Bryce Cotton is even greater than you think

As we head into season 6 of the Bryce Cotton show, it’s time to recognise the significance of his legacy.

Credit: Russell Freeman Photography

No one ever wants to be seen as a prisoner of the moment when discussing sports. We're all wary of having our takes tainted by recency bias, and we all have a tendency to have a rosy view of the past — not just in sports but in all walks of life.

You can see this idea in action in a lot of sports discourse. For instance, even hint at tweeting out that LeBron James might surpass Michael Jordan, and your mentions will be littered, regardless of the increasing merits of LeBron's case.

Sometimes, though, you just need to abandon these notions and recognise greatness when you see it. In the NBL, this is no more evident than with Bryce Cotton.

My reasoning is simple: I simply don’t think we talk about the greatness of Bryce Cotton enough. Part of me even thinks that we, as the collective NBL fandom, are taking him for granted. We obviously talk about his game-to-game brilliance a lot, and his individual seasons have been appropriately recognised with his three MVP awards. What we don’t tend to talk about, though, is his greatness within the context of NBL history.

Regardless of the minimal discussion around this point, it is indisputable that Cotton has already established himself as an all-time NBL great in just five seasons. However, even those who do discuss his all-time great status tend to shy away and underrate just how highly he already sits within the NBL pantheon. From a historical perspective, Cotton’s combination of individual dominance over his peers and team success has rarely been seen.

The best way to decipher prolonged individual dominance in the all-time great discussion is through All-NBL selections. All-NBL teams are the best artefact we have for showing who the best players in the league in a given year were. Historical statistics only get you so far, given the difficulty in contextualising and comparing stats across eras. The list of players with at least 3 All-NBL First Team selections (a fairly arbitrary benchmark, sure, but bear with me) is just 21 players long. Eliminate those who haven’t won a championship, to sort for a requisite amount of team success, and that list shrinks to 18. 

Of those 18, just 12 won at least one MVP as well, giving us the list below (in order of All-NBL First Team selections):

  • Andrew Gaze (15x All-NBL First Team; 2x Champion; 7x MVP)

  • Mark Bradtke (10x All-NBL; 3x Champion; 1x MVP)

  • Leroy Loggins (9x All-NBL; 3x Champion; 3x MVP)

  • Robert Rose (5x All-NBL; 1x Champion; 2x MVP)

  • Chris Anstey (5x All-NBL; 3x Champion; 2x MVP)

  • Mark Davis (5x All-NBL; 3x Champion; 1x MVP)

  • Robert Rose (5x All-NBL; 1x Champion; 2x MVP)

  • Scott Fisher (4x All-NBL; 3x Champion; 2X MVP)

  • Kirk Penney (4x All-NBL; 1x Champion; 1x MVP)

  • Bryce Cotton (4x All-NBL; 3x Champion; 3x MVP)

  • Sam Mackinnon (3x All-NBL; 2x Champion; 1x MVP)

  • Kevin Lisch (3x All-NBL; 1x Champion; 2x MVP)

  • Cedric Jackson (3x All-NBL; 3x Champion; 1x MVP)

That’s already some pretty exclusive company for Cotton.

MVP wins, admittedly, aren’t a perfect barometer for historical greatness — they only tell you who was the absolute best player in the league in that particular season. As just one example, we know that Ricky Grace deserves to be mentioned among that list of greats, but he played in the same era as Andrew Gaze, never allowing him to be crowned as MVP.

Still, being the best player in the league in at least one year should be perceived as important in a historical context. As mentioned, when diving into historical comparisons, it’s hard to compare talent levels and statistics across eras. The best you can do is show how good a player has been in comparison to his competition. MVP wins can do exactly that: they show how dominant a player was in relation to the other greatest players of his era.

To illustrate his dominance, you could look at any number of pieces of evidence. His near-monopoly over NBL MVPs since entering the league is just one piece. You could look at the fact that he has scored more than 300 points more than any other player since the start of his first full season in the league. Or the fact that the eye test scarcely, if ever, invites attentive viewers to reach any other conclusion than that he is indeed the best player in the league.

Personally, I prefer to dive deeper into the stats. To see Cotton’s dominance over his era on display, one only needs to look at PIPM (the best all-in-one advanced metric available to the general public before it stopped being made available to the public after the 2019-20 season). That metric shows that, in Cotton's first four seasons in the NBL (2016-17 to 2019-20), he posted the two best offensive seasons of all players in that span and four of the best 11

Ergo, even his worst season in that span was the 11th best of all players across those four seasons. That level of consistently elite production in comparison to his peers is absurd. Even for great players, it’s hard to expect anyone to keep their play at that level every year. Even for great players, drop-offs and season-long slumps happen, especially within the small sample size of an NBL season. But Cotton isn’t just great. He’s all-time great.

As mentioned, PIPM stopped being publicly tracked after the 2019-20 season, which, in Cotton’s case, is especially disappointing given that 2021 was his best individual year in the NBL. Instead, you can look to Box Plus-Minus on Spatial Jam to see just how much better Cotton was offensively than the rest of the NBL in 2021. 

One could point out that Cotton’s defensive impact leaves something to be desired. But when talking about individual-level dominance over an era, this isn’t something I’m overly concerned with. Simply put, individuals can’t have as much of an impact on a team’s defensive success as they can on offence. When looking at individual dominance historically, we should generally focus on a player’s offensive contribution.

Taking all of this into account, Cotton’s level of dominance on an individual level over his peers is only truly matched by Gaze and Leroy Loggins — the only other two players to rack up three MVPs.

That individual excellence, meanwhile, has driven the Wildcats to their most recent unprecedented run of success. Sure, the Wildcats had a lot of success prior to Cotton's arrival. They even won the title the season before Cotton arrived. But regarding their last three championships, Cotton has been the undisputed driving force behind Perth’s success.

Although the Wildcats over the past decade, especially before Damian Martin's retirement, have been mostly lauded for their defensive proficiency and grit, it's their offence that has driven their success in the Bryce Cotton era. In Cotton's four full seasons in the NBL, the Wildcats have ranked 2nd, 4th, 1st, and 1st in offensive efficiency, per Spatial Jam. Those four seasons include the 2019-20 season in which the Wildcats posted the highest offensive rating the NBL has seen since 1991.

Cotton has led that charge — not only has he been both Perth’s best scorer and facilitator in this period, but he was the perfect fulcrum for Trevor Gleeson’s flex offence. Meanwhile, the versatility and variety of his offensive approach has allowed the Wildcats to contort every defence at will. No player forces as many defensive adjustments as Cotton, and no player leaves defences scrambling quite like him. Cotton is such an unstoppable force and bends defences so much that opposing teams’ defensive plans are constructed entirely with Cotton in mind. Having a player capable of contorting defences in this way gives any offence a herculean leg up on the competition.

Yet, even though he has already been down under for five seasons, no team has found a trustworthy way to mitigate his offensive impact. When it looks like teams have found a way to deal with him, he eventually figures it out. For instance, as I’ve previously mentioned on this site, it appeared a couple seasons ago that blitzing Cotton relentlessly was the way to shut him down. It didn’t take long for Cotton to develop into an expert navigator of traps and blitzes, especially in regards to his distribution.

Although there have been aberrations in past seasons, generally speaking, Cotton’s on-off numbers usually reflect his importance to Perth’s offensive brilliance, and their championship wins. Last season, Perth’s offence was a ridiculous 16.6 points per 100 possessions better with Cotton on the court than off, according to Spatial Jam.  

Cotton’s importance to Perth’s championship run goes even broader than that, though. At risk of diving into cliché-territory, in the biggest moments Cotton steps up the most. Whether it’s his historic 2017 Finals performance or the way he meticulously tore apart Sydney’s drop coverage schemes in the 2020 Finals, it’s hard to see how the Wildcats would have the same success over the last few years with an import guard not named Bryce Cotton. Their past three championships have Cotton written all over them.

The weirdest, most absurd, and most terrifying part of Cotton’s contribution to those three championships is that he only turned 29 last month. It’s not clear whether he’s even peaked as a player yet, especially given that the 2021 season was his best. It’s entirely possible that he’ll continue getting better for another couple of years. Cotton already has the resume of one of the single greatest NBL players of all-time, and it's unclear if we're even halfway through his reign. 

The logical follow-up question is how high could Cotton rise up the pantheon? As alluded to, his combination of individual and team accolades is already close to unmatched. For instance, the only other NBL player in history with 3 MVPs and 3 championships is Leroy Loggins.

Entering 2022, he’s probably the leader in the clubhouse for MVP again. Additionally, with Vic Law signed on and an import slot still up their sleeve, this Wildcats team could easily be a firm contender for the 2022 title. I’m getting ahead of myself, but would it shock anyone if we end next season with Cotton still 29 years old and on 4 MVPs and 4 titles — something no player in history has achieved.

Accolades obviously aren’t everything, and significant longevity certainly matters, which Cotton is still well short of. But frankly, it’s anyone’s guess as to how high Cotton could rise up the list of greats. I’m not comfortable putting any sort of ceiling on him. At just 29 and having achieved what he already has at an individual and a team level, you’d be stupid to do so.

As for right now, all we need to do is avoid taking Cotton for granted by being fearful of becoming a prisoner of the moment. Instead, let’s stay firmly in the moment and appreciate Cotton’s greatness, regardless of who you support. Greats like Cotton don’t come around all too often, and even fewer actually stay put in the NBL. It's time for us to start recognising and appreciating Cotton for who he truly is — already an all-time great, rising quickly up the historical ranks.