Who boasts the NBL’s best backcourt?
And no, we’re not just talking starters. Include the bench.
Cases can be made for almost every team, but the Illawarra Hawks’ dynamic quartet of Rotnei Clarke, Kevin White, Mitch Norton and Rhys Martin reckon there should be no argument.
“I think ours is definitely the deepest,” Clarke said.
“When you’ve got guys like Norto and Whitey starting the game and putting it to them defensively and getting after it, and then we come off the bench and it gives us a different look, more an offensive look.
“Personally it gets me going when I see Whitey and Norto setting that tone and playing like they do. It gets me focused and gets me into it on the bench and gets me ready to go into the game.
“We can get guys in and out so quick and you don’t have to play a ton of minutes, so that’s good for us, and I think that’s the thing you see with some of these other teams with a lot of guys playing heavy minutes.”
Illawarra coach Rob Beveridge has opted for Norton and White as his starting guards for most of the 2016-17 campaign.
But he still pulls the odd surprise like giving long-serving playmaker Rhys Martin his first start of the season in last week’s home win over Melbourne United.
Clarke was a starter earlier in the season before the 2013 NBL MVP found his niche in a productive role off the bench.
“I think we have the best depth,” Martin said.
“If one of us had a bad night, the other three pick up the slack. That’s a real positive for our group.
“Rotti’s an MVP of this league and he brings a different element to the game. Defensively Norto and Whitey are the dogs, but we share the load pretty evenly court-time wise, and when you get towards the end of the season and if guys can stay injury-free, it’s those teams that are going to make the playoffs.
“It’s not a case of Sydney where you’ve got [Jason] Cadee and [Kevin] Lisch playing 35 minutes and carrying the brunt of the work. If one of them goes down, gets hurt or doesn’t have a good game, that really affects the team.”
The Hawks know not everyone would share their view.
Adelaide coach Joey Wright wouldn’t swap his multi-purposed guards with anyone, while Perth’s backcourt has been transformed overnight from ordinary to very good with last week’s return of Damian Martin and addition of new import Bryce Cotton.
“Each to their own, but we believe ours is the best,” White said.
“When you look around the league every team’s got a decent guard rotation. Teams have struggled at times with injuries, and we’ve been pretty fortunate of keeping all our guys together.
“Sharing the load among our four guards has really helped in keeping us fresh and being able to play the way we want to play through four quarters of the game.
“We’ve done a good job of finding our rotations and finding combinations that are working, and we’ll continue to buy into the system and hopefully make a deep run into the finals.”
Norton is the youngest of Illawarra’s guards, but the 23-year-old had five seasons with Townsville before joining the Hawks last year.
“When you mix us four together you’ve got a pretty good combination there,” Norton said.
“We’ve got a lot of belief in each other. Rotti’s one of the best scoring guards in the league, me and Whitey like to go out and do our bit for the team, and Rhys is a veteran guard, a great passer.
“Some people say it’s the best in the league but I’m not going to come out and say it’s the best because I don’t want any targets on our backs. I just want to go out and play our style of basketball, and if at the end of the season we’re holding the trophy, then I guess that’s the answer.
“It is one of the deepest and I know we play for each other and we’ve got each other’s backs.”
Illawarra (11-10) are third on the ladder after splitting last week’s clashes with Adelaide and Melbourne United.
The Hawks host Brisbane on Friday night – a team they have beaten twice in as many meetings.
Their run to the finals features games against New Zealand (home), Cairns (away), Adelaide (home), Cairns (home), Melbourne (away) and Brisbane (home).
“We were really disappointed with the effort we put into the game against Adelaide and they showed us why they’re on top of the ladder right now,” Clarke said of last Thursday’s thrashing from the 36ers.
“We pretty much got embarrassed in all facets of the game, but to bounce back and beat what I think is the most talented team [Melbourne] in the league was huge. It’s a testament to Bevo and the coaching staff getting us ready and also to the character of our guys.
“When we play with a certain mindset and we’re intense from the first tip of the game, we’re really good, but if we show up like we did against Adelaide and we’re not all on the same page and don’t have that mindset, we’re really bad.
“Adelaide proved that to us the way they played. We didn’t stop anything they did in transition, they beat us to every loose ball and they just wanted it more than us.”
It was around this time in 2013 that Clarke embarked on a season-ending hot streak which ultimately earned him NBL MVP honours ahead of red-hot favourite James Ennis.
“I honestly haven’t even thought about that,” he said.
“I just want to do what I can to help the team, and right now the focus is that if we don’t make the playoffs the season’s a failure. After where we were starting the year and getting to the point we’re at now, and with a stretch of home games, it’s our own fault if we don’t make it.
“Who knows, coming off the bench, maybe I can get a sixth man of the year, so we’ll see, but my only focus is making sure we make the playoffs.”
Written for NBL.com.au by Tim Keeble