It was not the Indiana Fever’s best season. A WNBA-record 12-year playoff run ended and the club’s nine victories matched their inaugural season in 2000.
The Fever welcomed a new coach in Pokey Chatman. And yes, the franchise played without four-time Olympian and perennial All-Star Tamika Catchings for the first time since 2002.
But were the coaching change and transition from Catchings all to blame for a less-than-stellar 2017 season? Hardly. In fact, while the Catchings/Chatman culture change likely impacted the Fever’s decline, the 11th-place finish is likely more attributable to three other factors: age, evolution, and injuries.
Even in their two recent Finals appearances, in 2012 and 2015, the Fever were second and fourth in the East with the WNBA’s fourth-best record in each season. On paper, even in those seasons, Indiana was not a dominant championship team.
One of the most meaningful cliches in sports suggests that on a true team, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. During playoff campaigns from at least 2012-2016, the Indiana Fever was a team that exceeded the sum of its parts. Who predicted the Fever would blast Minnesota in four games for the 2012 WNBA title? Nobody. Not even Lin Dunn or the staunchest of Fever fans expected the largest lead in Finals history as Indiana raced past the Lynx in Game 3 and then rolled to a title two nights later.
That’s great, right? That is why we celebrate our franchise’s excellence over the past dozen years! Indiana was not always the best team on paper. But talent alone does not produce championships. Those are most often won with grit, teamwork, endurance, resilience, toughness, and will.
Indiana won the championship in 2012, and played a five-game Finals series with the Lynx again in 2015, with what most critics would term an undersized center. She, 6-foot-1 Erlana Larkins — is a beast on the boards who deserves every credit for her place among the most successful and impactful players in Fever history. A case could be made that Larkins — or Shavonte Zellous or Briann January — were the rightful MVP in the 2012 Finals. They were that good. With Catchings, they formed a team, especially with sharpshooter Katie Douglas sidelined earlier in the playoffs.
The team and a superior culture that surrounds the Fever franchise willed Indiana to three Finals appearances and some of their 12 straight playoff berths. But the game has changed. And that Fever core has aged. And that core struggled to adapt with its new culture of 2017. And then three cruel injuries zapped the club of virtually their entire backcourt.
That is what took place during the Fever’s summer of 2017.
Age and Evolution
Age and evolution are complementary culprits. The Fever may not be the oldest team in the league (Minnesota and Los Angeles both are older), but their four 30-something stars is more than most teams. Combined with the size and athleticism that have infiltrated the league in recent years, Indiana’s lack of size and age were magnified.
Indiana has been among the WNBA’s worst rebounding teams in recent years (dead last in 2016 & 2017), a fact directly attributable to their lack of size. And neither Larkins nor Natalie Achonwa at 6-4 are known to out-quick their opponents. Both are smart, tough, gritty stars who beat their taller and more athletic opponents by persistently out-working them.
But when every team in the WNBA now has one or two powerful thoroughbreds in the post, Indiana is at a decided disadvantage.
San Antonio, the only WNBA team with fewer wins than the Fever, recorded three of its eight wins against Indiana with a trio of tall, young, athletic posts in Kayla Alexander (6-4), Dearica Hamby (6-3) and Isabelle Harrison (6-3). Minnesota has Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson; New York has Tina Charles and Kiah Stokes among four centers; Connecticut has Jonquel Jones, a “stretch-5” player that personifies a new evolution with athletic post players who can shoot from the perimeter. Seattle boasts a blossoming superstar in 6-4 point-forward Breanna Stewart, who joins Western Conference interior vets Brittney Griner and Candace Parker. Even Chicago and Dallas have 3-point shooting post players who spreads the defense.
With the exception of Alexander, Fowles, and Griner, all of those post players can stretch a defense with 3-pointers. Chicago’s Stefanie Dolson led all posts with 31 made 3-pointers this year. Jones made 25, Charles made 24. Indiana post players attempted zero.
The game has evolved and Indiana, due in part to its long string of playoff appearances, has not had a lottery draft pick to corral one of those new-age talents since 2005 — the longest drought of any team.
Indiana veterans have faced an increased necessity to outwork their opponents every single night, at the same time that some careers may have declined. In addition, they have needed to adapt to a modified culture in the locker room.
During Indiana’s “glory years” from 2005-16, head coaches Lin Dunn and Stephanie White benefitted from having Tamika Catchings in the locker room. It was said more than once in recent years that Fever players played harder to appease Catchings than they did Dunn or White. When your best player and the heart of your franchise is also your hardest-working and most disciplined player, the bar is high. Catchings’ teammates played for her. They played to meet her standard. She drove them. They drove themselves to meet her expectations.
While Chatman might have different points of emphasis or a different flare or style than her predecessors, the greatest culture change in the Fever locker room is the source of accountability. No longer is it Catchings. And the Fever’s longest-tenured veterans — Larkins, January, and Marissa Coleman — seemed caught in the middle of that change. The transition was rocky as leadership expectations turned to each of them, each dealing with the rigors of injury or decline in their ninth and 10th pro seasons.
Trade acquisition Candice Dupree was a shining light of a veteran whose steady presence was impactful — statistically on the court, and intangibly in the locker room. But she was new to the core. She was looked upon as a leader, certainly, but her role and presence were not as demanding as the simple presence of the 16-year veteran and face-of-the-franchise Catchings.
What did people say throughout 2016 during Catchings’ final season when asked of her retirement?
Almost unanimously they replied, “You don’t replace Tamika Catchings.”
Obviously, the Fever didn’t. Her absence was felt not as much on the stat sheet, but in the discipline, the personal relationships, and expectations of accountability that were demanded by one of the league’s greatest players of all time.
Even with Catchings, the Fever were a .500 team that bowed out of the playoffs in one game in 2016. In 2013 and 2014 with Catchings, Indiana finished 16-18 each season and still reached the conference finals. In 2015, the Fever challenged the limits of playoff endurance by trailing in every series and staving off playoff elimination five times before falling in a five-game Finals to Minnesota.
Without Catchings this season, the Fever were admittedly searching for a new identity. Near midseason, Indiana was 7-7 with wins in 3 of 4 games. The margin for error was slim, but despite their shortcomings, the Fever were in the playoffs conversation.
Two games later though, starting guard Shenise Johnson was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Indiana was 7-9 and, at the time, leading the WNBA with just over 11 turnovers per game, reflecting one of Chatman’s points of emphasis.
Johnson’s loss was the tip of the proverbial iceberg for Indiana, with season-ending injuries to backcourt mates Tiffany Mitchell and Briann January coming soon after. Each of them accounted for at least 9.5 points per game and, more importantly, their ballhandling helped minimize Indiana turnovers.
Through June, Indiana was 6-2 when committing 12 or fewer turnovers, but 1-5 when they committed more. Through June, a strength of the Indiana team was their depth, with their bench outscoring every opponent through 14 games.
Through the season’s final two months though, Indiana was 2-18 with nearly 15 miscues per contest. The starting lineup was depleted, and so was the bench. Indiana reserves outscored the opposing bench just eight times in the last 20 games, in stark contrast to their midseason identity.
More turnovers increased opponent point totals and minimized Indiana’s own opportunities. And with the absence of three primary scoring threats, Indiana saw its per-game scoring plummet to barely 70 points per game with two of the club’s three lowest scoring totals since the 24-second shot clock was introduced in 2006 — 52 points at Minnesota (Aug. 18) and 50 against New York five nights later.
Injuries certainly fueled Indiana’s second-half freefall. Whether they could be used as an excuse, or not, they altered Chatman’s ability to substitute and strategize. They reduced the productivity of the Fever bench. The fact that all three injured players were guards greatly hampered Chatman’s efforts to minimize turnovers. And as losses mounted, morale was difficult to maintain.
Injuries, a change in culture, and the ability to adjust to that culture change with a core lineup struggling to “keep up with the Joneses” all resulted in the nine-win season. Despite preseason awareness of a razor-thin margin for error, complications mounted once the calendar turned to July, and Indiana was never the same.
Return to Playoffs
Fast forward though, and Indiana can return to their rightful place among playoff participants in 2018.
The Fever will own their highest draft pick since at least 2005 when next April’s draft rolls around. With the shiny new pick, January, Johnson, and Mitchell should all be returned to full health and Kelly Krauskopf will surely engage the trade or free agent market next spring. Dupree’s leadership role should be more firmly cemented and Chatman will have a full year of development with her squad.
Let the new streak begin!