Wildcats going big when everyone’s going small

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

This season, with the addition of Nate Jawai, the Perth Wildcats are going against the grain of modern basketball thinking, by using a behemoth starting five.

Most teams in Australia, and around the world, are going with a smaller more mobile lineup. What they’re trying to achieve is flexibility on defense – able to switch on every pick n roll – and better spacing on offense – with more 3-point shooting.

The Illawarra Hawks and Melbourne United are the epitomai of this. With Oscar Forman and Daniel Kickert playing the four spot, both teams stretch opposing defenses by having great 3-point shooting power forwards; no surprise they’re the two best offensive teams in the league.

But having great shooting power forwards, usually, comes at the expense of rebounding – the Hawks and United are also the two worst defensive rebounding teams in the NBL.

They expect to give up a few extra offensive rebounds but hope to make up for that by outgunning opponents at the other end.

With Matty Knight playing the four spot, the Wildcats are essentially starting two centers in the lineup. That’s great for your rebounding total, but it’s potentially a liability on the defensive end.

Trevor Gleeson cops a lot of flack from Wildcats supporters, some of it’s justified – stagnant offense, lack of ball movement, etc – some of it’s borne out of Wildcats’ fans love for former coach Rob Beveridge, but there’s no denying Gleeson knows defense.

He’s done a fantastic job using both Knight and Jawai together on the defensive end. It hasn’t always worked this season, but in the past two games – against United and the Hawks – the Wildcats have started to figure it out.

Where teams like Illawarra and Melbourne try to exploit Perth’s two big man lineup is in the pick n roll/pop. When both the ball handler and the screener are 3-point shooters, it’s terribly difficult to defend.

Some teams like to trap the dribbler, but that leaves the big man wide open, ready to pop the 3-ball.

Teams that go with this option will get burned. Daniel Kickert is one of the best 3-point shooters in the league, leaving him open is not a good idea.

What the Wildcats did against United was switch these pick n rolls.

Jarrod Kenny doesn’t try to fight through the screen, instead switches onto the bigger Kickert, preventing him getting open.

However, it isn’t a foolproof plan.

On this occasion, the switch leaves Jawai trying to defend a quicker player – Stephen Holt – who blows by him for the easy layup.

There’s no easy way to defend a dangerous team like Melbourne United but it’s better to make them try and drive to the bucket, rather than leaving them open at the 3-point line.

Where the Perth Wildcats have an advantage – with their monster frontcourt – is on the boards and in the paint. Perth should be able to grab a ton of offensive rebounds with the hope of translating that into second chance points.

And with two excellent post scorers, the Wildcats look to punish smaller teams inside.

Jawai going one-on-one with the much smaller, Oscar Forman, will always end in disaster for the Hawks.

For an offense featuring Nate Jawai and Matty Knight playing together, the other players on the court need to be able to shoot 3-pointers to make it work. Jawai, and to a lesser extent Matty Knight, demand double teams which leaves Perth’s perimeter players open at the 3-point line.

If they’re knocking those down, opposition teams will think twice about doubling the big boys in the paint.

The Golden State Warriors proved that it’s possible to win a championship using an ultra-small lineup. While none of the NBL teams have gone to that extreme, they’re still using the same principles.

The Wildcats can play a similar style, using Jesse Wagstaff or Shawn Redhage as the power forward, but when you have two dangerous post-up threats, why not use them?

Now that the ‘Cats are finally healthy, we’ll see how dangerous Perth’s massive frontcourt can be.

2 Comments on "Wildcats going big when everyone’s going small"

  1. Nice analysis. It’s interesting in the NBL this year. This league was one of the first to move to the mobile PF, but now it’s becoming more common around the world more NBL teams are going with bigger PFs this season.

    Perth, Melbourne, NZ, Illawarra, Sydney, Townsville and Cairns all spending time without a mobile defensive-orientated PF on the floor, and most of those teams running two genuine bigs at times. It makes for some interesting mismatches.

    • Thanks Paulo. Great point regarding mobile bigs of the past – Barlow, Worthington even Mackinnon way back in the day were being used as small-ball power forwards.

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