Contenders emerging: NBL Grand Final candidates

Tradition demands that before a new NBL season, the pundits dust off their crystal balls and try to predict who will be left standing at the season’s end.

Now that the halfway point of the 2018/19 NBL season is approaching, a true playoff picture is beginning to form, and it’s not quite what many were expecting. GP W L Perth Wildcats 13 11 2 Melbourne United 14 9 5 Sydney Kings 11 7 4 Brisbane Bullets 13 7 6 Illawarra Hawks 13 6 7 Adelaide 36ers 13 5 8 New Zealand Breakers 12 4 8 Cairns Taipans 11 1 10

Right now, the Perth Wildcats are in control of the league and not the Sydney Kings, who were the pre-season favourites. Through their first thirteen games Perth has been utterly dominant, at one point stringing together a seven game win streak. With reigning MVP Bryce Cotton leading the charge, the Perth juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down.

Melbourne United continues to illustrate that they are legitimately dangerous title defenders; whoever wants the trophy will have to go through them first. After an inconsistent start to the season United have been slicing through most of their opposition. They have been winning games despite persistent injury problems for Chris Goulding and Josh Boone.

The Sydney Kings are not yet the indomitable force they were billed to be, but there are visible signs that they are putting the pieces together. Team chemistry is improving with each game, and the stars and role players are settling into their responsibilities in the new-look team. The Kings could be gearing up for a late push for a top two seed.

The fourth seed is being narrowly held by the Brisbane Bullets, with the Illawarra Hawks snapping at their heels. Recently Brisbane has had to deal with some personnel changes after Alonzo Gee unexpectedly departed and was replaced by Lemar Patterson. With the dust now settling they are playing great basketball and are on a three game winning streak.

Surprisingly, Adelaide and New Zealand are currently out of the playoff picture. Unless both teams produce a miraculous turnaround in form, it looks like the playoffs will happen without them.

Right now it's a three-horse race between Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. So, which contenders are we likely to see in the Grand Final showdown?

Melbourne vs Perth

At the midway point of the season it is looking highly likely that Perth will be participating in the Grand Final. If the playoffs were to begin today they are positioned to play Brisbane in the semi-finals, and it’s difficult to envision them losing a three-game series to the Bullets with their home court advantage.

So at this point it is likely Perth would face the winner of the Sydney vs. Melbourne semi-final.

A Grand Final between the top two teams – Perth and Melbourne – looks like the most likely series. At the time of this article, they have only faced each other once this year, with Perth getting the home victory, 101-96. The teams will face each other three more times, and until we see more games it’s difficult to get a feel for how each team will deal with the other in a Grand Final series.

Melbourne certainly has the talent and depth to make sure any challenger earns the title the hard way. Throughout the year they have shown the ability to adapt to unforeseen injuries and still come out with the win.

Perth’s 7-0 record at home stands out as a big factor in determining the outcome of the series. Perth will be a difficult opponent to beat in five games with home court in their favour. We saw the importance of home court in last season’s Grand Final between Melbourne and Adelaide, where neither team won on the road.

No matter if it’s a three or five-game series, if these two giants face each other in March, you can be sure there will be fireworks.

Sydney vs Perth

Alongside Perth, Sydney is one of the better teams in the competition right now, having won four of their last five games. If the playoffs began today they’d be going in with terrific momentum. Success in the NBL can often be a case of winning at the right time, and things appear to be falling into place for the Kings.

Like Melbourne and Perth, Sydney has one of the deepest rosters in the league. They have the personnel to mould their structure to fit a variety of in-game scenarios. The Kings also have the star power to always have a puncher’s chance of winning on any given night.

So far Perth and Sydney have only played each other once this season, with Sydney actually beating Perth, 72-77 in a gutsy grind-it-out game.

Perth’s big advantage over Sydney is their time-tested cohesion and coaching. Trevor Gleeson has enormous post-season experience and under his leadership Perth has been utterly dominant, winning three titles in the past five seasons. Although Andrew Gaze has an unquestionable legacy as a player, his coaching career has been very up and down. With Gaze as head coach the Kings have won 46% of their games and never made the postseason. Coaching can become a big factor in the playoffs, and in this department Perth has a significant edge.

Sydney vs Melbourne

United have had the measure of Sydney in their regular season series, beating them on both occasions at Melbourne Arena. Before the season ends they will play each other two more times, and the Kings will be desperate to draw some blood from United when the season series heads to Qudos Bank Arena.

Until we see how Sydney handles hosting Melbourne, it’s difficult to say who would have the edge in the post-season. Both games have been very close, decided by an average of 4.5 points.

This is a matchup high on the wish list of NBL fans. However, as the ladder currently stands – United positioned as the second seed and Sydney the third seed - it would be a semi-final clash with only the winner progressing to the grand final. There is plenty of time left for the top four to shuffle around, and even time for some teams to drop out and be replaced. It’s not impossible that we could still see the highly coveted contest between Sydney and Melbourne.