With the NBL finals finally set to tip off, it's time to prepare for a pair of huge semi-final series. With the Sydney Kings taking on Melbourne United, and the Perth Wildcats facing the Cairns Taipans, the battles go far deeper than that. Within each series are the individual matchups that will go a long way to deciding which teams will advance to the grand final. Championships are won by entire rosters, but sometimes one player is needed to step up and spark their team into action. The players below have the biggest chance to do exactly that for their respective teams, and each is crucial to their title respective hopes.
Bryce Cotton (Perth Wildcats) vs DJ Newbill (Cairns Taipans)
This is the most obvious head-to-head battle, and it might be one of the best matchups in recent years. On one side is Bryce Cotton, the regular season MVP and leading scorer; on the other is DJ Newbill, the newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year. Cotton has led the Wildcats to the best offensive rating in the league, while Newbill has spearheaded the NBL's third-best defence, according to Spatial Jam.
So far this season, the slight advantage has gone to Newbill and the Taipans. Cairns won two of their three matchups with Perth during the regular season, including one on the road. In the lone Wildcats win, Cotton had 24 points but still shot below his season marks from the field (8-20) and from deep (3-10). In the two losses, he had just 24 points total and shot a combined 8-28 from the field. For a player as consistent as Cotton, two offensive stinkers against one team is certainly an outlier. That shows in the numbers too, as his 41.7% effective field goal percentage when facing Cairns was his lowest against any team, per Spatial Jam.
It makes sense, though, with Newbill lining up against him. The Taipans star is an expert at taking away a player's easy shots - for Cotton, those are layups and floaters in the lane. That's why it's a problem that Cotton has been forced to take as many threes as twos in games against Cairns, and why he's shooting more than five percentage points below his season average from deep. Those percentages show that those triples are, for the most part, not the open looks that Cotton generally knocks down.
When he's not forcing tough threes, Newbill is able to funnel his man towards a top shot blocker in Cam Oliver. Two levels of elite defence helped the Taipans to become a formidable opponent on that end, and it's why Cotton shot just 33% at the rim and 20% from the rest of the paint against them, per Spatial Jam.
A three-game sample size can be misleading, but it's no fluke that Newbill has been able to slow the MVP down. He is usually tasked with guarding the opposition's best perimeter scorer, and those players have generally struggled more against Cairns than other teams. In fact, when playing Newbill and the Taipans, the leading perimeter scorer for each other team has shot a combined 42.5% from the field and 35.4% from three across the season.
That's only gotten better as the season has gone on, too - in ten of his last 12 games, Newbill held those players to less than their season scoring average, with three of them more than five points below par. With Cotton so crucial to his team's offensive production, the battle with Newbill could well shape this series.
Andrew Bogut (Sydney Kings) vs Shawn Long (Melbourne United)
Is it strange to call this a "traditional rivalry" after only two years? It feels like the debate around Shawn Long and Andrew Bogut has been going for centuries, as a full year of Homicide Williams talking about it has turned time into an abstract concept. The two superstar bigs have had contrasting years - Long has put up impressive numbers for an underachieving Melbourne United team, while Bogut has had his minutes managed while still helping Sydney to the top of the table. Long remains a predominantly offensive threat, and Bogut's value comes largely on the defensive end. As a head-to-head matchup, the two are almost perfectly balanced.
On the whole, Long has been reasonably successful against Sydney this season. Despite being limited by foul trouble at times, he averaged 16 points and shot 62.2% from the field in their four matchups. Of course, Bogut's minutes are the major caveat-- he played 23, 21, 10 and 19 minutes, respectively. As Brad Winter discussed this week, Kings coach Will Weaver may be tempted to match Bogut's minutes with Long's in this series, to curtail his influence.
Long does most of his damage in the paint, and 74% of his made field goals this season came at the rim, per Spatial Jam. That's clearly a plus for Bogut, as he again proved to be one of the league's best rim protectors. He finished with the seventh-best block percentage in the league as well as the best defensive rating by a fair margin (min. 300 minutes played).
Another major source of points for Long is free throws; again, that's a good sign for the Kings. Long is eighth in the league for free throws attempted, and he gets to the line 5.1 times per game. On top of his impressive block numbers, Bogut has posted surprisingly low foul counts this year. Less minutes has kept him largely out of foul trouble, but he has still only averaged 3.3 fouls per 36 minutes (per Spatial Jam), impressive for a rim protector who is used to NBA officiating.
All of this means that Long will have to adapt during the series. As the brilliant Brad Winter again pointed out, Sydney's entire defensive scheme centres on Bogut hanging back and protecting the rim, allowing mid-range shots rather than layups. In order to force him out of the paint, Long will need to do two things; set good screens for his guards, and knock down shots from the perimeter. Neither is a given, but now is the chance for Melbourne's big man to really prove his worth in his first finals series.
Miles Plumlee (Perth Wildcats) vs Cam Oliver (Cairns Taipans)
In his first NBL season, Cam Oliver has been a revelation for the Taipans. He put up 17 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game on his way to All-NBL Second Team honours and nominations for MVP and Defensive Player of the year.
The finals bring a new challenge, though, in more ways than one. Not only will the pressure rise with every game, but the Wildcats bring a tough matchup that Oliver hasn't seen before. Miles Plumlee only arrived in Perth in January, but he proved his worth down the stretch of the regular season as an elite rim protector and rebounder.
That could pose a challenge for the Taipans, who rank dead last in the league for defensive rebounding percentage, per Spatial Jam. Plumlee has only added more grunt to a Wildcats team that sits second in offensive rebounding percentage. Oliver leads the Taipans in rebounding at both ends, but as NBL Overtime's Liam Santamaria points out, he often relies on his athleticism rather than boxing out his opponent. That works a lot of the time, but against a physical opponent like Plumlee he can't afford to give away inside position. The last thing the Taipans need as underdogs is to give away easy second-chance buckets at the rim.
On the other end, Cairns also relies on Oliver as their second leading scorer. He's had some success against the Wildcats this season, with 22 and 23 points respectively in two of their games. That was without Plumlee, though, and while the seven-game sample size is still relatively small his defensive numbers have been impressive. He has the best defensive rating in the league by a wide margin (per Spatial Jam), and he's also ninth in blocks per game despite struggling with foul trouble in his early outings. Oliver has a versatile skillset for a big man, and he may need to rely more on scoring from the mid-range when Plumlee is manning the paint.
At times this season, Oliver has looked like an unstoppable force able to leap over anyone who stands in his way. What will happen when he tries to clear Plumlee, the NBL's new immovable object?
Mitch McCarron and Shea Ili (Melbourne United) vs Casper Ware (Sydney Kings)
In theory, Melbourne United should match up well with Casper Ware. For one thing, they know every trick in his bag; after all, he spent three seasons with the team and won a championship in 2018.
On top of any residual inside knowledge, Melbourne have a pair of strong defensive guards in their rotation. Mitch McCarron had a real case to be Defensive Player of the Year after an excellent all-around season, while Shea Ili is a tenacious defender and recently moved into the starting lineup.
Problem is, neither player has been able to slow down Ware this season. It's been well documented that he has dominated his former team, but the numbers are simply absurd. In four games against United, he averaged 28.8 points while shooting 53% from the field and 48.8% from deep. Against all other teams, that dipped to 18.2 points, 36% from the field and 26.7% from three. There's no logical reason that Ware should be so much better against Melbourne, and yet it happened every time they met.
The question is, what can coach Dean Vickerman do to change that? His best bet is probably to stick with McCarron, who has defended almost every position at times this year and done it with aplomb. Melbourne's roster has a scarcity of above-average defenders, but they have allowed 6.9 points per 100 possessions less with him on the court, per Spatial Jam. As illustrated in Warren Yiu's January feature, he also has a tenacity and a hatred of being beaten that should serve him well in a three-game series against Ware.
Whoever winds up guarding Ware will have the biggest impact on United's postseason hopes. If he torches them as he has done all season, there is no way they will advance. Sydney's strengths lie at the defensive end, but Ware's offence is their biggest X factor.