MOTIVATION won’t be lacking at the Perth Redbacks in the 2018 Men’s SBL season with coach Nik Lackovic fully aware they now have a larger target on their backs while Mo Barrow and Jackson Hussey are also on board to get that elusive title.
The Redbacks broke through for a first Men’s SBL championship in 20 years in 2017 culminating the work Lackovic had done as coach over several years and as a player in the 1997 triumph as well.
Stalwarts Joel Wagner, Michael Vigor and Ben Smith were rewarded for their loyalty and dedication topped up by starring performances from the likes Lee Roberts, Shawn Redhage and Marshall Nelson.
But for Lackovic and the team that were part of that, once the banner was raised in their season-opening win against the Lakeside Lightning, that was put behind them and the focus was on what they needed to do to overcome the obstacles that any attempt to go back to back faces.
The biggest change over summer for the Redbacks saw the departure of Nelson while former Geraldton Buccaneers duo Mo Barrow and Jackson Hussey signed on with most of the rest back again including Roberts, Vigor, Redhage, Wagner and Smith.
While Roberts and Vigor are yet to arrive to begin their 2018 campaigns, the Redbacks did have Alex Loughton fresh off his NBL season with the Cairns Taipans the first two weeks and have gone 3-1 over the opening three rounds.
While Lackovic would never hide his pride in the championship of last season, he knows the only chance of them to go back to back is to get better and to take themselves to a new level.
“I’m very process driven and I have to compartmentalise. I felt immensely proud in that first game of the season and somewhat emotional when we raised the banner, but I had to compose myself and our coaching staff because we had a job to do,” Lackovic said.
“It signifies all the hard work that we did last year so if we are measuring what we want to do this year, it has to not only match that but go to another level.
“That includes bringing in some new staff with a high performance strength and conditioning coach, a doctor of sports science and writing programs for our players in recovery and providing data through GPS tracking, heart rates and calories.
“We are doing all those one percenters to try and improve the whole process of what we do. Does it make it different having that banner there? It does a little bit because we know there are no off nights now.
“That gives me leverage at training to tell these guys that we have to compete every single session. We did taste that a little bit last year when guys wanted to test themselves against Shawn.
“Now we have that core group that won a championship and have added Mo and Hussey so it’s not going to be easy and we will be targeted. We get that but the guys hold themselves accountable and my job becomes easier because of the people we’ve got.”
The biggest change and additions during the off-season for the Redbacks was the arrival of former Geraldton pair Barrow and Hussey.
The pair were key members of a Buccaneers team that reached the semi finals in each of the past two seasons before losing in 2016 to the Cockburn Cougars and last year to the Joondalup Wolves.
Barrow proved himself an outstanding all-round player who could play inside and out, and make contributions in all areas. He could be a dominant presence when need be, he was happy to play as a facilitator and was always strong defensively and on the glass.
Hussey, meanwhile, is a genuine playmaker and one of the more dynamic point guards in the SBL. He too can light it up scoring when need be largely through attacking the rim, but he’s also effective getting the best out of his teammates.
The quality and talent of both players made Lackovic instantly keen to get them on board, but it was their character and desire to win that impressed him even more.
“We know that they are All-Star players but the first thing I look for is that they are All-Star people. That’s priority No. 1,” Lackovic said.
“Seeing the history of how they compete is great, but the things I look for is that intrinsic value and characteristics like Barrow being a Sixth Man Player of the Year, a Defensive Player of the Year in college at Fairfield and that tells you something about the DNA of the guy.
“And I know Huss really, really well and we’ve put in a big block of work together individually getting him up to speed because he was here earlier. We were doing individuals three to four times a week with him for eight weeks. That tells me how competitive and motivated he is.
“They are things that I measure a lot higher than a highlight reel or the shots you can make. Integrating them into our current system and our group then becomes simple. These guys just want to win and they love competing whether they get a touch on the offensive end or not. I couldn’t be happier with the two guys we picked up.”
Keeping the rest of the core group together was no easy task over the off-season for Lackovic and the Redbacks either, but he backed in the hard work they have put in to build a winning culture and was delighted the likes of Redhage, Roberts and even for a short time Loughton all wanted to return.
“There were a lot of teams that wanted to get all of those guys. Shawn, in particular, was on a hotlist of everyone and some clubs tried to do everything to try and get him. But our conversation was simple,” Lackovic said.
“We just told him this is what we do and this is what we can offer, and that didn’t change from last year to this year.
“What it shows is that we are doing things right and someone like Shawn wants to be part of a special group of guys and a club who has put in a lot of work over five or six years to try and build a program that represents something.
“For me, that’s the most important thing to have high character people like Shawn and then even someone like Al for three or four games at the start of the season.”