2016/17 NBL Round 5 power rankings: Breaking into the top two

For the first time this season, there is a sense of clarity in the power rankings.

Only one change this week, as we have new teams sitting at the number two and three spots. However, with numerous close finishes, these rankings could have easily looked different, which points to the competitive nature of the league.

Round five produced the two best games of the season to date – a score fest in Perth on Saturday night and a buzzer-beater on Monday night in Sydney – as teams are now getting comfortable within their schemes and systems.

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

1. Sydney Kings (Last week: 1st)

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Kevin Lisch’s game-winner will get all the headlines, but don’t discount how suffocating the Kings’ defence has been this season.

Four of the top five individual leaders in defensive rating are apart of Andrew Gaze’s squad, with Aleks Maric leading the pack with a 91.3 rating. Following Maric is Greg Whittington (94.7), Lisch (99.8) and Josh Powell (101.1).

While this displays the versatility and strength of the Kings’ key defenders, it also is a reflection of Gaze’s coaching to this point. Gaze didn’t have a strong coaching track record when he was hired, but has been able to draw up defensive schemes, with help from assistants Dean Vickerman and Lanard Copeland, that have stifled opponents.

Despite a slight hiccup in Cairns on Saturday night, a team they got revenge on with Lisch’s game-winner, the Kings have shown no weaknesses that are strong enough to drop them from top spot.

2. New Zealand Breakers (Last week: 3rd)

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The Breakers proved last week’s historic blowout of Adelaide wasn’t an outlier, with two big wins in overtime against Melbourne and a comfortable victory over Brisbane.

While it didn’t reach the same heights as last week, New Zealand’s offence is the best in the league and is why they rank so highly. Rookie head coach Paul Henare has his squad playing an up-tempo, ball-movement heavy offensive system and the results have been positive.

The Breakers lead in the league in a number of key offensive categories, including offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and assist percentage. Additionally, the diversity of New Zealand’s attack has kept teams guessing, with five players (Kirk Penny, Thomas Abercrombie, Akil Mitchell, Corey Webster and Alex Pledger) averaging double-digit scoring.

However, a key clog to that offence, Ben Woodside, has been ruled out for at least 6-8 weeks with a ruptured right plantar fascia. The Breakers defeated Brisbane without him, but how they play long term will be telling, and it’ll place a larger workload on the shoulders of Isaih Tueta.

3. Perth Wildcats (Last week: 2nd)

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Always harsh to drop a team after an undefeated week, but the Wildcats’ escape against Adelaide, combined with the Breakers’ proficiency, was enough to justify it.

Perth were in control of the 36ers for the most part on Saturday, before a 40-point explosion from Jerome Randle, and some very generous refereeing, saw them survive by three points. While a win is a win, the ‘Cats shouldn’t have let an 18-point lead, at home, slip.

The Wildcats continue to get contributions from all positions. Matty Knight has shored up the frontcourt and his presence has helped Perth have a rebounding percentage of 55.4 percent, first in the league. Jameel McKay is one of the most efficient players in the league, Casey Prather’s scoring abilities have improved and even Jaron Johnson has had a smooth transition back into the line-up.

The biggest issue for the ‘Cats now, though, is the loss of captain and spiritual leader, Damian Martin. Martin will be out for at least 10-12 weeks with a grade three torn left MCL, and while he is irreplaceable, the Wildcats are equipped to withstand his absence.

4. Cairns Taipans (Last week: 4th)

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After their season was revived last week, the Taipans had to deal with a double-header against the league-leading Kings, in which they instantly validated themselves.

If it weren’t for some Lisch heroics, Cairns would have swept Sydney, a reflection of how well they performed, especially defensively. Adding to the magnitude of the Taipans’ week was they did all of this without Travis Trice, whose injured hip continues to hold him out.

Cairns held the league’s second ranked offence to an average of 68 points and a 38.5 shooting percent in two games, both marks that are well below Sydney’s season averages. Nathan Jawai’s presence under the basket has been a massive plus for Cairns’ defence, as has the perimeter defensive instincts of Fuquan Edwin.

While the defence is strong, one wonders if Cairns can keep winning with an offence scoring just 105.4 points per 100 possessions, the worst rate in the league. For now, though, the Taipans did enough against the league’s best side to maintain a top-four spot.

5. Illawarra Hawks (Last week: 5th)

The Hawks had lots of external pressure to answer to this week, and they did so against a banged-up Melbourne outfit.

Surprisingly, it was Illawarra’s defence that helped them build, then maintain, a 13-point lead against United. The Hawks held their opponent to just 73 points and a 40 percent field goal percentage, while forcing 18 turnovers.

Despite the victory, though, Rob Beveridge’s men have too many question marks to move up any higher. A.J. Ogilvy’s inconsistent ways continued, with the big man just contributing seven points, three rebounds and four turnovers. Rotnei Clarke was able to efficiently put in 14 points on nine shots, but still doesn’t seem to be the same player that won the MVP award two years ago. Additionally, Marvelle Harris suffered an ankle injury in the closing moments, but Beveridge insisted he will be ok.

It was the play of Mitch Norton and Oscar Forman that helped the Hawks get over the line, while Nicholas Kay was able to pour in 15 points. Until Illawarra are able to string together a stretch of positive results, though, they’ll remain a middle of the pack squad.

6. Adelaide 36ers (Last week: 6th)

The entertainment value of the 36ers is starting to outweigh the wins.

Randle’s 40-point outburst against the Wildcats was simply marvellous. The Chicago native was breaking down defenders with his crazy dribble moves, hitting jump shots and finishing at the rim with ease, putting on one of the best individual NBL performances in a long time.

Randle’s playmaking capabilities were even on display, as his nine assists helped the likes of Eric Jacobsen and Anthony Drmic get involved. Drmic, who owns the Boise State school record for made three-pointers and is second on the all-time scoring list by a point, could be a wildcard for the Sixers' offence.

However, as has been the case historically, Adelaide’s defence let them down. As admirable as their comeback against Perth was, there comes a time where honourable losses no longer suffice.

7. Melbourne United (Last week: 7th)

It’s difficult to decide how much stock to put into Melbourne’s 0-2 week.

On one hand, you can point to the absences of Chris Goulding and Todd Blanchfield as justifiable reasons for the overtime loss to New Zealand and the nine-point defeat to Illawarra.

On the other hand, though, you can point to United’s 3-6 record, and compare it to their 9-0 start last season, and say the pressure is mounting on Dean Demopoulos.

As is often the case, the fairness lays somewhere in the middle. You can’t deny the importance of Goulding and Blanchfield, as the duo are integral pieces to United’s offensive system. However, Melbourne hasn’t looked great with those two in the line-up this season anyway, and the defensive shortcomings have persisted, regardless on who has been on the court.

Some positives out of United’s week was the play of Kyle Adnam and Devin Williams turning things around against the Hawks. Overall, though, the preseason title favourites need to start playing like we know they can, but it won’t be easy, with a gut-check game against Sydney on Saturday night.

8. Brisbane Bullets (Last week: 8th)

Once again, one bad stretch of basketball was all that was needed for the Bullets to lose yet another game.

Brisbane was on track for an upset victory in New Zealand on Sunday, with a dominating third quarter pulling them within 65-61 entering the final period. However, the Breakers opened the fourth quarter on a 9-2 run, all but putting the Bullets away.

It’s becoming a frustrating trend for Andrej Lemanis, as his team cannot play good basketball for a full 40 minutes. The erratic ways of Jermaine Beal continue, while Brisbane’s depth is starting to become an issue. Cameron Bairstow struggled immensely in his first game as a starter, going scoreless and shooting 0-9 from the field. Brisbane will find wins few and far between if these inconsistent ways don’t stop.

A quick recognition to Torrey Craig, whose averages of 13.9 points and 9.9 rebounds have seemingly gone by the wayside. Craig leads the Bullets in rebounds, blocks, steals, minutes, defensive rating and is second in points.