Five observations from the NBL's first two rounds

The world’s most entertaining basketball league is back in our lives, and aside from some commentary issues, it is better than ever. I am personally beyond excited for tonight’s WhatsApp poll!!!

Regardless, after two rounds, here are five things that I think you should monitor as we traverse deeper into the season:

1. How teams *attempt* to defend Bryce Cotton

Bryce Cotton’s scoring ability isn’t a secret. Yet, teams still haven’t discovered a sustainable way of dealing with it four seasons into his NBL reign of terror.

The key to Perth’s consistently great offensive output is Cotton’s work off screens. Cotton rockets off picks like his life depends on it and reacts to defences in the blink of an eye. If he sees a switch, he’ll roast whoever his new defender is. Should a defender foolishly duck under a screen, he’ll drain a three with no delay. If he notices his defender chase him over a screen, Cotton will unleash his patented foul-drawing routine:

Defences figured out what to do during the 2017-18 season — ‘blitzing’ Cotton by doubling him quickly after a screen became the norm. This strategy forced the ball out of Cotton’s hands and into the paws of Lucas Walker, Greg Hire, and Derek Cooke Jr, among others. That grouping simply couldn’t make enough dynamic plays in space to make enemies pay for draping themselves over Cotton.

That all changed last season with the addition of Nick Kay, who makes defences think twice about ditching him to double Cotton. Kay quickly became the best big man in the league at navigating 4-on-3 situations; he regularly discombobulated defences who thought they had the Cotton dilemma solved. Last season, especially during the playoffs, Cotton had antidotes to every defence he saw.

With Dario Hunt in the fold, the Wildcats now have two big men capable of making plays in space. While many peg him as a Clint Capela-esque run-jump-and-dunk centre, Hunt actually has an incredibly diverse skill set. As shown in his dominant performance against Illawarra, Hunt is fluid for a big guy, able to put the ball on the floor, and is a willing passer. All of this adds up to another big man capable of destroying blitzing defensive schemes.

The addition of Hunt makes an already unstoppable Cotton that much more unguardable. One look at his performance against the Hawks is all you need as evidence:

Opposing coaches will have to find another counter to Cotton’s brilliance, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone cracking the code soon. Time will tell.

2. Jae’Sean Tate, facilitator

I am incredibly high on Will Weaver’s Kings. I think they're an absolute nightmare to play on both ends of the court. However, Weaver’s halfcourt offence may struggle from time-to-time this season due to a relative lack of playmakers who can attack set halfcourt defences. Sydney’s inability to unlock the Taipans for three quarters was telling.

Casper Ware and Kevin Lisch are awesome but rarely get to the rim and force defences to collapse; Didi Louzada’s dribbling and passing still needs work; the rest of their wings are rangy and athletic but aren’t particularly useful when it comes to creating for others. Andrew Bogut’s elite passing ability from the high post helps to fix this, but he alone couldn’t fill the shot-creation void last season.

Through two rounds, Jae’Sean Tate has been critical to the Kings being able to bridge that gap. These days, any power forward under 6’8’’ gets sacrilegiously compared to Draymond Green. However, to say that Tate’s skill set is somewhat reminiscent of the Golden State big man isn’t much of a stretch. Tate’s versatility on defence, pseudo-floor spacing, tendency to turn any defensive rebound into a fast-break finish, and high-IQ playmaking, are all traits shared by Green.

That last trait is obviously of the most significance to this discussion. It’s early days yet, but it’s hard to think of an NBL player better at creating looks for three-point bombers than Tate. Defences are so terrified of Tate’s raw power and athleticism at the rim that they regularly sag off shooters to deal with his threat. As Tate is always two steps ahead of everyone else on the court and has vision that Draymond would be proud of, this is almost always a poor decision:

In the above clip, the hole Tate passes through is so small that poor Scott Machado thinks it’s safe to bring a double from the weakside. Little does he know how exceptional Tate is at both recognising the open man and delivering picture-perfect cross-court passes.

Tate’s bulky frame and leaping ability acts as a sort of camouflage for his passing instincts. On this play, the 36ers are preparing for him to go the full length of the court. In reality, Tate is carefully computing Adelaide’s defence before finding an open Kevin Lisch before anyone on the court (including Lisch himself) knows that he’s open:

If Tate’s playmaking isn’t a facade, the Kings offence has it all. It’s easy to forget, but Sydney have drained just 28% of their looks from deep and haven’t seen Didi Louzada hit the court. Should Tate continue to pick apart defences and enable the likes Lisch and Ware to bomb away from downtown, Weaver’s Kings are probably the scariest team in the league.

3. Matt Flinn's rotations

Michael Houben addressed this last week, but it needs to be said again: What on earth is Matt Flinn doing with his rotations?

It’s still very early, but it's entirely possible that Flinn just doesn’t care who plays. There’s no other real explanation for the random spot minutes Angus Glover, Sam Froling, and Sunday Dech get in crucial situations. There’s no other explanation for starting two big men who languish in the paint against a Brisbane side filled with unafraid three-point bombers. There’s no other explanation for leaving Aaron Brooks on the bench for two games when, in his third outing, he proved that he is easily the best player on the team.

The Brooks decision was somewhat defensible seeing as he is far from an ideal fit next to LaMelo Ball. The teenager needs shooting and versatile defensive weapons around him to thrive — Brooks only provides one of those and, like Ball, is most comfortable with the rock in his hands. Then again, if fit was the reason Brooks started the season riding the pine, why did Flinn open with Emmett Naar in game one?

Starting Dan Grida in game two was a far more reasonable decision. As the self-appointed driver of the Dan Grida bandwagon, I welcomed this decision. However, at some point as a coach, you simply must find ways to get your best basketball players on the court.

I have no doubt that Flinn will improve as the season progresses; this is, of course, his first season as a head coach. If he figures it all out, this Hawks team has enough talent to make teams higher in pecking order worried.

4. DJ Newbill's shot distribution

It feels like DJ Newbill has been in the NBL for a decade, yet, remarkably, he’s still only 27 and likely has his prime years ahead of him.

With more experience comes wisdom — in Newbill’s case, albeit after a tiny sample size of three two games, it appears as if an extra year has nudged the heart of his offensive game towards the three-point arc. In his first two NBL seasons, Newbill was a drive-first guard who took over 40% of his shot attempts at the rim. Through two rounds, that number has halved and been replaced by additional attempts from deep. Thus far, 13 of Newbill’s 20 shot attempts have been from long-range and he has connected on over half of them — his first two NBL campaigns saw him drain just a third of his triples, per Spatial Jam.

Again, Newbill has only played two games, so reading too much into this would be a fool’s errand. Still, with the pass-first Scott Machado locked in as the starting point guard, it makes sense that Newbill would embrace the three more than he ever has. Because of Machado’s lacklustre jump shot and killer passing game, he needs as much shooting around him as possible for him to succeed. Another ball-dominant, off-the-dribble guard (like the old DJ Newbill) makes little sense next to a point guard fitting Machado’s archetype. Turning Newbill into an off-ball flamethrower makes a lot of sense.

However, there is a balancing act here — if Newbill completely ditches his dribble-drive game and turns into a specialist from downtown, the burden of shot-creation and playmaking falls squarely on Machado. No one on this Taipans team outside of that duo has the skills to create consistent offence off the dribble for themselves and others.

Putting that heavy of a shot-creation burden on Machado could prove costly — teams are already comfortable ducking under screens and daring Machado to shoot:

This has seen Machado unable to attack defences going ‘downhill’ and has contributed to Cairns ranking dead last in percentage of shot attempts in the restricted area by a rather wide margin, according to Jordan McCallum.

Newbill’s evolution into a dynamic threat from downtown is encouraging. Yet, if Cairns continue to struggle to get to the rim, Mike Kelly may need Newbill to re-assume some of the playmaking responsibilities and ditch his affection for the three-ball.

If Cairns are to turn their already faltering season around, how they handle the balancing act of DJ Newbill’s shot distribution will prove crucial.

5. Tai Wesley's fit on the Phoenix

Tai Wesley is no doubt a great basketball player, but how good have the South East Melbourne Phoenix looked flying up and down the court without him? Small-ball combinations leaving Mitch Creek playing as the nominal power forward are wreaking havoc. Per Spatial Jam, the four-man combination of John Roberson, Ben Madgen, Kendall Stephens, and Creek have outscored opponents by 20 points after just 31 possessions on the court together.

Creek and the electric Roberson have found themselves unstoppable playing at extreme pace with a spread floor — the Bullets couldn’t find anyone to bring help defence off when Madgen and Stephens were on the court with them.

When Tai Wesley returns from injury, one would assume that the Phoenix will see their pace of play drop from their perch atop the league. Additionally, their three-point attempt rate will likely come back down to earth with a post presence to feed. Wesley undoubtedly increases the overall talent level of the team but does he fit with how the rest of the roster is constructed? Tommy Greer has assembled a squad filled with long-range snipers, athletes, and rim-running centres — Wesley’s game looks strangely out of place.

Jaye Crockett, the team’s short-term injury replacement for Wesley, seems like a more seamless fit for where the team appears to be headed.

All this being said, Wesley’s shooting ability should fit in and his defensive versatility should be welcomed. He will also make opposing coaches think twice about employing switching defences against John Roberson’s lethal pick and roll game. This stuff is certainly useful but if Wesley forces stylistic changes from their current play, is it worth it? It's not an urgent matter of concern, but it's definitely something to monitor.