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Five into Four: Are the Illawarra Hawks the NBL’s odd team out?
Only four of the NBL’s five best teams will qualify for the postseason. With a difficult remaining schedule and question marks on both sides of the ball, the Hawks’ road to the top four looks tough.
Credit: Russell Freeman Photography
As far as the race for the title is concerned, the NBL has morphed into a five team league. At this stage, the only five teams that can realistically make the playoffs are Melbourne United, the Perth Wildcats, South East Melbourne Phoenix, Sydney Kings, and Illawarra Hawks.
The JackJumpers are obviously having an exceptional debut season and beat the Hawks just two days ago, but the playoffs still look highly unlikely for them. Sitting in sixth with a 10-9 record, they’ve got two more losses than the 11-7 Phoenix in fourth. With a tough run home coming up and Will Magnay still in street clothes, nobody should expect the JackJumpers to finish in the top four.
The sheer difference in quality between the top five and bottom five in the NBL this season has been stark. In the 52 fixtures consisting of a team from the top five playing a bottom five squad, teams in the top five have combined for a whopping 40-12 record.
That lack of parity is worrying for the league going forward. For the time being, though, it makes for a race to the top four that’ll be as competitive and as intriguing as any we’ve seen in recent memory. Melbourne, Perth, South East Melbourne, Sydney, and Illawarra are all talented enough to win the title, but one won’t even play in a semi-final game.
Of those five teams, Illawarra is by far the most intriguing to me. For one, they’re in the most precarious position of the top five teams. Despite an 11-8 record and a heap of high-end talent on the roster, they sit in fifth and have underwhelmed for the majority of the season. They’ve still got a decent shot at making the postseason (especially with Ryan Broekhoff out for the next month), but most seem to view them as the odd team out among the top five.
That’s not the main reason they’re interesting to me, though. They fascinate me because, quite frankly, I have no idea who they are. Even after 19 games, their identity remains a complete and utter mystery. The remainder of the top five all have something they can hang their hats on and define themselves by. For Melbourne, it’s their borderline impenetrable defence; Sydney have their speed and pace of play; the Phoenix have their depth; Perth have Bryce Cotton.
The Hawks feel like the odd team out in more ways than one.
This wasn’t the case last year. The 2020-21 Hawks had a clear calling card — defence. Illawarra ranked second in defensive efficiency last season. They were so good defensively that their offseason recruitment focused almost entirely on nabbing high-level offensive talent to improve their bottom-ranked offence. Their front office made the bet that with Brian Goorjian in charge, their defence would sort itself out regardless.
It’s not a bad bet to make, either. Goorjian has coached 19 NBL seasons not counting this season. According to Spatial Jam, in 18 of those campaigns, Goorjian’s team finished in the top two in defensive rating. In the other, his Kings finished third. Having Brian Goorjian at the helm just about guarantees an elite defence.
Not even Goorjian has been able to save this year’s Hawks on that end, though.
Illawarra may currently rank fifth in defensive efficiency, according to Spatial Jam, but that ranking isn’t a true reflection of their defensive stature. Importantly, their defensive rating is closer to that of the ninth-ranked team (Adelaide) than it is to fourth. Additionally, it’s a ranking propped up by one outlier game against the Taipans in which Cairns scored just 54 points, and every Taipan suddenly forgot how to dribble, pass, and shoot. I know this because I had a slight mental breakdown on Twitter while watching said game.
Cairns’ lack of offensive production in that game was more to do with them being terrible as opposed to any defensive brilliance from Illawarra. If you discount just that one game from the stats, Illawarra would rank eighth in defensive efficiency.
Eighth is a far greater reflection of Illawarra’s real defensive ability. Goorjian is still a legend and a defensive genius, but there’s not much any coach can do when you get handed a roster bereft of good defenders. The Illawarra front office’s aforementioned focus on recruiting offensive talent has left their roster desperately thin on quality defenders. According to Spatial Jam, Box Plus-Minus rates Antonius Cleveland, Duop Reath, and Sam Froling as the only plus-defenders on the team.
Goorjian has tried essentially every defensive scheme known to man this season and nothing has clicked for Illawarra because of their glaring lack of defensive difference makers. That dearth of defensive talent is most present along the perimeter, where their guards provide little to no resistance against opposing ball handlers. They’re so thin in that area that Goorjian often deploys Justinian Jessup as a defensive stopper on the opposing team’s most dangerous guard. Lately, Isaac White has been injected back into the rotation seemingly because of his willingness to at least try and fight over ball screens at the point of attack, in spite of his physical limitations.
Elsewhere on the perimeter, Tyler Harvey’s defence has been noticeably worse than last year. Off the ball, he has constantly been caught out of position, helping one pass away, or just being completely ineffective when sliding over as help.
On the ball, he has been even worse.
Admittedly, last year’s Hawks didn’t have a significant amount more defensive talent. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, Justin Simon, is the only plainly obvious loss on the defensive end from last year’s team. Although, AJ Ogilvy’s demotion and Deng Deng’s departure also loom somewhat large for a team currently needing anyone who is remotely competent on that end.
Many will point out that Simon’s replacement, Antonius Cleveland, has been pretty damn good defensively this year. Cleveland takes a lot of risks on defence, but by forcing turnovers at an outstanding rate, he's been largely making up for those risks.
But Simon was Defensive Player of the Year last season for a reason. The difference in quality between Simon and Cleveland has meant a lot for Illawarra’s defence. For starters, Cleveland isn’t nearly as good of a point of attack defender as Simon was. The eye test tells me that Cleveland is much more comfortable handling Mitch Creek-types than chasing zippy guards around ball screens. Every now and then, Cleveland’s lateral quickness is exploited when nimble guards attack him.
On the other hand, Simon was deployed a ton at the point of attack and was a freaking marauder in that role.
His ability to make any ball handler’s life miserable and cut off any route to the basket created a domino effect for the rest of Illawarra’s defence. Illawarra’s rim protectors had an easier time, while the likes of Harvey and Jessup weren’t called into action nearly as often as help defenders as they have been this season. I didn’t have to talk about Tyler Harvey’s defence last season because he wasn’t nearly as visible defensively with Simon on the team.
Without Simon, Illawarra’s bigs aren’t good enough defensively to make up for the weak perimeter defence their guards have been serving up. Replacing Deng Deng with Harry Froling and his lack of mobility hasn’t made things easier, either.
Any team with multiple decent ball handlers and some shooting can pick apart the Hawks’ defence. However, as mentioned, Illawarra are still firmly in the mix for the top four. As you can probably deduce, that’s because their offensive efficiency has improved leaps and bounds on last season’s output. According to Spatial Jam, they have gone from last in offensive efficiency in 2020-21 to second this season. Illawarra’s decision to bring in Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Duop Reath, Cleveland, and Harry Froling may have caused a decline on defence, but their recruitment has clearly improved their offensive numbers.
Here’s the thing, though: Illawarra’s offence may statistically be very good right now, but their offence doesn’t feel quite that good. That may sound like an unnecessarily negative, useless, throwaway statement, but hear me out.
As Lanard Copeland has been saying on broadcasts for a few weeks now, Illawarra have a glaring lack of connective pieces on offence. Almost everyone on the roster’s first priority is to create their own shot. No one really makes anyone else better. This is best reflected by the fact that only 45.3% of their made field goals have been assisted this season — the lowest such mark in the league. It’s also the lowest mark any team has posted since the 2015-16 season, per Spatial Jam.
Assist rate doesn’t really correlate with offensive efficiency, but the Hawks’ low rate definitely says something about them and their limitations. It speaks to that stated lack of connectivity, but it also likely says that the Hawks are simply out-talenting teams with their offensive weapons rather than crafting an offence that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s easy to find offensive success that way, when the teams you’re facing are bad. This is of special relevance to the Hawks as they’ve played arguably the easiest schedule in the league to date. The Hawks have played just seven games against other top five teams, with two of those against the Kings, who were far from full health on both occasions. Meanwhile, they’ve already played three times against the lowly Breakers, Sixers, and Taipans.
When you dig deeper into Illawarra’s offensive approach, you start to see deficiencies that show up against better defences. With their schedule toughening up over the next few weeks, expect to see those deficiencies start to really shine through and for Illawarra to slip down the offensive charts.
As I explained earlier in the season, one of their bigger problems is that their spacing gets cramped when teams place their centre on Sam Froling, rather than Duop Reath. Froling’s hesitancy from long range means that coaches are happy to let their centres guard him, knowing that he’s unlikely to make paint-bound bigs pay from the outside.
Moreover, teams are happy to place smaller defenders on Reath to take his jump shot away. Per jordanmcnbl.com, by scoring just 0.76 points per possession on post-ups, he’s been one of the least efficient high volume post-up players in the league and hasn’t punished defences who place smaller defenders on him. Incidentally, Froling has been far worse, at just 0.54 points per possession. Their two bigs’ deficiencies on the block mean that teams aren’t really deterred from switching against them. Teams with the right personnel can gum up Illawarra’s offence with switch-heavy schemes. The lowly Breakers found a surprising amount of success in their matchups against Illawarra with this game plan.
The biggest concern for Illawarra’s offence, though, is that Tyler Harvey hasn’t been playing at the level he found last year. Harvey’s averaging just 14.7 points per game on 48.5% True Shooting. Compare that to last season, when Harvey scored 20 points per game on 54.6% True Shooting. Part of that regression is shooting luck, but some of it is a slight change in Harvey’s play style. To the naked eye, the shifty off-ball movement that allowed Harvey to generate a ton of open looks last year is largely gone. As a result, the shots he’s getting this year seem to be more difficult.
The addition of Xavier Rathan-Mayes was supposed to allow Harvey to do more work off the ball and free up Harvey for even easier shots than last year. However, Rathan-Mayes has proven to be less of an unselfish set-up man for Harvey and more of an isolation bucket-getter. Plays like this occur regularly.
Ultimately, it’s plays like this that make me say that Illawarra’s offence isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. In many ways, Rathan-Mayes’ play this season is the exemplification of that idea. Rathan-Mayes is an excellent bucket-getter and is incredibly talented, but it’s worth noting that their offence is noticeably worse with him on the court. Per Spatial Jam, Illawarra’s offence is 2.9 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor compared to their team average. Despite his obvious talent, he hasn’t been able to make this team better.
Despite all this critique, I still think that Illawarra’s offence is good. Their talent level on that side of the ball is incredibly high. I just don’t think it’ll prove to be second in the league good once their schedule toughens up. That is, unless we see some sort of evolution from them on that end. As a result, relying solely on their offence to get them to the playoffs likely won’t be a strategy capable of landing them a top-four spot.
Speaking of, it’s worth having a closer look at that tough run home since I’ve alluded to it a bunch. Six of their nine remaining games are against top four teams —including top of the table Melbourne and the red hot Kings, twice each. 6 of their 9 remaining games are also set to be played on the road. All of that means that they’ve likely got the hardest run home of any team in the league.
Unless the Hawks magically conjure up an identity over the next couple of games or unearth sustainable solutions to some of their most pressing problems, it’s hard to see them in the top four come season’s end. Beating out any of Melbourne, Perth, South East Melbourne, or Sydney would’ve been tough for them, even without a difficult run home.
I’m happy to be proven wrong. This squad has the talent level of a top four team for certain, and they still have the league’s ultimate problem solver coaching them. They’d be a lock for a postseason spot in most other seasons.
But this doesn’t appear to be like most other seasons. The talent at the top of the league is unusually strong, and Illawarra’s pieces don’t seem to be fitting together in the way they need to be.