Long live the Kings: How Sydney became back to back NBL champions
Before shifting focus to NBL24, it's well worth celebrating the players, coaches and club that have enjoyed one of the NBL's most impressive two-year runs.
Credit: Sam Tolhurst
It’s easy to lump together Sydney’s back to back titles over the last two years as one and the same. For head coach Chase Buford, they couldn’t be any more different. “Last year was kind of a crescendo towards the end,” he said following his side’s championship-clinching win over New Zealand. “This was a grind this whole year.”
In NBL22, the Kings were the hunters. It had been 17 years since the club’s last title, and they came into the season with a new coach, a rebuilt roster, and a clear place in the league’s pecking order. A slow start to the season only added to that, and while they were never an “underdog” — they were among the title favourites before round one — they also weren’t the biggest threat until late in the piece.
Of course, we all know how that went. The Kings figured it out, playing historically good basketball to finish on a 21-3 tear, sweeping through the finals series without a loss, and riding that wave of momentum all the way to the championship. Buford expertly led the way in his first season in charge, star import Jaylen Adams was the league MVP, Xavier Cooks picked up Grand Final MVP honours, Jarell Martin and DJ Vasiljevic starred, and the entire Sydney Kings organisation announced themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
All of that painted a target the size of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on the Kings, and it meant they entered this season as the hunted. Ask any coach or player, and they’ll tell you that defending a title is harder than winning one. The excitement of chasing a first banner is replaced by the weight of expectation, and every opposing team is extra motivated to take the champs down a peg. Hell, Cairns coach Adam Forde even came out and said ahead of the season that his roster had been tailor-made to take down the Kings.
None of those challenges were a surprise to Buford, even before the season started. “I can understand some of the hurdles between going back to back — everyone sits there and tells you how good you are all offseason, and you want to drink and enjoy and celebrate and all that stuff while everybody else has probably got their nose to the ground working,” he said on The Huddle podcast. “There’s definitely some of that complacency or whatever that sets in, and we’ll just have to work that much harder throughout the season to overcome it.”
Whether it was complacency or otherwise, there were times throughout this campaign that some cracks seemed to be showing. Things came to a head late, as they lost four of their last six regular season games, took three games to edge past the Taipans in the semi-final, and then dropped game one of the championship series at home.
“I think it’s probably the biggest concern that we’re just playing like shit,” Buford said following that loss to the Breakers. “It’s been two months now and we haven’t really played good basketball, our best basketball this year was played a long time ago.”
And yet, despite all of that, the Sydney Kings are champions once again. The intense pressure of title favouritism wasn’t enough to bring them down, nor was losing both their league MVP and their star import forward. When all was said and done, they finished with an identical record to last year, won the minor premiership that eluded them then, and battled past tougher opposition in the finals enroute to the championship.
From last season’s roster to this year’s group, the Kings returned eight players. That might sound like a lot, but almost all of the turnover came in key positions. Four of their top six players in minutes per game departed, with imports Adams, Martin and Ian Clark all earning big-money offers elsewhere. For most teams in the NBL and elsewhere, that would be a fatal blow. For Sydney’s front office, led by CEO Chris Pongrass, it was a challenge and an opportunity wrapped into one.
“It’s not going to be just Derrick [Walton] to replace Jaylen, it’s not going to be just Tim [Soares] to replace Jarell or anything like that,” Buford said following the opening game of the season. “It’s just a different group, it’s different roles for X and DJ and everybody, so it’s going to look different.”
Martin was a huge loss in the frontcourt, having averaged almost 17 points and eight rebounds in his two previous seasons with the team. Rather than chase that kind of production, the Kings instead found a role player elite in Martin’s most important skills. Tim Soares was often a forgotten man on this year’s team, rarely stepping into the spotlight or leading the way, but the Brazilian big was a crucial piece of the puzzle. He was a knockdown shooter from deep, making almost 40% of his triples, and his length added to Sydney’s elite defence as he paced the team in blocked shots.
In place of Clark, Sydney brought in a known quantity in the NBL, but one that couldn’t be much more different than his predecessor. Where Clark was a source of instant offence, Justin Simon arrived with dual reputations as an elite defensive stopper as well as a non-shooter and offensive handbrake. He won the Damian Martin Trophy as the league’s best defender in 2021, but he also scored just 8.5 points per game while shooting 25% from three in that season with Illawarra.
He was again one of the best defensive players in the league, and even bumped up his offensive numbers, averaging double-digits scoring while improving every line of his shooting splits. Most importantly, he stepped up under the bright lights and intense pressure of the championship series. He poured in 18 points in the game one loss, and with the Kings on the ropes and battling injuries in game two, he was even better.
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