PG: Briann January/Erin Phillips
SG: Shavonte Zellous/Jeanette Pohlen
SF: Katie Douglas/Roneeka Hodges
PF: Tamika Catchings/Erlana Larkins
C: Tammy Sutton-Brown/Jessica Davenport/Sasha Goodlett
Significant additions: January (returning from a serious knee injury after missing most of last season), Hodges (trade with San Antonio), Larkins (free agent after being out of league since 2009), Goodlett (college draft)
Significant losses: Tangela Smith (trade with San Antonio), Shyra Ely (injured), Shannon Bobbitt (cut)
Yes, as you can see from the squad listing above, I’ve bowed to popular opinion and indications from the Fever themselves and moved Tamika Catchings to the 4. I hate it, and we’ll examine why below, but it does at least add an interesting wrinkle to the outlook for this Fever squad. It’s pretty close to being the same bunch as last year, who sometimes seemed a little old, a little slow, and a little thin once you looked past Catchings and Katie Douglas. But that team still went to a deciding game in the Eastern Conference Finals, and barring an injury to Catchings might’ve gone further. With what looks like a shift in position for their best players, are they primed to adapt and improve, or take a step in the wrong direction?
Tamika Catchings is the best small forward in the world. You’ll get some debate from big Angel McCoughtry fans, and when her knee’s in one piece I’d listen to a Penny Taylor argument, but I don’t think that’s an unreasonable statement. She certainly looks likely to start at the 3 for the USA team that’s overwhelmingly favoured to win gold at the Olympics this summer. So is it really a good idea to head into a season with that superior small forward projected to start and play most of her minutes as your power forward? On the positive side, it might move her closer to the basket on some possessions, increasing the likelihood that she takes high percentage shots instead of jumpers from distance. It might increase her rebounding numbers. She’s a good enough defender to still freelance even from the post for steals and help defense. It should make the team quicker and more agile by moving an athlete like Catch down and adding an extra perimeter player. But… you’re taking away from your perimeter game if you’re expecting her to set up on the block on multiple possessions. You’re increasing the pounding she’ll take if she has to defend 4s all night (and she’s had injury issues in the past). You’re taking a truly elite perimeter defender and giving her a different job that’ll make it harder for the rest of your team defensively. I get it, I really do. It speeds up the team, and makes them look more dynamic on paper, with more scoring options on the floor. But I liked it as a change-up option. Switch her to the 4 when matchups and mismatches dictate that it’s a positive option. Don’t go in with it as Plan A.
For another year, Katie Douglas will be the primary second banana alongside Catchings. She’s a proficient scorer from outside, although she faded a little in the second half of last season, and still a strong perimeter defender. She’ll need to be, now that she’ll often be defending the best wing on the opposing team. They’ll be asking more from their other perimeter players as well, with extra minutes opened up by moving Catchings over. Shavonte Zellous had her moments last year, and can still get to the rim – and the free throw line – with remarkable efficiency when she’s in the mood. They just need the mood to strike a little more often. Jeanette Pohlen had a decent rookie season, shooting impressively from outside but not doing a great deal else. While a dead-eye three-point shooter who can survive at the defensive end is always useful, the Fever would undoubtedly like to see a greater variety of production from her this year. Talking of lack of variety, Roneeka Hodges is basically a three-point shooter and very little else. Not quite to the extent of a Sidney Spencer or Laurie Koehn – she isn’t that kind of liability at the defensive end – but you won’t see her driving the lane or pulling up from midrange very often.
The point guard spot is going to be interesting for Indiana this year. Head coach Lin Dunn memorably bitched during the playoffs last year that she was sick and damn tired of not having a point guard, despite Erin Phillips being fully available to her at the time. This year, Briann January is back after blowing out her knee only 10 games into the 2011 season, and she’ll share the duties with Phillips. January was racking up assists before she got hurt last year, but still making some poor decisions that led to head-scratching turnovers. She can beat most defenders off the dribble, but sometimes makes her way into the paint without seeming to know what she wants to do once she gets there. She’s a pesky defender as well, although her speed at both ends of the floor will depend on whether she’s fully recovered from the injury. Phillips isn’t a pure point by any means, although she did a reasonable job filling in once January went down last year. She looks to score more than create for others, but she plays with an aggressive and attacking mentality that can be contagious and fits in well on this team. She’ll also likely see plenty of minutes alongside January at the 2. She may miss some games during the first half of the season to join up with the Australian National Team and ensure she makes their Olympic squad, which made it a little bit of a surprise that Shannon Bobbitt was cut, rather than kept as insurance. Regardless, Dunn will be happier now that she has both January and Phillips to work with, rather than having to muddle through with just one.
The post players on the Indiana roster illustrate why they’re moving their star player down there to help out. Tangela Smith was traded to San Antonio in essentially a salary dump, after her solitary season in Indiana was less than impressive in 2011. That leaves them with the same center tandem as last year, a rookie, and a retread trying to fight her way back into the league. The two-headed monster of Tammy Sutton-Brown and Jessica Davenport tried to fill the center role for Indiana last year, and had varying levels of success. Davenport, with her huge frame and decent touch inside, played well enough to open the season that she stole away Sutton-Brown’s starting spot. Then Davenport’s production fell away to such an extent that Dunn went back to Sutton-Brown as the more dependable, reliable defensive option, even though her offense is often practically non-existent. Just a little more consistency from the pair of them would make Dunn’s life a lot easier. The rookie hoping to put some pressure on them is Sasha Goodlett, who at the very least gives the Fever another big body to fill the lane. The group is rounded out by Erlana Larkins, last seen in the WNBA with New York in 2009. She’ll hustle all day and fight for rebounds, but she’s undersized for a post player which has always limited her chances. If Goodlett or Larkins can provide dependable minutes, Dunn will at least have the option of reversing her plan from last year – instead of swinging Catchings down to go small, she can bring her out to the perimeter and go ‘big’.
Summary and Outlook
Barring an injury to Catchings, it’s hard to see a huge drop-off in performance or results from the Fever, a team which hasn’t finished under .500 since 2004 and has only had fewer than 21 wins once in those seven years. Moving Catchings around is a risk, but it’s one they can back away from pretty quickly if it doesn’t work, and this is still going to be the same gritty, hard-nosed team that it’s been for several years. Even with Catch’s desperation to win a ring driving them on, it’s hard to know if this squad will ever make it over the hump and take home a championship, but come playoff time they’ll likely be right in the hunt once again. It won’t be any fun coming up against them.