Has Frustrating Finish
In his 24 years in the NBA as a player and coach, Brian Winters lived through most of the highs and lows that come with the sporting life. It would be safe to assume, however, his first season on a WNBA bench brought him an entirely new experience.
And it’s one he’d prefer not to repeat.
One screaming roller-coaster of a WNBA regular season, with more ups and downs and sudden twists and unexpected turns than even the most sadistic carnival ride could produce, left the Indiana Fever sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 15-19 record. For the fourth time in the franchise’s five seasons of existence, the team missed the playoffs.
“It was highly disappointing and frustrating,” said Winters. “We thought we had – and we did have – a team that had a chance to be a playoff team. When you lose out by one or two games, you know all you have to do is turn one or two things differently and have one or two games go differently and suddenly you’re a playoff team, and you feel much better about yourself.
“We need to evaluate our team, see where we want to go, how much change we need to make or want to make, review it all and think it through clearly. Right after the season ends you’re on a little bit of an emotional thing, and you don’t want to make big decisions about your team when your emotions are a little stirred up.”
The meteoric nature of the season was evident in its final three weeks. Emerging from the Olympic break with three consecutive victories, the Fever was 15-15 and tied for first in the conference. But Tamika Catchings suffered a toe injury in practice that severely limited her productivity for the next three games. Indiana lost all three and was eliminated from the playoffs.
Just like that.
The East was so tight all year long that just one game separated the top four teams that earned playoff berths. Three games separated first place from last. One good week, or one bad one, could make all the difference in the season. In the Fever’s case, it was the last week, with the team feeling Catchings’ pain that did the damage.
“You go through a little mental torture thinking about the what-ifs,” Winters said. “But they didn’t happen. There has to be a reason for it and you have to try to figure out how to get better. You want to evaluate it clearly and logically and not make a knee-jerk reaction and do something you’ll regret in the future. We’ll evaluate our players, I’ll evaluate myself and the coaching staff and how we do things in general. We’ve got to pinpoint some needs in the next week or so and proceed to fulfill those needs for our team.”
The short-term pain is real, but the long-term view is anything but bleak. Indiana will have one of the top five picks in the draft. Catchings, already one of the top players in the league and an annual MVP candidate, is just entering her prime. Players that were new to each other in 2004 will have familiarity in 2005. And Winters and his staff will have substantially more knowledge about not only the Fever players, but the competition.
“I feel much better about it now in the sense that I know my players better,” he said. “Coming in, you’re cold. You watch film and look at stats and all that kind of stuff and you try to figure out the best roles and places for people to play. But until you get them and see how they react under pressure, in timeouts and at the end of games, and see them over time in practice, I don’t know if you truly know what your players do and what they have to give you. Come next year, I’ll know that a lot better.”
Indiana’s Achilles heel throughout the season was poor shooting. The Fever finished last in the league with a .393 field-goal percentage and ranked ninth in scoring at 64.6, both franchise-record lows. There are other needs, to be sure, but shooting clearly is the biggest area of concern.
“Obviously, we have to shoot the ball better,” Winters said. “We had one of the lowest field-goal percentages in the league, so we have to get better in that regard. We’re going to evaluate all our players, then sit down as a coaching staff and evaluate what we have and where we need to go. Sitting here today, I can’t tell you exactly what our needs are, but shooting is certainly one of them; 39 percent isn’t going to get it done. I think we need to find a point guard that has some leadership skills as we go forward. That’s going to be one of our needs. We’ll just look for ways to make the mix that we have better than it is.
“We were good defensively, in rebounding and in turnovers. But if you don’t score the ball and shoot a high percentage, it’s hard to win. Chuck Daly in the NBA used to say the first one to 100 points wins. In the WNBA, the first one to 70 wins. You have to have the ability to get to 70 and if you shoot 39 percent, it’s difficult.”
The record bears that out. Indiana was 8-4 when scoring at least 70 points, 1-10 when the opponent reached that magic number. The Fever led the WNBA in rebound margin (plus 3.9) and was sixth in points allowed (66.0).
Winters hit upon a dynamic combination when he shifted Catchings to shooting guard and moved Kelly Schumacher into the starting lineup, giving the team a big lineup that produced the three-game winning streak to start September. Until Catchings’ injury, it appeared as though that changed had flipped the switch and the team was playing at its highest level of the season.
“I think Tamika’s best position is two or three,” he said. “I don’t think she’s a power forward. She’s played some of that in the past but I don’t think it’s her natural position. The power forwards in the WNBA are big and strong and it takes a lot out of her to have to guard them down in there.”
Catchings was fifth in the NBA in scoring (16.7), fourth in rebounds (7.3) and steals (1.97) and 14th in assists (3.4). Veteran post player Natalie Williams (10.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, .454 shooting) had another solid season. Newcomer Kelly Miller averaged 10.2 points, by far the most productive season of her young career, and ranked eighth in the WNBA with a .411 mark from the 3-point line. Schumacher started the final seven games and averaged 10.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.57 blocked shots in that span.
Many of the elements of a contender are already in place, indicating that a few tweaks, rather than a major makeover, are necessary to push the team into the upper half of the conference. Winters and the staff will have plenty of time to ponder their options before next season.
“We were very, very close in many games, but how do you win close games?” he said. “You’ve got to play under pressure, make a big shot, get a big rebound, make a big play. We have to evaluate everything we do, from every position. How are we going to get some players or have a system of play that allows us to do that?
“We need to develop a core group we think we can win with, and find a way to tweak it in such a way that we can win two-to-four more games.”
As was demonstrated this season, a small improvement like that could make a big difference.