Five sneaky-big questions surrounding the 2019/20 NBL Finals

We’ve made it! After 20 (mostly) awesome rounds of basketball, we are finally here. From here on out, only good teams play basketball. No one has to be subjected to the Adelaide 36ers’ shot selection, the South East Melbourne Phoenix’s ‘defence’, or any part of the Illawarra Hawks from here on out.

Instead, we get to see four genuinely good, battle-tested basketball teams go to war.

It’s easy to analyse these wars by boiling them down to their most glaring features. Listen to the broadcasts this week and you’ll almost certainly notice commentators trying to simplify each series down to the battles between the teams’ biggest stars. Better yet, someone will absolutely recite the overused “defence wins championships” adage.

The reality is that playoff basketball isn’t that simple. When elite, superbly coached teams are involved, series are often decided by minute, purportedly inconsequential details.

To analyse the seemingly trivial aspects of each series, I’ve decided to bring back my ‘sneaky-big’ questions format. None of the questions posed in this piece will decide a series by themselves, but each answer will get us closer to figuring out who has the edge in each best-of-three.

So, if you’d like to indulge in some NBL nerdvana, here are five sneaky-big questions regarding the next couple weeks of glorious NBL action.

1. Can the Cairns Taipans turn Damian Martin into a negative?

I know, it feels sacrilegious. But it needs to be asked.

Martin is aging gracefully, but his on-court impact hasn’t been nearly as positive this season as it has been in the past. He’s the Wildcats’ worst on/off performer, per Spatial Jam — Perth were an unthinkable 6.5 points per 100 possessions better with Martin riding the pine this season.

On/off numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they might paint an accurate picture of the uphill battle Martin faces in this particular series. As detailed last month, Cairns have been incredibly aggressive when defending Perth’s top-ranked offence this campaign. One facet of their approach involved paying zero attention to Martin and daring him to take long-range shots. In some cases, the Taipans made the Wildcats play 4-on-5.

Martin has seen this look countless times, but Cairns take it to the extreme. When Martin’s on the floor, rather than playing point guard, Machado becomes a free safety. Their lack of respect for the five-time champion is downright mean.

On the above play, Newbill’s has already got Cotton locked down. Yet, Machado decides that it’s more beneficial to throw an extra body at the MVP than pay Martin an ounce attention.

With that type of aggressive scheming, Cotton averaged a meagre (by his standards) 16 points per game against the Taipans this season. Even more worrying is that Cotton connected on just a third of his shot attempts. Gleeson has counters for this strategy, such as when Martin throws in a sneaky back cut. But the Taipans are more than happy to concede those counters, as long as Cotton isn’t shooting.

Most would make the claim that Martin can make up for his offensive negatives with his legendary defence. After all, he’s done it for his entire career. While this is true to an extent, Martin’s ever-so-slight regression coupled with Scott Machado’s brilliance makes it difficult. Against the Wildcats, Machado averaged 16 points and 10 assists, with a true shooting rate of 63.6%. In many ways, he was at his best against the ‘Cats. The ex-Laker’s craft, guile, and change of pace gave Damo headaches at times. That combination meant Martin had trouble chasing Machado over ball-screens.

As we know, the six-time Defensive Player of the Year is a different beast in the playoffs and will probably make me look stupid. But it sure does seem like Cairns have a real chance to turn the guy Perth have relied on for each of their past five championships into somewhat of a liability. Mitch Norton is very good, but if the Taipans can turn Martin into a negative, Cairns should feel good about their chances.

2. Can Dean Vickerman force the Kings out of their comfort zone?

As analysed recently, Will Weaver’s coaching style gives Sydney a profound math advantage going into every game. During their regular season meetings against Melbourne, 91% of Sydney’s shots came at the rim or from deep. The Kings took just six mid-range shots TOTAL across those four games, according to Spatial Jam.

Compare that to Melbourne, who saw 74% of their shot attempts come from those same areas against the Kings. Against any other team in the league, that mark would be fine. Against the Weaver-led Kings, it haemorrhages the efficiency battle.

For United’s defence to get on top, they will need to do a far better job at taking away threes and layups. Though, there’s only so much you can do against a team wired to launch from long-range, regardless of the coverage they face.

The more pressing concern for United is how they attack the Kings’ defence. Sydney’s defence ranks first by a mile because of their active discouragement of the most efficient shots on the floor. Weaver’s somewhat maligned drop-back pick and roll defence has been the catalyst for this. When the Kings’ collection of Patrick Beverley clones fight over ball-screens, ball-handlers have to choose between challenging Andrew Bogut’s rim protection and settling for semi-contested mid-range jumpers.

For United to negate that strategy, they should look to Melo Trimble’s success. Against Weaver’s scheme, Trimble shot 77% at the rim, avoided mid-range shots, took over 10 free throw attempts per contest, and averaged 26 points per game.

As most teams have found, setting drag screens early in the shot clock worked wonders for Trimble. These types of picks allowed him to attack Bogut in space.

Additionally, Trimble found success with his slash and kick game when his bigs lined up along the arc. Bogut never crawls out of the paint to contest three-point attempts, meaning Trimble was able to create open three-point attempts for Shawn Long and Jo Lual-Acuil at will.

The problem for Melbourne is that Long and Lual-Acuil bombing away is ultimately a win for Sydney. Realistically, neither are dangerous enough from deep to force any major adjustments — Weaver will almost certainly stick with his drop-back system.

Whether or not Sydney are still employing the same defensive game plan by the end of the series will be a good barometer for Vickerman. If Bogut never stops dropping back, United haven’t forced Sydney out of their comfort zone and the Kings will likely be in control of the series. Figuring out how to force them out of that comfort zone should be United's top priority.

In my eyes, the easiest way to force some sort of adjustment would be to unleash David Barlow at the five. Vickerman was happy to do this in stretches last season but has, curiously, abandoned those small ball looks entirely this year. Vickerman might worry about Barlow’s frailty, but it’s worth giving those groupings a shot. A hypothetical lineup of Trimble, Goulding, McCarron, Stanton Kidd, and Barlow leaves no place for Bogut or Daniel Kickert to hide.

On the other end, Vickerman shouldn't fret about what might happen with Barlow playing centre. With their analytics-friendly approach, the Kings largely avoid posting Bogut up and basically don’t crash the offensive glass. Playing small against the Kings is unlikely to yield the negatives you’d usually expect from downsizing.

Going small could force Sydney to roll out their own miniature lineups and throw this three-game series into a state of sheer abnormality. As the underdog, making the one-seed play a foreign, unfamiliar brand of basketball is not a bad route to take.

From United’s perspective, it’s a move that could easily go up in flames. But, when going up against the title favourites and the best team in the league, you need to take some risks.

3. Can Mike Kelly find the right front court matchups?

Barring some surprise Vanilla Gorilla minutes, Gleeson will be rocking a four-man frontcourt rotation made up of Kay, Jesse Wagstaff, Majok Majok, and Miles Plumlee. With that foursome, Gleeson only has three basic combinations to turn to: Kay next to one of Plumlee or Majok, Wagstaff at the 4-spot with one of the centres, or Kay at the 5 with small ball ecstasy around him.

Perth don’t have a particularly diverse collection of front court bodies, but I still worry about the Taipans’ ability to match up defensively. Cam Oliver can guard pretty much anyone, but he won't be playing all 40 minutes. Cairns also hasn’t perfected human cloning, so he can’t exactly occupy both front court spots at once.

When sharing the floor with Majok Deng, Oliver will be tasked with handling Plumlee or Majok Majok when Perth go with their bigger lineups. With his athleticism and length, he should be able to cope against either without too many concerns. However, in those same lineups, Majok Deng will be given the Kay assignment.

Deng is good, but over the course of a playoff series, I can’t help but think that Kay will brutalise Deng on the offensive glass. That’s without even mentioning what Kay will do to Deng in the post. Per jordanmcnbl.com, Kay is one of the league’s few players able to make post-ups an efficient play-type. Kay scored over a point per possession on 98 attempts — no player registering more than 70 attempts reached Kay’s level of post-up efficiency. When given the opportunity, Kay will feast on the gangly Deng.

If Deng struggles like I think he might, Mike Kelly’s next option would be to bring Nate Jawai in. This would allow for Oliver to take care of Kay. At the same time though, Jawai will get annihilated in pick and roll situations. When Jawai plays the five, Perth will spread the floor and allow for Cotton to mercilessly roast the big fella.

On the bright side, the Taipans do theoretically match up well with Perth’s small ball attack. Jawai won’t be able to buy minutes against those groupings, but the Oliver/Deng pairing is the perfect foil for any permutation with Kay at centre. Their lateral quickness, switchability, and athleticism should limit those units.

On the flip side, those Wildcats small ball units have been uber-successful all season. With both Wagstaff and Kay on the floor, Perth outscore teams by over 8 points per 100 possessions, allowing an air-tight offensive rating of just 103.2.

Despite the doom and gloom I'm offering here, Kelly will obviously have alternative combinations up his sleeve. It wouldn’t shock me to see some serious run for Fabijan Krslovic. Some super small ball with Noi at the 4, in an effort to run the slowpoke Wildcats off the floor, would also be an intriguing option.

Kelly isn’t averse to these lineups either — in their 3 meetings against Perth, Kelly allowed Oliver to play over 100 possessions without Deng or Jawai on the floor. In those minutes, Cairns won 146-131, decimating the Wildcats’ defence, per Spatial Jam.

Given the face-value of his usual options, it’s worth Kelly’s time to at least see what some of those alternatives look like.

4. Will the Kings tether Bogut to Long?

Andrew Bogut’s load management is perhaps the league’s worst-kept secret. The consensus has been that, come playoff time, the shackles will come off and the 2018/19 MVP will be unleashed.

I’m not so certain that’s the whole story.

As I discussed recently, Sydney’s incredible bench play has been the driver of their success. The Kings’ bench units are pulverising teams in a manner many conceived as impossible during the preseason. In fact, according to Spatial Jam, the Kings have fared better with Kickert on the court in place of Bogut. I doubt that Weaver breaks up some of his most successful lineups purely because conventional wisdom says he should play his stars more during the Finals.

Because of the way Sydney’s bench mob has played, I think this would ultimately the right move. However, it could give United an opportunity to exploit Kickert’s minutes at the five. The 36-year old's defence and rebounding have been criminally underrated this season, but Shawn Long is a different specimen. Long’s athleticism and raw power could haunt him. Kickert will make him work on the other end by dragging him out of the paint with his three-point threat, but you’d still say that the matchup advantage lies with Melbourne.

During their first encounter of the season, Long devoured Kickert down low during the second half. The punishment Kickert endured in that contest forced Weaver to tie Bogut’s minutes to Long’s for the entirety of their second encounter. Weaver didn’t want to let Long get a single possession against Kickert.

Weaver was less strict during the next two fixtures, but he is clearly fairly reluctant to see Long and Kickert go head to head. The Kings trumped United by a grand total 48 points across their 4 games. But, in the 32 minutes in which Kickert and Long shared the floor, Sydney outscored their opponents by just 3 points total. That’s still technically a win for Sydney, but within the context of their dominant showings against United, it’s equivalent to being crushed.

As mentioned, I don't think Weaver should stray too far from his successful regular season lineups. Be that as it may, I do think Weaver should try to match Bogut’s minutes up with Long’s as much as possible. Long only averages 27 minutes per night, so Weaver can allow Bogut to take the brunt of the Long matchup without throwing his regular rotations out of whack.

Vickerman could still make life extremely difficult for Weaver by bumping his big man's minutes into the 30s. This would force Weaver’s hand by making him choose between his successful bench units and defusing Long’s impact. In essence, Vickerman can deny Weaver the opportunity to have his cake and eat it too.

For coaches, the playoffs are all about these small, yet crucial decisions. One poor choice and your hopes can collapse. Vickerman has the opportunity to force Weaver into making one of those decisions straight off the bat.

5. Will any role players explode?

For a guy who didn’t actually end up winning the championship, Majok Deng’s 2017/18 Grand Finals performance is talked about comically often. Although I’ve grown sick of hearing about it, Deng’s breakout series is an interesting precedent for non-stars looking to explode in the playoffs.

Deng’s success wasn’t just based on him lucking into a hot streak — his skill set was uniquely suited to exploiting Melbourne’s weaknesses. As an athletic four-man who can stroke it from range, he was a mismatch for the bigger, ground-bound United frontcourt rotation. Melbourne never really found a decent matchup for him.

If you’re looking for someone to provide a Deng-esque X-factor this year, you should be searching for someone who, for one reason or another, provides a comparable mismatch for the team he's facing. I’m no Nostradamus, but here are a few players who I think could pose those issues:

Majok Majok: Cairns was the NBL’s worst squad on the defensive boards. They are pure garbage on the defensive glass. Can you guess what Majok Majok’s singular useful asset on a basketball court is? Among players registering over 200 minutes, Majok chalked up the league’s best offensive rebounding percentage. That could be a problem.

Mirko Djeric: With Martin occupied by Machado and Terrico White likely stuck with Newbill, Bryce Cotton is probably going to be Perth’s choice to guard Djeric. Cotton is a fine defender, but he’s also Perth’s offensive engine. It shouldn’t shock anyone to see him try to buy some breaths on the defensive end. If he does try to save some energy, Cairns could exploit Cotton and have Djeric sprint around like a maniac, by launching him off dozens pin-downs. I can see a world where an energy-conserving Cotton gets burnt by Djeric’s off-ball shenanigans.

Didi Louzada: The Kings are so loaded that, at any given point when he’s on the floor, Louzada will likely be Sydney’s third-most dangerous perimeter threat. With Ware, Bruce, Kevin Lisch, and Xavier Cooks all in tow, you can see why. Are Melbourne really going to use one of their premier perimeter stoppers — McCarron, Ili, Stanton Kidd — to contain Louzada? I doubt it.

This might result in Chris Goulding and Melo Trimble being forced to try and check Louzada. Didi hasn’t been particularly efficient this season, but Trimble and Goulding may struggle to deal with an assignment as athletic and talented as Louzada. This could easily be a breakout series for him.