Here's why the Brisbane Bullets are officially championship contenders

To say that Lamar Patterson was integral to the Brisbane Bullets’ run to the playoffs last season, is an understatement.

Prior to Patterson’s arrival, the Bullets managed to scrape two victories together from their opening five fixtures, but their outlook was bleak. Brisbane scored just 105.9 points per 100 possessions (good for second-last) and certainly were not making up for it with a middling defence. Andrej Lemanis’ offensive system was generating the right kind of shot attempts – at the time, they led the NBL in both 3-point rate (41.4%) and assist rate (63%), per Spatial Jam – but didn’t have the off-the-dribble shot-creator they required to make that system pop.

Lemanis’ roster was made up of extremely good basketball players, but almost all of them were best served playing off-ball on offence. Players who don’t need the ball to excel are extremely valuable. Without a ball-handler who can create shots for himself and others out of nothing, teams become exceedingly predictable and one-dimensional.

It's no exaggeration that Patterson filled this void, and then some.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQQM2FoNGtw

After his arrival, Brisbane lifted their ghastly offensive rating by nearly 8 points per 100 possessions, according to Spatial Jam. With the swingman on the court, Brisbane scored an outrageous 119.9 points per 100 possessions, per HoopsDB. In comparison, non-Patterson minutes yielded a measly 111.7 points per 100.

When news broke that the ex-NBAer wouldn’t be returning, I instantaneously crossed the Bullets off my championship contender list. That's how important Patterson's existence is to the Bullets.

That's not to say the Bullets don't have some insurance on hand. As someone who can create his own shot in the halfcourt, Nathan Sobey’s signing meant Brisbane would have been able to approximate some of Patterson’s value. Despite not playing the same nominal position last season, the pair had comparable statistical profiles (numbers via Spatial Jam):

They even had similar shot distribution numbers:

However, given Sobey just spent four years in Joey Wright’s frenetic fast-breaking system, it’s unclear how smoothly he would've transitioned into a full-time primary offensive initiator in the halfcourt.

Quite clearly, the Bullets now don’t have to worry about that issue. Due to a change of heart (I guess?), Patterson is Brisbane-bound once again. Forget about Sobey having to replace Patterson, because Sobey may just have become the best secondary playmaker in the league.

There should be precisely zero doubts about Sobey’s qualifications playing second fiddle. Rather than looking at either of the past two seasons, one should look to the 2016/17 season as evidence of how he will mesh with Patterson. That, of course, was Jerome Randle’s MVP campaign, where Sobey was forced to play away from the ball on offence. Sobey flourished as a secondary ball-handler, who was capable of breaking opponents down off the dribble while Randle kept the opposition’s best perimeter defender occupied. He was also deadly spotting up from long-range, as he connected on over 40% of his triples. Next to Randle, Sobey was in his element. Expect a similar sort of offensive presence when he lines up next to Patterson.

The addition of Sobey will make life so much easier for Patterson, too. The Pittsburgh product was phenomenal, but his workload was arguably the heaviest in the NBL. Despite not having a training camp, Patterson posted the highest usage rate in the entire league. He spent no real time parked away from the ball on offence and had to work incredibly hard for each one of his buckets.

Sobey will lighten Patterson’s shot creation load greatly in the halfcourt, and provide significant gravitational pull that should allow his partner in crime to attack the rim with fewer bodies attached to him. As shown from the table above, Patterson converted on just 55% of his attempts at the rim last season. With the presence of another ball-handler, Patterson will also see far more catch-and-shoot threes available to him, which he barely received any of last season due to Brisbane’s reliance on him as a penetrator. This will undoubtedly lift his middling 35% mark from downtown.

Sobey and Patterson are clearly the focal points of this squad, but the amount of perimeter talent outside of that pairing is maybe even more impressive. Between Jason Cadee, Reuben Te Rangi, Cam Gliddon, Taylor Braun, and EJ Singler, the Bullets have five versatile, malleable weapons to surround their two stars with. All five are over-qualified as mere role players, and every single one will complement ball-dominant stars exceedingly well.

Cadee has been one of the NBL’s most feared long-range threats for years now; Te Rangi drilled a staggering 45.2% of his looks from downtown last season on over 4 attempts per game, while Gliddon is the NBL version of Klay Thompson - a gun from beyond the arc, a lockdown perimeter defender, and the exact type of player you’d want slotting in alongside two stars.

Taylor Braun and EJ Singler are new to the league, but both profile as high-end glue guys who can do a bit of everything. Singler was an MVP candidate in the NZNBL on a Hawkes Bay team filled with offensive options, whilst Braun has shown throughout his career that he is capable of being a high-level shooter, passer, and defender. Because of their well-rounded skill sets, they mesh well with players of any play style, meaning Lemajnis will be able to slot them into any lineup with relative ease. Words can’t describe how valuable that is for a coach.

That fearsome fivesome will ravage teams from deep next season. Sobey and Patterson are both upper echelon distributors at NBL level who always draw massive amounts of attention from NBL defences. If Cadee, Gliddon, Te Rangi, Braun, and Singler were all already accomplished three-point bombers, can you imagine how good they’ll be when their attempts are as open as they’ve ever been?

How would a defence even begin to defend a Sobey/Hodgson pick-and-roll with, say, Gliddon, Singler, and Te Rangi all stationed along the three-point arc?

Remarkably, Patterson's re-signing also manages to fill the Bullets' biggest weakness last season: non-Patterson lineups (this will make sense, I promise). Per our own Jordan McCallum, Brisbane were -4.0 points per 36 minutes when Patterson sat during the 2018/19 campaign. Without anyone else who could shoulder Patterson’s offensive load, Lemajnis relied heavily on Cam Bairstow and the ageing Adam Gibson to prop non-Patterson groupings up. In fact, the Bullets played just one lineup for over 5 minutes of total court time without Patterson, Bairstow, or Gibson on the court, according to Hoops DB.

Because of Patterson’s surprise re-signing, the Bullets don’t have to cower in fear over those minutes anymore, as they can stagger his and Sobey’s minutes, leaving one of them on the court to initiate the offence at all times. On top of this, because of the aforementioned malleability and versatility of the Cadee/Te Rangi/Gliddon/Braun/Singler fivesome, Lemajnis will be able to stack every lineup with at least three players from that grouping at all times. Brisbane do lack depth up front, but Mika Vukona and Matt Hodgson are good enough to split the 40 centre minutes between them, provided neither get in too much foul trouble— which, I’ll admit, is a big ask, but not an impossible feat.

The rotation that general manager/warlock Richard Clarke has put together is simply masterful. Because of their deep collection of versatile wings, every lineup that they play will mesh together perfectly on the offensive end of the court. Clarke has managed to put together a team with depth and flexibility rarely seen in the NBL. With the abundance of shooters, ball-handlers, off-the-dribble shot-creators, and high-level distributors that Brisbane have in tow, they shouldn’t struggle on offence at all. If the Bullets don't end up fully realising their potential, it will be because their defence didn’t hold up.

NBL Twitter’s outlook in regards to Brisbane’s frontline depth and defence has been extremely critical – I, perhaps stupidly, remain optimistic.

Last season, Lemajnis’s squad ranked a healthy fourth in defensive efficiency, despite not having a ton of defensive talent to work with. In the aggregate this off-season, they have essentially traded out Jeremy Kendle, Cam Bairstow, and Adam Gibson for Braun, Sobey, and Singler. None of three lost are particularly effective defenders, at this point in their respective careers. Bairstow posted the Bullets’ best defensive rating, but it's hard to claim that the eye test really backs that idea up at all.

In reality, the only thing the Bullets have lost on the defensive end of the court via their transactions is size. Brisbane now have just two big men in the rotation with real NBL experience. However, just as we've seen in the NBA in recent years, downsizing often makes a ton of sense for defences.

With the likes of Gliddon, Singler, Te Rangi, and Braun, who are all 6’6’’ or taller, the Bullets have a surplus of switchable wings who can competently guard multiple positions. With Sobey and Cadee having experience playing as nominal two-guards, the Bullets have the potential to switch positions 1 through 4 on any given possession. When Lemanis deploys Vukona at centre, they’ll be able to switch all five positions across the court and wreak pure havoc. Brisbane should be able to defend the three-ball better than any other team in the league in 2019/20. Opposition snipers won’t get any breathing room, with Brisbane’s army of wings switching every single screen.

Still, logic would lend credence to the idea that Brisbane will become awful at protecting the rim. On the contrary, the Bullets were already bad in the rim protection department even with the extra size Bairstow brought. Teams connected on 59% of their rim attempts and saw 40.34% of their overall field goal attempts come at the rim against the Bullets last season - only the 36ers (who play at a pace so fast that rim attempts become the norm) and Taipans (who were just bad in general) matched both of those figures.

Since their defence will be getting a significant boost in terms of lateral quickness by going smaller, Brisbane should be far better at stopping shifty opposition guards from slashing their way to the rim in the first place. If I’m right and the Bullets can stifle guards on the perimeter with their quicker lineup, they’ll be able to turn guard attempts at the rim into far less efficient, contested, mid-range attempts.

If my optimism serves me correctly, it’s probable that Brisbane will only lose two things by going with a smaller roster this season: post defence and rebounding. The former, as pointed out by the great Andrew Price on Twitter recently, isn’t really a problem. Post scoring is easily the least efficient method of generating points in basketball. If playing a small and switch-heavy rotation invites other teams to post up their antiquated power forwards, Lemanis should, and will see it as a win for his defence.

On the boards, Brisbane will have to rely on gang rebounding, which could prove to be an issue against some of the NBL’s bigger teams. It should be noted though, that Brisbane ranked second in defensive rebounding percentage last season anyway and even if they take a step back, they likely won’t regress to being terrible in this aspect of the game.

It does need to be said that my belief in Brisbane’s defence and rebounding capabilities hinges on how much the 37-year old Mika Vukona has left in the tank. Almost everything the Bullets did well on the glass and defensive end last season came while the 5-time champion was on the floor. Te Rangi took home the NBL’s Sixth Man of the Year award, but Vukona was the real MVP of Brisbane’s second unit (Brisbane were a stupidly good +15 points per 100 possessions better with Vukona on the floor). If he takes a big step back in what could be his last ever season, the Bullets could be in serious trouble and could need a big leap from Hodgson.

Still, Bullets fan should be entering the 2019/20 season with high hopes. This roster has no significant defects, a huge amount of depth, and a 3-time champion coach at the helm.

After three seasons in the Australian basketball wilderness, the Bullets are officially back.