Indiana Fever: 2006 Preview
In their sixth season, the Indiana Fever finally took the leap into the WNBA's elite, finishing above .500 and winning a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.
Sustaining that success in 2006 would seem an attainable challenge for third-year coach Brian Winters, though he'll have to do it with only four players - and just two starters - returning from last year's 21-13 team that swept New York in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Starters Tamika Catchings and Tully Bevilaqua are back, as are reserves Tan White and Ebony Hoffman, the Fever's last two first-round draft picks. Everyone else wearing the Fever jersey will be a newcomer, acquired by General Manager Kelly Krauskopf in part to improve an offense that finished last in field goal percentage (.400) and was among the lowest scoring (63.8 ppg) in the league.
The turnover is unusually high for such a successful team; finding some chemistry and continuity in the early-going will be one of the biggest challenges for the Fever, who will replace starters Natalie Williams (retired), Jurgita Streimikyte (Europe) and Kelly Miller (traded), as well as reserves Kelly Schumacher (traded) and Deanna Jackson (expansion).
Indiana's backcourt rotation appears to be set.
Anna DeForge, acquired from Phoenix in exchange for Miller, is a better three-point shooter and a more accomplished rebounder and defender than Miller, her predecessor. The expected starter at shooting guard, DeForge averaged 13.1 ppg for Phoenix last year and should provide a nice secondary scoring option to complement Catchings.
Bevilaqua returns to play the point. The 5-7 Aussie's progression from spare part in Seattle to starter and defensive stopper in Indiana was one of last year's best stories. Named to the All-Defensive First Team, Bevilaqua also had her best offensive season (6.3 ppg) and emerged as the Fever's top three-point shooting threat.
Free agent guard K.B. Sharp provides depth at the point that the team didn't have a year ago, when White, a rookie, stepped in at both guard spots. White can now play more consistently at shooting guard, where she showed flashes of brilliance before a late-season slump. Her 26 point effort against Seattle on June 4 was the highest scoring game by any rookie last season.
Up front, pencil in Catchings for another MVP-caliber campaign as the starter at small forward. What doesn't she do? The team's leader in points, rebounds, assists and steals in each of her four WNBA seasons, she's now the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. If she needs to improve anything, it would be her three-point shooting, which dipped to a career-low 28.5 percent last year.
Free agent forward Tamika Whitmore started every game for Los Angeles last year, averaging 9.6 ppg and 4.2 rpg. Though listed as a forward, she started at center for the Fever in the preseason, and was the team's leading scorer (15.5 ppg).
The center position was anything but a strength last year, when Indiana relied on a rotation of Schumacher and Hoffman. With the departure of another post player, Jurgita Streimikyte and Schumacher, Hoffman has a chance at a breakout year. The only Fever player with the girth to clog the middle and snatch offensive rebounds, Hoffman has taken advantage of her opportunity in the preseason, averaging 8.0 ppg and a team-leading 7.5 rpg. Her emergence could eventually make the position a strength.
Charlotte Smith, a free agent, could begin the year in the starting lineup. A seven-year WNBA veteran, Smith started all 34 games for Washington last year, averaging 7.2 ppg and 3.8. rpg. Fellow free agent veterans Olympia Scott and Linda Frohlich will also be in the mix for playing time, as will 6-2 rookie La'Tangela Atkinson, the team's first-round pick out of North Carolina.
Last year's Fever team lost only four games to injury in the regular season, an amazing feat they're not likely to repeat in 2006. With better depth this season, though, and two playoff series, under their belt, the Fever are a good bet to contend if they overcome those early-season adjustments to one another and a schedule that sends them on the road for 13 of their first 21 games.
If they can get to the All-Star break within a game or two of .500, look out.