NBL: Illawarra Hawks season preview

A year after finishing with the wooden spoon, the Hawks bounced back last season and became the darlings of the league. Playing a high octane style of basketball that was both effective, and pleasing to the eye, their dream run ultimately ended in a Game 3 semi-final series loss to the eventual champion, Perth Wildcats.

Can they take the next step this year?


Offseason

Key losses:

Kevin Lisch (Sydney), Kirk Penney (New Zealand), Larry Davidson (retired), Jarrad Weeks (Cairns), Tyson Demos (year off)

Key additions:

Rotnei Clarke, Nick Kay (Townsville), Mitch Norton (Townsville)

Securing the services of Rob Beveridge for 4 years was arguably the biggest signing for the Hawks in the offseason. The super coach not only stabilised what was once a club in crisis, he also installed basic foundations that will ensure the coastal franchise contends for years to come.

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Chief amongst that masterplan was continuing to cultivate a winning culture that emphasised stability.

“It’s huge,” Beveridge said of establishing the club’s culture, when he spoke with The Pick and Roll. “That’s why I signed a 4-year contract to show that I’m not going anywhere – to show the players that I’m committed to this club to making it the best that it can be.

“This club is definitely on the way up – I have no doubt.”

The Hawks also secured star centre, A.J. Ogilvy, for 3 years, and signed talented youngsters in Nick Kay and Mitch Norton (both from the now defunct Townsville Crocodiles) to multi-year deals. It’s hoped that the young guns will grow together with established Hawks mainstays in Rhys Martin, Oscar Forman and Tim Coenraad, eventually forming a core group that every elite team needs to build from.

It’s the sort of philosophy that has underpinned Beveridge-coached teams in the past.

“It shows we’ve got stability,” said Beveridge. “We’re trying to have that core group—exactly like I built in Perth.”

Imports will come and go —that’s just the nature of the beast. But building a long term core not only guarantees roster continuity, it creates an identity, and it’s something that the Hawks will be able to sell to future free agents.


What to expect?

Last season, the Hawks had a simple goal in mind: try and score 100 points in every game. They averaged 93 points per game – the highest mark in the league.

“Now we want to go 110,” Beveridge said jokingly.

“I want to play that exciting brand – a lot of switching and pressure defence,” said Beveridge. “A lot of it is about us playing hard and playing together, playing unselfish and I think that makes our team really special – the unselfishness of the group.”

In that sense, the Hawks will play the same way – at a turbo-charged pace on both ends of the floor. They played at the third fastest pace in the league last season, per RealGM.

At its core, the Hawks wanted to run and shoot.

No other team jacked up more 3-point attempts last season. And yet the Hawks balanced all that long-range sniping by doubling up as the most accurate outside shooting team in the league, per Crunchtimeshots.com.

All that freewheeling was only possible with Beveridge instilling a culture of selflessness. And his players bought in. On a related note, the Hawks led the league in assists last season.

Add all that up and it was a potent offense.

When the Hawks artificially juiced up the speed of the game, opponents faced an uncomfortable truth – play at their tempo and risk a high-octane, run-and-gun-fest which they couldn’t possibly match.

On the flip side, the Hawks were a middling defensive team and horrible on the boards -- they were the second worst defensive rebounding team in the league.

Just to underscore how perimeter-orientated they were, the Hawks took by far and away the least paint shots in the league, per Crunchtimeshots.com.

That’s not a problem when you’re hitting 3-point bombs at an historic clip. But when defenses are dialed up a notch in the playoffs, with opponents able to specifically manufacture a game plan against you, there’s a need to diversify your approach.

In many ways, losing the inside battle was a season-long trend. It all crested in Game 3 of their semi-final series against the Wildcats. In a high-stakes game, when scoring was at a premium, and in which each shot was heavily contested, the Wildcats bludgeoned the Hawks in the paint.

The math was simple: the Wildcats took more, and made more, of the easiest shots in the game.

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Fast forward to today and it’s something that Beveridge openly concedes was their Achilles heel.

“I think we’re going to be a little bit better than what we were last year physically,” he said of this year’s squad.

“I think that was one of our weaknesses – possibly where I thought we were soft at times. I think we’re going to be better defensively.”

The Hawks moved to address that toughness issue by swooping on hard-nuts in Nick Kay and Mitch Norton. It hopes that the duo will provide that extra toughness and a hard-nosed edge to balance out the Hawks’ finesse game.

Beveridge is particularly high on Kay. The 6’9” big man is physical, runs the floor, and Beveridge loves his basketball IQ.

And he's confident that Kay will develop into a versatile threat.

“Nick Kay is just a beast,” he said. “He is so strong, he’s active, he’s so mobile. He just fits perfectly with what we’re about with running the floor. Right now, we’re spending an enormous amount of time developing his perimeter game, not only to be that grunt, but have the ability to shoot the three and go off the dribble.”

In Norton, the Hawks hope to have a long-term successor to Rhys Martin as the lead guard. He’ll spend time being mentored by the Hawks’ veteran, and Beveridge has no doubt that he will develop into an outstanding point guard of the future.

Squint a little and Norton already reminds one of another tough and fearless Beveridge-protégée in a young Damian Martin.

“The thing with Mitch is: no backward step, he doesn’t care who you are. There’s no airs or graces. He just gets in and plays his butt off.”

The signing of import big, Michael Holyfield, will also help. Holyfield is a giant human (listed at 211cm) and comes with the reputation of being tough and defensive-minded.

Here’s some highlights of our new import Michael Holyfield. Join Michael and the Hawks by becoming a member today! pic.twitter.com/cIBGczv605

— Illawarra Hawks (@illawarrahawks) August 12, 2016

On offense, losing the league MVP in Lisch, and one of its best shooters in Kirk Penney, are obviously blows.

But those losses are somewhat mitigated by the re-signing of another former league MVP in Rotnei Clarke.

Clarke returns to Australia after spending the past two years playing in Europe. He’s what Beveridge calls “a scoring machine” and fits perfectly within their high-octane system.

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“I’m bringing Rotnei back in who’s an absolutely fantastic guy,” enthused Beveridge. “There’s a buzz in the town. They’re all excited about Rotnei coming back in.”

The last time Clarke played on these shores, he averaged 21 points a game and shot 40 percent from deep, on the way to collecting the league MVP. It’s not hard to figure out why his return is so eagerly anticipated.

The Hawks also just rounded out their roster with the signing of a third import in Marvelle Harris.

Harris comes advertised as a high-scoring combo-guard from Fresno State University, a seemingly good fit with the system, though his shooting numbers have been iffy across his four seasons at the college level.


Outlook

It’s hard to project how a team that finished within one game of the Grand Final series will fare in a revamped league. Every team will be loaded.

The Hawks certainly have lost talent. But they've recruited well, and filled some glaring needs from last season.

Nick Kay and Mitch Norton will provide additional toughness, whilst Rotnei Clarke will hope to somewhat replicate the production of the Lisch/Penney tandem, and provide a perimeter threat to complement A.J. Ogilvy's inside game.

Club stalwarts in Rhys Martin, Tim Coenraad and Oscar Forman also remain to provide veteran leadership.

Question marks will hover over the productivity of their other imports in Michael Holyfield and Marvelle Harris until they play meaningful minutes during the season.

But one thing's for certain -- under, Beveridge, the Hawks will continue to play an attractive brand of basketball.

“We’re going to play a very similar style of game," said Beveridge "I’ve been doing this for a long time and had great success doing what I do.”

Rotnei Clarke will have a license to run-and-gun, and with a year under their belts, the majority of the roster will be well-versed with Beveridge's style. There's just real value in continuity, and that's one advantage this team will have over others.

And with the head coach and core pieces locked away for a few years, the Hawks are building something special.