2017 NBL Finals: Here's why your team can win it all
Only four teams remain in the tightest NBL season ever, as the games and possessions start to mean a little bit more come Thursday night.
After a five-month long game of snakes and ladders, we finally have the semi-finals confirmed, and boy, do they create for a contrasting pair of series. On one side, you have the Adelaide 36ers and Illawarra Hawks, the NBL’s best-two offences. Meanwhile, in the two/three match-up, the Cairns Taipans battle the Perth Wildcats, two of the competition’s stiffest defensive units.
It makes for a set of highly predictable, in terms of game style, not results, semi-finals. However, it also means that the now best-of-five Grand Final series will be a mouthwatering juxtaposition of philosophies.
All four teams want, and expect to win the title. Why can they do so, though?
Why Adelaide can win: The Jerome Randle factor
There is an old basketball coach's adage that explains it all: the team that has the best player on the floor always has a chance to win.
This is especially true for the Adelaide 36ers.
Whether it’s in their semi-finals series against Illawarra, or a future Grand Final match-up with Perth or Cairns, the Sixers will have the best player on the court, regardless. That’s the luxury of having the MVP on your team.
Basketball is a team game, but so often, pivotal moments in matches aren’t dictated by a well-executed set. Instead, pieces of individual brilliance are enough to decide the contest. LeBron James’ block in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Michael Jordan’s steal and final shot in Utah in 1998. These are the singular moments that define legacies, and win championships.
In NBL lure, a Jerome Randle mid-range dribble pull-up could be the image sculptured into the hearts and minds of 36ers fans.
Adelaide is going to play in close games. Every team will; it’s the playoffs. There have been concerns over how the Sixers' passive defence will hold up in the grit-and-grind moments of clutch ball, but Randle is the ultimate trump card.
You rarely see a beautifully ran offensive play win a team a game on the final possession, because those instances are reversed for the greats. Coaches have to give their stars the ball and trust them.
Joey Wright has had no issue doing this with Randle, and why would he? The MVP is coming off a regular season where he averaged 21 points on 51.4 percent shooting. His mid-range game is deadly, as Randle connects on 52.2 percent of his shot attempts below the free throw line, and 52.0 percent above it. Additionally, his lightning-fast first step allows him to get to the rim with ease.
As long as Randle is tearing up defences, Adelaide has as good a chance as anyone to add a championship trophy next to their minor premiership.
Why Illawarra can win: Matching up with Bevo Ball
So much of the finals are about match-ups.
You could be the most dominant team in the regular season, but one unlucky match-up could doom your playoff run. The Illawarra Hawks plan to be the kryptonite to the superman that is Adelaide, and they have exactly the personnel, and system, to do so.
It’s difficult to quantify how much regular season matches mean when the playoffs roll around. However, the Hawks’ 3-1 advantage over the Sixers is worth mentioning. One of those wins was all the way back in Round 1, a 122-88 demolition job. Two closer victories followed, matches that were surprisingly neither high scoring or fast-paced.
Illawarra hopes Adelaide’s impressive 117-85 win is an outlier, and based on a greater profile of evidence, it very well could be.
‘Bevo Ball’ --as it’s been culturally referred to-- is one of the only offensive schemes that can match Adelaide’s fast-paced brand of basketball. Both teams are the NBL’s highest scoring squads per 100 possessions.
In saying that, the two teams aren’t mirror images.
While the Sixers hunt for openings to free up Randle, Nathan Sobey and others, whether that is in the mid-range or driving to the basket, the Hawks attack in a different way. Rob Beveridge stresses his team to push, and also pass, as the Hawks lead the league in assists and assist percentage.
The organised chaos Illawarra thrives in allows them to fight fire with fire against the Sixers. They also have someone they can go to when they desperately need a basket in Rotnei Clarke. Additionally, the Hawks also hold the advantage in those closer, defensive-oriented affairs, as is evident by their two victories against the Sixers in those situations.
Illawarra runs, scores and pressures just as efficiently as Adelaide. It means they have the best set of ingredients to eliminate the biggest threat. If that happens, ‘Bevo Ball’ will then attempt to run Perth or Cairns off the floor.
Why Perth can win: Defensive masterminds
It’s the finals, it’s the defending champs and it’s 31 straight.
Of course the Perth Wildcats can win the title. This stage is their playground, until someone proves they can knock them off the swings, and Trevor Gleeson’s suffocating defensive schemes will make this a tough task.
The stingy Wildcats defence allows just 106.3 points per 100 possessions, the best defensive rating in the competition. What makes it so difficult to score against the ‘Cats comes down to variety of ways they can stop an opposing offence.
On the perimeter, not much more can be said about Damian Martin. Inspirational. Gritty. Ferocious. Savage. Those are just some adjectives that describe how Martin heads Perth’s defence. With three explosive scoring point guards in the finals, Martin will be tasked with stopping them. The way the 32-year-old pressures his opponent; there is no reason to believe he can’t lock them down.
Martin isn’t the only perimeter defensive weapon Gleeson has access to. Casey Prather’s length and athleticism can disrupt ball handlers and Greg Hire provides a solid foil when Martin or Prather are resting.
Jameel McKay is the wildcard. The bouncy forward has the versatility to switch on pick and rolls and hold his own against a quicker guard. Additionally, his defensive rebounding and rim protection means he is the total package.
Speaking of interior defence, the Wildcats have it in spades with Matty Knight and Jesse Wagstaff.
It’s the oldest cliché in basketball – defence wins championships. With the collection of teams we have in this year’s NBL finals, that saying could be proven incorrect. However, if Perth manages to go back to back, it’ll gain even more validity.
Why Cairns can win: The even spread
Unlike the 36ers, Hawks and Wildcats, the Taipans don’t have a particular strength.
Aaron Fearne’s troops rank sixth in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and fifth in NET rating. On the surface, it would seem none of these numbers should install much confidence in Cairns. They aren’t great in any area and even out as just a mediocre team punching above their weight.
There are however, a couple of reasons for us to believe in the Taipans.
For one, they hold home court advantage in the semi-finals against Perth. Cairns has made the Convention Center a fortress, going 10-4 there in the regular season. Winning Game 1 will be vital, as it’s the only match where the ‘Cats will have the disadvantage of travelling. Both teams are flying to the same venue at the same time in Games 2 and 3; travel fatigue will not be favoring either side.
Along with home court, the Taipans simply have an even spread of contributors that keeps the defence honest. One night, it could be Travis Trice leading the scoring charge. The other, Cam Gliddon could take on the responsibility. Over the campaign, we have seen the likes of Tony Mitchell, Mark Worthington and Alex Loughton also have big scoring nights.
Speaking of Worthington, the emotional motivation the Taipans acquire from this being his final season could also help push them over the top.
Defensively, Fearne has a strong set of schemes and Cairns has a gritty set of players, so it matches up nicely with the tone of playoff games.
All in all, the Taipans might have the toughest path to the title of the remaining four teams. Given the way the NBL has been so wildly unpredictable this season, it would be folly to write them off this early.