Here's why the Cairns Taipans are struggling, despite playing winning basketball

The Cairns Taipans shocked much of the NBL world in round three when they travelled to Western Australia, and blew the Perth Wildcats out on the road. One week later, they doubled up by knocking off a star-studded Melbourne United lineup in another huge road win. Those are two of the most difficult road trips in the league, but somehow became the only wins for the Taipans in a tough 2-5 start to the season.

Last season’s wooden spooners, Cairns now have eight wins and 27 losses across this season and last. While they’ve spent time with uber-talented imports like Melo Trimble last season, then Scott Machado and Cam Oliver this season, they’ve struggled to convert that talent into wins. Despite their underwhelming record so far, though, the Taipans have still generated some buzz as a dangerous matchup and an improved team.

It might be because the Taipans are more of a winning team than their win total suggests, if that makes any sense at all. Last season, Cairns won or drew 50% of the quarters they played—a number well above their winning percentage of 21.4%. While basketball is a game of ebbs and flows, with even the worst teams often going on runs during a game, you would expect a slightly closer correlation between quarters won and games won.

That disparity becomes even more stark when compared to some of the other teams in the league. The Taipans were a long way behind the pack on last season's ladder, with the Illawarra Hawks and New Zealand Breakers their closest rivals tied with 12 wins and a win percentage of 42.9%. The Breakers were only marginally ahead of Cairns with 55.3% of quarters won or drawn, while the Hawks were actually well behind the Taipans at 43.8%.

This year’s Taipans are on track for an even more back-to-front record, with a win percentage of 28.6%, versus 64.3% of quarters won or drawn. In all but one of their losses so far they’ve still won at least two quarters, and they’ve already beaten both of last season’s grand finalists on the road.

Where do the Taipans rank among the winningest losing teams?

How many other teams in the modern NBL have been competitive in so many games, and yet languish at the bottom of the rankings? Over the last 15 seasons, there has been six teams with a win percentage equal to or lower than the 2018/19 Taipans: the 2015/16 Sydney Kings, the 2014/15 Wollongong Hawks, the 2007/08 South Dragons and Singapore Slingers, and both the 2005/06 and 2006/07 West Sydney Razorbacks.

Below are the relevant statistics for these teams, using the (hopefully reliable) data from SportsTG for the quarter-by-quarter breakdowns of the earlier seasons.

[table id=196 /]

While there is a fairly significant difference between every team’s win percentage and percentage of quarters won and drawn, highlighting the high variability in a game of basketball, Cairns are still leading the way in that area. They are also well ahead of their fellow strugglers in net rating, with the exception of the 2015/16 Sydney Kings. That team was led in per-game scoring by two players that didn’t play close to a full season, Josh Childress (13 games) and Al Harrington (six games). Their core group featured steady locals Tom Garlepp and Jason Cadee, late-career Julian Khazzouh and underwhelming ex-NBA import Marcus Thornton.

Compare that to the 2018/19 Cairns Taipans, who had a full season from league-leading scorer Melo Trimble and solid contributions from DJ Newbill and Nate Jawai. This season’s Taipans are even more talented on paper, with new imports Scott Machado and Cam Oliver combining well with local additions Majok Deng and Kouat Noi, as well as the holdovers in Newbill and Jawai.

Factors behind the losses?

With all of that considered, it’s hard to understand why the Taipans continue to struggle to win games. There are a few possible factors; when they lose a quarter, they generally lose it badly. Despite winning or drawing half of their quarters last season, they still had a negative overall point differential in every quarter. The Taipans struggled mightily in crunch time, ending -81 in fourth quarters for the season, while their best-performed period was still a -7 overall in third quarters. They’ve improved that somewhat this season with positive differentials in the first (+2) and fourth (+9) quarters of games, but the negative differentials in second and third quarters continue to belie their high overall percentage of quarters won. That’s because they’ve been blown out often for periods of games, with all but one of their games this year featuring a quarter that they’ve lost by more than ten points.

A lack of real depth has also hurt their chances, as their starters have excelled but been let down at times by the rest of the roster. Of the 21 five-man lineups that have played at least 30 possessions together this season, the Taipans starting lineup of Machado, Newbill, Noi, Deng and Oliver has the fourth best net rating in the league, per Spatial Jam. Coach Mike Kelly has realised this and cut his rotation very early in the season, as he played just seven players for more than ten minutes in their most recent game against the Breakers.

This creates a lose-lose situation, with the starters fatigued from big minutes or the bench unit letting games slip regardless. The lack of bench talent is problematic enough, but when those fringe players are only hitting the court for a few minutes at a time it's almost impossible for them to find any kind of rhythm. Players like Fabijan Krslovic and Anthony Fisher showed in the preseason that they can have a positive impact, but that becomes much harder when they play sparingly in some games and not at all in others.

None of these offer much of a solution for the Taipans. It’s unlikely that they will be able to add more talent mid-season, and their inconsistency within games is showing no signs of abating. They’ll need to find some improvement from within, which is certainly not impossible under the leadership of a veteran playmaker like Machado, who has a track record of making his teams better. Their wins against Perth and Melbourne are promising signs of a step in the right direction, but they also point to the larger issue of consistency that this team has faced for the best part of two years.

If they can start to perform at that level every week, then they’ll have no issue finding wins against the league’s weaker teams. If not, then they may be resigned to another disappointing season full of what-ifs.