Playoff Loss Won’t Break This Fever
But then the wheels fell off. Catchings missed 13 regular season games with a foot injury, and Indiana went 5-9 the rest of the way and eventually limped into the playoffs. After an exciting three-game first-round series win over Connecticut, the Fever were matched up with the Shock in the Eastern Conference Finals. Indiana won at home in Game 1, but lost Game 2 in the Motor City. Then in the second quarter of the decisive Game 3, a less than 100 percent Catchings went down with a painful Achilles injury and the Fever fell without their star 81-65.
The offseason in Indiana began with some fireworks as well. It was announced two weeks ago that longtime coach Brian Winters would not be returning to the team in 2008. A new head coach has not yet been named, but general manager Kelly Krauskopf spoke with WNBA.com's Adam Hirshfield about the team's plans for the winter, just how special the 2007 team was and the importance of Catchings to the franchise.
Q. What are your thoughts on the 2007 season? The end must have been frustrating for you, but all in all, did it meet your expectations?
A. "Well, we began the season talking very openly about striving to make the WNBA Finals. We were on track to do that -- we were 16-4 -- when we lost Tamika halfway through the season. After that, it took us a little time to get back on track. We had to figure out how to play without her because she just affects so many things on the floor. But I was pleased with the way we finished the regular season without her.
"We held onto the second seed heading into the playoffs, though I think we would have challenged for the No. 1 seed if she'd stayed healthy. Then in the playoffs, our experienced players came through. In the Connecticut series, Anna (DeForge), Tamika Whitmore, obviously Tamika (Catchings) coming back and joining us… they were all great.
"It's really hard on a team to finally learn how to play without one of your top players and then to get her back. There's a lot of pressure on the team to fold her back into the mix, but there's also pressure on Tamika because she's expected to lead the team at both ends of the court. So in a three-game series, I was really pleased to see how we responded. Having the home court in that series really helped us. Our veteran players really showed why they're veterans in this league. Sheri Sam, Tamika Whitmore, Anna DeForge, for example, really stepped up for us. We had veteran players with experience in playoff situations, and that really showed.
"That team was put together to go all the way. And I knew that heading into 2008, I would have the tough task ahead of me of signing a lot of players. So 2007 was very important for us, knowing we had many players who wouldn't be under contract heading into 2008."
Editor's note: Several days after this interview, the Fever announced that they were not exercising the option on head coach Brian Winters. Krauskopf told the Associated Press that the decision not to keep Winters was based on a desire "to go in a different direction and get a new voice, new leadership."
Q. Do you have any idea at this point who will be staying and who might be leaving?
A. "I don't have anything to tell you on that, because a lot of our free agents are unrestricted. Whitmore, Sutton-Brown, DeForge, Catchings are four starters and they can all be free agents. Tully Bevilaqua is under contract. Ebony Hoffman is restricted, K.B. Sharp is restricted. Obviously, I would love to keep the bulk of our players together. But because there's no CBA at this point, it's very, very premature to talk about any of this.
"This year we had a group of players that was special and experienced and I was able to fit everyone under the salary cap situation. Looking forward, I've talked to my coaching staff and we have some ideas about what we're going to try to do, but we don't know because of the cap issue."
Q. Are there certain aspects of the game on which you feel the team needs to improve to take that next step and reach the WNBA Finals?
A. "Phoenix certainly showed that shooting the three is a big weapon. If you look at the guard play down the stretch from both Detroit and Phoenix… that was pretty impressive. Phoenix was able to do it with style from their guards. Tangela Smith may not be your prototypical center, but she was perfect for that team.
"I think we need to improve on our outside shooting. In the playoffs especially, we relied lot on Anna DeForge… and she was it in a lot of ways. Once Tamika got injured, you could see that the lift on her shot just wasn't the same, but she was still able to hit some tremendously impactful shots in that Connecticut series. But the outside shooting is the one thing that sticks out in my mind."
Q. Would you be most likely to try and upgrade it via free agency or the draft?
A. "We're picking 12th in the draft, so the chances of finding an impact player who's capable of hitting that shot during the WNBA Finals with two seconds left on the shot clock aren't very good. Unless maybe it's Candace Parker (laughs). So most likely that help will come from free agency or a trade of some sort."
Q. Many of your players are either overseas or headed there shortly. How closely do you keep in touch with the Fever players when they're over there?
A. "Between myself and our coaching staff, we're very aggressive in the offseason about staying in touch with our players. After we lost to Detroit, all of our players in their exit interviews said that they felt like they have unfinished business. Of course this is before free agency and contract signings, but this was a group of players that saw what a special thing we had. In a compacted 34-game schedule, injuries are the only things you really have no control over, and they can make an enormous difference.
"My point is that this is a close-knit group and we stay in touch with everybody. The players were all sent off with workouts and individual fitness plans. Our strength and conditioning coach and our trainer talked with each of them about their health. When they head overseas, we'll continue to stay in touch with them."
Q. What are your hopes for Tamika's rehab during the offseason and heading into 2008? She's planning on being back out on the court.
A. "I have no doubt that Tamika Catchings will be back. And she'll be as good or better than she ever was. That part I know.
"The question will just be when. It's a serious injury and it really does take a considerable amount of time to be back at 100 percent. She can be released to play, but that doesn't mean that she's 100 percent. And with a 34-game schedule and the Olympic Games next summer, she's not gonna get a break, so it will be important that she's 100 percent when she comes back… not only for her '08 season, but for her long-term health. We have a great medical staff working with her right now and I don't have qualms about her coming back. But it's a long recovery process."
Q. How important is it for this team -- both on and off the court -- that Catchings returns next year completely healthy?
A. "She's the cornerstone of our franchise. She's our Reggie Miller. Reggie Miller was with the Pacers for 18 years. We built this whole team around Tamika. We got Sutton-Brown, we got DeForge, we got Whit(more), Sheri Sam… it was really built around Tamika's strengths. She can play multiple positions, she can score and when she left our lineup, we were without almost 10 rebounds and three steals a night. That's in addition to about 10 deflections a game that you never even see on the stat sheet.
"First and foremost is keeping her and developing the rest of the roster around her by re-signing as many players as we can. The thing about Tamika is that she's such a great teammate. Our new players this season, Tammy and Sheri, felt so embraced and welcomed into our franchise, and Tamika's a big part of that. Tully is a big part of it, too. With those two, you're talking about players who really care about the name on the front of their jerseys. They really want to win for themselves, but almost more so for our franchise."
Q. So what are your hopes for next year? Is it championship or bust?
A. "Oh yeah! If you're not trying to put together a championship team, you're not in this business for the right reasons. I promised our players as they left that we're going to make another run. And this year, we knocked on the door. Next year, we're gonna knock it down.
"You have to take a breath and reload again, but we were 22 minutes away. Who knows what would have happened in that Game 3 (against the Shock) if Tamika hadn't gone down?
"But we'll start over, we'll rebuild and reload. I know our players all had a great experience and all felt something special. All we can do is try to make another run at it."