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Wildcats set to run from the ghost of Mike Dunigan
Every NBL offseason, if you listen closely, you can hear the name of Mike Dunigan whispered through the breeze in Perth.
It’s peculiar that this player, who made a brief four-game cameo as an injury replacement for Matty Knight in 2012-13, resonates with pockets of a fan base with no shortage of championship heroes. Dunigan’s cult status is a sign that, for all the success that the Wildcats have enjoyed in recent years, they have never quite managed to win over the NBL’s style critics. The Wildcats have built a perennial championship contender based on defensive grit, eschewing the eye-catching offensive fireworks of the pace-and space era. Despite the wins, the rings, the banners and the record-breaking consecutive finals appearances, these post-millennial Wildcats are yet to attract the kind of admiration reserved for teams like Joey Wright’s 2006-07 Brisbane Bullets juggernaut, or even Rob Beveridge’s upstart 80-shots-per-game Illawarra Hawks of 2015-16.
For the Wildcats faithful, Dunigan was an all-too brief glimpse of life in the nineties, when the athleticism of James ‘The Alabama Slammer’ Crawford wreaked havoc on the league.
In the post-Crawford era, the Wildcats centre position has seen the likes of Paul Rogers, Matt Burston, Lukes (of the Nevill and Schenscher variety), and more recently, Knight, Tom Jervis and Nate Jawai.
Skilled, effective big men, to be sure (yes, even the Lukes had their moments), but hardly the most athletic or fleet of foot. Well, this coming season, it seems CEO Nick Marvin and Co. want the Red Army to have their cake and eat it too.
In mobile 206cm centre Jameel McKay, have the ‘Cats found the second coming of Mike Dunigan?
A new era of 'Running and Gunning'
The signing of McKay to Perth’s third and final import spot indicates a stylistic change is on the cards for the Wildcats in 2016-17. Assistant coach Adam Forde cited McKay’s ability to run the floor as one of the reasons behind his recruitment, adding, “it’s going to be hard for teams to keep up with that up-tempo style of play.” McKay joins returning club MVP Casey Prather and new 198cm D-League recruit Jaron Johnson to form a hyper-athletic import trio sure to cause some sleepless nights for opposing coaches.
In addition to the imports, Perth have added depth on the wing in 201cm Dexter-Kernich-Drew, out of Washington State University, described by Assistant Coach Jamie O’Loughlin as “long, athletic [and] great in transition”.
Also for the first time in his Wildcats tenure, Gleeson has a centre with legitimate three-point range at his disposal in Angus Brandt, who shot 42.1% from deep last season with Sydney.
Result: More pace and more space. It doesn't end there either; in news from pre-season training, the Wildcats Facebook page recently reported:
Greg Hire was just 2cm off the team's best vertical leap at Monday's performance testing, FYI!
Consider yourself on notice, rest of league.
No disrespect to Greg, but maybe the Wildcats roster isn’t quite primed to send wave after wave of explosive athletes for the full 40 minutes. Still, signs point to a team intent on fast breaking at every opportunity. After falling outside the top four in pace in Trevor Gleeson’s first three seasons as head coach, the ‘Cats look set to play an up tempo, above the rim style that will have the Jungle rollicking.
Perth Wildcats Pace Ranking 2013-16
[table id=116 /]
The question is: what is Perth sacrificing in their pursuit of a more aesthetically pleasing, up-tempo style of play? What happened to the old adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’?
Defensively, it’s hard to see the Wildcats taking a step backward from their top-two defensive rating in 2015-16 (1.06 points per possession). Johnson adds length on the wing, and McKay comes with a strong reputation as a rim protector, adding mobility to what was an already fearsome defensive lineup. The question marks appear at the offensive end.
For starters, they no longer have Nate Jawai to attract panicked double teams to bend the defence, or Jermaine Beal’s ability to create his own shot out of not much. Sure, Knight is a relatively efficient post scorer and passer, and you can expect Prather will be looking to showcase improved creativity off the dribble.
Johnson, too, reportedly made significant strides in his ability to facilitate in his second D-league season with Rio Grande Valley Vipers, jumping from 1.68 to 3.06 assists per game. But it appears Gleeson will need to implement a scheme that relies on perfectly-timed screening and off-ball movement to find guys slashing to the rim. Damian Martin will try to make Perth the NBL’s answer to Lob City with all that athleticism at his disposal. Rest assured, Nick Marvin and Co. will not settle for third in dunks again this season:
[table id=117 /]
Still, the holes left by Jawai and Beal's departures are likely to mean less margin for error in half-court offensive execution, and a disciplined defensive team could make it difficult for the ‘Cats to score at times. That’s why Perth’s ability to create points in transition off their pressure defence will be absolutely crucial this season. Expect an arms race with Bevo’s Hawks in steals per game as both teams ramp up the extended pressure.
Trevor Gleeson has shown the ability to adapt to the roster at hand in his time at Perth. Life after James Ennis is very different to life with James Ennis. Similarly, Nate Jawai is not exactly the sort of player you can easily integrate into a team, especially at late notice, especially as a replacement for a guard. But turning these Wildcats into a fast breaking machine might just present Gleeson with his most special opportunity yet: no, I’m not talking about that elusive back-to-back title. Trev could be the man to set the ghost of Mike Dunigan free.
*All stats per RealGM unless otherwise stated.