indiana Fever will wait for Sunday's WNBA Draft Lottery results to see how Year 3 of their rebuild will unfold. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Aliyah Boston and the Indiana Fever will wait for Sunday’s WNBA Draft Lottery results to see how Year 3 of their rebuild will unfold. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Dunn and Fever personnel believe their setup is just as beneficial to the player experience. The personalized locker room was finished ahead of the 2021 season and each player has her own locker with a nameplate, a luxury Candace Parker said she never had in her 15-year career before joining Las Vegas. Lining the walls to the locker room area are game photos of the current Fever roster.

There’s a Fever-only weight room available 24/7, except on the rare times when the arena hosts a tournament. The film room is decorated to celebrate the team’s history and is named for Catchings. And the team apartments are across the street.

“We’re going to be one of the few, that I think, that’s kind of all-inclusive,” Dunn said. “We’ve got everything we need to be successful right here. And so I’m excited about that.”

Much like last offseason, the Fever will wait to see if the lottery balls bounce in their favor a second time. It’s expected to be a deep and talented class in the final year of the COVID-19 waiver of eligibility.

And much like their wait for Boston, the Fever plan to be patient if Iowa star Caitlin Clark or any of the other projected lottery picks choose to stay in college. Boston catapulted the franchise back into relevancy; a second No. 1 pick could lead to a checkmark next to Dunn’s Year 3 goals.

“This time next year if we’re not in the playoffs, I’m going to be very disappointed,” Dunn said during the final 10-game stretch of the season.

“This time next year if we’re not in the playoffs, I’m going to be very disappointed.”Lin Dunn, Fever general manager

Every team and franchise and rebuild is different; there is no one-size-fits all for winning a championship. The new era of player freedom and movement, created through the 2020 collective bargaining agreement salary structure, has changed the offseason. For the first time in league history, three All-Stars joined an already established one in New York last offseason to form a super-team. More franchises might look to do the same.

New York and Las Vegas will largely remain intact in free agency and look toward even more splashy signings. Connecticut, which has the most cap room of any club ($811,910 of a $1.46 million cap) could do the same.

“The frustrating thing for me is that the other teams won’t pause and wait for us to catch back up,” Dunn said. “Unfortunately, they’re not going to do that. And so the other teams are wary of watching us do this rebuild because they’re going: How? We almost lost to the Fever with two rookies and with such a young team. I think other teams see our potential, but it just takes time.”

The Las Vegas Aces, led by A'ja Wilson, built a super-team through the draft, much like the Indiana Fever hope to do. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)The Las Vegas Aces, led by A'ja Wilson, built a super-team through the draft, much like the Indiana Fever hope to do. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Las Vegas Aces, led by A’ja Wilson, built a super-team through the draft, much like the Indiana Fever hope to do. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The thing about the super-team era is that success often isn’t found immediately at the flick of wrists signing contracts. Chemistry and experience together can often mean more in a team game. It was the largest differentiator for Las Vegas to defeat New York in the WNBA Finals, and the encouraging sign for the Fever is they look more like the former.

The Aces won with a core of three consecutive No. 1 picks. They broke their own playoff skid in 2019, in the second season of Bill Laimbeer’s tenure and the rookie year of their final No. 1 pick. In 2020, they reached the Finals for the first time in more than a decade. In 2022, they won a championship and added another this October.

The “how?” Dunn asked has clear and recent precedent. It started with the lottery balls falling the right way and a patient approach to a complicated draft. Boston’s decision to forgo her extra collegiate year gave Sides the structure to build up.