NBL 3x3: Are the Wildcats in trouble?

It looks like we are down to four.

With the South East Melbourne Phoenix and Tasmania JackJumpers suffering key losses on the weekend, the postseason mix is virtually locked in.

Despite having the comforts of home, the Perth Wildcats are the team under the microscope, with three straight losses at home an unfathomable proposition when their mammoth homestand tipped off.

Kane Pitman, Peter Hooley and Josh Garlepp are back for this week's NBL 3x3, with the Wildcats very much the main topic of conversation.

Three opinions

Kane Pitman: Remember the opening Throwdown of NBL22?

Mitch Creek dunking all over Matthew Dellavedova. An electric crowd at John Cain Arena. It felt like a bubbling rivalry heading for a second postseason edition.

Instead, the Phoenix have completely capitulated, with back-to-back awful performances with their season on the line. Last week, Simon Mitchell remained confident his group would respond, telling ESPN the team had an excellent film session followed by the most physical practice of the season.

Instead, the loss to Cairns gave the appearance of a team looking for the end of the season. There have been some injuries along the way, but it's hard to look at this campaign as anything other than a major disappointment for a roster with plenty of big-name talent.

A spirited performance in this week's Throwdown would be the least they could dish up.

Peter Hooley: The Illawarra Hawks are rolling. Not only are they stringing together wins, but it's the way that they are going about it, which has been so impressive.

With all the concerns in the middle of the season, the Hawks answered the call to make a change, and it shows. With Tyler Harvey missing the last two games, the question begs, should he come off the bench?

The Hawks began their winning form with Harvey as the starting point guard, but with him out, Xavier Rathan-Mayes is showing just what he can do in that position. He was instrumental in their big win over Melbourne United and hit some big shots down the stretch.

Whilst I don't think there will be a change, it does give the coaching staff a nice backup plan if they need. A change of scenery for Harvey might also do his confidence wonders for the business end of the season. Allow him to be the first man off the bench and let him go full out attack mode.

Josh Garlepp: A quick shout out to Chase Buford.

The Kings' unbelievable run of late can distract from the fact their coach Chase Buford only arrived in Australia this season.

NBL22 saw the debut of five head coaches, all with pressure to perform right away despite completely new systems.

Scott Morrison in Perth, Scott Roth in Tasmania, James Duncan at Brisbane, CJ Bruton in Adelaide and Buford in Sydney, but their experiences have now amounted to a full span of NBL ladder positions.

In Buford's case, after a stunted start the team has now won 10-games straight, with their next two fixtures against the bottom two sides (NZB, ADE).

To come in and be so successful straight away is very rare, regardless of squad assembled before you.

What is your first reaction on the John Brown III situation?

Kane Pitman: The decision to deny the exemption application of John Brown III was the only choice the league could reasonably make at this late stage of the season.

The Perth Wildcats have understandably been frustrated by the delay of receiving the FIBA clearance letter for Brown. Between the Russian club playing hardball on a release and FIBA deciding against implementing similar measures to FIFA that would allow players temporary release form their contracts, the Wildcats and Brown have been left in no man's land.

League commissioner Jeremy Loeliger told ESPN last week that there has been one previous example of an exemption in the same circumstance as Brown in recent seasons. It was also denied.

Looking at the situation from a big picture perspective, the seven-game rule makes little sense. But for now, at least, it's there. It would be to the benefit of the league if this rule could be amended in the future to avoid this type of clear-cut ruling.

More than anything, it's a shame a player of Brown's talents missed out on being a part of NBL22.

Peter Hooley: I'm just glad it's over.

Maybe it's the past player in me, but this whole situation would have been horrendous for Michael Frazier to go through.

I am fully aware that it's a business and this happens all the time. If you're not performing, you'll be let go and then someone else comes in. I'm also aware how this situation is different in terms of the current climate of the pandemic, but as a past player, I feel for Frazier for how long this has gone on.

These whispers of being replaced started a long time ago, and then everything was magnified when John Brown III arrived. I believe he can offer some toughness and a spark to the Wildcats down the stretch, and hopefully he can forget everything that's gone on and just try to finish out the year as best as he can.

Always remember, players are people first, just like you and me.

Josh Garlepp: It was the right call.

It's unfortunate and a completely unique situation but I believe it would have been a bad look for the league to have allowed the 'John Brown' move to happen, especially this late in the season.

On the other side, I understand the frustration from Perth fans with a Russian club and FIBA dragging their feet despite Brown being at training now for a couple weeks. In addition, the NBL has bent league rules for other clubs previously, particularly around the Next Stars program.

I wanted to see Brown play and have devoured far too many EuroLeague highlights over this long and drawn-out process.

Moving forward, if this wasn't a valid exemption to the NBL's 7-game rule, let's hope the same stern reasoning is followed in the years ahead.

To follow up: Are the Wildcats in trouble?

Kane Pitman: This isn't the NBA; this isn't a two-month playoff grind. Win two out of three games and you're in a Grand Final series.

Head coach Scott Morrison has mentioned the absence of Mitch Norton in recent games as a major loss for the perimeter defence on several occasions, with the veteran hoping to make a return in short time. Curiously, he has also mentioned Michael Frazier II as a big loss, with the defensive minded import guard looming as a surprise x-factor if recent events can be used as a motivator.

Perth have gone cold shooting the ball in recent games, but with Bryce Cotton, Vic Law, and half court heavy postseason basketball, this thing can turn quickly.

Peter Hooley: They sure are.

I didn't see this coming, and I'm not sure anyone else can say they did. Rewind five weeks and everyone was expecting the Wildcats to finish top with their run of home games to end the season.

I think they are in trouble, but I still expect them to finish the season very strong. They have two of the best players in the competition and some important role players.

My main issue is that it seems to be the fortress of the Jungle has fallen. Are teams afraid of going into Perth and facing the MVP and the Red Army? I'm not so sure anymore.

Josh Garlepp: Three straight losses at home wasn't how the Red Army scripted this sports film but rolling credits on the Wildcats this early insults their track record before NBL22.

The Wildcats' championship aspirations could lie in veteran point guard Mitch Norton's availability.

The former Boomer's absence goes beyond the stat sheet, a team-first selfless player in every sense of the word, who provides their motor defensively and can step up and score if called upon.

On March 10th, the side beat Melbourne United and Norton dropped a game-high 26 points, but flash forward to Monday against the reigning champs and his absence was obvious.

Perth were searching for another offensive shot creator in the fourth quarter, as Melbourne threw star defender after star defender at Cats superstar Bryce Cotton.

There's been adjustments, development player Kyle Zunic has been thrust into 15 minutes a game and young point forward Luke Travers has been initiating some of the offence.

But to go deep into the post-season, Perth's chances are best helped with a healthy Mitch Norton.

Which player has seen their stock rise in NBL22?

Kane Pitman: Let's not overthink this. A healthy Xavier Cooks has reminded everyone of the level he's at.

I'm not sure if this is controversial, but Cooks shouldn't be in line for Most Improved Player, because he's been this guy, he just needed to stay on the court.

Starting the season with health as a big question, he is now thoroughly in the mix for Summer League and in turn NBA opportunities based on an NBL22 campaign that has him in the top couple of two-way players in the league.

At the start of the season, I described Cooks as the forgotten star of Australian hoops. I'm glad that is no longer the case.

Peter Hooley: It's Shea Ili's World

Shea Ili has been on many successful teams across his career, and I think only now people starting to realize why. He is a winner.

When the game is on the line, Ili is called upon to make a play. Not necessarily to score a big bucket, but whatever the team needs at that moment in time, he delivers.

Offensive rebound? You got it. Defensive stop? No problem. Loose ball? That's his.

Now Ili still has another year of his contract extension left at United, but if he keeps playing at this level until then, expect his price to rise exponentially. He has the Dave Anderson vibe. If your team wants to win a title, you want him. Correlation may very well equal causation here.

Josh Garlepp: Bul Kuol

Ten NBL teams provided the most opportunity for local talent since 2009 and Cairns' injuries have provided even more chance for untested players, like the 25-year-old, to prove their ability at the NBL level.

The rookie was Cairns' final roster signing after a strong senior year in the NCAA and averaging 18 points per game in just 23 minutes of play in a short stint with NBL1 side Knox.

He's been one of the Taipans most reliable players, scoring in double digits in 12 games and shooting 37 per cent from 6.5 attempts from deep per outing.

Coach Adam Forde half-joked postgame that he'd "take a pay cut" to keep both Kuol and Keanu Pinder in north Queensland as the pair both have player options next season.

In reality, the financial sacrifice to keep the now proven sharpshooter could be beyond both Forde and the club, as richer teams are no doubt circling to pounce.