Four sneaky-big questions surrounding the 2021-22 NBL season

With the season’s start date announced, it’s time to complete my favourite offseason tradition. Here are my four sneaky-big, under the radar questions regarding the upcoming season.

Credit: Russell Freeman Photography

After yet another excruciatingly long offseason, the start date for the 2021-22 NBL season has at last been set. With a timeline in place and most rosters filled, we’re officially in season preview mode. With this in mind, by not-so-popular demand, it’s time to bring back the tried and tested format of sneaky-big questions

If you’re unfamiliar with the premise, in this article I ask my five most pressing, under the radar questions. Admittedly, the answers to these questions won’t prove to be the be-all, end-all for the 2021-22 season. Instead, these questions are ones that nobody is asking, and yet, the answers to them could prove to be sneakily influential over the outcome of the upcoming campaign. 

1. Will Perth continue to win the possession battle?

For the most loyal possible followers of this site, you may recognise this question. After all, it was one of my sneaky-big questions last season. My argument was simple: a big chunk of Perth’s success during the Trevor Gleeson era can be attributed to their ability to consistently win the possession battle. In nabbing a ton of offensive rebounds and forcing turnovers galore, Gleeson's Wildcats almost always got more bites at the apple than their opponents, dramatically increasing their margin for error. Between 2013-14 (Gleeson’s first season) and 2019-20, the Wildcats ranked inside the top three in both offensive rebound percentage and opponent turnover percentage every season:

With what I considered a weakened roster, I assumed Perth would have an even greater reliance on winning the possession battle for success. I thought that with the retirement of Damian Martin and the departure of Nick Kay, the Wildcats would struggle to force as many turnovers or hit the offensive glass quite as hard. With this in mind, I confidently predicted that the Wildcats would miss the postseason for the first time in three and a half decades

Fast forward a few months, and I was proven dead wrong. The Wildcats finished first in offensive rebound percentage (by some distance) and third in opponent turnover percentage, per Spatial Jam. On top of that, they posted the league’s best defensive rebounding rate and registered the league’s second-lowest turnover rate. Long story short, they didn’t just win the possession battle last season — they dominated it. With a roster that any keen observer would admit was down on talent, being so dominant in the possession battle was a big factor in the Wildcats’ success last season. 

Although their recent history suggests that their dominance in these categories will continue, there are a few notable differences coming into the 2021-22 season.

First off, Trevor Gleeson is in Toronto. We have eight seasons of evidence that Gleeson’s Wildcats were virtually incapable of losing the possession battle. Gleeson consistently employed aggressive defensive schemes to force turnovers and generally allowed his big men to prioritise the offensive glass over transition defence. However, we have little idea as to what new coach Scott Morrison will prioritise. 

The limited evidence we have of Morrison as a head coach suggests that he may differ from Gleeson. Morrison’s only high-level head coaching experience was with the G League’s Maine Red Claws for three seasons starting in 2014-15. In that span, the Red Claws routinely ranked towards the bottom of the G League in opponent turnovers, per NBA.com. Additionally, the stats suggest that they were conservative in their approach to the offensive glass, ranking consistently in the middle of the pack.

In addition to Morrison’s history, Perth’s personnel has changed from last season — importantly, John Mooney, the league’s best rebounder from a season ago, is plying his trade in Japan. 

On the other hand, the Wildcats have brought in Matt Hodgson and have Majok Majok returning from a season-long injury layoff. It’s certainly arguable that with those two on board, the Wildcats have the two best offensive rebounders in the league. As evidence, during the 2019-20 season, Hodgson and Majok finished first and second, respectively, in offensive rebounding percentage, per Spatial Jam. If Morrison gives them leash to attack the offensive glass (and again, it’s unclear if he will), Perth’s offensive rebounding numbers shouldn’t wane. 

All of this leaves me without a definitive conclusion.

Just winning the possession battle night to night doesn’t win you games. As stated, though, it significantly increases your margin for error. Within the context of this particular team, given their recent history, it’s certainly a question worth asking. 

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