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By the numbers: How critical are NBL imports to winning?
With only two imports per team next season, should NBL clubs be focused on adding international or local talent?
Credit: Jacob Crook / JBC Studios
Some things happen so suddenly, it's instantly hard to imagine life before them. Bryce Cotton's dominance in the NBL is one of those things. He became the face of the league, almost from the moment he first stepped on an NBL court. That was despite arriving halfway through the 2016/17 season with relatively little fanfare as a replacement import for the Perth Wildcats. Almost four years later, he's a three-time champion, two-time MVP, two-time finals MVP and one of the greatest players in NBL history.
That's the kind of impact that the right import signing can have. Cotton, Scott Machado and Lamar Patterson torched all-comers on their way to top-three MVP finishes. Eight of the ten players selected to the All-NBL teams were international products, with Nick Kay and Andrew Bogut the only Australian representatives. Among the cream of the crop, it seems obvious that imports bring the most value.
Does that still hold true when looking at team building as a whole? In a regular NBL season, the import limit of three leaves another eight roster spots to be filled by local players. Even assuming that the bottom end won't ever play meaningful minutes, that makes up more than half of every team's rotation. Given these restrictions, the value of local superstars should theoretically be even higher than that of imports. If a team can get the same production from a local without eating an import slot, it opens up more options when building the rest of their roster. That may become even more important in the upcoming 2020/21 season, as the continued impact of COVID-19 has seen the league reduce its import limit to two.
Should a team's first focus be imports or locals? There may not be a hard and fast rule as to which is more important, but there are trends that can be seen in recent seasons. By looking at the league's imports as individuals, and at their teams as a whole, a picture can be formed of their overall importance.
A quick note: in all of the stats used below, Next Stars have been considered as "imports", as they are not local players. Three of the four players signed through the program last season played significant roles for their teams, and as they are overseas products it made more sense to exclude them from the "local" group. All stats were calculated using data from SpatialJam.com.
"The eye test" and individual accolades
Individual awards are based almost entirely on "the eye test"-- that is, how someone perceives a player based purely on what they see during a game. Yes, some voters would dig into the numbers and look at team wins when making their decisions, but at least part of that process would come down to gut feel. Still, as a collation of multiple opinions these awards are useful when considering the success of players.
When it comes to recent seasons, most of the NBL's major awards have been dominated by imports. Nine of the last ten MVP awards have been won by imports, as well as three of the past five Best Defensive Player awards (go any further back and Damian Martin's dominance is overwhelming). The All-NBL teams give a similar perspective, as they too have featured mostly imports in recent times. Eight of the ten players selected last season were overseas products, as well as 21 of the 30 selections over the last three years.
The raw individual stats show the same trend, at least on the offensive side of the ball. Each of the last six seasons' leaders in points per game (min. 15 games) were imports, along with five of the last six assist leaders, according to Spatial Jam's database. The top ten in each category is just as emphatic. Of the 60 players to qualify in points per game during that six year span, 43 have been imports, while 38 of the same sample in the assists leaders were international players. Those numbers make a lot of sense, as the stereotypical idea of an import tends to be a player capable of leading an offence in the big moments, either in the mould of Cotton as a scorer or a playmaker like Machado.
The inverse seems be true on the defensive end, with just two steals leaders and one blocks leader in the last six seasons being imports. Again, this matches what the eye test suggests. Over the last few seasons in particular, imports brought in as defensive specialists have largely struggled, with players like Keith Benson, Billy Preston and Eric Griffin arriving with high expectations but failing to meet them.
2019/20 by the numbers
Raw numbers are often tough to interpret, as pace and style of play can make them impossible to relate from one team to another. Taking these figures for a player and viewing them as a percentage of their team's overall production gives a better and more even look at contributions across the entire league. In this case, it can show how much the league's best and worst teams relied on their imports.
Across most of the major counting stats last season, there was no real correlation between the best teams and the production of their imports. The numbers fluctuated based on the types of players each team had-- for example, Brisbane had a pair of local centres in Will Magnay and Matt Hodgson playing alongside three imports on the wing, so they had a very low percentage of their blocks (8.08%) from their overseas players. Adelaide, sitting below the Bullets in the final standings, ranked second in percentage of blocks from imports (50.67%) thanks largely to Eric Griffin's presence.
The one statistic that seemed to line up in any meaningful way was the one that really matters-- when it comes down to it, a game of basketball is decided by who scores more points. In the 2019/20 NBL season it was, for the most part, the teams that got the most scoring from their imports that won the most games, as shown below.
TEAM (Ladder position)% OF POINTS FROM IMPORTS/NEXT STARS (Rank)Sydney Kings (1)51.19% (2)Perth Wildcats (2)48.72% (4)Cairns Taipans (3)56.47% (1)Melbourne United (4)46.92% (5)Brisbane Bullets (5)38.9% (7)New Zealand Breakers (6)50.2% (3)Adelaide 36ers (7)41.48% (6)South East Melbourne Phoenix (8)37.1% (8)Illawarra Hawks (9)26.42% (9)
Created using stats from SpatialJam.com
The four finalists (Sydney, Perth, Cairns and Melbourne) made up four of the top five teams in import scoring. The lone outlier? The New Zealand Breakers, who narrowly missed the finals despite finishing third in import scoring. One factor in that was the presence of Next Star RJ Hampton, who played a key role for the Breakers and averaged 8.8 points per game across 15 contests. Even with Next Stars players excluded from the import totals, though, the Breakers ranked fourth (44.95%) and ahead of the ladder-leading Sydney Kings (43.15%).
A little digging into their season shows why they failed to make the finals despite those numbers. They had just two players appear in all 28 games, with major injuries to leading scorer Scotty Hopson (missed seven games), young guard Hampton (13 games), starting centre Rob Loe (eight games) and starting forward Finn Delany (eight games). On top of that, they lost star Kiwi Corey Webster to the Chinese CBA, and replacement import Glen Rice Jr. played just three games before landing in legal trouble and swiftly departing. All of this is to say that while the Breakers were a statistical outlier here, their lack of roster consistency outweighed their strong import production.
Outside of that, the numbers line up well with the win totals. The Illawarra Hawks, wooden spooners by four games, were comfortably last for import scoring even with Next Star LaMelo Ball included. Perth and Melbourne boasted two of the strongest local contingents in the league, and yet they still heavily featured their imports in offences that ranked first and third in the league, respectively.
The four finalists combined saw 50.83% of their points scored by imports. The remaining teams sat at just 38.99%.
Contenders vs non-contenders: Import scoring trends
Three of the past four seasons have seen the finals teams have a higher combined import scoring output than the non-finalists, with the 2018/19 the lone exception. That is somewhat surprising given import contributions across the league and in finals teams have been trending upwards in recent years. Below are the percentages of points scored by imports for finals and non-finals teams over the past eight seasons.
Created using stats from SpatialJam.com
Most notable is the significant jump in overall import scoring in the 2016/17 season. That is undoubtedly linked with the arrival of Larry Kestelman, who took ownership of the NBL in 2015 and immediately had a positive impact. After struggling financially under previous ownership the league has blossomed over the past five years, which has seen more and more uber-talented players signing down under. No offence to the imports in the league during the earlier seasons shown, but there has never been more NBA-caliber talent playing in the NBL.
That makes it even more crucial for teams to get the most possible value out of their import slots. The bottom two teams from last season both suffered greatly, when Billy Preston for Illawarra and Keith Benson for South East Melbourne both departed early after underwhelming stints in the league. Other factors certainly played a part in both teams' struggles, but their overseas signings were among the biggest.
Lessons for teams
The numbers and the eye test combined seem to tell the same story - the right import signings can transform a club. The Cairns Taipans showed that last season, moving from the bottom of the table in 2018/19 to a finals berth in one year. They did so by signing three elite imports that complemented each other perfectly, and then adding local talent around them.
While player salaries and team payrolls are not publicly available, the Taipans have struggled with player retention in the past due to a presumed lower budget than many of their competitors. Their talent identification has been phenomenal, but in recent years their few Australian stars have been lured away from Far North Queensland. Boomers guard Cam Gliddon joined in-state rivals Brisbane after six years with the Taipans, while Mitch McCarron earned the nickname "Money Makin' Mitch" after his switch to Melbourne United. That is on top of superstar imports Torrey Craig (Brisbane Bullets), Travis Trice (Brisbane Bullets) and Melo Trimble (Melbourne United), all of whom left after successful stints in Cairns.
The issue of player retention for clubs like Cairns suggests that it may be best to treat top local talent as a luxury that may or may not be attainable in any given season. Teams like Melbourne and Sydney are able to sign marquee local players, but they still lean heavily on their imports. Those with a lower budget simply can't afford to hedge their bets in the same way, and their focus should be on their imports first and the rest of the roster second.
Again, the Taipans are the perfect example, as their imports shouldered a heavier load than any in the league and carried them well above most expectations without any big local names. Compare that to the Phoenix, who had superstar production from Mitch Creek but struggled overall with below-par performances from their second and third import slots.
Offensive production has long been the number one priority from import players, and that should largely stay the same. Defensive ability can be much harder to quantify, making signings focused on that end of the floor more of a gamble for teams. That doesn't mean it shouldn't come into play at all, but even a defensive-minded import needs to be at least a proficient offensive player as well. The likes of DJ Newbill and Jae'Sean Tate last season showed the ability to be elite defenders while still being highly featured in their teams' offences.
With just two import slots for each team this season, import signings suddenly become much more important. Finding the right local talent will also be crucial, but it's almost impossible to replace the production of one good import without landing one of the few Australian superstars not already under contract. There are good complementary pieces available as free agency approaches, but the star power needed to be able to compete for a title will have to largely come from overseas.
Long story short: imports are really, really important.
That might be stating the obvious, but there's still a handful of teams each year that seem unable to grasp the idea. The Wildcats can sleep a little easier knowing that they have Cotton locked in, but this will be a hugely important free agency period for the rest of the league.