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Perth Wildcats: 2017-18 Season Preview
These words have become synonymous with the National Basketball League (NBL): Perth Wildcats, and NBL championships.
If you are from the West and a fan of the Wildcats, there must be an immense feeling of pride.
Pride in the organisation's unrelenting dominance, which simply put, is now the gold standard for any sporting franchise, of any code in Australia. The Wildcats' decision makers rarely get it wrong.
Perth has become to the NBL, what the San Antonio Spurs have become, since Gregg Popovich took hold of the Spurs reins in 1996. It's easy to be envious of these two teams, especially if you're a competing team. Envy the way they go about it; the standards they set and drive into their staff and players every single day and in the accountability they hold to those staff if those standards aren’t met. Envy the hard earned ‘winners’ reputation and the culture that imbibes. Perhaps, you could be envious of the world class arena the team plays in or its first-class, purpose-built training facilities.
Above all, one would definitely be envious of the fans, the ravenous ‘Red Army’!
Since 1987 – when this incredible dynastic run began - the Perth Wildcats have won an NBL record eight championships ('90, '91, '95, '00, '10, '14, '16, '17), contested 13 championship series ('87, '90, '91, '93, '95, '00, '03, '10, '12, '13, '14, '16, '17) and participated in a truly stunning 31 straight playoffs.
You can pinpoint the arrival of Gregg Popovich and RC Buford as the catalyst for the Spurs' sustained dominance in the NBA. Not with Perth though. There is no definitive 'Popovichian' correlation for Perth's success. Perhaps, the recent dominance could be attributed to Rob Beveridge, the man who got the team back onto the championship track back in 2010 before Trevor Gleeson was handed the keys; the Wildcats have played in 6 of the last 8 finals series under both men.
But despite sustained, consistent and sometimes dominant winning since 1987, the Perth Wildcats haven’t steered clear of disharmony or discord from within. There has been plenty that could have derailed them but the franchise has been ruthless when necessary and many times without - just ask Cal Bruton or Mike Ellis or Alan Black or Connor Henry or most recently, Jaron Johnson.
Beginning with the first Grand Final run 30 years ago in '87, there have been a total of 11 coaches (including both Cal Bruton and Alan Black on two different occasions).
There have been 4 different ownership groups – Bob Williams, Kerry Stokes, Andrew Vlahov & Luc Longley and current owner Jack Bendat.
The Wildcats have called 5 different stadia home – the Superdrome, the cosy Challenge Stadium, the Perth Entertainment Centre, Challenge Stadium again, Burswood Dome (1 game) and the current fortress of opposition misery: Perth Arena.
Even with the constant change, internal upheavals, roster turnover, power struggles (particularly in the 90’s) and rapid-fire coaching changes over its storied history – none of it has mattered one iota to the Perth Wildcats team. They are always giving themselves a chance, and they have a knack for winning when it matters most.
As we embark on a new NBL season, the challenge now for the league's torch bearer is to reach even greater heights. To go where no Wildcat team has gone before. To go where only 2 other NBL ball clubs (Sydney Kings & New Zealand Breakers) have ever gone: the three-peat.
The Wildcats have rightly earned the team to beat tag and 'you still have to go through Perth' as they say. Let's take a look at how the Perth Wildcats have prepared themselves to make more history.
Key Losses: Casey Prather (Melbourne United), Jameel McKay (Phoenix Fuel Masters) Shawn Redhage (old age)
Through all the turmoil of last season, like the on again/off again tryst with Jaron Johnson and the injuries to Matty Knight, Redhage, Jarrod Kenny and Damian Martin, there was one dominant constant that kept the team afloat: Casey Prather.
The loss of the two-time club MVP and All-NBL 1st teamer may not be immediately felt but make no mistake, his shadow looms large; especially considering he has shifted colours and gone to the raging (early) title favourites, Melbourne United (pencil it in people - October 20, Perth v Melb)
Prather's scoring impact should ably be covered by the now fully integrated finals MVP, Bryce Cotton, the high flying highlight waiting to happen, J P Tokoto, and a vastly improved Angus Brandt; whose bruising and dominant display for Australia in the Asia Cup surely has the coaching staff amped about his potential impact as a full-time starter. 'Mr 45' is certainly glad to back.
“To be here from the beginning of the season and go through the whole thing this time… I’m definitely looking forward to that ride.” - Bryce Cotton (source)
Ideally, Perth would like to see an even spread of scoring, perhaps with as many as six double-digit scorers. Relying on Cotton to go off every game is fool's gold and won't work all season, Tokoto, Brandt, Cooke Jr, Martin and Wagstaff, even Walker, all need to contribute nightly to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Importantly, this off-season the Wildcats appear to have remembered who they are and have recruited accordingly. Rather than flirt again with offence-first players, the coaching staff has doubled down on defence and picked up two defensive players to complement backcourt Doberman, Damian Martin.
Incoming import duo, J P Tokoto and Derek Cooke Jr, fit the team-first, defensive attitude for which the Wildcats have become renowned. At first glance, particularly on defence, they can slot into the wing and forward/centre roles that have been vacated by the outgoing tandem of Prather and the grossly underrated Jameel Mackay.
Tokoto, a 6’6 forward, played three years in Tar Heel blue for the University of North Carolina, before being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 58th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He has been playing most recently for the Rio-Grande Valley Vipers in the G-League and is a safe bet to have a few contenders for dunk of the year.
Cooke Jr, a 6'9 power forward/centre, played three years at the University of Wyoming, before displaying his freakish athleticism for the Northern Arizona Suns in the G-League. Cooke Jr has promised "to unleash extraordinary athleticism on the NBL" and "run like a gazelle".
According to Gleeson, the two imports add another athletic dimension and perimeter shooting that was sorely missing last season.
Needless to say, the fan base is excited at this new crop.
What to expect
Defence, winning basketball and multiple Matt Knight injuries.
A leopard (Wildcat) doesn't change its spots and last year's flirtation with a run, gun and stun style fell flat, just about wrecking the streak. The Cats know who they are and appear to have learned from that short-lived mistake.
Since the turn of the decade the Wildcats have been a defence-first unit, one that rebounds the hell out of the ball, slows the pace and gets in your grill at every opportunity. Look for the 'Cats to be a grit-n-grind, smash-mouth style of team again, with the occasional sprinkle of highlight reel dunks and hot shooting.
Perth was clearly the best defensive unit in the league in 2016-17. According to RealGM, in each of the 4 seasons under Trevor Gleeson, the Wildcats have finished top 2 in defensive rating, forcing turnovers and offensive rebound rate. Perth also finished bottom 2 in pace of play 3 of the 4 years under Gleeson.
Opposition teams are smothered when they play Wildcats, scoring the least in the league two straight years. An often overlooked reason for this is that Perth defends the three-point line better than other club, with opposition clubs shooting a shade under 33% on nearly 25 attempts a game. They are rushed and more often than not force a lot of shots late in the shot-clock.
Overall, it is a brutally effective formula for winning games of basketball; one which has resulted in a championship in 3 of the 4 years under Trevor's stewardship.
The easy answer here is Angus Brandt, the brute of a man who further announced his arrival as a big time player during the Asia Cup. Or, Lucas Walker, who is definitely primed for a year of making statements after only being an injury replacement for a few games in 2016-17.
But they aren't the right answer.
Dexter Kernich-Drew is on his way to Eric Watterson All-Star status and is the player to keep an eagle eye on this season. If given regular rotation minutes, then DKD has the potential to blossom into a shooter that should be feared and one the Wildcats so desperately need in their backcourt. DKD showed throughout the NBL Blitz that he is ready to step up and he closed out the comp by nailing 5 threes and scoring 26 points in his final game.
3 straight home games to begin and 6 of 8 overall to start the year, should see the Cats primed for an assault on the top of the ladder. Couple that with the unknown effects of fellow contenders Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane travelling to the States (to be taught a rather embarrassing lesson) and it should see the Cats start strong, setting up a possible nice buffer early.
They could be without the bushman, Matt Knight, for the start of the season proper. Reports out West say his injured thumb (which sustained a small fracture in game 1 of the Blitz) won't require surgery and he is aiming for the opener on October 7 against the Brisbane Bullets. With Brandt and Cooke Jr able to cover the centre position and Lucas Walker taking the minutes of retired NBL legend, Shawn Redhage, the Wildcats may not need him till November anyway. If the Wildcats start as expected, an extended rest could be a blessing for the oft-injured Wildcat legend.
The keys as always are how quickly the new players can get acclimated to the Wildcat way and health, especially the health of team captain Damian Martin. The 5-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2015-16 Grand Final MVP is the cog that makes everything else click into place, without him there will be no three-peat.
Predicted regular season record: 18-10
“If we’re healthy and playing a good brand of basketball, we’ll be up there challenging again,” Gleeson in July (source).
The Perth Wildcats will again be in the conversation to make a run at an historic three-peat and 9th NBL championship overall. Melbourne United may be the early favourite but even they know, you still have to go through Perth.