Despite offseason upheaval, the Illawarra Hawks could very well prove doubters wrong
There are many factors that contribute to having a successful season in the NBL.
One of the most important, and perhaps the most difficult to quantify, is luck. Luck can be a double-edged sword and last season, the Illawarra Hawks felt its bite.
After missing out on the playoffs --no thanks to an injury-plagued season-- and losing much of their roster in the free agent market, the Hawks were left licking their wounds. This year, with a brand new roster, new general manager and a new majority owner, the Hawks are heading into the upcoming season with a point to prove.
The Hawks’ injuries woes last season demonstrated just how cold and uncaring the basketball gods can be. For head coach Rob Beveridge, watching his players go down one after another was a challenging that for the most part, left him helpless.
“We had some really bad luck with injuries, injuries at crucial times. The really big one was Mitch Norton. He missed [nine] games at a really crucial time. AJ Ogilvy who has been an All-NBL [player], arguably one of the best bigs in the league, he carried a hip injury the whole year as well. So we had a really bad injury curse. It really hurt us. You need to have your full team fully fit at the right time. We just couldn’t get that done. We had too many people in and out. It was very frustrating.”
For three-time All-NBL first teamer AJ Ogilvy, the offseason was all about doing as much as possible to prevent a return of the injury bug. Ogilvy's hip issues resulted in his worst statistical NBL season.
“I had a pretty rough year last year with all those injuries. So I took some time off after the season and just made sure I was getting healthy for this season. I spent a lot of time with the physio, the rehab staff; making sure my body was moving as well as possible.
“I’m feeling really good. My whole goal was to… not be concerned about my body going into preseason practices and [not] having to worry about managing it again, because that was not desirable.”
As the dust had settled on this year’s frantic and chaotic free agency, Ogilvy, along with Kevin White and Tim Coenraad, were the only Hawks who chose to remain with the club.
Among the players that the Hawks lost, were potential cornerstones Mitch Norton and Nick Kay. A third-year NBL pro, Kay was an imposing physical presence with a versatile skillset. In Norton, Illawarra had a speedy point guard who could push the tempo and dictate the team's offensive pace.
In the blink of an eye, things had drastically changed.
“We were going to build the team around Mitch Norton and Nick Kay. Out of left field we lost both of them. So really everything was thrown out the window,” Beveridge shared. “It was a situation of ‘geez, where do we go now?’ We had our plans, we had young guys, some of the best around, and then all of a sudden we are in a situation where we lose two of our best young guns - guys we [wanted] to build the club around.”
For the regionally-based Illawarra Hawks, free agency was extremely challenging. Not only did they lose two key pieces, they also found it a challenge to lure replacements. As a smaller organisation, the Hawks found it difficult to compete with the larger franchises, who often had an easier budget.
“I haven’t seen anything like it in a long time. It became an absolute meat market. A situation where the bigger teams and richer teams - Sydney, Melbourne and Perth - those types of teams, they can go top shelf. They can just go ‘ok, I want that player’ and they get that player. We, being a smaller regional town that has a smaller and tighter budget, we just couldn’t do that,” Beveridge said.
Not being able to compete financially with much of the league, meant the Hawks had to approach free agency from a different angle. As coach, Beveridge looked to obtain players that had a point to prove as athletes, in particular players that had perhaps been written off or overlooked. “Meeting with new management and the new owner, we just said, 'It’s a clean slate, let's start again'.
"So that was the process we went through. I started to look outside the square and thought I want to have players on the team that are hungry, that have got chips on their shoulders, that want to come back. That’s why we’ve got Cedric Jackson, Brian Conklin, Jordair Jett [and] David Andersen. All these guys, I wouldn’t say they were rejected, but they were part of the league in the past.”
Despite their unconventional approach to the free agent market, the Hawks’ efforts certainly paid dividends. While no one was looking, they secured the signatures of some the league's most decorated names, including MVP and three-time champion Cedric Jackson. Few players on the Hawks' new roster exemplify that chip-on-the-shoulder mentality more than Jackson. A triple champion with the New Zealand Breakers, the 2013 MVP signed with Melbourne United in 2016. However, things didn’t go to plan and Jackson was released by United after nine games.
With Illawarra, Jackson was offered a chance to prove the detractors wrong, something Beveridge is hoping to harness. “He’s got talent and he is a winner. I look at the character of people. Everywhere he goes he wins. He’s won three championships, he won league MVP, MVP of the finals series. He’s an absolute competitor. That’s what I wanted. He’s a very, very proud man. He got fired from Melbourne and he knows he’s still got a lot to offer. He’s come back with a point to prove.”
Injuries are now a thing of the past, to be remembered best as a season that could have ended better. Armed with a talented and highly experienced roster, the current Hawks don’t plan to waste any time.
“I want to make top four. It has to be top four; we’ve got to get there. You’ve got zero chance otherwise,” Beveridge said. “That’s our first goal, a top-four finish. What I want our players to do is actually when they turn up they give nothing but 100%, their heart and soul. That’s what I’m judging my players on. If they do that and give total devotion to the system of play and each other and we [still] can’t beat the teams, that’s the way it is.”
The Hawks have been through testing times since the early stages of last season. After being haunted by the injury curse and then losing the vast majority of their players, there is little the franchise hasn’t seen. With the pressure of expectation resting on the shoulders of the big city teams, the Hawks are looking to rattle some cages. The team's reformed itself with certifiable talent, and has little to lose.
It looks like the Hawks are eager to sink their talons into the competition.
The Illawarra Hawks open their season on October 12 against Melbourne United at the WIN Entertainment Centre.