WHEN you have been the dominant team of the last decade with a 72 per cent winning record there’s little reason to change, but there’s always fine tuning to make after losing three Grand Finals and that’s what Wolfpack coach Ben Ettridge has looked to do in 2019.
It has been a remarkable decade of dominance in the Men’s SBL by the Joondalup Wolves as they have won 186 of 260 games over the past 10 regular seasons.
That has seen them a regular championship threat and they have won titles in 2011 and 2015 while also reaching the Grand Final in 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
In seven of those 10 seasons they have lost single figure games in 26-match campaigns and it has been more of the same in 2019 as they have secured another regular season championship with a 20-6 record.
To be consistently so good for so long has been a remarkable feat by coach Ben Ettridge and everyone at the Wolves from the staff down to the playing group and volunteers with them having played in the past four Men’s Grand Finals.
But the key to any successful organisation is that drive to continue to find ways to improve and while losing the past three Grand Finals is obviously enough to motivate anyone, you get the feeling that push to continue to grow and remain the best would still be there with the Wolfpack.
In terms of player personnel, there was no need for the Wolves to change much with Seb Salinas, Ben Ironmonger, Sean Easther, Trian Iliadis, Reece Maxwell, Rob Huntington and Damian Matacz all committed to return.
But losing last year’s MVP Jalen Billups and point guard Brian Sullivan took some replacing with the Wolves welcoming back championship-winning centre Kevin Davis while also adding in Earnest Ross and Ridell Camidge to add to their firepower.
Add that into the fact that young players Lachlan Strelein, Joel Offereins and Sam Curtis are playing more minutes and having career-best seasons, and it’s quite the impressive unit that Ettridge is entering the finals with starting with Game 1 of the quarter finals against Kalamunda at HBF Arena on Saturday night.
In terms of the additions of Davis, Camidge and Ross, Ettridge couldn’t be happier with what they are providing for the Wolves.
“You know what you are going to get with Kev and he’s going to compete, he’s going to change some shots and he’ll always be around the rim to give you that rebounding presence. He’s a great defender and probably the linchpin of our defence and what we try to do,” Ettridge said.
“Then there’s EJ and he’s an MVP-calibre player and on his night he is as good as anyone in this league, and Ridell has slotted into his role and he can have a 14-point run in four possessions, he’s that type of player.
“If they’re on, it just means Robbie, Trian and Seb and deliver for us consistently. Ben Ironmonger and Sam Curtis have been great and it’s that old adage that you don’t change a lot, but tweak what you need to do and hopefully we have the talent to get it done.”
While there was a relatively small turnover personnel wise for the Wolves in 2019, what Ettridge sees as the biggest change they’ve made is the fact that he and the coaching staff have now given the playing group more freedom to make their own decisions that ever before.
Ettridge was looking for ways to continue to get the most out of his group and he felt entrusting them more and more to decide what offences or defences to run, and ultimately what shots to take would be something worth giving a go and he’s happy with how it’s gone to date.
“We’ve probably given a bit more freedom to the guys than ever before this year. Having people like Joel Questel and Brian Sullivan as your point guards meant I had a really good communication with what I wanted done, but I’ve given a bit over to the boys this year to let them make those decision,” Ettridge said.
“In turn you become a bit more unpredictable by doing that but it’s because you have the trust in the guys who have got us to where we have been for the last five or six years.
“So now it’s time for the players to take the steering wheel a bit more and that might be why we are a bit more disjointed offensively, but when you have as much talent on the floor as we do you have to give them that opportunity to do it.
“Ultimately they are the ones who are making the decisions and they’ll make the shots or not. But if they think it’s the best shot to take, we’ll live with that and that’s probably the biggest difference this year.”
By no means is the trust he is placing in his players meaning that Ettridge isn’t putting in the same amount of work as a coach as ever before and that he’s not as prepared to direct things from the sidelines when required.
But ultimately he has changed the way he has coached and is communicating with the group because it’s what he felt would work for the best of everyone involved, and he sees no reason to think that was a wrong decision at this point.
“You still have every scenario covered off and all that, but it’s about getting them to understand that there is a method to your madness and understanding what they need. Right now, this team doesn’t need me standing on the sidelines yelling and screaming,” Ettridge said.
“They need me sitting in the middle of the bench talking to them about what’s going on and what I’m seeing. That’s a change that I’ve consciously made to not sit at the top of the bench, but sit in the middle to improve that communication and let Luke, Ben and Fraser think through the game.
“Then when they walk down to talk to me they are delivering that message to the guys either side of me as well so we are all sharing that message. That was about working out what I could do to get better and give the guys what they need.
“They needed more of me being in the middle and that’s just about what we need right now. Next year or the year after when we have a lot younger of a team, we might go back to me being up there and being more in control, but hopefully through them coming through that won’t be all I’m doing.
“Hopefully they’ve learnt how to play and what we do. Our win-loss record might not always be that high, but you go through ups and downs, and you just deal with whatever situation you are handed.”
Whether it’s former players like Greg Hire and Brad Robbins or the current veterans Seb Salinas, Rob Huntington, Damian Matacz and Trian Iliadis, or a superstar like Earnest Ross or import Kevin Davis, what stands out to Ettridge over this remarkable run of success is the calibre of people he’s got to work with.
There’s no question that Ettridge’s ability to coach and his basketball brain is a significant reason why the Wolves have been so good for so long.
But at the same time, he can’t help but feel privileged for the quality of players he’s coached and who have sacrificed their own individual numbers at times for the good of the whole team.
“For me it’s about these guys letting me coach them. Greg Hire let me coach him for two years and was phenomenal. Brad Robbins let me coach him for two years and they let me tell them what we were going to do,” Ettridge said.
“Damian Matacz, one of the greatest players this league has ever seen, he has allowed me to coach him. Seb Salinas was already a 200-game All-Star when I came here and he put his ego in his back pocket and allowed me to coach him.
“Trian Iliadis had four years at Old Dominion, Robbie Huntington and I could go on. These guys have sucked it up and understood that we have to get over ourselves and the person with the smallest ego has to be the coach to get it done.
“You can’t be that one that makes it all about you and that’s what it’s been. It’s almost like a relationship that we’ve had and these guys have been outstanding in coming to a collective decision as to what we want to do and giving me the privilege of being able to coach them. That has been out strength all the way through, these guys just go out and play hard for each other.”
Now that the Wolves enter the finals again in 2019 as top seeds, Ettridge is looking forward to bringing as much basketball as possible over the next four weeks to the Joondalup fans as they attempt to qualify for a fifth successive Grand Final.
“Now with the new finals format with the metro teams it gives you that home court advantage right away and having that first game on your home court is big,” Ettridge said.
“And it’s a reward for your association and fans as well to see you a couple of extra times. You are looking to get any advantage you can and a home court advantage in the finals all the way through is great for you.”