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2016/17 NBL Season in Review: Perth Wildcats
At the conclusion of the 2016/17 NBL season, The Pick and Roll takes an in-depth look at each NBL franchise to see where they went right and wrong, plus what they should be investing into in the future.
What went right?
Timing is everything.
There's a quote that hangs in the San Antonio Spurs' locker room from Danish-American social reformer, Jacob Riis, at the behest of legendary coach Gregg Popovich.
When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it - but all that had gone before.
As the playoffs loomed, Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson channelled his inner Coach Pop, regularly referring to this idea of his team 'pounding the rock' until it cracks.
Lo and behold, in the last week of the regular season, after eighteen rounds of pounding that rock, the Wildcats smashed it to smithereens. If it had taken just one blow longer, they would've missed the finals altogether, and their record-breaking streak would be over. Instead, they reeled off seven straight wins, including a 5-0 undefeated playoff run, on their way to back-to-back championships.
What cracked the rock? Mostly, the best defence in the NBL. They conceded nearly 3 fewer points per 100 possessions than their nearest rival. And can we all just pause for a moment to consider that they did this despite Damian Martin missing 11 games through injury? It doesn't matter who is on the court, the Wildcats have instilled a relentless, physical, intelligent and disciplined defensive culture that is the foundation of their success.
Of course, there's no way that rock cracks without the recruitment of Bryce Cotton. Perth were desperate for an offensive creator, someone who could make things happen when the offence bogged down. Casey Prather was in danger of being crushed by the overwhelming offensive burden he was carrying (more on him later), and Cotton was just what the doctor ordered. The 'Cats were 12-4 after his arrival, and their offensive rating was three points better per 100 possessions when he was on the floor (per the excellent spatialjam.com).
What went wrong?
It wasn't a smooth ride to glory for the defending champs, but ultimately, most of the mishaps along the way faded into obscurity when Damian Martin invited Shawn Redhage on stage to lift the Dr. John Raschke Trophy. Embed from Getty Images
The mishap with the most implications for Perth, looking ahead, might well be the concern surrounding Matt Knight's health. The 31-year old suffered a concussion from an inadvertent knock from Casey Prather in Game Two of the grand final series, and, consequently, missed the championship-clinching Game Three.
Knight is under contract for next season, but six concussion-related injuries in the last six years have understandably raised concerns about the risks associated with playing on.
Knight has been the anchor of Perth's excellent defence for years. With the exception of his captain, Damian Martin, the man known as the 'Knightmare' might very well have the best defensive anticipation in the NBL. He's not your classic rim-protecting defensive big, but he's just always in the right place at the right time. If he decides to retire, Perth will miss him desperately.
It's Casey Prather, without a doubt. He might've endured a bit of a mid-season slump, but either side of that he was utterly magnificent.
The talk coming into the season was that Prather had worked on his ball-handling over the NBL break, and Perth were going to make him even more of an offensive fulcrum than he was in 2015/16. Be careful what you wish for.
As Jaron Johnson struggled, and then Damian Martin and Jarrod Kenny both went down with injury, the burden on Prather grew beyond all reason. He even dabbled with a little point guard duty, and his usage rate jumped from 27.9% in 2015/16 to a whopping 30.9%, good for number one in the league. It was verging on Westbrookian.
With that kind of usage rate, his efficiency dropped and his turnover rate climbed (3.2 per game). Don't hold that against him. He was simply being asked to do too much. Remember, he was carrying this offensive load while still being one of the league's best wing defenders, and initiating Perth's patented offence-to defence with the second-most steals in the league (1.6 steals per game).
Despite a lack of spacing, he attacked and found his way to the rim relentlessly, leading the league in free throws (made and attempted). He showed an improved ability to find his teammates, almost doubling his assists from the previous season (1.8 apg in 2015/16 to 3.5 apg in 2016/17). In a season where Perth struggled offensively, for the most part, every one of Prather's 19.5 points per game were vital.
When help arrived in the form of Bryce Cotton, Prather took a back seat to freshen up for the business end of the season. Then, when Round 19 rolled around and a finals spot was on the line, he delivered one of the best individual rounds of basketball of the season: 29 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals to steamroll the Kings, before 26 points and a career-high 11 assists on the road in Melbourne.
Without Prather, there's no way Perth are anywhere near striking distance of a 31st consecutive finals appearance, let alone back-to-back titles.
When Johnson's signing was announced, Wildcats Assistant Coach Matt Nielsen said, "I’m expecting he and Casey (Prather) to compliment each other. They’re both going to get their opportunities to create for themselves, each other and for the team. Their length and speed is going to cause match-up problems for a lot of people."
You can kind of see what they were getting at. With two athletic, scoring wings, opposing teams were essentially going to have to pick their poison.
Nielsen cited Johnson's shooting, aggressiveness, decision-making and ball-handling as qualities he would bring to the team. His shot certainly had its moments, but it was inconsistent, and he didn't get it off quickly enough to induce panic in defenders to create the space the Wildcats desperately needed. Unfortunately, the latter three qualities never really surfaced at all in his time in Perth.
The whole deactivation, Andre Ingram cameo, reactivation, delisting rollercoaster was ugly, and certainly the lowlight of Perth's season.
Perth's stunningly convincing semi-final road win in Cairns was pretty special, but let's not mess about here. This is an easy one.
FORTY-FIVE POINTS. IN A GRAND FINAL. IN A CLOSEOUT GAME. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?
What loomed as a tricky offseason for the Wildcats became a whole lot simpler with the blockbuster signing of Corey Webster. Having another local player capable of filling a starter role - if Webster can return to peak form - gives Perth flexibility in their import recruiting. He seems a natural fit next to Damian Martin in the backcourt, and you'd be a lunatic to bet against Webster, with a point to prove, making good in the peerless culture of the Wildcats.
As far as last season's crew go, Perth have seven non-import players under contract - so barring a surprise, Webster's addition completes their local roster.
Import-wise, Cotton and Prather both have their sights set on the NBA, while Jameel McKay's future is also a mystery. It would be a shock to see more than one of them return, and it could very well be none. Perth obviously need imports to start at small forward and centre, and if they learned anything this season, some extra guard depth wouldn't go astray.
Matt Knight is the joker in the pack. If he retires, the equation gets much more complicated. While Jesse Wagstaff and Angus Brandt had their moments this season, it would be surprising to see either one trusted with a starting role.
I like to keep the plus up my sleeve for those truly transcendent seasons. I'm talking 2007 Brisbane Bullets, 21-game winning streak en route to a championship - that level of greatness. So that's off the table. But defending a title, in the most competitive season the NBL has ever seen - that's not bad at all.