Navigating an Unprecedented Draft Drought

Never before has any WNBA team gone more than a decade without a top-four draft pick. Never before, has any WNBA team gone 12 consecutive seasons without missing the playoffs.

Both streaks were navigated by the Indiana Fever. Both streaks go hand-in-hand. The playoff streak – then the third-longest active consecutive seasons playoff streak in American pro sports (MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, NHL, WNBA) behind the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Red Wings – mostly explains the draft drought. Despite the drought though, the Fever kept winning.

The streaks ended when the Fever failed to reach the 2017 playoffs and accepted the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft presented by State Farm. How did Indiana manage its way through that unprecedented draft drought, and still reach the playoffs each season? Let’s take a look.

Related: What’s In A Number?

There are two obvious factors in Indiana’s eventual absence from the playoffs, its first since 2005: Tamika Catchings’ retirement and a transition within its core.

But while the absence of Catchings and a changed locker room chemistry might have combined to limit the club’s win total in 2017, not to mention three season-ending injuries, those factors alone can’t explain the Fever’s WNBA-record 12 straight years of playoff success. And that success, alone, cannot explain Indiana’s average draft position since 2006: 11.8, in a league with only 12 teams.

(By comparison, through Minnesota’s current seven-year playoff run with six trips to the Finals and four titles, the Lynx’ average draft position since 2012 is 11.5. The Lynx, though, had the prior benefit of eight top-four draft selections during six drafts from 2006-11, netting Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore with top overall picks.)

So how did Indiana do it, while never owning a top pick and only two top-four selections in its history?

The Four Cs of core, continuity, Catchings and consistency go a long way in explaining the single greatest factor in Indiana’s remarkable playoff success. Catchings was extraordinary, on the court and in the locker room. She was surrounded by a dedicated, talented veteran core. The franchise has exhibited unparalleled continuity stemming from chief executive Kelly Krauskopf and all the way through the front office, coaching staff and roster. That’s an awesome recipe for remarkable consistency that affects every facet of the franchise including operations and sales.

Krauskopf used the draft, itself, as a weapon to continue feeding that core. In 2008, she traded a first-round draft pick to help secure the services of hometown star Katie Douglas. Douglas would play 5-plus seasons with the Fever, helping Indiana to Finals appearances in 2009 and 2012. In 2015, a first-round pick was spent on the acquisition of another versatile guard, Shenise Johnson, whose best career season helped drive Indiana back to the Finals that very summer.

Helping re-tool the roster following Catchings’ retirement, another first-rounder was spent prior to the 2017 draft to obtain Candice Dupree as part of a three-team trade, helping solidify a new core for new coach Pokey Chatman.

The expense of those first-round picks helped fuel the Fever’s on-court success, and subsequently drove its average draft position lower and lower. In each of those three seasons, Indiana’s first pick came at No. 26 overall, No. 21 and, last year, No. 17. Even in the nine drafts since 2006 in which the Fever retained a first-round pick, Indiana drafted at No. 9 or No. 11 seven times due to its consistent winning.

Those previous draft positions amplify the rare value of this year’s draft bonanza — picking at No. 2, No. 8 and again at No. 14. The Fever have rarely drafted before No. 9 at all — only five times ever, compared to twice this Thursday.

For the first time in club history, Indiana will draft twice in the top eight, three times in the top 14. It marks just the fourth time in the past decade that any team has drafted three times in the first 14 picks.

Not only did Indiana never pick early in any of the past 12 drafts, the Fever used their late picks wisely.

Not every draft pick bears fruit, and not every draft has long-term talent late in the first round. Within those nine Fever drafts since 2006 with first-round picks however, five produced regular starters if not long-term contributors:

  • Briann January was a steal as the No. 6 selection of the 2009 draft. A future All-Star, she helped Indiana to all three Finals appearances and made 190 starts over nine seasons. Indiana can claim another draft victory with its March trade of January to Phoenix, though, earning a No. 8 draft pick for a former No. 6 pick ten years later. That’s great value.
  • Jeanette Pohlen was the No. 9 overall pick in 2011. She became the first rookie ever to lead the WNBA in 3-point shooting percentage and, although her career has been spotted by injury, she has completed seven seasons and nearly 150 games in an Indiana jersey.
  • Layshia Clarendon was the No. 9 pick in 2013. Although she was traded after the 2015 campaign, the future All-Star saw nearly 20 career starts for the Fever and helped Indiana to the 2015 Finals.
  • The 2014 draft produced Natalie Achonwa with the No. 9 pick. Still young, Achonwa has made 34 starts in 86 Fever games over three seasons.
  • Two years later, Indiana tabbed Tiffany Mitchell with the No. 9 pick. Then regarded as the top college guard in the country, Mitchell already has made 17 starts with nearly double-figure scoring (9.3ppg) in her first two seasons.

Even without top picks, Indiana has used its existing continuity and core to produce winning results on the court. It has supplemented that core with productive picks, and it used first-round picks to infuse top-rate talent such as Douglas, Johnson and Dupree.

Thursday, Indiana hopes to use the draft in a more traditional sense, restocking its roster with the top draft picks available at 2, 8 and 14.