The Indiana Fever return the core of their starting lineup and look to be playoff bound in 2012.
That's stating the obvious, since the Fever have made the post-season for the past seven years and are annually one of the best teams in the East. They own the longest string of playoff appearances in the Eastern Conference, second in the WNBA only to the Seattle Storm with eight.
What they haven't managed to do so far is bring the WNBA championship trophy home to Indianapolis. And with their starring duo of Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas now in their 30s (the two will be 33-years-old this season), they could be running out of time.
Will this be the year the Fever go all the way?
Last year, Indiana won the Eastern Conference regular season with a 21-13 record behind an MVP season from Catchings and entered the playoffs as the top seed in the East for the second time in three seasons. However, the Fever needed an impressive effort by Douglas, who recorded 20-plus-point performances in three straight games, to squeeze past fourth-seeded New York in the first round.
In the second round against the Atlanta Dream, the combined heroics of Douglas and Tangela Smith were not enought to save Indiana from elimination. The Fever finished one game short of a return to the WNBA Finals. Indiana's last Finals appearance was 2009, when they battled the Phoenix Mercury in a five-game classic but fell short.
Injuries the Main Problem in 2011
The problem in 2011 was a series of injuries beginning in June with the loss of starting point guard Briann January to an ACL tear. January was averaging 8.6 points and five assists per game when she went down, and her injury left the Fever very short-handed at the point.
By far the most crippling were the late-season injuries to Catchings, the heart and soul of the Fever since being drafted at No. 3 overall in 2001. Catchings suffered a knee sprain that sidelined her for the Fever's regular-season finale and left her hobbled throughout the playoffs. But she could not escape the double whammy: With 4:54 remaining in the final quarter of game two of the Eastern Conference Finals against Atlanta, Catchings crumpled to the floor and had to be carried off the court, due to a plantar fascia tear in her right foot.
Determined not to let down her teammates or the Indiana fans, Catchings, heavily taped, soldiered through the pain, coming off the bench for 24 minutes when the series returned to Indiana for the decisive game three. But she was far from her best, managing just six points and five rebounds as she watched her team's WNBA championship hopes evaporate in a 67-83 defeat by the Dream.
Catchings is healthy
Catchings, who normally plays in Korea and Europe during the WNBA off-season, took the winter off to rehab her injuries. In the off-season, Catchings took up other sports, including swimming, to maintain her conditioning while resting from basketball.
This season, the 2011 MVP is back in top form and more determined than ever to fill the lone hole in a distinguished resume. This was evident last week when Catchings notched 15 points and grabbed seven boards, three assists, three steals and one block, in Indiana's season-opening win against the Dream. In game two Catch led all scorers with 22 points, plus three rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks on the road at Chicago on Friday, then capped it off with a 25-point, 12-board double-double in Atlanta on Sunday to give the Fever a 3-0 start to their season.
“She looks very good,” said Fever head coach Lin Dunn, simply.
Perhaps even more telling was Catchings' performance as a starter for the U.S. Olympic Team in Seattle on May 12 in a warm-up match against China. On a team loaded with All-Stars, Catchings, who will vie for her third Olympic gold medal this summer in London, was by far the standout, posting a team-high 19 points in just 14 minutes on the floor and grabbing five boards and a game-high five steals (four of them in a single quarter).
"Catchings? That's just what she does. She just did what she does," said USA Basketball Senior Women's National Team head coach Geno Auriemma afterward.
In Indiana, however, Catchings will be "doing what she does" from a new position -- power forward, rather than her usual spot at small forward -- this year. In the off-season, Indiana traded 6-3 power forward Tangela Smith to San Antonio for Roneeka Hodges, a relief guard who averaged just 3.9 points and 0.5 assists per game in a little under 10 minutes per game last season for the Silver Stars and has done about the same since arriving in Indiana. Last season, though well off her career highs, Smith, a 14-year veteran of the league, was far more productive for the Fever than Hodges was for San Antonio, averaging 7.2 points and 5.2 boards in a little over 20 minutes per game, during which she also absorbed some of the pounding in the paint, leaving Catchings free to shoot the lights out from the three-spot.
With 6-2 back-up power forward Shyra Ely-Gash also gone -- out for the season with a torn ACL -- the Smith-Hodges trade meant moving the 6-1 Catchings to the four, a position she has played successfully in the past, though much earlier in her career.
“With Tamika, we have put her in a new position," said Dunn. "She went from wing to the middle of the floor, trailing the post. She had the ball in the past, now she’s setting the screens.
Ever the team player, Catchings said she is happy to do whatever the team needs. So far, she has demonstrated she can still dominate regardless of what position she is playing. The bigger question is whether the cumulative toll of an entire season spent banging away in the paint instead of knocking down shots from the perimeter will put the team's star at risk for injury come crunch time.
Katie Douglas will move to small forward this season for the Fever. (Photo by Lee Michaelson)
Moving Catchings to power forward has also meant shifting Katie Douglas from shooting guard to small forward. That change should mean very little -- a wing is a wing -- as the All-Star is proving with her back-to-back 21-point performances in the Fever's first two games of the season. Douglas fell slightly off that pace, putting up 16 points in Atlanta on Sunday, but added seven rebounds and two assists to the equation. In short, there's nothing wrong in this department.
The other implication of the Catchings move was elevating two-guard Shavonte Zellous from the bench, where she has spent most of her career, into the starting rotation to fill Douglas' old shoes. So far, that move has been a winner, as Zellous' production has shot up to nearly 10 points per game from last season's average of 5.5. The major issue for the energetic Zellous will be staying out of foul trouble.
Also back for her 11th season in the WNBA and sixth with Indiana is 6-4 center Tammy Sutton-Brown. If the Fever have a fatal flaw it is here, in the post. Though twice an All Star, Sutton-Brown has never been a high-flying scorer, and her offensive production has declined steadily since her arrival in Indianapolis in 2007. Last year, she averaged only 5.5 points and 3.1 rebounds per game -- approximately 60 percent of her career average -- and though 2012 is yet young, she is faring even worse this season. She missed the home opener against Atlanta with a sprained ankle, replaced by reliever Jessica Davenport, who seized the opportunity to notch a 12-point, 10-board double-double. Sutton-Brown then logged just two points, two boards and two blocks in 20 minutes at Chicago on Friday. She started, but played for fewer than five minutes, on Sunday, coming up empty in both points and rebounds and accumulating two fouls in that brief span. The Fever must have more production in the paint if they are to go the distance, and If things continue on their current trajectory, expect Davenport take over the starting role as the season progresses.
January is also back after a successful ACL surgery and reportedly has added three inches to her vertical. However, she has found herself on the bench and will have to earn back her starting position at point guard.
“Brianna is back physically," said Dunn. "She is working more on the mental game, decision-making, timing, seeing the game. When you’re off that long, almost no games in a whole year, you get rusty in rhythm, almost to the point of trying too hard."
There were signs of improvement in that department on Sunday as January, who had been upside-down in her assist-to-turnover ratio in the Fever's first two games of 2012, dished out five assists, with no turnovers, in just under 20 minutes off the bench. If she continues to improve at this pace, expect a dogfight for the starting role at the point.
For now, after the Fever waived Shannon Bobbitt nearly two weeks ago, the starting point job returns to Erin Phillips, who carried the majority of the load at the position last year while January was out of commission.
Unlike many of her Opals teammates, Phillips, who was re-signed to a multiyear contract with the Fever in February, returned to the WNBA for the full season, rather than remaining in Australia to train with her national team in the run-up to the summer Olympics, leaving Dunn better situated than many of her coaching counterparts who are trying to hold things together without key foreign players until late August. Phillips has been holding her own so far this season, slightly off her 2011 scoring pace with 6.5 points per game as compared to 2011's 8.6, but improving her ball distribution with 3.5 assists per game up from last year's 2.4 . And though her turnovers have picked up a bit, as often happens in the early season when players are learning where to find each other, she still boasts a respectable assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.4:1.
Indeed, this season, Dunn's concern is not being forced to rely on Phillips because of injuries to others, but rather with what toll the demands of Olympic play might take on the team's newfound starter.
“I am concerned about Erin Phillips,” she said of the athletic 5-7 guard whose WNBA career average is 20 minutes per game. “She and others on other teams will play too many minutes and we’ll all have to adjust to that.”
Because of the depth of the U.S. squad, that's much less of a worry with respect to Catchings, another among the WNBA leaders who will get no break when the Olympics hit.
“The key thing is we [Team USA] have such a talented Olympic team, no one is going to get worn out,” she said. “I’ll be surprised anybody plays more than 20 minutes in any game."
Bench Depth Remains an Issue
When it comes to the bench, the Fever have become the victims of their own success. In the 12 years since the franchise was established in 2001, the Fever have never had a No. 1 draft pick. Other than Catchings, their top pick came in 2005 when they landed Tan White at No. 2 overall. (White, whom the Fever waived in the 2009 preseason, now plays for the Connecticut Sun.) That was seven years ago, and for the past five years, Indiana has routinely weighed in at No. 9 or, more often, even lower.
And as long as the Fever remain annual visitors to the post-season, the situation won't be improving any when it comes to the draft. Thus, the problem of depth.
This year's top Indiana draft pick, at No. 11 overall, is Sasha Goodlett, a 6-5, 239-pound center and only the second player from Georgia Tech ever to go in the first round of the WNBA draft. Goodlett arrived at school woefully overweight and out-of-shape but lost 70 pounds over the course of her college career to average 14.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game as a college senior.
In her annual mock draft, Dunn predicted Goodlett, whom she described as "big, strong and physical," to be gone before the selection clock finally rolled around to Indiana. But finding her still on the board at No. 11, the Fever, who badly need help in the low post, were happy to pick her up.
“Definitely, she was the player that we had targeted,” said Indiana's Chief Operating Officer and General Manager Kelly Krauskopf when Goodlett was drafted. “Rebounding and size, that is what we wanted to fill, offensively and defensively. She’s got good form on her mechanics and she’s already a good mid-range shooter. She is coming to an experienced team, but she is coming to the right team to continue her development."
“In order to battle against [Sylvia] Fowles and [Tina] Charles, players we have to play in the Eastern Conference, we thought Sasha was the only center in the draft who could matchup with those players.”
“We wanted a young, true center that could score around the basket with size and mobility," added Dunn. "One of the things we liked is that it was a dream of hers to play in the WNBA. She has been pushed by her coaches and she’s highly motivated.”
Post players are notoriously slow in their transition into the pros, requiring a significant investment of time and coaching to adapt to the physicality and pace of play in the WNBA. For now, the returns on Goodlett are mixed. She played nearly 17 minutes in the Fever's preseason exhibition against San Antonio, putting up just two points and pulling down two rebounds. She did significantly better, but was far from impressive, against Atlanta, replacing Davenport, who found herself in early foul trouble and notching six points to go with four boards and a block in nearly 14 minutes off the bench. She did not take the floor at all against Chicago on Friday, but then, in a little less than 14 minutes of action in Atlanta on Sunday, the rookie logged six points and four rebounds.
Rebounding is crucial to Dunn -- "When we can win the boards, we’re going to win," she said after defeating Atlanta 78-62 on the scoreboard and 39-29 on the backboard Sunday -- so as long as Goodlett can contribute to the Fever's rebounding tally, she can expect to get minutes off the bench behind Sutton-Brown and Davenport.
With the exception of Davenport and January, however, the rest of the bench consists of a stable of early-to-mid-career utility players, each of whom is solid enough in her role, but none of whom could, either individually or collectively, fill the void left by an injury to or serious slump by Catchings or Douglas.
In addition to the relievers discussed above, Erlana Larkins, a 6-1 forward and All-American in her third year out of North Carolina, and Jeanette Pohlen, a 6-0 guard out of Stanford, entering her second year in the WNBA, round out the Indiana roster.
Larkins hasn't played in the WNBA since being waived, first by New York and then by Phoenix after the 2009 season. In 2009, she came off the bench in 18 games for the Liberty, averaging 2.4 points and 1.7 rebounds in 7.6 minutes per game, roughly half her rookie output; in the other 16 games, she rode the pine from opening tip to final buzzer. But Larkins has had greater success in the last two years overseas with the Turkish league's Mersin. This past winter, playing alongside the Fever's Zellous, Larkins averaged 10.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, finishing second in the league in rebounding, and the Fever, ever in search of help on the boards, signed her to a free-agent contract in March. Thus far, she is averaging just 1.3 points but just shy of four rebounds in a little more than 10 minutes per game off the bench.
Pohlen had a distinguished career with the Cardinal, but averaged just 4.1 points, 1.4 rebounds, and one assist per game coming off the bench for nearly 16 minutes per game in her rookie season. This year, she is seeing slightly less time (14 mpg); her scoring is also down to 2.7 points per game, but her rebounds have risen to two per game in the first three games of 2012.
Dunn's hope is that surrounding these developing players with seasoned veterans such as Catchings, Douglas and Sutton-Brown will help to bring them along. “When it’s been 10 to 12 years with potential realized, that’s a value. Anytime you can surround middle-career players with veterans that are successful, they are all winners,” she said.
Changes on the Sidelines
Dunn, the winning-est coach in franchise history, is back, of course, with a revamped coaching staff at her side. Gary Kloppenburg, her top assistant last season after three seasons with Dunn at Seattle and four seasons in Indianapolis, is now at the helm in Tulsa, a team with a radically different experience level.
“I was thrilled when when Gary got his chance, as coach in Tulsa,” Dunn said.
She was also ready to pull the trigger on another long-prepared plan when she hired Mickie DeMoss, a former assistant at Tennessee.
“I knew I wanted to find someone with years of experience the players would immediately respect," Dunn said of the hire. “Over the past several years, [DeMoss] had mentioned this idea of getting into the WNBA, the level of coaching she had never experienced.
"It was perfect timing," Dunn continued. "Tennessee approached this season Pat Summitt’s last. As soon as it was over, she resigned and joined us. It is a win/win for both of us.”
The coaching changes will reinforce the team's defense-first philosophy. “It’s our core value,” said Dunn. “We look at all players on defense first -- how they play, how they will play it here.
“You have to hang your hat on something you believe in. Defense does not mean you’re going to have a shutout, but everything starts with energy effort on defense. That’s the kind of players we bring into the league."
Continued Health Key to Success of the Season
Despite few major changes to this year's roster or strategy, Dunn is confident that the tried-and-true Fever game plan, coupled with the return of Catchings and Douglas, is a solid foundation on which to give it a go again. Dunn's prediction: “I know, if we can stay healthy, we can win.”
Note: New additions to the roster are highlighted in boldface.
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