The Cairns Taipans are yet another team that has embraced big change this offseason – a theme that has spread like wildfire through much of the NBL since the end of last season.
With a new head coach in Mike Kelly and eight new players filling out the roster, the Taipans are barely recognisable from the team they were last year.
However, with change comes a renewed sense of purpose, as Cairns aim to impress both fans and the rest of the NBL in the upcoming season.
Few embody the Cairns Taipans’ spirit more than Alex Loughton. Heading into his eleventh year in the league, and his ninth as a member of the club, Loughton has been through many of its various ups and downs. Under the leadership of former head coach Aaron Fearne, Loughton and the Taipans made the finals three times. Two of those times making it all the way to the Grand Final, only to fall short on both occasions.
With the Fearne era now in the past, Loughton is looking ahead to a future of new possibilities with Kelly, who last year was an assistant coach for reigning champions Melbourne United.
“Change can be as good as a holiday. It’s refreshing in terms of it being so different,” Loughton said.
“It’s good to have a guy like Mike who has had the experience of a championship, to bring that to the table.”
As well as bringing his winning experience to the NBL’s northern most frontier, Kelly also brings a new style of play to Cairns’ repertoire, an outlook necessary to accommodate the radical changes to the roster.
“Obviously we are looking to have a new style of play under a new coach and we are still feeling that out,” Loughton said.
“A lot of new things for the team have been assembled, but there are exciting things ahead for the club. So we are in a position where we are being open to how the style of play is going to come about.”
One man that is still around is big guy Nate Jawai, who has shown some positive signs over the preseason.
📽 Roll the tape… Nate’s looking in great shape for the Snakes 👀
— NBL (@NBL) September 14, 2018
Among the modifications is an altered approach to scoring the basketball. Scoring was a struggle for the Taipans last year, having the least productive offence in the NBL, managing only an average of 79 points per game. With Kelly at the helm, and the addition of some new players with the ability to push the ball up the court, the Taipans are hoping to introduce a modern run-and-gun style at the offensive end.
“I think Cairns ran some good stuff last year and I think were very disciplined in their offence,” Mike Kelly said.
“I think they used the clock more than other teams and I think this year we will look to be a little bit more up tempo; we will probably not work the clock quite as much as Cairns did last year. So I think it’ll lend itself to being a little more of a freer scoring team.”
With Kelly coming up from Melbourne, the Taipans have a new outsider’s perspective to lend a fresh eye on the team’s playing style. Whilst some adjustments will undoubtedly be made, Kelly has no intentions of tearing the past down, but rather preserve and adapt the club’s best qualities for a new system, in particular their toughness.
“I’ve always liked how tough [Cairns] were, how hard they played and how detail-oriented they were. I thought they were well coached, always had a good team-first togetherness and an all for one vibe,” Kelly said.
“That was something I’ve always noticed about Cairns. It was hard to win in Cairns. With every team I was a part of – as a player and coach – it was hard to win in Cairns.”
During free agency, toughness was a characteristic the Cairns’ brain trust was on the lookout for. With only three Taipans from last year returning to the fold, Kelly sought to create a team built on physicality, as well as skill.
“I went after guys that I thought had toughness about them and also were willing to sacrifice some of themselves for the team to have a chance to win games. I think we found that in every player.” He said.
Included among Cairns’ new players is former New Zealand Breaker guard and American import, DJ Newbill. Last year, his first in the NBL, the 26-year-old Philadelphia-native proved himself to be an aggressive combo guard with a variety of valuable skills. Newbill, a capable defender and scorer, averaged 13.8 points, 3.2 assists, 4.3 rebounds, as well 1.3 steals per game, demonstrating his varied utility.
“We were very fortunate to have DJ Newbill available and he was the first import we were able to sign,” Kelly said.
“I got glowing recommendations from everybody about his character and his work ethic and how he was as a teammate. I already saw that he could flat out play and help his team win in the NBL.”
The Taipans have a balance of experience and youth in their current lineup with two of their imports, Melo Trimble and Devon Hall, being only 23 years old. For the veteran Loughton, it will be his role to guide the new young players through what it means to play in the NBL.
“I think it’s getting them confident enough mentally, like if they are open, shoot the ball. If they are shooters and are within range, it’s just giving them that confidence that we trust them to take the right shot,” Loughton said.
“The physicality is [also] an issue that they’re going to have to deal with in this league – it’s a strong league. It’s a great league on the global scene, it’s up there with the top Euro leagues, and the physicality is up there as well.
“It’s getting guys used to how the game is played here in Australia and how we are going to go about our style of play.”
PRE-SEASON HIGHLIGHTS! 🎥 Take a look at the new 1-2-3 when the imports took the court for the first time together on Tuesday night.
— Cairns Taipans (@CairnsTaipans) September 13, 2018
For Cairns, the upcoming season is about bringing something fresh to the familiar, with the same rugged identity embracing a more high-speed style of play. For Kelly, the goal for the season ahead is simple in nature, but perhaps more complex in its execution.
“[I want to] come together as a team that can compete every night – not just be tough at home and bad on the road – we want to be good every night and have a chance every night,” he said.
“We’re just trying to get that mindset of being better every day and then going out and having a chance to win every game we play.”
For the fans and the rest of the NBL, only time will tell.
Cairns will open their season with an away match against the Brisbane Bullets on October 13.