Every preseason, Perth Wildcats gather as a team to nut out three core values to focus on for the NBL season ahead. It's like a tradition -- a rite of passage -- for every incarnation of the most successful franchise in the history of the league.
Underlining those values are a set of non-negotiable player-driven behaviours that are supported by the coaching staff, in which each individual is held accountable. Over the years, a value might be tweaked, a behaviour might be added, but the core principles have remained largely the same. This continuity of culture has trickled down from generation to generation of Wildcat.
"The beautiful thing about the Wildcats is the culture," team captain Damian Martin tells ESPN. "And a lot of the values we still have instilled in the team."
Sure, the players are aware of the history - 31 consecutive playoff appearances, and counting -- yet that's not what drives them. Rather, it's the process and the respect towards these core tenets that have been the pillars of success fuelling the current dynasty of three titles in four years. And that's what infuriated Martin after a pair of defeats to the bottom-placed Sydney Kings in round 15, a culmination of a month-long malaise. That dismal stretch included six losses in nine games before a morale-boosting victory over New Zealand Breakers last weekend.
No Shame in Losing To Sydney Kings
The normally affable Martin savaged his team publicly after the consecutive losses to the Kings over the self-induced funk. It wasn't so much the losing. Rather, it was the dissonance between performance and what the Wildcats stood for.
"There's no shame in losing to Sydney, whatsoever," Martin says. "What was embarrassing was the way we were playing."
In a club that prides itself on accountability, sacrifice and, most important of all, unyielding effort, there was a jarring lack of pop to their step. Selfish basketball had emerged.
"I was pointing at myself, as much as anyone," Martin says. "The reality was, we weren't playing a style of basketball that was going to be good enough to beat anyone."
So what did they do? Exactly what they do every preseason. They identified what this playing group was supposed to stand for. Call it a reinforcement of core values.
"We sat down as a group," says Martin of the session. "We were open and honest."
The session also involved copious amounts of videotape. And what they saw was not pleasing.
"There were too many examples we saw on video, where each and every one of us was taking shortcuts unknowingly," Martin says.
Those shortcuts manifested themselves across the court. Whether it was not crashing the offensive glass as vigorously, not sprinting the lanes every single time, not moving to an open spot for a ball reversal, or not setting hard screens to spring a teammate open, it was decidedly un-Wildcats-like. The extra effort just wasn't there.
"These small shortcuts add up," Martin says. "And all of a sudden they add up to really affect the team in a negative way. And it results in losses."
Still, the self-reflection turned out to be a cathartic experience that perhaps refreshes a veteran squad on a quest for a three-peat. Now they know what's wrong, and there's time to fix it.
"Sometimes when you're winning, it covers up or it hides some of your faults," Martin says.
Unknowingly or not, the group are now firmly back on the same page.
Wildcats Had To Readjust
Criticism of the Wildcats during their slump has rightfully centred over their punch-less offence, and a seemingly heavy reliance upon Bryce Cotton and Jean-Pierre Tokoto. When opposition defences loaded up on them, the Wildcats just weren't able to score consistently. Where was that third scoring option?
Yet that analysis over-simplifies the equation. The Wildcats believe their system can engineer enough scoring around their star duo. It was simply a matter of effort, and not personnel. Players needed to move to designated spots on the floor -- screen hard and cut hard for each -- and work to become a collective third option. In other words: Play selfless basketball.
"Once we were playing slower basketball, where we weren't cutting as hard, or screening as hard, or moving the ball as crisply as we should have been, then it looks like we're heavily reliant on them [Cotton and Tokoto] because they've got the ball late in the shot clock and everybody's standing around and watching," Martin tells ESPN.
Modern NBL defences are too good to allow that to succeed, and Perth couldn't simply walk the ball up and isolate late in the shot clock. The Wildcats had to readjust and re-emphasise effort areas -- ball and player movement, and transition points generated from defensive plays. Over the weekend, you could see the Wildcats make a concerted effort to play with more force, and simply move with more purpose. There was more pressure on the rim -- more zing to it all. It worked against the Breakers, and in return, Cotton and Tokoto were able to score within the flow of the offence.
The Perth Wildcats' Way
Last year, the Wildcats were tottering into Christmas, hovering at the bottom of the table and encountering import upheaval. History shows that Bryce Cotton parachuted into the fold as the saviour. That Wildcats squad ripped off nine wins from their final 10 matches.
This season? The Wildcats believe they have all it takes internally to succeed, with the right balance within the roster. Case in point, they stuck with Derek Cooke Jr. as their third import after murmurs in some corners questioning whether he was the right fit. Most of that noise centred on whether the Wildcats should have replaced him with a better scoring threat. Ultimately, Trevor Gleeson has stuck by him.
Martin has seen how effective Cooke Jr. can be as a complement to the more offensive-minded Angus Brandt -- a rim deterrent who screens hard and gobbles rebounds. "His athleticism is incredible," Martin says. "He's the only guy on the team who could rival Tokoto." Martin's confidence in Cooke Jr. reflects his confidence in the team to figure it all out and perform at their best when it matters. All it will take is mental and physical discipline -- basically, the Wildcats way.
"If we can do that, then I'm happy with the team we've got and I'll back us to beat any other team," says Martin.
The encouraging win over the Breakers highlighted the effectiveness of self-reflection as a tool. Yet moments of self-actualisation can also be fleeting.
The veneer of a top-four scalp will wear off, and the Wildcats will be challenged again. But for now, there's no panic from a battle-hardened squad. There's no figurative switch to flip, only adherence to values steeped in championship pedigree -- self-prescribed values from the players.
"We've come up with a recipe we think will be successful to winning this league," Martin says. "But the reality is, those words are meaningless unless we hold each other accountable to them."