2016/17 NBL Season in Review: Illawarra Hawks

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?

The Hawks are going places.

After finishing within a game of the grand final series in 2015/16, the Hawks went one better, making the big dance before succumbing to those damn Wildcats in a sweep. It’s been a meteoric rise from the wooden spoon-ers of 2014/15.

Illawarra suffered some early-season teething problems, in which the club struggled to integrate new pieces, and saw the squad start the season 2-5. But they ultimately rebounded to claim a postseason berth.

For Hawks assistant coach, Eric Cooks, the team was going through a natural process of meshing in new pieces, whilst still retaining their core identity: Taking 80 shots a game and jacking up transition 3s.

“We had some injuries that delayed that process as well,” said Cooks. “Like you said, bringing in so many new faces, it definitely took a little while to adjust and to find what our real identity was.”

There was a palpable evolution to their fastbreak style into something with more grit; the Hawks were willing to get down into the trenches and play physical, if needed.

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The change in personnel led to some stylistic changes in play. Their 3-point shooting dipped to league average this year, down from a torrid 38 percent from their Cinderella run of the previous year. That’s not surprising when you consider the team replaced sharpshooters in Kirk Penney and Kevin Lisch with Marvelle Harris and Mitch Norton, both more comfortable attacking the lane.

“I mean, we did have people like A.J. that definitely held down the middle well for us,” said Cooks, of the 3-point bombing 2015/16 Hawks. “But we relied heavily on Penney and Lisch shooting 3s, and some of the other guys contributing as well from that area.

“This year I thought we really focused a lot more on our defensive end of the court, and we generated a lot of our offence from the defensive end.”

Remarkably, the Hawks increased their steal rate from last year despite the loss of one of the premier ball-hawks in Kevin Lisch. Kevin White continued to be awesome and gave the Hawks a controlled nastiness on the perimeter. Dude is just flat-out mean.

The Hawks also feel that they upped their defensive rebounding rate – often a sore point – and boasted a more robust defence overall. The numbers are similar to last year, and perhaps any change was visceral in nature. You could at least feel the Hawks on defence this time around.

“I thought we rebounded slightly better, and a lot of that had to do with shared responsibility – multiple people grabbing rebounds,” said Cooks. “Nick Kay played a big part in that with the physicality and the interior presence that he brought to the team.”

Ultimately, the team still played Bevo-ball – albeit a renewed, grittier version -- all the way, trailing only the jet-fuelled Adelaide 36ers in pace of play. It was a stylistic adjustment that led them to the decider.

Despite falling short of a title, the team is the on rise, and Rob Beveridge and Co. are doing exactly what they said they would do: Build a winning culture at The Gong.


Team MVP

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Rotnei Clarke

“Rotnei’s too good a player not to come out of -- if you want to call it -- a slump.”

That was Rob Beveridge telling me mid-season how he was confident of Clarke turning the corner. He explained that Clarke had lost his confidence after spending a season in Europe -- in which any mistake would cost him playing time -- and that he just needed some positive reinforcement.

“It just took a bit of time and reassurance that we definitely supported him taking shots in transition or early in the offence,” said Cooks. “Because we believed he was a very capable scorer, which he proved to be.”

Clarke was flipped to the bench, in part, to relieve him of the glaring spotlight. It also allowed him to play his natural free-wheeling game, something that married well with a bench sparkplug role.

After a lacklustre opening month – when various talking heads questioned if Clarke should be replaced – the NBL’s Sixth Man of the Year would set the league alight with a brand of joyful chucking that devastated opponents.


(Mild) Disappointment

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A.J. Ogilvy

Disappointment is a strong word, but since we need to have this category...

We're still waiting for Ogilvy to take that next step and become a consistent force on both ends. When engaged, Ogilvy is a top-5 player in this league. No other big boasts the combination of inside/outside scoring, rebounding and rim protection.

But Hawks fans have often lamented how Ogilvy seems to disappear for stretches (even games), that he seems to lack the hunger to harness all that talent and impose himself.

Cooks believes that teams go out of their way to play him overly physical, and that it’s a mental thing with Ogilvy.

“Mentally, he’s got to be able to accept that and not lose his focus on what he’s trying to achieve in games,” he said. “When he maintains his focus, and plays through that, he’s a much better player.”


Best Moment

The Game 3 win of their semi-finals series against the Adelaide 36ers.

The Hawks blitzed the 36ers from the opening tip, ramming up a sizable lead by halftime that the Adelaide could never overcome.

The onslaught would have been savoured by Hawks fans -- contrived animosity from the 36ers aside (seriously, does Jerome Randle really believe that the Hawks are dirty?) -- with Illawarra upsetting the title favourites and advancing to the grand final series.


Worst Moment

You could argue that a slow start -- losing 5 of their first 7 games – culminating in some over-the-top criticism for the team was their lowest point. Failing to win a single game in the grand final series would also hurt.

But let me be clear: The tragedy of the passing of Marvelle Harris’ father puts all things in perspective. It makes us realise that sport is just a game, despite the professionalism. The stakes of a basketball game do not matter when it comes to the game of life.

Our best wishes and thoughts to the Harris family.


Off-season Wishlist

The Hawks retain a core of Ogilvy, Clarke, Norton, Nick Kay, Rhys Martin, Cody Ellis and Kevin White for the 2017/18 campaign. Tim Coenraad, their best player in the playoffs, and Oscar Forman are free agents. Both are integral to the run-and-shoot-3s identity of the Hawks. Coenraad, in particular, is their best two-way wing.

“It’s still early to tell,” said Cooks, in relation to what the Hawks’ offseason recruitment plans may be.

Regardless, like most teams, the Hawks will need to examine their import situation, outside of the already signed Rotnei Clarke.

They need an athletic, scoring wing who can match up on opposing slashers and stretch the floor. Marvelle Harris had an excellent start to the season, but tailed off (as you would expect from a rookie) before a mini-surge again. Harris was at his best attacking the rim, but often settled for long range jumpers during that slump; he shot 23 percent from 3-point range for the season.

The Hawks will also need another big to spare the physical load on Ogilvy and Kay. Michael Holyfield was the perfect big body, solidifying the Hawks’ interior defence off the bench.

And let’s face it, the Hawks are always looking for outside shooters.

Much has been made of the league trending towards dynamic, score-first point guards, and how that is where the future lies. But the Hawks already feel that they boast one in Rotnei Clarke. Instead, they’ll be looking to improve their roster on the margins to supplement their core.

Besides, a lot of the improvement might be internal. The Hawks will expect further improvement from their younger players. In particular, there are high expectations for Mitch Norton to continue his development.

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Norton was earmarked by Beveridge as the bedrock on defence who would set the tone, and that has largely played out. On offence, Norton is a natural drive-and-kicker, and he has a tendency to pass up on open 3s and drive into traffic and look to create.

That was problematic for a Hawks’ offence that stalled at times; smart teams would stick to the Hawks' best shooters in Clarke and Coenraad (and Forman, when he played), and dare others to shoot from deep.

“At other times in the game, we are struggling to score and teams are not guarding him [Norton] as aggressively on the perimeter,” said Cooks. “He definitely needs to be more aggressive to score from the perimeter as well.”

But Norton works hard on improving his perimeter game, both before and after practice, and he also has the perfect mentor in Rhys Martin.

“I do expect that part of his game to develop even more,” added Cooks.

Nick Kay’s transformation into a hybrid banger-with-3-point-range will also need an extra offseason of seasoning – he looks uncomfortable shooting 3s at times, and enemies are happy to leave him to clog up spacing elsewhere.


Grade

A+

The Hawks did what they promised: They improved, evolved and succeeded. Best of all, the building blocks of a long-term winning culture have been established.