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Midseason Movement: Which NBL teams should shake their rosters up?
Which teams should look to make a splash, as we ramp up towards the playoffs?
The NBL doesn’t have a trade deadline, but the annual tradition of antsy teams shaking up their roster midseason acts as a solid facsimile. As we cross the midseason mark and teams begin to get honest about their title chances, the NBL’s silly season could be approaching quickly.
Recent history shows that midseason moves could swing the title race. It can be legitimately argued that two of the past five titles were won due to a midseason roster change. Perth’s crucial additions of Bryce Cotton in 2017 and Miles Plumlee in 2020 pushed the Wildcats over the top on both occasions.
Some may argue that the typical midseason movement we see in the NBL won’t be on display due to the difficulties teams have found in chasing down imports. The lure of becoming a COVID-19 replacement player in the NBA has meant that many would-be NBLers are sticking around in the G League. Before they got Ian Clark to commit, the Kings’ brass made it known that the import market was bone dry.
I’m not sure that this will continue to be the case, though. For one, the avalanche of COVID-19 replacement NBA players that we saw in December seems like a thing of the past. COVID-19 cases are way down in the U.S. — last I saw, zero NBA players were in health and safety protocols.
On top of that, the NBL title race is still fairly open. Unlike past seasons, there is no definitive favourite. Contenders are likely to be aggressive in looking for roster upgrades. We’ve already seen two import changes (Chasson Randle in for Jeremiah Martin and Clark as an injury replacement for RJ Hunter), but we could still see a few more. I'm not expecting a quiet next couple of weeks.
Here are a few thoughts on what each team could and should look to do.
Credit: Sydney Kings via Sam Tolhurst
Ian Clark is a perfect fit in Sydney
Before discussing what teams should do, it’s worth discussing the most consequential in-season signing so far. Strangely, despite his pedigree, the signing of Clark seems to have flown way under the radar.
There was quite a bit of debate in the Twitterverse as to what the Kings should prioritise when using their spare import slot. Interestingly, I didn’t see many saying that they needed an extra guard. As a nominal shooting guard, Clark seems to overlap with a lot of Sydney’s other key pieces, such as Angus Glover, Dejan Vasiljevic, and Shaun Bruce.
However, because of his specific skills and Sydney’s needs on both ends, Clark seems to be an ideal fit. That fit is best encapsulated by how he fits in on the defensive end. Admittedly, Clark was never renowned for his defence in the NBA. As a 6’3” wing, he struggles to have a major impact defensively.
But in Sydney’s defensive scheme, the defensive attributes that Clark does bring are incredibly valuable. While Clark struggles to make an impact when defending away from the ball, he is an excellent point of attack disruptor.
As I’ve explained in other articles, Sydney are playing predominantly drop coverage on the defensive end this season. I’ve theorised that they’re modelling their defensive system on the Milwaukee Bucks — the organisation that Chase Buford was last employed by. Arguably the most integral part of a Bucks-esque defensive scheme is point of attack defence. Without elite on-ball defenders to navigate ball-screens at the top of the key, opposing ball-handlers can rumble their way to the bucket with ease against a drop coverage scheme.
Early evidence suggests that once Clark settles in fully, he should be excellent in that role. Possessions like this should get Kings fans excited.
In Jaylen Adams and Wani Swaka Lo Buluk, the Kings already had two players well suited to this role. They needed a third, for two reasons. Come playoff time, Adams will need to conserve his energy to carry Sydney’s offence. You may recall that Casper Ware often crumbled and wore down during playoffs because of the defensive load he had to carry, especially when matched up against Bryce Cotton. Giving Adams more help in his demanding role was a necessary move.
Additionally, Swaka Lo Buluk may get played off the floor come the postseason due to his offensive limitations. In the playoffs, defences will beg and dare him to shoot and give him acres of space to hoist up triples. In Clark, Sydney now have someone who can fill a similar role defensively if need be but is at no risk of becoming an offensive liability.
Unlike Swaka Lo Buluk, Clark is an absolutely deadly shooter and a versatile one too. He’s capable of sliding into a spot up role, running off screens, or shaking defenders off the dribble into pullup threes. Under Buford’s modern offensive philosophy, the Kings have one of the highest three-point attempt rates in the league but rank eighth in three-point percentage this season, per Spatial Jam. Adding a shooter of Clark’s calibre was of paramount importance for their offence.
Perhaps more importantly, he should help sustain Sydney’s offence when Jaylen Adams is off the floor. Since Adams’ re-insertion into the lineup, Sydney have been incredibly reliant on him to generate offence. Per jordanmcnbl.com, Sydney are 10 points per 36 minutes better with Adams on the court. With him off, Sydney are getting outscored by opponents. Nabbing Clark, who not only fits next to Adams due to his shooting ability but can create his own shot with ease when Adams isn’t on the court, was smart.
All in all, this feels like a home run signing. I’m shocked that more people aren’t talking about this addition. If none of the other contenders make a splash, it’s possible that Clark is looked back on as a title-winning signing.
Should Adelaide keep spending?
The team that seems to be popping up in the rumour mill recently is the Adelaide 36ers. Here’s a quick rundown.
Around the same time there was some random Jerome Randle buzz which was created by… Jerome Randle.
Following that, Matt Logue dropped this bomb:
Which he then quickly clarified…
A day later, the Hopson rumours were nixed entirely by CJ Bruton.
Whew. That’s a lot of smoke for a 5-9 team with no real shot at making the playoffs.
I understand the counterarguments, but I still think it’s a huge mistake for a team like Adelaide to get into the midseason splash market. In this year’s NBL, the consensus top five (Melbourne, Perth, Southeast Melbourne, Sydney, Illawarra) are clearly a tier or two above Adelaide and the rest of the league.
Sure, the Sixers have a lot of talent. They have also picked up a couple of quality wins, including victories over Perth and Melbourne. But they are a fair way off being a good basketball team. Despite their talent level, none of their pieces really fit together on either end. Even with Hopson or someone similar (like Randolph) on board, the chance that the Sixers make the playoffs is slim to none. Committing significant salary to chasing a nonexistent playoff spot this season is not a smart use of resources. Keeping the powder dry and making a real run next season, is likely the best path for the Sixers to take from here.
Problematically, it is probably also the best path to take for any team not in that top five. I struggle to see any logic in Brisbane, Tasmania, Cairns, or New Zealand making a splashy midseason move. The current top five will almost certainly be the top five at season’s end. If you don’t believe me, listen to the bookies. Illawarra currently have the fifth-best title odds on SportsBet at $7. The Breakers have the sixth-best odds at a whopping $151.
With the league now at ten teams and still only allowing four teams to make the playoffs, this reality will keep happening. Teams toward the bottom of the ladder are, in essence, going to see their seasons finish a lot earlier than the 28th game of the season. They have little hope and aren’t incentivised to improve their teams midseason.
This could be an issue for the NBL going forward. While the discrepancy between the top five and bottom five teams this season may be a bit of an aberration, the fact that only four teams make the postseason in a 10 team league is absurd. Teams outside the top five are going to be playing a ton of entirely irrelevant and inconsequential games at the back end of this season.
As I argued during the offseason, the NBL should seriously consider a play-in tournament of some type to ensure that teams like Adelaide don’t become irrelevant mid-way through the season. The NBL should want teams like Adelaide to have an incentive to improve the quality of their teams (and the competition) midseason, rather than give up.
Should Adelaide make the logical decision and not make a midseason move to improve their team, it should signal to the NBL that it's time to expand the playoffs beyond four teams.
Which of the Melbourne/Perth/Illawarra trio will go all-in?
Moving this discussion back to the top of the ladder, I am fascinated to see what the true contenders do over the next couple of weeks. I’m convinced that one of Illawarra, Perth, or Melbourne will at least attempt to make a bigtime acquisition over the next couple of weeks.
As mentioned, the title race is open for anyone in the top five to swoop in and take charge. Sydney have made their move — I’d be shocked if they do anything else. South East Melbourne have a spare import slot, but don’t have an obvious place to use it and likely already have an enormous salary bill. They could use it on a second Brandon Ashley to solve his fouling issues, but I doubt the current CBA permits cloning.
That leaves us with Illawarra, Perth, and Melbourne as the contenders most likely to make a title-swinging move.
United is the easiest candidate to envision making such a move. They’ve got two import slots available and two fully contracted players in Callum Dalton and Dion Prewster, who aren’t in the rotation. Cutting one of them to bring in an import to boost their offence seems logical.
Despite their dominance, their offence remains a concern. They’re a dynamite transition team but often struggle to score in the halfcourt for hellishly long stretches. Come the playoffs, when their easy transition opportunities are likely to dry up a tad, their halfcourt struggles could stop them from winning the title.
The easy move for them would be to sign an extra halfcourt creator or another shooter. If the aforementioned Scotty Hopson is indeed available at the right price, bringing him back into the fold makes sense if Melbourne are willing to pay the big bucks.
Just whether Melbourne are willing to pay the big bucks seems like the biggest question with them, though. Melbourne’s decision to use just one of three import slots during the offseason is an indication that they’re unwilling to shell out the type of cash they have in past seasons.
After all, Melbourne have invested a ton into their rosters over the past few years. It’s understandable that they don't want to commit to another exorbitantly large salary bill, especially after winning the title last year. But with United shaping up as title favourites, Melbourne's brass must be seriously tempted to abandon those preseason plans.
Like Melbourne, Perth also have a couple obvious ways to improve their roster.
Their number one need is a big guy who can… like… do anything. Matt Hodgson has been unavailable for most of the season and has been unimpressive when he has been in the lineup. Majok Majok, despite still being a solid offensive player, has lost any defensive ability he had before his Achilles injury. Opposing offences are shredding him to bits in pick and roll.
With their centres not performing, Perth have become unbelievably reliant on small ball units for success. While those lineups have worked so far, they have clear drawbacks which are easily exploitable during the playoffs. Most obviously, because of their reliance on small ball units, Perth have the lowest defensive rebounding rate in the league, per Spatial Jam. I worry for Jesse Wagstaff’s health if he has to defend Jo Lual-Acuil for 20+ minutes a game in a playoff series.
Finding a starter-level local big guy is the easiest way to solve this issue. But unless Mangok Mathiang is ready and willing to go, I doubt that guy exists for Perth. The Wildcats may end up deciding that releasing the underperforming Michael Frazier II in exchange for an import big is the best course of action.
Compared to Perth and Melbourne, it’s harder to figure out what Illawarra should do. Their biggest problem right now is a lack of defensive talent — Goorj has tried basically every defensive alignment in the book and none of them have yielded positive results. Illawarra rank eighth in defensive rating despite having played the ghastly Taipans’ offence three times already this season, including in a game that made me lose my mind on Twitter:
Any team with more than one half-decent perimeter creator can easily slice up their defensive coverages. Maybe the most damning indictment of their defensive talent level is that they often start games with Justinian Jessup tasked with stopping the opposing team’s best perimeter weapon.
In the absence of finding a local reinforcement, swapping out Xavier Rathan-Mayes for a high-level defensive-minded recruit would make sense. In Emmett Naar, they’ve got a ready-made backup point guard to fill Rathan-Mayes shoes should they decide to replace him.
Whether it’s Melbourne, Perth, Illawarra, or anyone else, none of these decisions are easy. But making the right one could easily decide the title race.