In many ways, the Indiana Fever are starting over in 2017.
Sure, there is a veteran presence on this team, an underrated point guard in Briann January, a former all star in Marissa Coleman. But a team rightly built around the all-time talents of Tamika Catchings is, for now, making the best of a roster largely and understandably geared toward maximizing the now-retired star.
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But in Pokey Chatman, the team’s first-year head coach, the promise of tomorrow is visible already, even if the team she and Fever general manager Kelly Krauskopf are putting together is still a work in progress.
Chatman spent a half-dozen seasons doing both jobs in Chicago, and had four playoff appearances, including a trip to the WNBA finals to show for it. She loved the chance to run basketball operations in Chicago, she’d be the first to tell you.
So how does she like delegating, playing purely for now, while allowing Krauskopf to build another postseason contender for her?
“Now, six years later? I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” Chatman said with a wide smile, leaning back in her chair next to the court prior to Tuesday night’s Fever game against the New York Liberty.
There are parallels between the Fever here in 2017 and Chatman’s first team in Chicago back in 2011. A Pokey Chatman team loves to run, take advantage in transition at both ends, sowing confusion at the defensive end. But the personnel required for that isn’t always immediately available, and just as when she took over for Steven Key in Chicago, she inherited a team in Indiana that finished near the bottom of the league in pace.
Accordingly, this Fever team is eleventh in the league in pace. But since the All Star break, the Fever are fifth, just ahead of Atlanta. A big reason why is the decision to insert Erica Wheeler, who scored 33 against the Liberty on Tuesday night, into the starting lineup as a second point guard next to January.
“This year, it was born out of something different—injury,” Chatman said, referencing the season-ending knee injury suffered by Shenise Johnson. “They played well together, and it’s helped our pace. We don’t like to just come down and pound it inside. It wasn’t our plan, but it worked, so I stuck with it.”
Chatman adapts. It’s a reason why she managed to be ahead of the curve on the direction of the entire league, building a team around what she describes as “pace and space” with the Sky, the generally acknowledged future of the game of basketball.
And she has young players clearly capable of that kind of play. Tiffany Mitchell’s defense, already promising in her rookie season, has her seventeenth in the league in defensive points per possession, per Synergy, while she and Wheeler and just outside the top ten in steal percentage in the league.
And there’s the advancing Jazmon Gwathmey, the versatile two-way player Chatman has designated as essentially her Tamera Young this time around, no mean feat for a third round pick in her second season.
“When we watched her video, watched games, we saw she had the ability to guard point guards, some twos, some threes and some smaller fours,” Chatman said of Gwathmey. “That, in and of itself, if she were just average, would be good. But she’s above average.”
Still, even with these signs, let’s not overlook how much Chatman is doing this with effort, smoke and mirrors. Candice Dupree is having her typical solid Candice Dupree year, but she’s being asked to make up for Tamika Catchings, who was a top-ten WNBA player right up to her final season. There’s no real legit rim protector, with Natalie Achonwa getting starts at the five, and no modern four. Coleman, unfortunately, has seen her 2016 shooting slump continue into 2017.
And yet: Chatman has this team fully bought-in, defeating the Lynx by keeping them uncomfortable all night, and within a shot or two of winning on New York’s home floor in a game the Liberty desperately needed. It’s no surprise players respond to Chatman: ask Courtney Vandersloot what Chatman did for her career. Ask Epiphanny Prince why she came over to Chatman pregame for an embrace.
Even so, the chaotic bottom of the playoff race has the Fever within 1.5 games of a playoff spot. If they get there, Chatman has to be considered for Coach of the Year (though the same can be said of Fred Williams and Curt Miller).
Then again, not that Chatman is in the business of long-term roster planning these days, but failing to make the playoffs has its own rewards. With a GM like Krauskopf to navigate the build, Chatman to maximize players as they come into her system, it is easy to envision what this Fever team could look like just months from now, thanks to a highly-anticipated 2018 lottery crop.
You want a team that runs? Well, ever see Kelsey Mitchell in transition? You want a versatile defender and finisher? Hello, Gabby Williams. Need a wing who can distribute and block shots in a transition offense? Why look, there’s Diamond DeShields. Looking for that elite five to anchor interior defense, finish with efficiency and block shots? There’s an A’ja Wilson for that.
These are the players of tomorrow, available in the upcoming lottery, ready to play the way Chatman’s been coaching for years. And the perpetual teacher looks comfortable as she continues that process—eager to see incremental success over the season’s final month, her point guards playing more the way she prefers, her team improving their offensive spacing, defensive consistency, building blocks for the next Pokey Chatman contender.
“I am a student of the game, and so coming here, I wanted to continue to do it,” Chatman said. “That’s where the game is going. I didn’t change it. I just want to be successful in it.”