2017 WNBA Preview: Can Indiana Fever thrive without Tamika Catchings?

After a 17-17 season, and a first round exit against the Phoenix Mercury, the losses have piled on for an Indiana Fever organization that’s used to winning. Tamika Catchings, still a top-15 WNBA player even last season, retired. Head coach Stephanie White accepted the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. Maggie Lucas will miss the entire 2017 season with a right knee injury. Devereaux Peters, dealing with a torn labrum, negotiated a contract separation agreement with Indiana. The Fever also didn’t have a first round pick. That’s a lot to go through in one offseason.

The Fever look up and see Minnesota, Los Angeles, Phoenix and New York as playoff locks barring unexpected injuries. Washington just added Elena Delle Donne and Seattle should return to the postseason as Breanna Stewart continues to get better. That potentially leaves two playoff spots for Atlanta, Chicago, Indiana, San Antonio, Dallas and Connecticut to fight over.

But as bleak as it sounds, the Fever have a history of winning to lean on. They’ve made three out of the last eight Finals, won the title in 2012, and have made 12 straight playoff appearances. With veterans Marissa Coleman, Briann January and now Candice Dupree, they have the experience to compete for one of those final two playoff spots. They also bring in a seasoned coach in Pokey Chatman, who has made every team she’s coached better, from LSU to the Chicago Sky. This is a group that is confident they can make the postseason for a 13th straight season.

INDIANAPOLIS – NOVEMBER 18: Pokey Chatman talks to the media during a press conference announcing her as the new head coach of the Indiana Fever at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on November 18, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: 2016 NBAE (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

“It’s an opportunity for all of us to step and to kind of carry Tamika’s legacy and to uphold the history that this organization has had since the beginning,” January told The Summitt.  “I’ve made it to the playoffs every year I’ve been here. That’s the standard that we’re hoping to keep.”

To do so, Indiana will have to get there by committee. Last season, the Fever had eight players who averaged over eight points a game. Although Catchings led them in scoring, she put up 12.7 a game, an amount that can be made up collectively, especially with the addition of Dupree.

“Our team is really balanced,” January said. “We have people that are capable of filling it up every night.”

January enters her ninth season in the league, all with the Fever. She’s never averaged less than 6.9 points per game in her career and is coming off a season where she averaged 9.7 points per game, 4.7 assists, 1.2 steals and shot 39 percent from three and 88 percent from the line. January also ranked atop the entire WNBA in defensive points per possession, per Synergy.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – SEPTEMBER 16: Briann January

The question now is whether can she shoulder an even greater role creating for others, scoring and making more 3-pointers. January said she needs to get back to an “attack mentality,” something she thought she got away from last season.

“I felt like I lost it [an attack mentality] a little last year,” said January. “Being aggressive in transition, pushing the ball. I wasn’t really looking for my shot.”

Helping to soften the blow of losing Catchings will be Dupree. She’s not just an efficient scorer who’s averaged 14.7 points per game on 50.3 percent shooting in her 11-year career with Chicago and Phoenix. She’s also a leader who won the WNBA title with Phoenix in 2014.

Candice is an All Star,” said Chatman. “Candice has a leadership component to her. She’s has a calming factor. She’s extremely measured in her words and her tone.”

Another key veteran who needs to play well is Marissa Coleman. She averaged 8.3 points last season, but her shooting dipped to 35 percent, though her defense made her a vital contributor even through her slump.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 11: Marissa Coleman

The Fever also have young players who could emerge. Tiffany Mitchell scored 8.6 points per game last year in her rookie season in just 20 minutes per game. She has an aggressive style and got to the line regularly, shooting 91 percent from the line once she arrived. This season, she needs to work on her efficiency from the field, where she shot 36 percent as a rookie.

Through the draft, the Fever added forwards Erica McCall (Stanford) and Ronni Williams (Florida), and guards Feyonda Fitzgerald (Temple) and Adrienne Motley (Miami). McCall should fit in instantly as a tough, defensive-minded player.

DALLAS, TX – MARCH 31: Erica McCall

“I expect Erica to be that high IQ player you watched at Stanford,” said Chatman. “I expect her to be that player that crashes the boards, get tips and allows you to get out in transition.”

Something to watch for is how coach Chatman fits in Indiana. In Chicago, she led the Sky to their first playoff appearance and their first WNBA finals. Her teams have played with great pace. Last season, the Sky were second in offensive rating, but 11th in defensive rating. In 2016, the Fever were 6th in offensive rating and 7th in defensive rating. A lot will come down to Chatman’s ability to jumpstart the offense, develop young players and get the Fever to rebound. January doesn’t think the team will miss a beat adjusting to a new coach.

“She has the drive, she has the energy,” said January. “She’s a student of the game.”

January said their biggest areas for improvement are cleaning up transition defense and rebounding, where they were at the bottom of the league last year. Chatman agrees and said she’s not going come in and change what’s worked in Indiana but rather focus on little areas where the Fever can get better.

“My ego is not so big where I’m going to try to fix something that’s not broken,” said Chatman. “It’s easy to look at what’s been successful and just elevate the play. You want to look at the areas where you can help. A little bit more pace, and a little bit better decisions in defensive transition.”

Although the Fever lose their leader in Catchings, this is a team that has found a way to make the playoffs every year for over a decade regardless of coaching changes or roster moves. The organization did a good job retooling after the losses of Catchings and coach White. With veterans in January, Dupree and Coleman, and capable young players in Mitchell and McCall, the Fever should be in the mix for the postseason.

“W’ere going to continue to play tough-nosed defense,” said January. “Were going to stay after it. Fever basketball is going to be Fever basketball.”

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