PG: Briann January/Erin Phillips
SG: Shavonte Zellous/Jeanette Pohlen/Layshia Clarendon
SF: Katie Douglas
PF: Tamika Catchings
C: Erlana Larkins/Jessica Davenport
(plus two of SF Karima Christmas, PF Jessica Breland and C Sasha Goodlett, pending a final cut. All three may start the season in Indiana if a hardship exception is granted due to injuries)
Significant gains: Confidence and rings from winning a championship
Significant losses: The monkey off their back from finally winning that championship. Oh, and Tammy Sutton-Brown’s gone.
Fever head coach Lin Dunn and general manager Kelly Krauskopf approached this offseason with a pretty straightforward mindset – when you’ve found something that works, don’t screw it up. After a solid regular season, Indiana kicked it up a notch in the playoffs and rode the wave to their first WNBA championship. So they re-signed every significant piece that was out of contract – Tamika Catchings, Briann January, Shavonte Zellous, Erlana Larkins – and kept their nucleus intact. Smallball won them a title in 2012, and they’ll be riding it again in 2013.
Catchings remains the heart and soul of this franchise, and one of the best players on the planet. The move to play her full-time at power forward last season looked risky initially, but she took it in stride and the benefits ultimately outweighed the drawbacks. She had more space to attack, created immediate mismatches against virtually every opponent, and her own strength and activity allowed her to stand up to whoever she had to guard defensively. They were a poor rebounding team all season as a result, but they overcame that in other areas. The Fever jumped to another level in the playoffs when Erlana Larkins moved into the starting lineup at center, creating an even more undersized group than they’d been working with all season. It leaves them short of inches, but the energy, mobility and effort made up for it, and the collective team defense worked like a charm. The question is whether what worked for a playoff series or two can succeed through the course of an arduous regular season. If they need to go big with a more traditional post, Jessica Davenport is still around, and Sasha Goodlett may have more to offer in her second year (if she makes the roster). With Catchings at the core of it all, they’ll probably work it out.
On the offensive end, Indiana had their struggles at times last year, but generally managed to find enough. They shot a lot of threes, but fortunately they had a lot of players who could hit them. Katie Douglas has been the Fever’s primary offensive option besides Catchings for a long time, and likely will be again. She’s reportedly recovered from the ankle injury that took her out of the playoffs last year, but it lingered for a lot longer than initially expected. Hopefully she’s 100% and ready to go, because this team needs her scoring ability. After that the Fever have the combo of Briann January and Erin Phillips at the point, both players who like to attack off the dribble but can punish you from outside if you leave them open. Zellous gives them another driving weapon while Jeanette Pohlen is another dangerous threat from beyond the arc, and they added California’s Layshia Clarendon in the draft as yet another scoring threat. That’s a perimeter rotation that gives Dunn a variety of options if one or two aren’t working on a given night.
But it’s defense where this team has always hung its hat. They’re quick and aggressive on the perimeter, they’ll trap when it’s available, and they’ll double-team down low to protect their undersized front line and create turnovers. You’re never going to have an easy night against this group.
However, they are going to be a little shorthanded to start the season. Davenport is out for 6-8 weeks with a stress fracture to her left tibia; Phillips went under the knife this week for a lateral meniscus tear in her right knee and is out 4-6 weeks; and Pohlen is still some distance from recovering from the ACL tear she suffered in the playoffs last year. The team could well apply for a hardship exception to carry an extra player right from the start of the season. All of that said, what’s left on the Fever roster shouldn’t have much trouble keeping the ship afloat until the squad is more complete. And it’s who’s healthiest in September and October that has a far greater effect on the destination of the title than health in May and June.
The Fever are going to be good, yet again. This franchise has only won fewer than 21 games once since 2005 (and that single ‘off year’ they plumbed the depths of 17-17). Winning a ring should take the pressure off, but they’re not the kind of squad that will lay back and rest on their laurels. Many of their games won’t be particularly aesthetically pleasing, but they’ll come away with plenty of wins. And when we hit the playoffs, they’ve finally proven that they can take the final step. They’re a dangerous threat to be right back in the Finals again.