Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever are still a work in progress

There are plenty of reasons to tune in and watch the Indiana Fever, including the obvious onethe rookie season and ongoing development of Caitlin Clark, the No. 1 pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft.

But one small treat viewers get when tuning in to watch Indy is getting to watching the most expressive coaching staff in the WNBA, led by Head Coach Christie Sides…

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On both of those plays, a player sets an off-ball screen for Clark, who briefly attracts two defenders. She cracks the defense just enough to let the screener slip to the basket and catch a pass. But the pass doesn’t come on either play, despite the gesticulations from Sides and Co. on the sideline.

Indiana’s coaching staff isn’t just trying to direct offensive sets in these clips, but instead attempting to will the team into an ideal future. Clark is flying off screens and bending the defense in a way that her teammates can feed off of, a core tenet of a read-and-react offense that is simple to game-plan for but impossible to stop.

Those plays aren’t just plays; they’re how the Fever want to play

Those are the moments in which you believe in them. The moments in which you believe Christie Sides when she says, “That’s timing, all those actions are timing. We’re gonna get there. I mean, we don’t have a lot of time to practice, playing every other day, but we will get there. They will get there.”

And then, there are moments where you don’t exactly lose belief, but begin to ask questions. Moments in which the level of execution isn’t worth considering because the Fever don’t know what they want to execute. Moments after which a statement from Sides like “it’s a process, and I know everybody wants us to be really, really good now and and just isn’t how it works,” falls flat, making you wonder if that first quote is the head coach reassuring herself and her bosses, rather than us.

No, the Indiana Fever aren’t supposed to be really good now. But are they supposed to be 1-7 with second-worst offense in the WNBA? Are they supposed to have already tried 94 unique lineups, the most in the league?

This is uncharted territory for both the Fever and their sudden franchise savior, and some of the questions they make you ask are directed inwards. What should I expect from this team in year one, in weeks one and two no less? What does an impressive timeline even look like?

These are the philosophical knots that trying to answer a different, seemingly simpler question will tie you into.

How are Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever doing on offense?

Let’s move out of the realm of philosophy and see what the film has to say.

The Good

Scripted offense

Here is one reason to believe in Sides and her staff. They’ve called some excellent sets to begin the season, and many of them are concise actions to get the non-Clark Fever going.

In her first starts of the season, Kelsey Mitchell struggled against the New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun, shooting 14-34 and often having to work tough matchups in isolation to get her shots off. So to begin their next game in Seattle, Indiana called variations of the same, simple pin-down for Mitchell to get her downhill, building much of their first-quarter offense around her…

Many of Indiana’s go-to sets feature Clark exerting minimal on-ball effort. Occasionally, her job is merely to make a simple pass to Mitchell and keep one potential help defender out of the way.

But Sides is acutely aware of the off-ball gravity Clark possesses. And when the Fever don’t capitalize on it (see: intro), it becomes both a teaching moment for the young squad and a defensive weakness that the next play-call can address.

In their game vs. the Los Angeles Sparks, when Mitchell missed Katie Lou Samuelson on the above slip, there was a media timeout just after that possession. So, what did the Fever call coming out of the break?

Two “away” screens for Clark, where she is directed to cut in front of the second one to drag that defender with her. The Sparks don’t switch it, and Samuelson gets an open 3-point look, albeit one that she bricks. The coaching staff rises with glee as soon as the correct pass is made…

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Through eight games, it’s rare that the Fever will call a play that doesn’t make sense, that misuses the available talent on the floor. Of course, there are long-term questions about who to surround Clark with and what direction to take the franchise in, but Sides’ play-calling shows her grasp on different individuals’ strengths, how to use what’s available to her.

Temi Fagbenle

With Caitlin Clark on the front lines of this current embrace of the WNBA and women’s basketball at large, there are undoubtedly many new fans tuning into the Fever in 2024, watching the W regularly for the first time in their lives. Which is great, because they get to witness a story only the WNBA could produce in Temi Fagbenle, a forward who spent the last four seasons away from the league, only to return at age 31 to thrive as a perfect fit next to Clark.

At 6’4, she has a glitchy athleticism that gives both opposing 4s and 5s trouble, especially because she can run the floor like this off a made basket…

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Starting behind all five Sparks defenders is hardly an obstacle for Fagbenle, nor for Clark, who might have walked into the W as its most audacious outlet passer some of which need to be toned down, as Clark’s turnovers in that area are contributing to the No. 11 ranking the Fever have in points-per-transition opportunity, per Synergy Sports.

Unless Fagbenle is on the court. Almost no pass is too wild for her to handle, and she has the balance and coordination in tight spaces to finish plays. She would embarrass you in a game of tag even if you were playing in the backseat of a car…

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Fagbenle’s best qualities make her a perfect sidekick for Clark in the halfcourt as well, particularly when the No. 1 overall pick gets trapped on ball screens. That’s been defenses’ preferred way of guarding Clark in the pick-and-roll, not just because it eliminates the threat of her shooting a three, but also because the Fever haven’t excelled at making decisions in the 4-on-3.

Yet, Fagbenle is enough of a downhill force that she can either score herself or attract enough defense to make an easy, high-value read to another open player…

An elite athlete who is the best cutter on the team, who can win 1-on-1 matchups while not being a black hole on offense? It’s no wonder the Brit has emerged as Indiana’s fifth starter, a decision that should stick. In 144 minutes with Clark and Fagbenle on the court, Indiana is outscoring opponents by over five points per 100 possessions.

And after writing all that, the Fever announced Fagbenle will miss 2-3 weeks with a left foot injury, at which point she will be re-evaluated. Upon her return, she should be inserted back into the starting lineup barring something truly unexpected occurring in her absence, but it is a disappointing blow to Fever fans who haven’t seen much go right for their team so far.

The Bad

Offensive rebounding

This one I don’t quite understand. The Indiana Fever are 10th in offensive-rebound rate, albeit one bruising game from jumping a few spots. Still, the film suggests offensive rebounding isn’t a high priority for Indiana, despite often having two of Aliyah Boston, NaLyssa Smith, and Fagbenele on the court at once.

Is part of it because they have the worst defense in the league so far, and are focusing on getting back after the shot goes up to not give up even more easy buckets? Definitely.

But for a team that sees so many ball screens defended aggressively 40 feet from the rim, their own lack of aggression on the offensive glass is a white flag. There’s no urgency to crash from the corners, despite playing against defenses that are constantly too scattered to box out.

On this play, Clark hoists a deep three that misses, but with Boston rolling to the rim and Cameron Brink contesting the shot, the Fever have a built-in advantage on the glass. Yet, nobody goes to help Boston attack…

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Sure, the Fever don’t get a great bounce on this specific shot, but there’s no reason not to crash the glass with fury.

Furthermore, the one shot they’ve been making at a consistent clip — again, in just eight games — is the off-the-dribble jumper. Not catch-and-shoots, not layups, but pull-ups. Defenders like Brink won’t be coached to lay off these shots just yet. The Fever have to start cashing in down low.


The offensive rebounding is at least a stylistic concern. It’s understandable that the Fever’s coaching staff would like their young team to get back in transition and match the hell up, even if they’re leaving points on the board by being conservative.

But the spacing in Indiana’s unscripted offense has left a ton to be desired, and it’s disappointing even considering a hectic schedule that’s erased practice time. Missing some slip cuts and backdoor opportunities is a forgivable sin that should improve with natural cohesion, and as we’ll see, some of these spacing concerns are similar.

But too often, players simply aren’t in the right spots. Clark has to stop gravitating toward the ball in transition and just sprint the floor…

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She’ll do this in the half-court too when she’s not running off screens, occasionally loafing by the logo or just running toward the ball when she feels it’s time to do her thing.

The coaching staff has also made some confusing decisions in specific games, playing into opponent strengths. For example, Indiana has insisted on filling the dunker spot on high pick-and-rolls, even against the New York Liberty, a fearsome shot-blocking team with two dominant bigs.

When Clark would get trapped and hit Boston on the short roll, Breanna Stewart was already in position to make a play. On this play, it looks like Fagbenle is going out of her way to make Boston’s life difficult, and it ends how you’d expect…

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Of course, there are occasional timing gaffes that throw off the Fever, like setting screens a hair too early or late. Still, those plays can be excused, to some extent, by a lack of familiarity that should improve over the season.

But while specific play-calls and actions — like guard-to-guard screening between Mitchell and Clark — are often positive, general principles can be confusing. Why is Clark, a talented off-ball mover, stifling her own team in transition? Why is Boston’s life often made harder on the short roll?

These are the less philosophical but even more confusing questions that pop up when watching Indiana.

The In-Between

NaLyssa Smith and Aliyah Boston

NaLyssa Smith is caught in a pickle.

Temi Fagbenle has forced her way into the starting lineup, immediately emerging as a key piece for Indiana. This isn’t bad news for Smith in and of itself — those two form a dynamic frontcourt that has enough length and athleticism to get by on defense and thrive offensively.

That pair also represent two viable release valves for Clark and Mitchell, each capable of navigating a 4-on-3 situation and posting up mismatches. Smith is even a semi-threatening pick-and-popper.

And against the Seattle Storm, we briefly saw Smith as the 5 next to four shooters, an offensively-slanted lineup that, despite all the ball-handling on the floor, allowed her to cook a bit…

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And why not? Not only does Smith have the ballhandling chops and size to get to her spots down low, but she’s shown an ability as a hub to fake dribble handoffs and hit back-door cutters. So, she hasn’t fully been benched because of poor play, but in large part because Fagbenle forced the coaching staff into choosing between her and Aliyah Boston, and Boston is still a franchise cornerstone.

Next to the 2023 No. 1 overall pick, Smith’s role changed a bit. With less space to operate inside, her offense became more perimeter-oriented, particularly as the Fever try to integrate Boston as Clark’s main pick-and-roll partner, getting her comfortable in the short roll.

In the starting lineup, Smith became a bystander, her mid-post isolation game existing in its own universe, separate from Caitlin Clark’s impact. Of the 31 unique two-player combinations to play at least 25 minutes this season for the Fever, Smith-Boston has been the worst one, getting out-scored by 43.8 points per 100 possessions.

Smith will still contribute to Indiana, and net rating is far from definitive after just two weeks of ball. Still, expect many of her minutes to come with Boston off the court, potentially as a hyper-charged, offense-focused five next to a ton of shooting.

As for Boston, she’s undoubtedly started 2024 slowly, playing a completely different style of hoop than the one she’s grown accustomed to since arriving at South Carolina way back when. But she is still Aliyah Boston, and has already made improvements before June has hit.

Thankfully, her screening is at the top of the list. She has developed a bit of a rhythm with Clark in semi-transition to free her for open looks. She’s actually making a bit of contact on these now, and it makes all the difference in the world…

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But Boston still has a ways to go as a screen-and-roller. This is unsurprising, given that she’s now starting some of her touches from 25 feet out, rather than posting up in the restricted area.

She will set a screen and drift too far away from the action, allowing Clark to get engulfed by traps without a release valve to hit. And starting possessions outside the paint, Boston is still getting used to cutting to the front of the rim when Indiana’s guards go, finding the cracks in a dribble-drive offense.

The same goes for her passing in 4-on-3 situations, with her whole short-roll game being a work in progress. Indiana seems to have accepted this; so there will be a ton of possessions like the following, where a half-ass stunt from Alysha Clark turns what could be a lay-up into a pull-up 10-footer for Boston…

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But she can make this shot, so Indiana will live with this on the road to more productive process.

In the immediate future, there are two keys to increasing Boston’s immediate offensive impact and allowing her to benefit from playing with a guard who draws as much attention as Clark, rather than just playing next to her.

First, she has to turn some of these rolls into pseudo-post-ups, where we know she’s comfortable operating. Here, she catches the ball down low against the smaller Rickea Jackson, and can easily flow into a quick back-to-the-basket move. But she quickly gives up on that idea, and kicks the ball into a less dangerous place…

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Second, the Fever have to help her out a bit.

Sides and Co. ran this play out of a time against Los Angeles, an isolation opportunity for Boston with Clark scrambling around on the weak side to take away any undue defensive attention…

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Again, great play-calling in a controlled situation, but Boston sorely lacks this type of structure in most of Indiana’s offense. There’s a lot on her plate right now, and it’s taking away from her traditional effectiveness in the post; in transition, she’s often caught in between sealing down low and setting a high ball screen for Clark or Mitchell. No longer is her first impulse to get down to the paint and bury her mismatch.

But for a team taking the third-fewest layup attempts this season, per Synergy, the Fever could use some more of that. They’ve shown a desire to use Clark’s gravity to free up Mitchell for drives and Samuelson for open shots. Throwing Boston a bone every once in a while could go a long way in easing her into this brand-new offense.

Through two weeks of her professional career, we haven’t learned much about Caitlin Clark. She is still the deadly 3-point shooter who warps the floor 35 feet out, who forces double teams and will run a bunch of high pick-and-rolls; not an All-WNBA player yet, but could be on her way.

However, we’ve also learned there is no lightning in a bottle with these Indiana Fever. There will be no overnight transformation with one of the WNBA’s all-time great offensive prospects turning them into a high-powered offense. Every single improvement they make will be one scratched and clawed for, every completed pass through traffic a minor victory.

Should we be disappointed? Is Indiana’s 1-7 start an indictment on Christie Sides and her players? Is their faltering offense discouraging after just two weeks? The correct answer isn’t no or yes, but abstaining from a final answer until we get more information.

The only thing we’ve learned about Caitlin Clark’s Indiana Fever is that they’re going to be a long-term project, and it’s too early to tell what direction they’re headed.

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