New-Look Fever Ready for New Season
Indianapolis, May 17, 2004
Two days after completing a promising 3-0 preseason, Fever players, almost giddy with success and brimming with confidence, were impatient for the real thing.
“We do (wish the season started today),” said Kristen Rasmussen. “I wish we could take those three games and put them into our regular season. We’re ready.”
Rasmussen was referring to preseason victories over Houston, Charlotte and Washington that galvanized the team around first-year coach Brian Winters, new schemes and renewed expectations. The Fever missed the playoffs a year ago when it lost its final game of the season to Connecticut at Conseco Fieldhouse, setting into motion the resignation of Nell Fortner as coach and general manager, and the hiring of Winters, a former NBA player and coach.
“If you just sit down with him and talk basketball, you realize he knows (the game) inside out,” said All-Star forward Tamika Catchings. “I know it’s going to be a transition for him from the NBA to the WNBA, but when you know basketball the way he does, whether it’s women or men out there playing, he can make changes. That’s the biggest thing with having an NBA player and NBA coach. They know the game inside and out.”
An offseason of change also netted sharp-shooting guard Kelly Miller in a trade with Charlotte. Guard/forward Deanna Jackson, who gives the Fever needed size and defense on the perimeter, arrived via the dispersal draft of the defunct Cleveland Rockers. Both players figure into Winters’ starting lineup alongside Catchings at small forward and fellow All-Star Natalie Williams at center. Free-agent signee Astou Ndiaye-Diatta, a former member of the Detroit Shock who sat out last season after giving birth to triplets, could get the nod at power forward. But Ndiaye-Diatta did not play during the preseason due to a nagging knee injury, opening the door for rookie first-round draft pick (No. 8 overall) Ebony Hoffman of Southern California. Hoffman started the final two preseason games at power forward.
Miller, the No. 2 overall pick – one ahead of Catchings – in the 2000 WNBA Draft, never averaged more than 15 minutes per game in three seasons with Charlotte and will get her first real opportunity with the Fever. Ndiaye-Diatta was a four-year starter at Detroit and averaged 8.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in five seasons with the team. At 6-2, Jackson is the Fever’s biggest guard and the defensive presence on the perimeter the Fever needed to go with Catchings. She started 22 games and averaged 7.2 points with Cleveland last season.
“I enjoyed Cleveland and I thought things were going well, but it didn’t work out,” said Jackson. “Now I’m in Indiana and I’m happy to be here. I’m excited to start a new season.”
Indeed, the players are anxious. But are they ready?
“I’m happy that we won the three games and I thought, overall, we played pretty well,” said Winters. “There are always things, as a coach, that you think you need to do better. . . . There are a lot of little things that need to come together. I think we need a week to 10 days to add some little pieces to what we do on both the offensive and the defensive end.”
The Fever has less than a week remaining before it tips off its regular season Friday, May 21, against the New York Liberty at Conseco Fieldhouse. By then, those “little things” should be in place and the Fever feels it should be ready.
“I don’t know if this team has ever gone 3-0 in the preseason,” said Rasmussen. “But we’ve come in here and worked really hard on our offense and our defense, so to start out 3-0 gives us a huge advantage in our confidence going into the regular season.”
The Fever’s confidence is not empty – nor should it be. It reaches past the short-lived glory of a 3-0 preseason and rests, at least partially, upon a pair of WNBA All-Stars.
First, there’s Catchings, a game-changing franchise player at both ends of the floor who led the Fever in five major statistical categories: scoring (19.7 ppg); rebounding (8.0 rpg); assists (3.4 apg); blocks (1.03 bpg); and steals (2.12 spg). But even Catchings will be making a change this season – and it’s one she is happily anticipating. After spending the bulk of her minutes banging with power forwards the past two years, Catchings will see most of her time at small forward.
“I’m definitely looking forward to moving out and playing on the wing,” Catchings said. “With the offense we have, basically everybody plays every position. It’s not like I’m strictly out of the lane, but it allows more room to move and more people easy penetration instead of everybody standing in the paint and trying to make plays so everything will work out.”
Then, there’s Williams, who was the Fever’s second-leading scorer (13.4 ppg) and rebounder (7.5 rpg) in 2003, her first season with the club. Those numbers helped her to her fourth WNBA All-Star appearance. She is a presence on the low post and the team’s veteran leader after having played in the ABL and the Olympics. She should be helped on the post by the presence of Ndiaye-Diatta at power forward.
But beyond Catchings and Williams is a deep Fever bench that includes Niele Ivey, Rasmussen, Coretta Brown, Stephanie White and Kelly Schumacher. All have started for the Fever at one time or another and bring assorted skills to the second unit.
Ivey (5.0 ppg, 2.6 apg in 2003) is the only true point guard on the Fever roster. Brown (6.2 ppg) is a slashing who can play either guard spot. White was third on the team in scoring (6.9 ppg) in 2003 and is a spot-up shooter and 3-point threat. But she is coming off knee surgery and could begin the season on the injured list. Rasmussen (6.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and Schumacher (5.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg) are mirror images of one another on the low post. Rasmussen started 25 games last season.
Winters said the experience on the bench should be a positive for the Fever, though other teams have added depth as well. He also said he could foresee a rotation that could go nine or 10 players deep.
“Depth always helps, especially if you have injuries or just players with bench minutes coming in and giving you quality minutes,” said Winters. “I’m all for (a deep rotation) if there are quality players. Obviously, some of them are going to play more than others and they have to understand that.”
Players have spent the bulk of the preseason learning Winters’ heady, two-guard-driven offense and some new roles. If preseason statistics are an adequate measure, the Fever has learned well.
Indiana scored 86 and 83 points in two of its three preseason victories. This, after only eclipsing the 80-point barrier six times in non-overtime games all of last season.
Scoring is up for the Fever – 77.3 ppg in the preseason compared to 66.7 ppg in 2003, but opponent’s scoring is roughly the same. In the preseason, Fever opponents averaged 68.7 ppg, compared to 68.3 ppg in 2003. The Fever also out-rebounded opponents 34.7 to 24.0 in the preseason and shot .472 from the field (84 of 178), up from .417 in 2003. Preseason opponents were held to .423 shooting (71 of 168).
“We’ve tried to concentrate on playing well defensively and run when we can,” said Winters. “We want to get in transition when we can, but when we can’t, we want to execute in the half court.”
The players seem to be sold on Winters’ offensive scheme, which relies on making individual reads and then capitalizing advantages found on matchups, and his abilities as a teacher of the game.
“I’m having a blast,” said Brown, whose athleticism made her a two-time All-American at North Carolina. “It’s so interesting when you’re on the court and even on the bench to see everybody else gelling together. It’s just awesome.”
The offensive sets, even in the halfcourt scheme, consist of numerous options built off one basic strategy. It has been a challenge to digest, but enjoyable to play.
“When we come down the floor, we don’t have to say, ‘OK, let’s get to our spots,’” said Rasmussen. “With our versatility, it’s awesome for this team. We’re able to just play off one another.”
There will be adjustments – as there were during the preseason – but the team’s goals of making a dent in the WNBA Playoffs and bringing home a championship trophy have remained undeterred, despite the sting of last season’s finale and all the offseason changes that followed.
“With the new coaching staff on board and a lot of new faces around, it’s definitely going to be a transition for us,” said Catchings. “But I think once we all learn to play with each other and we start getting up and down, everything will fall into place pretty quick.”