Seattle and Las Vegas did it: Why the Fever’s successive No. 1 draft picks could win a title

INDIANAPOLIS — If WNBA history is any indication, the Indiana Fever should be celebrating a championship by at least 2028.

Yes, the Fever have gone 30-100 in the past four years combined and haven’t made the playoffs in the past seven seasons.

But Indiana now has had consecutive No. 1 draft picks, with forward Aliyah Boston in 2023 and guard Caitlin Clark this year. The three previous WNBA franchises to get back-to-back No. 1 picks went on to win the WNBA championship within four years.

The Seattle Storm did it twice and the Las Vegas Aces have won each of the past two titles. The Aces, in fact, had three No. 1 picks in a row. The Fever nearly matched that; they had a No. 2 selection, forward NaLyssa Smith, in 2022 before drafting Boston and Clark.

The influx of premiere talent lifted the Seattle and Las Vegas franchises quickly, regardless of how much the teams previously had struggled. Many of the No. 1 picks were transcendent players, and getting two in a row was a double jackpot. For the franchises that won titles after getting consecutive No. 1 picks, those players led their teams in scoring in the championship seasons.

“We’re so excited for this year because we have so much talent,” Boston said during the Fever’s media day earlier this month. “We’ve been working together to jell. The No. 1 goal is definitely going to be making the playoffs — and not just a lower seed. Hopefully even in the middle of the pack.”

But top of the heap is where the Fever hope to eventually end up. Last season’s 13-27 record was a big improvement, after winning just 17 games combined the previous three seasons. Christie Sides, now in her second season as head coach, said the Fever can build on the higher standard that was set.

“We have a plan in place and steps that we want to make sure we don’t skip, so we can have sustainable success,” Sides said at the Fever’s media day.

Indiana general manager Lin Dunn has done this before. She was coach and general manager when Seattle drafted center Lauren Jackson in 2001 and guard Sue Bird in 2002 as No. 1 picks. Dunn left Seattle after the 2002 season but predicted the Storm would be championship-caliber soon. Seattle — which went 6-26 as an expansion franchise in 2000 — won its first WNBA title in 2004. The Storm went from averaging a league-worst 56.9 PPG in 2000 to 71.7 in 2004, with Jackson and Bird as their top two scorers.

“It speeds up the process,” Dunn told ESPN about adding so much young talent in consecutive years. “Us getting a post and a point guard in Aliyah and Caitlin with those picks — like Jackson and Bird, they can be the focus of your team. Then you can build around them.

“We’re counting on those two based on who they are as people. Not just on the court, but the character of both. We’re also counting on the fact that we already have some pieces to go with them. They don’t have to carry as much burden early on like Bird and Jackson had to.”

Dunn listed veteran guards Kelsey Mitchell and Erica Wheeler, who both started every game alongside Boston last season, and Smith as players who can also shoulder a big load for the Fever.

“Boston and Clark are babies,” Dunn said. “They have a lot of responsibilities on their shoulders, but they have help.”

Jackson and Bird also led Seattle to a second championship in 2010. Then lightning struck again for the Storm. They didn’t finish above .500 from 2012 to 2014, but then drafted guard Jewell Loyd in 2015 and forward Breanna Stewart in 2016 with back-to-back No. 1 picks. Bird was the veteran leader for the duo as Seattle won two more titles in 2018 and 2020, with Stewart and Loyd the Storm’s leading scorers both seasons.

Las Vegas took guard Jackie Young first in 2019, following No. 1 A’ja Wilson, a forward, in 2018. Las Vegas already had guard Kelsey Plum, who was picked No. 1 in 2017 while the franchise was still in San Antonio.

Then named the Stars, they had withered away in Texas with losing records in their last five seasons there. But a trio of No. 1 picks was the payoff, and the timing was perfect for the move to a new city, as fans didn’t have to wait long for success.

The Aces missed the playoffs their first season in 2018. Since then, they’ve lost in the semifinals twice, in the Finals once and won two titles. Wilson, Plum and Young have led the Aces in scoring for both championship seasons.

“The Aces are back-to-back champions, but that’s not where they started,” Boston said. “That’s important, because you look at the Fever right now, and especially over the past year, you’ve seen a jump. You’ve seen the people we’ve been able to bring in.”

Much like San Antonio’s cratering led to draft riches, the Fever hope great things will come from their struggles since 2016, when they last made the playoffs. Franchise legend Tamika Catchings, who led Indiana to the 2012 championship and two other WNBA Finals appearances, retired after that season.

Catchings then took over as the Fever’s GM, but resigned in February 2022. Dunn, who was an assistant (2004-2007) and then head coach (2008-2014) for the Fever, returned to become Indiana’s GM.

“I’ve retired three or four times,” said Dunn, who turned 77 on May 10. “Just like with Cher, this is the final, final tour. It meant a lot to me when they asked me to help get them back on track. I certainly couldn’t say no.”

The draft in recent years hasn’t always been good for Indiana. Clark is the eighth lottery pick Indiana has had during its playoff drought. Only she, Boston, Smith and Mitchell (No. 2 overall in 2018) are currently with the Fever. But those four players can make a lot happen.

Clark left Iowa as the all-time leading scorer (3,951 points) in Division I history. Boston was WNBA Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in 2023. She and Smith combined to average 30.0 points and 17.6 rebounds last season. Mitchell was an All-Star and led the Fever in scoring at 18.2 PPG.

The Fever have gone 49-149 in Mitchell’s six seasons. Yet she can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I wouldn’t trade my journey and how I got here for anything,” Mitchell said during media day. The losses have made me who I am and have made our culture what it is now and what we expect from each other.

The culture shift, Mitchell said, is that the Fever now believe in themselves as contenders.

Clark also talked about that during media day, which for the first time in a long time felt vibrantly upbeat for the Fever.

“To create championship culture, you’ve got to build relationships with your teammates, get to know them,” Clark said. “We’re a young team for the most part. Building that chemistry and being able to click on court are the biggest things.

In the 2023 Final Four, Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes upset Boston’s previously unbeaten South Carolina Gamecocks. Now the former No. 1 picks’ fortunes come together, and they see a bright future for each other and the Fever.

“Aliyah knows basketball so well, she has a great feel for the game,” Clark said. “The sky’s the limit for her, so for me that’s just exciting to watch.”

Added Boston: “I feel like I can say the exact same thing about Caitlin. In college, you saw everything that she can do. To be on the same team, it’s been really nice to understand how she plays. She’s a fantastic shooter, but what stands out to me is her ability to pass the ball. Caitlin can lead you to wherever you need to go.”

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