Why Tamika Catchings struggled as GM and what's next for the Indiana Fever

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

You could almost hear a collective gasp across the WNBA world when the Indiana Fever made their lottery pick last April. Admittedly, the 2021 WNBA draft was weak; everyone knew that. However, there was at least still some potential for a good pick at No. 4. UCLA's Michaela Onyenwere, for instance, was still available -- she would go on to be the league's 2021 rookie of the year.

But when the Fever instead chose West Virginia guard Kysre Gondrezick, a player most projected as a third-round pick, heads were scratched. And unfortunately for Indiana, too many of those kinds of decisions have added up as the organization has struggled to find its identity since Tamika Catchings retired as a player at the end of the 2016 season.

It turns out the solution wasn't to hire Catchings as the team's vice president of basketball operations and general manager -- roles she stepped down from on Monday. In her announcement, the Hall of Famer cited a desire to "prioritize my family, my philanthropy, our community and my other passions." And that is understandable: Catchings has been going nonstop with basketball her entire adult life, including her women's college broadcast analyst work.

The reality also is that Catchings had to realize it was time for a change for both her and the Fever, who have gone 40-116 over the past five seasons. Indiana made 12 consecutive playoff appearances from 2005-2016, which included the 2012 WNBA championship and WNBA Finals trips in 2009 and 2015. Catchings was front and center as a player through that period, the organization's tent pole. But since her retirement, the Fever haven't been to the playoffs.

Indiana has been mired in the difficulty of how to stay competitive while developing young players, and at times has been criticized for giving older players too many minutes. It has been hard to tell during the past few years what the Fever's identity was, or what exactly they were trying to build. Free agency hasn't helped much. And neither has bringing in one veteran coach (Marianne Stanley) in 2020 after firing another (Pokey Chatman).

Gondrezick, meanwhile, played 19 games last season, averaging 1.9 points before taking a personal leave of absence. She was waived by the Fever in January. Indiana's lottery pick in 2020, No. 3 Lauren Cox of Baylor, played 14 games for the Fever in 2020 and 11 in 2021 before being waived last June and picked up by Los Angeles, for whom she played 15 games.

So the Fever basically came away with nothing from two consecutive lottery picks, although first-round selections Kelsey Mitchell (2018), Victoria Vivians (2018) and Teaira McCowan (2019) are still with the team.

It's not that Catchings didn't prepare for the front-office role; she said for years while still playing that she hoped to be a GM when she retired. But just as it is difficult to replace an outstanding player or coach, the Fever have had to do that with an executive.

Kelly Krauskopf was the Fever's president and GM from the franchise's launch in 2000 through 2017. When she left to move into the NBA world -- she is now the Indiana Pacers' assistant GM -- the Fever lost their architect. Those were huge shoes for Catchings to try to fill with limited experience.

Pro sports front-office jobs come with a lot of toil and just as much second-guessing. In today's analytics-driven world, the eye-test, gut instinct and even sheer good luck still factor into talent evaluation and team-building. And with the changes in WNBA free agency brought about in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, managing a franchise in a hard-salary-cap league such as this one has become an even more intricate and complicated matter.

An added twist in Catchings' situation is that she was the face of the franchise during her career as a player, beloved not just in Indiana but throughout the WNBA. The former Tennessee star was drafted No. 3 by the Fever in 2001, a season in which she couldn't play after having torn her ACL as a senior.

Taken before Catchings that year were Lauren Jackson at No. 1 by the Seattle Storm -- a pick that made complete sense as Jackson, like Catchings, went on to be a Hall of Famer. The No. 2 pick in 2001, Kelly Miller, was taken by the then-Charlotte Sting. The Sting thought Miller would be a solid player -- she averaged 7.1 points in 12 WNBA seasons -- and chose her instead of waiting a year for a superstar like Catchings. (The Sting folded in 2007.)

As a player, Catchings draws many parallels to Michael Jordan, in terms of their intense, fiery competitiveness, their success at every level and even the fact that they were both No. 3 picks in years where the No. 1 pick was understandable (Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets, in Jordan's case) while the No. 2 pick is lamented (Sam Bowie, Blazers).

Another similarity to Jordan, however, is a difficulty in finding the same success in the front office that they had as players. Magic Johnson is another all-time great player who found that transition difficult. He resigned abruptly as the Los Angeles Lakers' president of basketball operations in April 2019, telling reporters, "I want to go back to having fun. I want to go back to being who I was before taking on this job."

Catchings might feel that way a bit, too. She really never had a misstep as a player. The only thing that ever slowed down the 2012 MVP, five-time WNBA defensive player of the year and four-time Olympian was injury. And even then, she successfully battled back from both ACL and Achilles tendon tears.

Front-office success can be elusive for anyone, including former players so used to controlling their own destiny on court. Catchings is only 42, and might find -- after she has had a chance to evaluate and recharge her batteries -- that she wants to re-enter the same kind of front-office work that she's leaving now. Or she might go in other directions. Her importance to the WNBA and Indiana is not diminished.

Indiana now turns to former Fever coach Lin Dunn as interim GM. At age 74, Dunn has more than 50 years of experience in coaching and talent evaluation, including being coach/GM for the Seattle Storm and coach of the Fever's championship team. Indiana has the Nos. 2, 7 and 10 picks in the first round of the draft in April.

But for now, this move seems best for Catchings and the Fever, who hope to start gaining ground again in the WNBA.