Wildcats’ Woes: Back-to-back was never going to be easy

Owner Jack Bendat and wife Eleanor. Photo Perthnow
Owner Jack Bendat and wife Eleanor. Photo: Perth Now

The 2015/16 season ended in pretty familiar fashion for the Perth Wildcats: another championship, proudly placed alongside six others in their bulging trophy cabinet. This celebrated seventh championship, solidifying and unequivocally stamping Perth’s credentials as the most successful organisation in NBL history. Having contested five of the last seven finals series and participating in thirty straight playoffs, they provide the blueprint other teams should follow for sustained dominance.

Beer soaked jerseys of the ‘red army’ – the Wildcats hyper-manic fan base – were still dripping, when shouts of going ‘back-to-back’ in 2016/17 could be heard throughout Western Australia. The pieces for another tilt appeared in place so why not keep the band together and go for it again?

Championship hangover?

It’s fair to say, it’s been a pretty strange 6 months since that championship win for Perth.

A series of off-season moves divided the fan base and made it hard to comprehend exactly what was happening with the defending champs. Popular gunner and former finals MVP, Jermaine Beal, was surprisingly let go; later signing with the returning Brisbane Bullets franchise. Tom Jervis, also departed for Brisbane, hoping a larger role would help unlock his enormous potential. Huge drink-o-water and notorious towel soaker, Nathan Jawai, headed back to Cairns. Casey Prather was also unlikely to return, auditioning for NBA scouts during summer league play.

And, as is customary in these parts: hulking bushman Matty Knight, injured his troublesome shoulder for the 98th time and would miss the start of the next campaign.

If you weren’t keeping count, that’s four key pieces of the championship roster who likely would be playing elsewhere, with another critical piece injured to start the year. That’s not the ideal start to a championship follow-up.

Casey Prather ramming it home. Photo: Perth Wildcats
Casey Prather ramming it home. Photo: Perth Wildcats.

A return to run, gun and stun.

As the off-season gradually progressed, it was clear that Perth was in fact purposefully changing tact and did have a plan. The NBL rule change allowing three import spots or ‘marquee’ signings for the upcoming season, opened up options for all teams that weren’t previously available. For the Wildcats, it signaled the time for change, one in which the team philosophy and it’s playing style would be completely different.

2016 would be a return to a frenetic Showtime style, similar to the Cal Bruton led Wildcats of the past. With a quick and exciting brand of ball, the already fever pitched atmosphere in ‘the jungle’ would be whipped into a lather.

The plan was simple in theory: recruit long armed, high-flying imports Jaron Johnson and Jameel McKay, include the now returning Casey Prather and then “release the Dobermans”. To take advantage of this new-found athleticism, Perth would push the pace at every chance, attack off turnovers, dunk everything and shoot a lot of threes. To further utilise the other worldly defensive skills of Damian Martin, a trapping-switching defence would be employed.

It would be 40 minutes of helter skelter basketball.

There was a hint all was not right early on, deactivating import Jaron Johnson just three games in. What followed could best be described as comedic. His replacement, Andre Ingram, returned to the States after two average games. Then, in a quick about-face and with tail between their legs, the Wildcats quickly re-signed Jaron who thankfully was still in Perth. Watching these events unfold in quick sequence, was truly stunning and so very un-Wildcat like, it almost beggared belief.

Like deja-vu… all over again!

In this caper, staying healthy can be the difference between experiencing euphoric glory or the depths of despair. A whole season’s dynamic, a team’s best laid plans, can shift dramatically the moment an ankle rolls, a knee twists or a shoulder pops unexpectedly (again!).

The Wildcats weathered the injury storm when it hit them last season. Captain Damian Martin missed a number of games with a calf issue and then broken jaw and Matty Knight missed several with his recurring shoulder problems.

As we know, none of that made a difference in the end. Jarrod Kenny, Corbin Wroe and Tom Jervis seized their opportunities, helping Beal, Prather, Jawai and Jesse Wagstaff keep the ship afloat until Marto and Matty returned.

Bizarrely, the same injuries have happened to the same players this year!  In what is shaping up as one of the most even seasons in a long time, can the Wildcats keep the ship afloat again?

According to the McDavid Recovery Report (published weekly on the NBL website), the Wildcats have had to cover for the unfortunate and untimely injuries to Matty Knights (shoulder injury – twice), Damian Martin (jaw and MCL tear), Jarrod Kenny (groin) and Corbin Wroe (concussion) in the first 7 rounds. The total man games lost is already into double figures with Martin not expected back for another 9-11 weeks. Though there is no structural damage to Knights shoulder, caution should still be the order of the day. He should miss a few games at minimum.

The other contenders can surely smell blood and you would think the champs should already be on the ropes, not having their best roster available once this year. But, despite the injury-riddled beginning, Perth has been able to take advantage of a home heavy schedule and is off to a very nice start, sitting in third spot on the ladder with a 6-4 record. As Joshua Barrett highlighted here, good teams find a way, with contributions coming from lesser lights pushed into larger roles.

When the team has needed someone to stand up, someone stands up. In the first clash against the reborn Sydney Kings last week, Jarrod Kenny, stepped up in his comeback match and guided the Wildcats to a big win. In the return bout a few days later, Angus Brandt, stepped into the starting line-up and provided much-needed brute force in the paint. Rookie Dexter Kernich-Drew has continually shown flashes of a Shaun Livingston like game with an added deadly shooting stroke.

Kernich-Drew showing his textbook form. Photo Perth Wildcats
Kernich-Drew showing his textbook form. Photo: Perth Wildcats

It’s still early, there is no need to panic.

The next two home games against Illawarra on Sunday and Brisbane, Dec 1, are crucial. On the horizon is a five game away stretch, including big games against arch nemesis New Zealand and another heavyweight rematch with the Sydney Kings. They can’t afford to fall too far into the waiting horde. There’s no need to panic if you are a Wildcats fan though, they are unquestionably one of the better teams in the NBL. Barring any more injuries, Perth has the winning pedigree and depth to hold on until the reinforcements arrive.

As we know, there’s only a few certainties in this life: death, taxes and the Perth Wildcats in the playoffs. All they have to do is make it and it’s a whole new ballgame.

Once there, Perth’s championship experience could prove to be the difference between fans shouting for a ‘3-peat’ or calling for a Zen Dudeist to voodoo cleanse the locker rooms.

(Disclaimer: the author takes no responsibility should the Wildcats not make the playoffs, busting the streak. It has been a bizarre, crazy year for them right from the get go.)  

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