Thanks to St Vincent Sports Performance for assistance on this story.
Any team that has Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas on the wings is bound to make the WNBA playoffs.
But what separates the 2009 WNBA Finals Indiana Fever from the team that was ousted in the first round last season?
One place to start, particularly with Tully Bevilaqua signing with the San Antonio Silver Stars, is their point guard play - Bevilaqua alone fell from being arguably a top 10 point guard in 2009 to being a below average distributor in 2010 as the Fever's starter and left them without a point guard on the roster who's any more efficient. Looking forward, that positional need is certainly significant to them getting back to the level they were at in 2009.
However, their biggest statistical weakness was their declining offensive rebounding percentage differential, which ultimately points to a much more significant change and potentially a continuing problem as their team gets older.
How balanced are the Fever?
That Catchings had the best rebounding percentage of any perimeter-oriented player in the league speaks to one (of many) reasons that she was such a strong MVP candidate - Catchings was one of the most heavily relied upon players in the league. That she is the only holdover from last year to even be an above average rebounder for her position is indicative of a bit of weak spot for the Fever.
Not only were all the Fever's returning post players below average rebounders by percentage among interior players but starter Tammy Sutton-Brown's fell significantly from 21.1% in 2009 to 14.8% in 2010 while every other interior player maintained their production. This would help explain why the team gave up a higher rate of offensive rebounds than they got, which turns out to be significant in at least one other way (see statistical weaknesses). The only interior player with an above average valuable contributions ratio (VCR) was Jessica Davenport, which means that the likelihood of seeing improved production from the rest is not particularly high.
But aside from their apparent rebounding deficiency on the interior last season, the team also has a dearth of efficient distributors with Bevilaqua gone.
"Now that Bevilaqua's gone, there is a void at the point guard position," Fever coach Lin Dunn said when asked about the point guard situation. "She was here as a starter with us for 6 years."
To be sure, Catchings and Douglas were their two most efficient distributors last season with Beviliaqua's decline. And while reserve Briann January's assist ratio was above league average - but below average for a point guard (as was her pure point rating) - Fever coach Lin Dunn is confident that January will improve and step up as a starter.
"We've been very pleased with the development of Briann January," Dunn said, echoing the sentiment of an article by Tom Rietman on the Fever's official website. "She's smarter, wiser, this is her third year and I think right now if we started the season tomorrow she would be our starting point guard. She did a great job in our Tuesday exhibition game with 7 assists and 4 rebounds, took a charge in like 18 minutes. We saw some really good things Tuesday and I just think she's matured and is ready to take over this team as the leader."
Yet even if January does show the type of improvement that would fill Bevilaqua's starting void, there's still the matter of who runs backup point (aside from Catchings and Douglas facilitating the offense).
How might the Fever's new additions contribute?
While the Fever have a few players capable of getting the ball over half court and initiating the offense as lead ball handlers, they don't have the type of proven playmakers that other teams have. And with Dunn acknowledging the point guard void, it's definitely an area they sought to address.
Erin Phillips, acquired from the Storm as part of the three-way trade also involving the Washington Mystics, is one such player who Dunn hopes will help their ball handling situation.
"Erin Phillips got here late - I think she missed the first four days of camp - so she's playing catch-up," Dunn said about the fourth-year Australian guard who last saw time with the Connecticut Sun in 2009. "She's strong, she's physical, she's smart and has WNBA experience and she's going to be able to help us as a back-up point guard and a backup 2 but we're really counting on her for quality minutes."
If January doesn't work out as Dunn hopes, it's certainly not inconceivable that Phillips could start at point, as also suggested in Rietman's article. With Catchings and Douglas able to assume some distributing responsibilities, a lineup with them sharing in the ball handling responsibilities could work.
Along the lines of putting a point guard next to Catchings and Douglas with the expectation of less touches, 2011 first round draft pick Jeanette Pohlen is an intriguing option - the 43.6% 3-point percentage that led some people to consider her more of a shooting guard prospect prior to the draft would make her an interesting candidate to fill the void at guard.
Although Pohlen has experience running point for an elite college as well, right now Dunn describes her as a rookie still adjusting to the game.
"I think the first couple of days in practice, she might have been hesitant at how fast people moved and rotated
and closed out," said Dunn, who was also complimentary about Pohlen's athleticism, size and strength. "But recently I've seen her adjust to knowing when she's open and then taking that shot and then knowing when to make the next pass, so we've been real pleased with her progress."
Shannon Bobbitt is also a potential option at point guard, but had an inconsistent stint with the Los Angeles Sparks.
Back to the situation on the interior, Shyra Ely has a shot at making the Fever's rotation after suffering a season-ending knee injury last year on the strength of her rebounding ability alone - her defensive rebounding percentages in her last two seasons in the league (2008, Seattle; 2009 Chicago) were strong enough to suggest that she could at least add another person to contribute to the effort.
"When we found out that Shyra had recovered from her knee surgery and was playing overseas, we were very intrigued by her because she played in Seattle and Chicago and would have probably still been in Chicago had she not hurt her knee," Dunn said when asked about the forward entering her sixth WNBA season. "Good thing we picked her up because she's versatile, she can play 4, she can play 3, she can defend either position. She's got 3-point range and I thought she had a good outing in our exhibition game. She didn't get many minutes but did get 5 quick rebounds. I think Shyra's going to be a key person for us off the bench in either the 4 or the 3."
Veteran Tangela Smith, who the Fever acquired through free agency, is a player who has been remarkably consistent on the defensive boards across her career and could serve as another player to address this rebounding problem by committee.
Who might improve for the Fever?
Although Davenport's rebounding numbers fell last year, her defensive rebounding percentage (17.1%) was also the best on the team last year. But beyond rebounding, 2010 was Davenport's best season as a pro as she became the team's most efficient scorer. Her VCR was well above average for an interior player, suggesting that she might show further improvement or at least be a player ready to play more quality minutes. As a younger player and the team's best defensive rebounder, that's an encouraging sign for the team.
How well do the Fever's players complement one another?
And Davenport's improvement as a scorer was one part of the team's overall increased points per possession last year, rising from 10th in the WNBA in 2009 to 5th in the WNBA in 2010. A large part of that is that the players who use up an above average number of possessions relative to their style of play creating scoring opportunities (Catchings, Davenport) are efficient players. Compared to other players with high scoring tendencies, Douglas has a high floor percentage meaning she's helping create scoring opportunities for the team in multiple ways with an above average floor percentage. Sutton-Brown is a relatively average usage post player but also has an above average floor percentage among interior players.
What's particularly strong about this unit is that they've not only played together for a while now, but they also have well-defined offensive roles in which the players typically shooting most often are also their most efficient players.
What are their statistical weaknesses?
What they clearly still need to balance their offense is a point guard that can score efficiently and they've obviously identified some options. But the biggest statistical weakness of this team stems from their rebounding differential.
Consistent with their defensive rebounding struggles, the Fever fell from first in 2009 to sixth (11.82) in 2010 in second chance points allowed. It's only about two points a game, but that's the difference between best and below average (11.44 in 2010). Furthermore, they were eleventh in points in the paint last year, which was actually better than 2009.
The Fever's lack of strong rebounders on the interior is ultimately a major problem that could be addressed by the development and new additions, but still speaks to a roster that needs to get more production from the post overall.
What are their statistical strengths?
For whatever else happened last season, the Fever were still the league's top defensive team in the league last year by points per possession. In terms of what January can offer from the point, her size and defensive instincts can be useful in maintaining the team's defensive prowess.
But the team's major strength is their perimeter scoring - in addition to Catchings and Douglas, they were also the third-best three point shooting team in the league last season (36.55%).
And having players like Catchings and Douglas on the perimeter makes it rather difficult to count this team out.
For background on the statistics and thinking informing these questions and their answers, click here.