2012 summary & offseason changes
We asked it twice during the offseason so we might as well do it again: can this team repeat as WNBA champs?
As difficult a feat as that has proven to be over the last decade in the WNBA, the Fever have made it clear what their answer to that question is: they brought back the majority of their roster, except for veteran center Tammy Sutton-Brown who accounted for just 8% of the team’s overall statistical production last season and played less than 10 minutes per game during their playoff run. And if it ain’t broke – or works well enough to win a title – why fix it?
But the number one thing that has to be said about the Fever’s 2012 season is that their small ball approach – with star Tamika Catchings playing the power forward spot – was successful, even if it took a while for them to hit their stride. To keep a long story short, by moving Catchings to the 4 the Fever essentially conceded the rebounding battle to their opponents and dedicated themselves to playing to their strengths: 3-point shooting and ball control. They weren’t the most efficient shooting team in the league, but their ability to manage possessions allowed them to win games. When Erlana Larkins emerged in the playoffs, it was a championship recipe.
They’ll enter the 2013 season nursing a number of injuries, but their top pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft should help alleviate some of that stress and add to that dangerous perimeter scoring attack.
2013 WNBA Draft summary:
With the ninth pick in the draft, the Fever selected Layshia Clarendon and we might eventually see that pick as something of a steal down the road.
We’ve talked about what an amazingly efficient jump shooter she was at Cal and what makes her a particularly strong WNBA scoring prospect so I won’t continue to just harp on that, but how that jump shooting efficiency figures into her similarity ratings is fascinating and we haven’t discussed that much.
R. Williams (2012)
Similarity ratings for Layshia Clarendon and Tayler Hill.
There’s little question that Prince ended up being the best of those in this group that have played in the league to this point, but both Clarendon and Tayler Hill have a really opportunity to occupy the next two spots behind her.
Sticking with Clarendon, that 2-point percentage is quite impressive even though the other players on this list had higher usage rates that might have lowered their efficiency quite a bit. Clarendon was not a deadly 3-point shooter and didn’t get to the line at a high rate, which is why her true shooting percentage is lower than some of these other players. But it’s Clarendon’s ability to remain that efficient over the course of a season coming off screens and curls that really stands out – for the purists that claim the art of mid-range shooting has been lost these days, Clarendon is a breath of fresh air in some sense.
Yet in terms of style of play, an even better comparison than any of these players might actually be NBA veteran Richard Hamilton. Hamilton was a better 3-point shooter coming out of Uconn, but has made his living in the NBA by working off of screens for mid-range shots. If the Fever can utilize Clarendon similar to how the Pistons used Hamilton, Clarendon could be a huge addition to their offense. Even if that isn’t an exact comparison for her, she had the college numbers that suggest she’ll have either have an extremely successful pro career – it would be surprising for a player with these tendencies to be drafted and not have an impact at this point.
2012 tendencies for the Indiana Fever’s returning players.
The Fever have had the same problem for a couple of years now and it hasn’t really changed: even if Erlana Larkins keeps the Superwoman cape that she was wearing during the 2012 playoffs, rebounding could still be an issue over the course of the season. Larkins is still their only dominant offensive rebounder and the rest are either average or below.
Otherwise, although ball handling has typically been a problem for the Fever, they’re unique in that both Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas are well above average ball handlers for their style of play. So if they can get efficient play from Briann January – who still has some room for improvement – they’re able to run their offense efficiently. Erin Phillips’ injury is a blow to their ball handling ability as she was very helpful as the most efficient guard on the team last season, but they still have their most efficient ball handler from last season: Tamika Catchings.
No team in the league relied more heavily on “pure scorers” (as defined by SPI tendencies) than the Fever, which is interesting when considering their rep as a defensive team: Katie Douglas and Shavonte Zellous combined to account for 23% of the Fever’s overall statistical production. But having a pair of scorers like that who can also handle the ball without turning it over too often is a huge part of what makes the Fever to stop.
With Catchings being a versatile player who can play multiple positions, their wing scorers being efficient ball handlers, and a pair of distributors (once Phillips returns) they have a number of lineup options and Lin Dunn showed during last year’s playoffs that she knows how to use them. Clarendon figures to fit squarely in that efficient wing camp, which gives them a mid-range scoring option who could end up being more efficient than Shavonte Zellous.
Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking that this is a perimeter-oriented team first and foremost and as long as the threes are falling for them (they tied the Minnesota Lynx last year with a league-high 40% 3-point shooting) there’s no reason to stop being that way. But in that they are a “small ball” team that’s going to try to out shoot opponents from beyond the arc, it’s reasonable to say they’re predictable. But knowing what they want to do and rotating around the court to defend that are two different things.
As the highest synergy team in the Eastern Conference last season, it should probably come as little to no surprise that Indiana has a pretty complementary set of players and that starts by going back to who they put around those pure scorers.
One of the interesting things about the Fever’s roster is that despite having some measure of versatility in terms of who plays where, they also have very distinct roles in terms of production. Catchings obviously does everything, but even in being the team’s highest usage player she was also their most efficient distributor with the lowest turnover ratio. So she’s a player who can complement just about anyone.
Pairing her with Douglas, similarly efficient with the ball and about as willing a passer as you might expect from a scorer, gives them a dynamic duo who only need players around them that can play off of them effectively. That’s part of what makes the commendable expendables so valuable: Larkins is a low-usage rebounder, Phillips was a low-usage distributor who scored relatively efficiently as distributors go. January is a relatively high usage point guard, but was also the second most efficient player on the team due to her ability to get to the line and knock down 43% of her 3-point attempts last season. Jessica Davenport was a somewhat oddly high usage interior player, but for a team that doesn’t have many interior threats the fact that she too was above average efficiency as an interior scorer made her valuable off the bench even if she was not a dominant rebounder.
Ultimately, a large part of what makes this team tick is everybody has a clearly defined role, executes it efficiently and they all fit together nicely as a unit to make things tough on defenses.
X-Factor: Sasha Goodlett
The Fever could really use another rebounder and scorer and Goodlett is probably the best candidate for internal development given her VCR of 1.02 last season.
She had an average offensive rebounding percentage of 10.88%, but her 48.31% true shooting percentage was below average for a post and if she could pull that up a few percentage points – perhaps by getting to the line more often for starters – she could make the team more dynamic.
Of course, as a player who only played 7.6 minutes per game it’s hard to say what she’d do in more minutes. But if she can improve as a scorer it would give the Fever one more option when they’re forced out of playing small ball.
Even with the loss of Phillips for a stretch of time, this team’s perimeter rotation looks fine, especially if January can contribute at the level she did during last season and Clarendon can become the efficient scorer that she seems on track to become.
With the Fever starting small and having a number of perimeter players at their disposal at full health, the Fever are probably deeper on the “interior” than a quick glance at their roster would suggest. However, with Davenport out due to injury, Goodlett and Jessica Breland will have to contribute more as the lone players over 6-foot-1 on the roster.
This team’s strengths are pretty clear: they have a very strong combination of players who can get to the rim and players who can shoot threes. They’re going to spread the floor, force defenses to make decisions, and make them pay for mistakes. Catchings’ versatility is certainly a large part of what made things work for them last season, but the way these players complement each other is just as important.
Over the course of a 34-game season, it stands to reason that rebounding will trip them up – with Catchings at power forward, they will give up size in most matchups. Ball handling will be an issue on occasion with Phillips out, but they have players across the roster who can pick up the slack on that.
Key question: How much will continuity help them in their effort to repeat?
What the Fever have that other teams in the East don’t is continuity: their core group and coach is still around and they now know what it takes to win a title. They didn’t come into the offseason searching for answers, a new coach, or new players. Over the course of a 34-game regular season, all of that stuff matters. But a major question is how successful they can be with Erlana Larkins carrying their rebounding effort if nobody else steps up to help in the paint – there’s certainly potential for someone to step up and they’re going to need that if they intend to repeat.