2016/17 NBL preseason power rankings: 'Cats rule, Kings languish

Tai Wesley said it best, during Melbourne United's season launch.

“This is by far, the toughest NBL in the history of the NBL.”

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It's a statement that is music to the ears of NBL fans. Never has Australia’s premier basketball competition been so rich in both talent and competition. The Australian Basketball Challenge (ABC) in Brisbane was indicative of this, as every team presented a legitimate case to make the playoffs.

This makes power rankings so hard. With no tangible regular season evidence to go by, these rankings are determined by a number of factors – last season's performance, offseason additions and subtractions and preseason form, just to name a few.

These power rankings are the opinion of one man. To discuss the rankings, hit Luke up on Twitter at @lukesicari

1. Perth Wildcats

The reigning champions deserve the top spot, before anyone shows they can mow them down.

Perth had an interesting offseason, losing three key pieces from last year’s squad in Jermaine Beal (Sydney), Nate Jawai (Cairns) and Tom Jervis (Brisbane). However, the additions of former D-League standout Jaron Johnson, Iowa State defensive stalwart Jameel McKay and Angus Brandt should help cover the losses.

Let’s not forgot the returning Casey Prather, who has cleaned up his offensive game and old reliable Damian Martin, who is undoubtedly the league’s best defender.

The pieces are there for Trevor Gleeson to mould another championship-winning roster. The Wildcats could be shoo-ins to make the playoffs for an unprecedented 30th straight season.

One question does loom and that’s the injured Matt Knight. A partial shoulder dislocation will keep him sidelined to begin the year, with Lucas Walker serving as an injury replacement. The likes of Jesse Wagstaff and Shawn Redhage will need to step up in Knight’s absence.

2. Melbourne United

Melbourne’s roster oozes talent and that stands as the main reason they enter the season as the second ranked side.

United ended their last season abruptly in the semi-finals, which speaks of the potential they have for this season, and that's before we take the offseason talent acquisitions into account. Anything less than a grand final berth would be graded a disappointment.

The backcourt pairing of Cedric Jackson and Chris Goulding is unlike one we’ve ever seen before. A pair of Olympians will suit up in United colours, with David Andersen returning home and David Barlow finally getting healthy. Imports Devin Williams and Ramone Moore will provide energy, as well the newly signed Wesley.

This is before we even mention Todd Blanchfield and Majok Majok.

The only concern for Melbourne entering the season is whether or not they have a lockdown defender on the perimeter. Williams and Majok should provide some muscle inside, but Goulding and Jackson have never been known for their defensive expertise.

While the defensive shortcomings may serve as a weakness, it isn’t significant enough to drop United any lower.

3. Illawarra Hawks

The preseason champions, Illawarra has reloaded after the departures of Kevin Lisch (Sydney) and Kirk Penney (New Zealand), helping them maintain a top-three ranking.

Any team that has dominant big A.J. Ogilvy on their roster is going to be a force to be reckoned with but it's what the Hawks did in the offseason that elevates them in these rankings. While many originally thought the losses of Lisch and Penny would set them back, Illawarra took a walk down memory lane and dipped into future waters to help them hold steady.

Former league MVP Rotnei Clarke returns after a long stint in Europe and will team up with Marvelle Harris, an electric scorer out of Fresno State. Both players should fit into coach Rob Beveridge’s uptempo offence nicely and they’ll help the Hawks withstand the losses of Lisch and Penny.

The Hawks also capitalised on the disbanded Townsville Crocodiles, picking up Nicholas Kay and Mitch Norton. Even Michael Holyfield, who last played in the D-League, should prove to be an adequate back up to Ogilvy.

Locking down Beveridge for a further four years was another huge coup for the club, one that encourages stability, in an organisation that was once anything but.

4. Brisbane Bullets

Despite this season being Brisbane’s first since 2008, this is the last thing from a new team with fresh faces.

With a bunch of familiar names on deck, the Bullets aren't starting their second coming lingering in the league's basement. They've built this team to contend immediately but Brisbane can't be ranked any higher until we see how the pieces mesh. On paper, the Bullets have done almost everything they can to ensure a winning return to the NBL.

The most known personality will be walking the sidelines for the Bullets, with Boomers coach Andrej Lemanis taking the reins. If you think Lemanis will tolerate losing and preach patience with this roster, you don’t know the competitive juices in his veins.

In what is becoming the norm in the NBL, Brisbane is yet another team possessing an embarrassment of riches. Fresh off a couple of seasons in the NBA, Cameron Bairstow comes home, although his status for Thursday night’s season opener is up in the air. Adam Gibson will be commanding the offence, with the exciting Jermaine Beal alongside him.

The presence of Torrey Craig looms large on the wing and Daniel Kickert is one of the competitions best outside shooters. Brisbane’s depth may be a minor concern, but watch out for youngster Matt Kenyon, who has impressed in junior tournaments.

Growing pains are expected, but after the Bullets get through that phase, they'll be contending for the playoffs.

5. Cairns Taipans

After falling back to earth last season, the Taipans looked mightily impressive in the preseason tournament. However, with an MVP sleeper on the books and a stiff defensive unit, Cairns begins the season comfortably ranked just outside the true championship contenders.

Cameron Gliddon is poised for a breakout season, after winning the ABC MVP, averaging 19.6 points across three games. If Gliddon can provide the Taipans with that kind of offensive production, it raises their playoff hopes.

Gliddon isn’t the only one who will need to improve his offensive output, after Cairns finished last in points per game and field goal percentage last season. Travis Trice, an import out of Michigan State and the D-League, is a deadly shooter from all areas on the floor. A return to full health from Mark Worthington should also help the Taipans’ scoring.

Defensively, Cairns still poses as a capable unit, especially with Jawai returning and the signings of a pair of defence-orientated guys in Fuquan Edwin and Nnanna Egwu.

It’s unlikely the Taipans will make a miracle grand final run like they did two years ago, but expect Aaron Fearne’s squad to show more competitiveness than last season.

6. New Zealand Breakers

This is an unfamiliar position for the Breakers.

Last season’s runners-up will start this year behind the eight ball, with fan favourite Jackson off to Melbourne. His departure, along with Wesley, Charles Jackson and Reuben Te Rangi, leaves gaping holes in New Zealand’s rotation.

The Breakers do regain the services of Penny, Corey Webster and Thomas Abercrombie, though, so they’ll be far from a basket case. Webster’s proficient scoring ability should see him will the Breakers to victories on his own on occasions, although, the Breakers are filled with question marks.

Can Ben Woodside run the team in an effective manner? Will the new frontcourt of Akil Mitchell and Rob Loe click? The biggest query of them all, though, is how rookie head coach Paul Henare will command the team.

The current coach of the New Zealand national team, Henare is no stranger to the Breakers. He played there up until 2011 and has served as an assistant on the coaching staff since 2013. How he handles the top job is yet to be determined, though.

It would surprise no one if New Zealand made the playoffs again but after a shaky preseason tournament and uneven offseason, they aren’t shoo-ins as usual.

7. Adelaide 36ers

While the 36ers won’t win the most games, which is why they start the season this low, you can bet they’ll be one of the highest rating squads on ‘NBL TV’, thanks to the recruitment of jet Terrance Ferguson.

Ferguson has scouts from all 30 NBA teams coming down to Australia to watch the high school standout play, a testimony to the hype surrounding him. At the 2015/16 Nike Hoops Summit, Ferguson averaged 15.5 points and is projected to go in the first round of next year’s NBA draft.

Ferguson’s athleticism is awe-inspiring, as seen in the recent NBL slam-dunk contest. The Oklahoma native is deadly in transition and can be a lockdown defender, when he applies himself. Weaknesses to keep an eye on include his playmaking ability and efficiency against a set half-court defence.

Oh, we haven’t even mentioned Jerome Randle, who took the league by storm last season and solid contributors Mitch Creek and Daniel Johnson. Adelaide also has a pair of Aussies coming straight out of college in Anthony Drmic and Majok Deng, who are worth regular rotational minutes.

8. Sydney Kings

Disclaimer: the Kings aren’t last because they’re going to be a bad basketball team. Sydney bottom out here because a dramatic leap after last season's disaster wouldn’t be conceivable and the roster is still filled with more questions than answers.

Andrew Gaze takes up head coaching duties, but his track record as the men in charge isn’t great. Whether or not he can get the best out of his troops remains to be seen.

Sydney’s big man department is a worry. How much Aleks Maric has left in the tank at age 31 is a question, ditto Julian Khazzouh’s health. Tom Garlepp will look to build on his team MVP performance last season, while import Greg Whittington impressed in the preseason. Whether Garlepp and Whittington will be enough for the Kings to compete, though, is another question.

There is no doubting the significance of the Lisch signing and defending league MVP will help boost Sydney’s backcourt. Jason Cadee and Brad Newley round out a modest roster, but one that might be left behind in the midst of the NBL’s talent rush.