Contenders or Pretenders? Examining NBL teams on the top 4 bubble

We’re over halfway through the NBL season and beginning to get a decent understanding of where every team stands. The three powerhouses everyone thought would dominate, look like playoff locks. Meanwhile, the teams outside of the Sydney Kings, Perth Wildcats, and Melbourne United appear to be jostling for fourth place.

It’s easy to divide the league into those two tiers. Conversely, figuring out who among the 4-9 bracket of the ladder will join the Kings, Wildcats, and United in the postseason is incredibly difficult.

That being said, here’s my best attempt at distinguishing the contenders from the pretenders among the non-superteams of this glorious league.

Adelaide 36ers

It’s weird to say, but the Adelaide 36ers’ fortunes turned as soon as Joey Wright inserted Obi Kyei and Brendon Teys into the starting lineup. The 36ers are 5-2 since that adjustment; they're posting the league’s best offensive efficiency and the third-best net rating in that span.

Kyei and Teys aren’t better than Eric Griffin and Ramone Moore, but they are better fits with the starting five. Between Jerome Randle, Daniel Johnson, and the ever-improving Anthony Drmic, there is no need for any additional ball-dominant offensive talent. Inserting Teys and Kyei has allowed Adelaide to put two role players, who are more than happy to defend their asses off and space the floor, next to three of their stars.

That new starting lineup is 15 points per 100 possessions better defensively than their old opening grouping, per Spatial Jam. The fivesome's offensive rating is far below Adelaide’s average, but inserting a pair of low-usage role players into the starting five has allowed for Adelaide to boost the scoring power of their bench-laden units.

The 36ers, to open the season, were being demolished without Randle on the floor. According to Jordan McCallum, after round 7, the 36ers were being outscored by 21.1 points per 36 minutes with Randle off the court.

With Wright now staggering Randle’s minutes with Moore and Griffin's, the Sixers always have an offensive fulcrum out on the court. Jordan’s numbers now show that, for the season, the Sixers are being outscored by a comparatively tiny 7.7 points per 36 without Randle.

https://twitter.com/jordanmcnbl/status/1206561757692432385

Bench combinations containing both Moore and Griffin without Randle are now winning their minutes. That would've seemed inconceivable during the opening few rounds. With greater balance across the board, Wright is showing off the potential of the immense talent at his disposal. It seems simple, but the Sixers get a leg up on the opposition every game because they don’t have a single bad player in their rotation. They go 11 deep, something you can’t really say about any team outside of Sydney.

That talent, for the moment, is papering over the cracks.

When it comes to their shot selection, Wright’s team makes me want to gouge my eyes out. Despite having a host of good three-point shooters, Adelaide rank last in three-point attempt rate. Logically, they are first by a mile when it comes to mid-range attempts. Their conscious effort to stay away from the three-point line means they put constant heat on the rim, but far too many of their shot attempts are a couple of steps inside the arc.

Yet, their offensive rating ranks four and is still improving.

Should their attack regress, their defence, which currently places a hair above last, is unlikely to keep them afloat. With Kevin White basically out of the rotation, Wright’s collection of solid defenders is fairly thin. Furthermore, Adelaide are allowing the exact type of shots you shouldn’t give up. Nearly 83% of opponent attempts have come at the rim or from deep (the worst figure in the league, according to the Spatial Jam shot machine). But they are still sitting pretty in fourth place and look like contenders. It makes little sense to me, but Wright’s squad do this basically every year. It shouldn't be a surprise. They have all the intangibles and have talent to burn. Even if there is some form of regression, you’d have to bet on them being firmly in contention for a playoff spot come season’s end.

Verdict: Nonsensical, but nevertheless contenders

Brisbane Bullets

I really don’t know what to do with the Brisbane Bullets, so I apologise if this section feels all over the place.

Roster construction has been the main source cited for their disappointing start this campaign, but I remain unconvinced. Yes, they are over-stocked with wings. But, two-way swingmen who spread the floor are the exact types of basketball players you need to win games.

As I suggested a couple of weeks ago, part of Brisbane's poor start is down to the play of Nathan Sobey and Lamar Patterson. Patterson’s shot selection leaves something to be desired and both are ice cold from most areas of the floor. Those two need to be far more dynamic for their offence to lift. That offence ranks seventh in a league made up of nine teams, helping them to achieve a net rating which would rank dead last - if it weren’t for the Hawks.

The weird thing is, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Brisbane should be better. For instance, their assist rate has been consistently high all year, while their turnover rate has been comparatively low. On top of this, 41% of their shot attempts have been from deep, the third greatest share in the league. Behind only the brilliant Kings, they rank as the second-best team in the league when it comes to forcing opponents away from the rim and deep.

This is all good stuff! Nothing stands out as a reason as to why the Bullets stink.

As Lemanis has been noting in his post-game press conferences, a big reason for their struggles is that they just aren’t making enough shots. The Bullets are drilling just 32% of their above-the-break threes, 4% below the league average. They generate a ton of excellent spot-up attempts, but are finishing them at a below-average rate, per jordanmcnbl.com.

The issue the Bullets face? Opportunity. We’re already over halfway through a 28 game season, there is little time to edge those percentages back to the mean.

There are obviously other things wrong with the Bullets outside of the play of Sobey and Patterson and the fact that good looks aren’t falling. But are any of those problems untenable? Hell no.

Brisbane are leaving their revival late their upcoming schedule is frightening and they are already a couple of games off the pace. However, with a few tweaks, some lineup stability, and some makes from three-point range, I think the Bullets could still turn it around. This roster is too good to be this bad. I struggle to call them contenders considering how uninspiring they’ve been, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they start to show their true potential soon.

Verdict: ???

Cairns Taipans

Despite a frustrating weekend containing two close losses that were extremely winnable in the dying stages, the Cairns Taipans are still very much contenders.

Cairns is 1-5 in games decided by five points or less at the end of regulation. Some of that appalling record is down to poor game management and part of it is due to Cairns’ lack of capable bench pieces. A huge majority of that befuddling stat, though, can be put down to plain luck. It is, largely, an aberration that should fix itself as the season progresses. If those types of losses do start to correct themselves, the Taipans will be lurking around fourth spot all season long.

My confidence in the Taipans is aided by the fact that ever since their 0-2 opening to the season, the Taipans have been smoking teams on both ends of the court. Per Spatial Jam, since their dismal start, Cairns rank second in both offensive and defensive rating. They are legitimately good; there’s no smoke and mirrors here. Their depth brings about question marks, but their most played lineups have been so good that it almost doesn’t matter. Among five-man combinations that have played over 50 possessions, Cairns own 3 of best 8 lineups in the league net rating-wise. As Andrew Price showed recently, Kelly is a master of his rotations.

https://twitter.com/andrewbprice/status/1206768124625702912

The top of Mike Kelly’s rotation sees enough length, athleticism, and versatility to match up against any team on the defensive end. On attack, their lack of capable threats on the bench hurts them, but between the red-hot DJ Newbill, the unflappable Scott Machado, and the incomparable Cam Oliver, Kelly has been able to piece together a dangerous attack.

While I don’t think their depth difficulties matter all too much, Kouat Noi’s recent injury accentuates those issues. Noi is the only Taipans wing with any real length his frame and athleticism has given Kelly a ready-made matchup for the league’s premier swingmen.

Without him, Kelly will likely have to jack up DJ Newbill’s minutes and deploy Jarrod Kenny, Jarrod Kenny’s mullet, and Mirko Djeric for longer stints. Replacing Noi this way risks burning Newbill out and being incredibly small across the perimeter. The alternative is supersizing and allowing Majok Deng to mooch some minutes as the nominal small forward, but this path could be even worse. At the time of writing, there is no word on the severity of Noi’s injury. If he sees any longer than a week or two on the sidelines, that could be enough to spell the end of the Taipans’ playoff hopes given how crowded the race for fourth currently is.

Still, the Taipans are excellent no NBL observer should be treating any of their wins as an ‘upset’ at this point. This team is the real deal.

Verdict: Contenders, provided Noi is back on the court soon-ish

Illawarra Hawks

Nope.

Verdict: NBL1 contenders

New Zealand Breakers

Dan Shamir's squadron simply can't catch a break injury-wise. Not only have the New Zealand Breakers seen at least one player sit out of all 15 of their games, but they have played 11 fixtures with at least two players in street clothes.

It’s not like they’re losing benchwarmers either their projected starting lineup from the preseason (Loe, Delany, Hopson, Webster, Hampton) haven’t shared a second of court time. Only Sek Henry, Tom Abercrombie, and Brandon Ashley have played in every game this season.

That's some ridiculous injury luck.

What sucks is that, even in the face of well documented off-court complications and injuries, the Breakers have shown the ability to play like a true playoff contender at points during the season. Their win against the Bullets a week ago displayed the two-way upside of the squad. Their early jet lag-plagued encounters against Sydney were similarly positive.

When they’re clicking and (relatively) healthy, there aren’t many teams as versatile on both ends of the court. On offence, they can attack you from every conceivable angle, while on the other end, they can capably utilise pretty much any coverage. Between Ashley, Abercrombie, Finn Delany, and Scotty Hopson, the Breakers are loaded with long, quick, switchable, forwards.

On an individual level, a lot of the Breakers are putting up impressive seasons. Webster, even with his questionable shot selection, has been excellent. Abercrombie has experienced a career revival under Shamir. Hopson has been as advertised and Ashley has been a boon for my fantasy team. Finn Delany is finally turning potential into production and looks set for a huge payday once his contract ends his three-point shooting is for real and his rim rampages feel more controlled and effective.

The talent is there to put together a late-season run of some sort. Sadly, because of their injuries and early season form, it’s likely that whatever run the Breakers put together won’t be enough. At 4-10, Shamir’s side will have to win at least 10 of their final 14 fixtures to secure a playoff spot. Even for the most optimistic of Breakers fans, that seems a tad unrealistic.

Verdict: Pretenders, but at least Glen Rice Jr isn’t on the team anymore

South East Melbourne Phoenix

The case for the South East Melbourne Phoenix is clear. It’s so clear, that the great NBL Pocket Podcast was able to outline in it in less than 280 characters.

https://twitter.com/NBLpocketpod/status/1206395861577584640

The key points there are numbers four and five.

With Roberson and Creek in tow, the Phoenix are registering the league’s second-best offensive rating, per Spatial Jam. They probably don’t shoot enough threes given their personnel. but everything else about their offence is incredible.

As is commonplace with Mitch Creek-led teams, they run other teams off the floor and capitalise when defences scramble. But with Roberson and this evolved form of Creek, they are also dominating in the halfcourt. No one around the league matches up ‘well’ with Mitch Creek he is controlling games with poised, patient attacks like he never used to in Adelaide.

When Creek isn’t shooting, Roberson gets to terrorise defences with a high pick and roll game so devastating that I’m convinced he has seen every possible permutation of pick and roll defence this season. Opposition coaches don’t know what to do with him he’s the NBL’s Steph Curry.

I could talk about Creek and Roberson for years, but that would mean avoiding discussing the elephant in the room: their ghastly defence. The core problem the Phoenix have defensively is that they simply don’t have many above-average defenders. Outside of Creek, Dane Pineau, and maybe Tai Wesley, I can’t name a single guy that I think adds legitimate value on that end of the court.

On the perimeter, they have no one who can stay in front of their man. Simon Mitchell’s men are allowing over 43% of opponent shot attempts to come at the rim, the second-highest mark in the league. Plays like this happen regularly:

Wesley's return helps them in this regard; at least he knows what he’s doing most of the time. Holistically, Wesley’s return and how he fits with the rest of the roster could itself decide whether this team makes it into the top four or not.

One area where Wesley will add a ton of value is when Mitchell is forced to turn to lineups without Creek or Roberson. Without Roberson on the floor, the Phoenix are being killed by over 20 points per 100 possessions, according to Spatial Jam. When Creek and Roberson both sit, that number jumps to nearly 40 points per 100. Wesley, as a capable offensive hub, should allow for the Phoenix to survive in those minutes at the very least.

While Creek has thrived playing as a small ball four, to get Wesley on to the court, they’ll need to play bigger and shift the former 36er down a spot. South East Melbourne lack the long, athletic wings necessary for Wesley to play extended minutes as the five-man next to Creek. Playing Creek, Wesley, and one of their centres at the same time will be the way forward for Mitchell. Though, those lineups will be down on shooting and speed, which the Phoenix have thrived with.

On the flip side, Wesley could make South East Melbourne’s halfcourt offence unstoppable. Throw Wesley out there with Creek and Roberson and Mitchell’s star duo become even more unguardable. Opposition coaches will have to throw bigger bodies at Wesley, freeing Creek up to bully smaller defenders frequently. Additionally, teams who decide to switch John Roberson pick and rolls will pay for sticking a small on Wesley.

Regardless of the fit questions, adding Wesley absolutely aids the Phoenix top 4 case. How seamlessly he slides in, however, could determine how strong that case is.

Verdict: Contenders with some question marks