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Here come the Kings: Sydney look like NBL title contenders once more
Early injury troubles seemed like déjà vu. But with luck finally turning their way, the Kings are starting to round into form.
Credit: May Bailey Photography
To borrow a Bill Simmons-ism, every NBL season seems to have a ‘year from hell team’ — the one team each season that, for whatever reason, can’t help but run into bad luck. The one team that continuously runs into circumstances beyond their control that kill their potential to be a true contender.
Last season, that team was the New Zealand Breakers. The Kiwis had to deal with Lamar Patterson showing up overweight, playing on the road for almost the entire season, and Corey Webster injuring himself while cutting open an avocado.
(As an aside, please enjoy this incredible footage of Dan Shamir discussing said injury.)
This season, the Breakers seem to be basically in the same boat. COVID-19 has hit their camp twice, they’ve suffered a bunch of injuries to key players, and are, once again, playing on the road for the foreseeable future.
Fast forward to this year, the Kings brass must have experienced severe déjà vu. Star import Jaylen Adams missed five straight games after just one appearance early on. More recently, Biwali Bayles got ruled out for an extended stretch, while RJ Hunter got ruled out for the season, joining Jordan Hunter on the sidelines for the entire campaign. Those injury troubles have heavily disrupted the team that I considered to be title favourites entering the season.
For me, that claim was an easy one to make. Before their avalanche of injuries, I viewed them as a team likely to be excellent on both ends and one that should coast through the regular season. During the offseason, I predicted that they would field an elite during the offseason due to their emphasis on length in their recruitment. Jordan Hunter was a huge part of that prediction. Sydney were significantly better defensively last season with him on the court.
With him out of lineup altogether, Sydney have had to play smaller lineups lacking in rim protection and aren’t the terrifyingly long-limbed defensive monster I thought they’d be coming into the season.
On the other end of the court, the injury to RJ Hunter and the games Adams missed have detrimentally impacted their offensive output. With little established halfcourt creation in the rotation due to Hunter and Adams’ injuries, they ranked dead last in offensive rating up until recently.
However, the Kings’ ‘year from hell’ is starting to turn around. With Jaylen Adams and Dejan Vasiljevic back to full fitness and peak form, the Kings are starting to look like the title contenders that many of us thought they’d be. After impressive victories over Brisbane and Perth, they’ve zoomed up to fifth on the ladder.
Adams and Dejan Vasiljevic getting back to full health and form has given Sydney’s once bumbling offence the jolt it needed. The lack of an established halfcourt creator without Adams in the lineup completely gummed up Sydney’s offence. Opposing teams didn’t have to worry about dribble penetration, and Sydney became unbearably reliant on contested threes to sustain their offence.
Without a go-to creator, teams found it easy to gum up their offence by switching and daring their guards to try and beat mismatches off the dribble. With Adams not at full fitness and clearly not trusting his burst in his second game back from injury, check out how easy it was for the Breakers to stop Sydney’s offence in its tracks on this possession by just switching a couple of ball screens.
Jackie Moon and Scootsie Doubleday’s infamous back and forth was more productive than whatever that possession was.
Now that Adams has his legs back under him and is fully healthy, switching with regularity against the Kings in the fashion the Breakers did is no longer a viable option. The danger Adams presents with his shifty, explosive offensive game is simply too much to ignore. Despite his injury struggles, Adams already ranks fourth in the NBL in points per game and 11th in offensive box plus-minus, per Spatial Jam. He’s only improving, too: over his last three games, Adams is averaging an obscene 26.7 points and 6.7 assists, with an eFG% of 59%.
Adams’ passing is perhaps as important as his scoring for the Kings. With their desire to play fast, Adams’ snappy, quick-twitch decision making is a seamless fit and a necessary element of Chase Buford’s halfcourt offence. After nine rounds, Adams ranks third in assists per game and assist percentage. Now that he’s comfortable with his body again and is past his injury troubles, Adams looks like he’ll be in the MVP conversation by season’s end.
Adams’ backcourt partner in crime, Dejan Vasiljevic, is beginning to look similarly comfortable after his long injury layoff. Vasiljevic’s off-ball movement, flamethrower of a three-point shot, and immense gravity are all invaluable to Sydney’s offence. He makes life infinitely easier for the likes of Adams, Cooks, and Martin. Buford is doing an excellent job of finding ways to weaponise those assets — flare screens for Vasiljevic are destabilising defences and are becoming a staple of Sydney’s halfcourt attack.
With his shooting, movement, gravity, and crafty off the dribble creation, Vasiljevic is arguably the Kings’ most valuable offensive player. According to Spatial Jam, the Kings score 5.6 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court — one of the highest differentials in the league.
Now that Vasiljevic and Adams are back up to speed, Sydney have enough weapons to be a truly dangerous halfcourt offence.
Between Adams, Vasiljevic, Cooks, and Martin, they always have at least two quality self-creators on the court. Surrounding their core four on offence, with guys like Angus Glover, Shaun Bruce, and Tom Vodanovich, they’ve got enough shooting and secondary playmakers to make life hell for opposing defences.
The real key to Sydney’s offence going forward, though, remains their transition attack. As of writing, they get out in transition at the equal-most frequent rate in the league and have the highest pace rating in the NBL by some distance. The gap between the Kings’ pace of 81 possessions per game and second-place Melbourne’s 78.9 is larger than the gap between 2nd and 6th in the same metric.
Sydney’s desire to get out in transition was expected. During the offseason, Buford alluded to his preference to “speed up the game a little bit” at least a handful of times. Just how effective they’ve been in getting out in transition perhaps hasn’t been as expected.
Despite their high pace and transition rate, they aren’t sacrificing defensive rebounds — they actually lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage. Rather than leaking rebounds to gain a numbers advantage in transition, it's Cooks and Martin, with their rebound-and-go ability, who are juicing their transition attack.
Cooks, in particular, has been mesmerising. He is probably the league's most dangerous player in transition, not just because of his skill and physical tools but also because of his smarts and manipulation of defences. To get a feel for what I'm talking about, look at the difference between this transition push:
And this one from the same game:
On the first, Cooks pushes hard, knowing that Robert Franks and Tyrell Harrison are slow to get back, allowing for an easy dish to Jarell Martin. On the second, though, Cooks recognises that Harrison is on his hip, so he slows up, forcing a second defender to engage, thus enabling him to find Jaylen Adams for a wide open triple.
Despite Cooks' presence and their high transition rate, though, the Kings haven't posted particularly efficient numbers in this area. Per jordanmcnbl.com, when in transition, the Kings are scoring just 0.95 points per possession — way below the league average of 1.08.
At least as far as I can see, there’s no real rhyme or reason as to why they’ve been so inefficient in transition. There’s a strong case to be made that there’s a reversion to the mean coming in that area for Sydney. Should that occur, they’ll only continue to vault up the offensive efficiency standings. After ranking dead last for much of the opening few rounds, Sydney are up to 8th in offensive rating, per Spatial Jam. That may not sound amazing, but in the period since Adams’ return from injury, the Kings rank fourth. They’re improving at a rapid rate and should only get better.
Combine that improving offence with a strong defence, and you’ve got the recipe for a title contender. Defensively, as alluded to, Sydney aren’t nearly as long and huge as I thought they’d be without Jordan Hunter, but they’re still producing excellent results.
Cooks is probably the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year at this point. His help defence has been elite, and he swallows up his assignment every night. Sydney's defence is 10.6 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court, per Spatial Jam. As a bonus, he’s among the league leaders in defensive box plus-minus. He alone gives the Kings a level of defensive competency that some other teams can only hope to reach.
Elsewhere, perhaps the one silver lining of Hunter’s injury has been their ability to retain Wani Swaka Lo Buluk full time. His offensive game is still a work in progress (he’s currently making 44% of his triples, though), but his defence has been thoroughly impressive through nine rounds. His presence has given the Kings someone who can hang with opposing perimeter stars — something that the roster lacked before his signing. For instance, the job he did chasing around Bryce Cotton on Sunday was superb.
Most importantly, from a defensive perspective, though, they’re forcing opponents to take shots from undesirable locations. Despite their lack of a rim protecting centre, the Kings are allowing just 30% of opponent shot attempts to be taken at the rim. No other team is allowing a rate of less than 34%.
Through playing drop coverage and allowing opponents to take above the break threes, they’re taking away the most valuable real estate on the floor at a rate better than any team in the league. That philosophy comes straight from Buford’s time with the Milwaukee Bucks. During the Mike Budenholzer era, the Bucks have made their bones on defence by prioritising taking away rim attempts above all else.
That approach is giving Sydney’s defence the best chance of being elite, despite the absence of Jordan Hunter and a general lack of elite defensive talent outside of Cooks. There’s no reason why the Kings’ defence shouldn’t continue to rank among the best defences in the league.
With a roster getting healthier by the day, an offence continuously improving and looking more potent by the minute, and a defence continuing to produce excellent results, the Kings look the part of a title contender.
The obvious problem is that they’ve started 5-6, have already played eight games at home, and the current top four (Melbourne, SEM, Perth, and Illawarra) already look pretty set, as argued a fortnight ago.
The Kings, though, have something those four teams do not have: an extra roster spot that should be filled by an import any day now (courtesy of RJ Hunter’s horrific injury luck). The type of player the Kings should go after with that slot has been a subject of much debate for a couple of weeks now. Some believe they need an extra big to make up for Jordan Hunter’s loss, while others think they need some extra scoring punch on the wing.
Meanwhile, Liam Santamaria reported a little while ago that the Kings were interested in Matt Mooney — a point guard!
With Jaylen Adams firing on all cylinders, recruiting another point guard seems farcical. It’s worth noting, though, that finding a replacement import this season is going to be far harder than most. G-Leaguers who may have previously ditched their situations for Australia may now think that their chance at an NBA roster spot is just one COVID-19 case away with the amount of replacement players getting signed.
For the Kings, it may be a case of just grabbing the best player available if the list of players willing to come down under and potentially spurn their chance at an NBA call-up is small. As such, nabbing someone who’s a less than ideal fit on paper, like an extra import point guard, may not be such a stupid idea. Keeping that in mind is crucial when discussing the Kings’ search for that replacement going forward.
Regardless of who they get, it’s clear that the Kings are on the way up. With an import spot to burn and an improving team getting healthier, Kings fans should be feeling optimistic.
It may have started like another season from hell, but nobody should be counting the Kings out as a genuine threat to take home the title in a couple of months.