“Let’s get a bunch of really good players and figure it out,” Brisbane head coach Andrej Lemanis said after the club’s season opener.
Lemanis was referring to the Bullets recruitment philosophy where they effectively signed three similarly positioned imports and sacrificed traditional power-forward depth.
That first game was indeed a victory, and was followed up with another win against Cairns, before a blowout loss away from home to South East Melbourne where they looked outmatched defensively.
“93 points is enough to win most games in the NBL but we lost by 20,” said Lemanis post game.
This type of result falls in line with some concerns around this team, and they’ll likely have a top three offense, but their personnel leads them to being exposed defensively.
The Bullets have strung together three straight performances with an above-average offensive rating. They also sit second in the league for effective field-goal percentage, second in three-point rate, and are above-average in assist percentage. All of these numbers fit in line with expectations of their style of play.
“I’m really confident in us offensively,” said Lemanis after game one.
“It will be interesting for us in how much we play organised offence or just come down with good players and find our way through some stuff depending on match-ups.”
Defensively, whilst they were solid overall in game one and two, the Bullets did surrender close to 40% of available offensive rebounds (Lemanis said their goal is for that to be under 35%), before in game three they got spaced out, sped up, and bullied to the tune of 113 points.
John Roberson exploited their ball-screen defense, Mitch Creek made double-digit baskets inside the paint, and Kendall Stephens knocked down spot-up attempts, a number of them coming in transition.
The Phoenix, given their current makeup (minus Tai Wesley), relished the matchup that the Bullets gave them with Creek the ultimate small-ball power-forward option to have to play against a similarly styled Brisbane squad.
“We ended up in scramble situations, a bit of a lack of talk at times, a bit of confusion,” reflected Lemanis.
“We ended up giving up too many wide-open looks. A learning game, we need to get better from here and move on.”
Brisbane haven’t been a team to overreact in the past and have focused on putting together a slow and calculated team build in their return to the league. You could argue that at times this has come at the expense of short-term wins.
Character, culture and intelligence is often preached by the Bullets and it’s this element that is continually pointed to as a strength and something that will hold them in good stead for long term success and overcoming challenges, as well as providing them with perspective.
“Andrej has put so much hard work into building the foundations for this program,” Bullets General Manager Richard Clarke explained in the off-season.
“He is a great fit for the Bullets, both for his coaching ability and desire to play team focused basketball, but also his character as a person and commitment to a values-based approach.”
“We’ve got versatility within our group. We’ve got good IQ players, guys who play in the best interests of the team, and that’s what I really like about our group,” said Lemanis.
The Bullets versatility stems from their abundance of players around the 6’5” to 6’7” height. These sized players are typically the most switchable types on defence in the NBL.
With their struggles in shutting down space in the Phoenix game, particularly when guarding Roberson, turning this versatility into a strength on defense is still something they need to nail down.
The decision not to re-sign Cameron Bairstow and therefore move forward with more athleticism in mind means that, in theory, they can blitz the pick and roll with more regularity when needed. This is something that they did with some success late in the game causing Roberson to commit turnovers.
“We’re playing a little differently this year, obviously in terms of positions and all that sort of stuff, and that’s just going to take some time to navigate,” said Lemanis after the Illawarra game.
On the other end of the floor, there are also new matchup opportunities that weren’t as frequent last season with the two-bigs setup. Lamar Patterson, who I currently have as leading the league in total isolation points, can self-create with the best, especially against mismatches.
“They started [Josh] Boone and AJ Ogilvy, and so we had some smaller matchups for those guys to guard. It’s one of those chess games, who can exploit those matchups to their advantage,” said Lemanis.
The decision to forgo most of the traditional power-forward minutes has of course shifted pressure onto the center rotation with Matt Hodgson and Will Magnay needing to provide presence at the rim on both ends.
“The thing I want to bring to the team this season especially is the ability to rebound defensively as I know that I have never been able to be efficient in that area,“ said Hodgson in an interview with The Pick and Roll.
“Rim protection! As a squad we are fairly small, so anything I can do is inside the paint at both ends, and I feel that is the difference in how I can best help this team.”
Hodgson has proven to be a productive player in limited minutes over his NBL career but has been foul prone and was pulled out of the line-up for the majority of the game against SEM with the Bullets searching for better pick and roll coverages. Both he and Magnay need to continue to improve.
“No one knows [Will Magnay] yet but they will by mid-season,” said Hodgson after the Cairns game.
“When I’m not on, he’s in there cleaning up the glass, being a monster, rim protection, down the other end tearing the rim off as well, he’s doing a great job. We’re lucky to have him.”
Magnay is one of the fastest rising local stars in the NBL and somewhat the crown jewel in Brisbane’s patient roster build, with the club having made a point of putting time into young talent.
“We like to invest in players, we think that’s how you keep the sustainability or longevity of a club,” explained Lemanis.
“You bring young guys through and over the course of time they begin to take over. It takes out the fluctuations from season to season if you can do that. Will [Magnay] is sort of our first one of those now, and we’re four years in. It’s cool to see.”
Considering everything that is echoed out of Brisbane, it’s clear that they are more than happy with their group, but where does this all leave them in terms of their playoff and title ambitions this season?
The rebounding and defensive concerns will likely rear their head again in the future but just how much that caps their ceiling as a team in the pivotal moments of their season remains to be seen.
“Every group is what it is, and until we get tested, we don’t know,” said Lemanis after game one.
We’re about to find out a lot more about this Bullets roster now that the initial test has come.