What other NBL teams can learn from the Perth Wildcats in free agency
No matter how many episodes of Bill Simmons (or insert your preferred basketball podcast) you listen to, no one knows what sports are going to look like once the world returns to some form of normality.
Our beloved NBL is no exception. Free agency could be delayed beyond its already pushed back date and there are some serious salary shakeups on the horizon. The league isn’t even close to discussing whether or not fans will be able to attend games or if the start of the season will be delayed. Not to mention, one of the greatest talents to ever grace the league is threatening to leave. Not great, Bob!
If there is one piece of mildly ‘good’ news out there for clubs, it’s that every team is on a level playing field. Going into whatever remains of the 2020/21 season, no team is immune to the challenges that are presenting themselves.
If, after all this, we do get a new season in 2020, the team building strategies are going to become more important than ever. Cash will be limited, teams are going to struggle to hang on to top-tier talent, and clubs will find it hard to convince their first or second choice imports to come over - if imports even happen. Teams are going to have to approach their offseason moves with the type of forethought typically undetectable outside of Perth.
The Wildcats have practically perfected future-proof team building during their current era of dominance, it’s genuinely difficult to find a move they’ve made over the past seven years that isn't worthy of praise.
Every team can learn something from Perth’s philosophy, but what lessons are actually there for the taking?
Target young imports
Every team would love to ride uber-talented imports to championships. However, there are big problems with that strategy. The NBL’s import pipeline has historically been a bit of a crapshoot and that the imports who turn out to be good are usually expensive and difficult to re-sign.
Perth’s solution is simple: much like Leonardo DiCaprio’s taste in women, target players in their early 20s.
Since the 2013/14 season, 12 Wildcats imports have played more than a handful of games for the club. Just two of them were over the age of 28 when they signed, while seven were 25 or younger. Using some back of the envelope calculations, the average age of an NBL import since 2013 is approximately 27. The average age of a Wildcat import (at the time they were signed) in that period is just 25.5, the second-youngest mark in the league only behind the Cairns Taipans.
Going younger allows them to acquire imports who have less globetrotting experience and are, as a result, presumably cheaper. Generally, players who are just a year or two removed from college aren't nearly as costly as imports who has proven themselves professionally. With this in mind, the Wildcats are able to cut down on import costs and redirect their resources towards building up the best local talent base in the league.
The last seven seasons have also shown that this strategy is effective in getting imports to re-sign, too. Since 2013, just 19 imports have played more than one season with one club. Four of those players were Wildcats, the highest such number in the league.
This strategy has resulted in some misses, but all teams whiff on imports. No import is ever a guaranteed home run — no one ever knows how well a Euro League stud or an ex-NBAer is going to translate to our league. Just think about how many mediocre NBA veterans the Kings cycled through in the mid-2010s. It makes way more sense to go after imports who are younger, cheaper, more willing to re-sign, and have room to grow and develop their game.
Avoid retread imports
Tying directly into this, the Wildcats also avoid signing imports who have experience with other NBL teams. While you want to re-sign imports for continuity purposes (more on this later), you don’t want to poach them from other teams. In recent history, the Wildcats have adhered to this so stringently that it appears to be an unwritten law for the Wildcats’ front office. In fact, the last time Perth signed an import with prior NBL experience was back in 2009 with Galen Young.
But why wouldn’t you want to sign retreads? For starters, these imports are typically coveted by teams due to their performances with their initial squad. Unlike youngsters from outside the NBL, these imports are viewed by teams as established superstars of the league and see their price rise accordingly. When NBL front offices chase after established imports, the perception is that they’re getting a sure thing and are willing to shell out the big bucks.
The problem? Their reputations aren’t always warranted. The NBL's 28-game season is a tiny sample size. One big campaign can artificially inflate an import’s value and create a bidding war. To find an example, you don’t have to look any further than Melbourne’s signing of Melo Trimble. United thought they were signing the super-duper star in Cairns who drilled 41.5% of his three-point attempts. Instead, Trimble shot 34.7% from deep and was good but not great, likely not living up to the salary Melbourne paid because of his outstanding year in Cairns.
You can juxtapose Perth’s approach almost perfectly with that of the Illawarra Hawks in recent years. The Hawks are a financial lightweight in comparison but have not helped themselves with their signings over the past two seasons. Remarkably, the Hawks courted Josh Boone, Cedric Jackson, Jordair Jett, and Brian Conklin since 2018. They would have been far better off taking shots in the dark on younger and likely cheaper Americans with just a year or two of professional experience.
Maybe not Billy Preston, though.
In some cases, signing an import that fits this description will prove to be exceptionally successful. The Brisbane Bullets signing Torrey Craig away from Cairns, for instance, was one of the very best moves of the 2010s. Still, despite these instances of success, grabbing these players is generally an unwise strategy from a value standpoint.
Don’t wait for locals to hit their prime
High-end local players are the biggest competitive advantage in the NBL. It’s no coincidence that the two teams who ruled the 2010s were the clubs with the greatest wealth of awesome locals. The Wildcats and Breakers were able to stack their teams with guys like Mika Vukona, Damian Martin, Tom Abercrombie, and Shawn Redhage, before taking swings on imports to put them over the top.
The issue is that it’s easier said than done to accumulate those locals. Problematically, teams know the value of good locals and spend correspondingly. It’s difficult to find space for more than a couple high-quality Australasians.
Perth's solution is to invest in locals before they enter their prime. They utilise long-term contracts and trust themselves to develop these players into high-end performers. Perth all but avoid starter-quality locals who have already hit their prime. Since the 2013/14 season, the only real exception to this rule was their acquisition of 29-year old Nate Jawai in 2015. But the Wildcats only inked him to a one-year contract anyway, making it an extremely low risk move.
In adhering to this strategy, the Wildcats save money by avoiding players that NBL teams already know are stars. As an added bonus, they can also ensure that their signings have their best years ahead of them. Finding players who fit the bill is tough. Yet, Perth has mastered the art of poaching Aussies in their mid-20s who were yet to prove themselves as exceptional NBL players.
Nick Kay and Mitch Norton were stolen from Illawarra on three-year deals when they were both just 25 and not recognised as studs of the league. Fast forward a couple of seasons and Kay is a top five player, while Norton is well-positioned to be Perth's starting point guard for years. Getting Kay on a three-year deal when his value wasn’t anywhere near what it is now is one of the best free agency moves of the past decade.
Two years earlier, Angus Brandt was penned when he was 26. He then spent three years developing under Gleeson, becoming a key component of two championship teams. Three years before Brandt’s arrival, the Wildcats plucked a 26-year old Tom Jervis out of obscurity and turned him into a vital rotation piece on three title teams. Elsewhere, Clint Steindl was brought into their preseason squad back in 2017 after an OK stint in Europe. If I recall correctly, buzz around that signing at the time was minimal. Every team would love to have a weapon like Steindl now.
With the lone exception of their one season with Jawai, the Wildcats have avoided signing locals with great reputations. It’s highly unlikely that the Wildcats’ front office approve of what the Bullets have done over the past couple of seasons. In that span Brisbane inked Nathan Sobey, Cam Gliddon, Jason Cadee, Matt Hodgson, and Anthony Drmic (allegedly) away from rivals to multi-year deals. All of those players were in their primes Brisbane signed them. It should come as no surprise that the Bullets have had to cut back and sign low-level imports like Taylor Braun, AJ Davis, Alonzo Gee, and Jeremy Kendle.
On the other hand, Perth have consistently had the best local player base in the NBL, but have still had the cash to chase top-tier import talent. This strategy is the definition of having your cake and eating it too.
Fit over talent
The Wildcats are one of the league’s powerhouses financially. With their recruitment strategy, they could conceivably do something similar to Melbourne United.
Instead, they prioritise fit, rather than sheer talent.
One only needs to look at how they’ve built around Bryce Cotton to illustrate this idea. The front office knows Cotton is their ball-dominant superstar shot-maker — they do not need anyone else with Cotton-level usage. They instead need guys that fit seamlessly around him. Per Spatial Jam, Bryce Cotton posted the league’s sixth-highest usage rate, but only one other Wildcat (Terrico White) registered a top 30 usage rate.
You can spot a fake Wildcats rumour ridiculously easily if you follow this idea. Homicide’s belief that the Wildcats were going to sign Shawn Long last offseason offseason never made any sense because Perth would never want Long’s high-usage play style next to Cotton.
It’s for that same reason why, on NBL Overtime, Liam Santamaria felt that the Wildcats would not add Scotty Hopson.
Instead of going after players with the highest talent level possible, Perth lock in players that they know will fit with the rest of the roster. Terrico White is a perfect example — aside from his 2019 playoff performance, he has not lit the league on fire. But he remains an excellent floor spacer who is happy to play second banana to Cotton within the offence.
The Miles Plumlee signing is maybe an even better example. Plumlee might be an ex-NBAer, but you wouldn’t know it just by analysing the role he played for Perth. Unlike Long, he wasn’t someone who demanded the ball and put up monster counting stats. Rather, Plumlee steadied the Wildcats on the defensive glass, was an excellent rim runner, protected the paint, and was an outstanding complementary piece.
This seems like an easy enough concept, but far too many teams get seduced by talent every year and worry about team fit later on. The Wildcats do not, and it leads to championships.
Continuity breeds success
This is easily the most fundamental and basic part of the Wildcats’ success. Simply speaking, don’t get rid of anyone that you can re-sign unless you have an opportunity to drastically improve your team.
Since 2013/14, the Wildcats have turned over more than three players in an offseason just once. You can point to a bunch of points this decade where you can make the case that they should have moved on from a player to upgrade the talent level of the team. Despite White's wishy-washy form, they have chosen to keep him around for two seasons because they value continuity and his fit over the upside of someone who might be better than him.
Continuity in the NBL matters more than most fans realise. Since the season is just 28 games long, teams who are stacked with players who are unfamiliar with each other are at a huge disadvantage. If it takes these teams a while to gel they can fall behind the pack quickly. The vast majority of the Wildcats roster, on the other hand, have played with each other for years — Wagstaff and Martin have shared the court for over a decade. That Wildcats stick to their strategy of continuity, and they hit the ground running almost every season.