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Making sense of James Duncan's parting from the Brisbane Bullets
Duncan’s message never consistently translated to the court, but did ownership give him the best chance, and was the front office ever fully aligned with his vision?
Credit: Dan Bennett Photography
After 13 wins and 24 losses, including a 3-6 record this season, Brisbane made the decision to move on from James Duncan. This midseason move committed the Bullets to putting an interim coaching tag on their general manager of basketball, Sam Mackinnon, in what was a messy outcome.
Mackinnon via Kane Pitman at ESPN:
"It's never nice when you're the GM and you take over as interim head coach, but I think given the assistants and where they're at in their development, I had more experience with men in the NBL. Just for the interim I can help bring the group together with that voice.”
How long Mackinnon remains on the sidelines is an unknown, and whether his success (or lack of) in this coaching stint has any bearing on his future in the front office remains to be seen.
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Duncan’s philosophy was clear from day one, publicly declaring a desire to improve on defence, be tougher, and commit to rebounding. Despite Mackinnon’s off-base comments, both pregame and postgame in New Zealand, that “defensively, where we’d been all year, was really good”, Duncan’s words had not yet translated to the floor with any modicum of consistency.
The team had started horrendously on defence, ranking tenth in opponent scoring efficiency through each team’s first five games. Per my tracking numbers, in the half court during that same period, Brisbane had conceded 13 points more than league average (per 100 plays). In Duncan’s nine games in charge, they had also allowed the highest amount of opponent transition opportunities at 16%. This was on the back of finishing ninth in defensive rating, and last again in defending transition in 2021/22.
There were some recent signs of improvement, with a credible performance against Tasmania, and two easy wins against an uncompetitive Illawarra. These Hawks games distorted Brisbane’s defensive numbers though, hiding the pain from Mackinnon’s memory, and resulting in the bemusing comments.
Any keyed in Bullets fans would have been feeling devoid of any confidence in a turnaround after hearing them.
Aron Baynes’ addition was the beacon of hope for Duncan’s vision, with his size, experience, leadership, and rim deterrence giving them a foundation to build a defence around. His impact on the defensive end hasn’t reached amazing heights yet, though as he’s still working back into peak conditioning and form.
Brisbane conceded 106.9 points per 100 possessions with Baynes on the court in Duncan’s tenure per spatialjam.com — an OK number, but not close enough to where it needed to be if they were to reach their goals. The team did grab an elite 75% of defensive rebounds with him out there though, a clear improvement. Finding the right partners for Baynes at the forward spots have been an issue.
Duncan via Michael Randall:
“It would have been nice to stick it out and continue to build on what we’ve been doing because we were trending in the right direction and it’s never been about effort, which has been great this season. The guys have all been about it and working hard, it’s just been about trying to find the chemistry, which has taken longer than we anticipated.”
Offensively, Duncan’s idea was “keeping energy in the ball and make the ball see you”. In the lower intensity preseason, ball and player movement appeared to be a strength. Each of players, including the bigs, showed the ability to pass and cut for each other, which helped combat any question on Tyler Johnson and Nathan Sobey being more combo guards than point guards.
Brisbane’s assist percentage under Duncan this season was well above league average, but it was outweighed by a league-leading turnover percentage. According to my data, this included the highest rate of turnovers in transition, as well as the most categorised as ‘miscellaneous’, e.g., Illegal screens, or throwing the ball away on the inbounds pass or from a spot on the floor that was not yet even linked to a play type (unforced errors mostly).
Mackinnon via Kane Pitman at ESPN:
"We were ninth in the league in scoring, and we've got some pretty talented players out there. Offensively we weren't executing, we lead the league in turnovers, there were a few things that just weren't going well, and we had a solid group of games to find a way forward... I just think the messaging or whatever the direction was, it wasn't delivering us wins.”
Baynes’ use on the offensive end has generated much debate, which might be warranted to a degree, but we also need not have short memories. There have been games where he has missed a lot more gimmes around the rim that expected. In those first nine games, he connected a below league-average 50% of his rim attempts, as well as just 25% in the other part of the paint per spatialjam.com. There has been rust. A third of his attempts came from three-point territory.
Baynes’ offensive tendencies via spatialjam.com:
This isn’t to say that Duncan had the balance right, with Mackinnon undoubtably needing to get him more involved in the half court in pick and roll actions, as well as more regularly using cross-screens to get deep seals. Sobey and Johnson also need to do a better job of penetrating, drawing the defence, and then finding easier looks for a cutting Baynes with dump off passes.
Overall, with a tough opening stretch of the schedule, three star players coming off limited game time in the past twelve or so months, unrealistic expectations, and his job being in question prior to game one, Duncan had a difficult set of circumstances to navigate.
On The Huddle Podcast, Liam Santamaria mentioned a meeting back in May 2022 with Mackinnon, Sobey, and Jason Cadee discussing Duncan, whilst Derek Rucker also suggested that Sobey and Baynes were not on the same page as their coach. Add in the training incident that saw D.J. Mitchell suspended, and the final reporting from Matt Logue was unsurprising to read.
“James Duncan lost the playing group, prompting the club to release him. Duncan’s coaching style and game plan created frustration and confusion… they weren’t on the same page with his methods and mentalities.”
Brisbane’s recent record in roster building and recruitment has been a mixed bag. There’s been excellent import identifications, including Robert Franks and Vic Law, as well as star local signings in Nathan Sobey and Aron Baynes, but also skillset imbalances, overload at certain positions, as well as budgetary restraints that limited secondary import or other local quality. This has been a trend since their return to the league.
In the offseason, Mackinnon noted that it was “best available as the first one you get, but I think the point guard. Everyone wants the Bullets to get a point guard.”
Peyton Siva was a name that I floated as the type who would fit their needs with his genuine playmaking solidifying the offence, whilst his pesky defence would fit into what Duncan was looking for. Fast forward to early in the season though, and Tyler Johnson’s role had already been adjusted as the coaching group searched for the right balance.
Johnson has been efficient as a scorer, and probably under-utilised, but he hasn’t logged the point guard reps or played in the style that many were hoping from that import spot. His pairing with Sobey could still work given their talent level, but it’s notable given Mackinnon’s comments and the outside noise around needing a pure point guard.
The other curious decision was going shallow at power forward — a position that’s absolutely loaded with mismatches right now with Xavier Cooks, Mitch Creek, Jarrell Brantley, Robert Franks. Throw in D.J. Hogg who plays there some, as well as Keanu Pinder, whose speed requires the four to guard him. Mitchell is a talent on offence, but at this point of his career, he’s a half second slow in his defensive positioning and in processing that end of the floor at this level.
This possession where Duncan was screaming to get to the nail in order to be in the appropriate position give himself a chance to help, but also still be within recovery distance to his own man, is a reflective example of the lack of execution that the coach was getting. Audio needed:
With a group of centres lacking versatility to guard down a position, as well as Devondrick Walker not being able to slide up and guard power forwards, options to find 40-minutes of suitable lineups has been limiting.
Walker came in as this year’s budget import, produced fine on offence as a shooter and scoring threat, but he didn’t add much of anything in an area where they were light on — defensive versatility or impact, and passing. His place in the team was on borrowed time from day one per Olgun Uluc and his release smelt more like being related to dollars and cents than anything.
Mackinnon via Kane Pitman at ESPN:
"We need a three-four ideally. It's coming down to needing the best available player as well, it's a tough market. We all want the diamond; we've got a couple of guys we are looking at. Hopefully we can find someone in the next week."
The odds of now finding someone who can credibly guard both forward spots, shoot from the perimeter, be a ball-mover, and have the right character and IQ level to fit in quickly would have to be small.
In all likelihood, they’re going to have to compromise on one or two of those things, which will mean playing either top-heavy centres together again, or guard-heavy lineups more than you would hope for with defence in mind. Depending on the severity, Tanner Krebs’ injury on Thursday might have pushed that import decision in more of the small forward direction.
As Santamaria also reminded us of in his podcast, the Bullets were slow starters to free agency, still sorting out their budget at a time when other teams were already wheeling and dealing. Deng Deng wasn’t a high-level free agent, but he was awarded Brisbane’s best defensive player by Duncan, and perhaps due to the disorganisation from ownership or management, instead signed with Illawarra early in free agency. Given Duncan’s desire for defence, as well as the lack of options to defend power forwards on this current roster, it looked to speak to a disconnect.
Never being full in lockstep with each other appears to be an overriding theme with ownership, management, and the coach in Brisbane. The result has been mediocrity again this season, but also since their re-inception.
For an organisation comparison, small market Cairns made a Grand Final Series in 2014/15, went within a game of doing so again in 2019/20, and have now just completed a 2-1 season-series win over title favourites Sydney.
This again brings me back to Andrej Lemanis’ comments from his final game as coach in 2021.
“I think the Bullets are at a bit of a crossroads now. I think what they require from the new ownership is a true direction of where they want to take this club and what is it that they stand for… The club just needs to make a decision in terms of financing the group, and it’s not only how much money you spend on the team… there’s also the ancillary things that go around it. Like teams have full-time performance staff, teams have full-time physios. Greg Vanderjagt is Head of Community, and we get him to be an assistant coach… There are teams in the league that spend money on feeding their guys when they come to practice… If we’re trying to win a championship, then this is the money that needs to go behind it to give ourselves the best chance. If that’s not what we’re about, if we’re about development and growing kids… then that’s fine…”
Has there been enough change or investment, or enough clarity around their direction since Lemanis’ comments? It’s been much of the same for the Bullets, with Baynes’ on-court signature an outlier. Duncan has even commented publicly that there were certain things available to the coaching staff and team in Sydney during his time there, that were not available in Brisbane.
Head coaching opportunities are limited, so it will be an attractive opening regardless, but whoever puts their name into contention will certainly be doing an extra round of due diligence to find out exactly what the vision is from ownership. Without the appropriate investment and key decision-makers all aligned, the margin for error to exceed mediocrity in such a competitive league is small.