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2016/17 NBL Season in Review: Sydney Kings
At the conclusion of the 2016/17 NBL season, The Pick and Roll takes an in-depth look at each NBL franchise to see where they went right and wrong, plus what they should be investing into in the future.
What went right?
A world class venue, replete with an NBA-like in-game experience, and featuring the largest jumbotron in the Southern Hemisphere!
In all seriousness, it’s too early to tell if the Kings are truly back – Sydney is a notoriously fickle market – but the building blocks of success have well and truly been established. The team will be powered by the endless pockets of AEG Ogden, and they have an astute general manager in Jeff Van Groningen. Plus the legendary Andrew Gaze is here for another two years, although the jury will be out over his coaching debut in the big time.
Beyond that, the on-court product did take a major step forward. The Kings improved from last season’s basement record to fall just outside of the playoffs, with their fate not decided until their final game of the regular season against the Perth Wildcats.
Brad Newley Embed from Getty Images
Newley thrived as the two-guard in the shuffle ecosystem, re-establishing himself as one of the elite wings in the domestic league with a mix of mean post-ups and transition flurries.
In 23 games, the former Boomer shot 32 percent from deep, a mark well below league average (per SpatialJam), but that didn’t stop him from hoisting up those babies! Newley shot a staggering fives triples per contest, an unfathomable mark for someone who has made a career out of being a slasher.
But those long range snipes did serve to keep sagging defenders on notice, and helped to supplement his more natural running game, with Newley showcasing why he’s one of the premier wings in transition in the league.
Interestingly, the on/off numbers, per the brilliant Crunchtime Shots, aren’t as bullish on Newley with the swingman grading out as a relatively neutral presence.
Still, once it was clear that Kevin Lisch was slumping, the Kings all-too-often relied upon Newley to create off the bounce when the shuffle invariably led to nothing.
Apart from missing the playoffs? Where do I start?
After starting the season with a bang, the lack of progress throughout the season on both sides of the ball was a huge concern and ultimately led to missing the postseason.
The Kings laboured through their shuffle sets for much of the season; scripted actions would often flame out with shoulder shrugs and tough, contested shots.
Sometimes the opposition would just snuff out the initial action, anticipating the chess moves, watch the Kings flail around and await desperation flings from Kevin Lisch and Brad Newley. They were so good that sometimes it worked! Sometimes, other guys just went rogue and jacked up a shot for the sake of it.
There were some who questioned why they Kings played at such a deliberate pace -- one of the slowest paces in the league when you factor in their lack of offensive rebounding -- when the team was stocked with athletes who were primed to run teams off the court. It just felt as though the offence was never truly unleashed.
The defence, the top mark at the start of the campaign, also fell off a cliff by season’s end. From November 26 until the end of the season, the Kings’ defence barfed up 115 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have ranked dead last across the entire season.
In particular, their pick-and-roll defence was shambolic at times. The Kings mixed up their coverages depending on opponents, but the players never seemed to be on a string. Guards would too easily die on screens, leaving the backline to essentially navigate a two-on-one. When on-balls were trapped, it would often be with no backside help waiting at the split line.
Greg Whittington, their most athletic player, was a prime offender, forever blowing rotations. Opponents seemed to delight in targeting Jason Cadee in the pick-and-roll.
Josh Powell looked disinterested most of the time, and as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders. To be fair, his game probably didn’t suit the shuffle and he seemed to be stuck in this strange vortex of over-the-top officialdom.
Steve Blake never settled in and was a strange choice to replace Michael Bryson. When Blake bolted midseason, the Kings had the chance to bring in a replacement only to settle on Garret Jackson, a nice role player, but one who wouldn’t move the needle.
And by season’s end, Kevin Lisch was just shot and a shadow of himself.
A round 7 home win over the Perth Wildcats, when the Kings answered all of the physical challenges posed to them, seemingly fortified the Kings as the championship favourites.
It just felt as though it really meant something. Teams knew that it was almost a baptism of fire when you played the Wildcats – a true test of your championship mettle.
At the time, I asked Andrew Gaze if the matchup held significance.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I think that Perth being the defending champs, and also the fact that Perth’s history is so illustrious, you always know that it’s going to be a test in a real privileged environment that they play in.”
Instead, that high water mark signified a downward spiral that saw Sydney drop 11 of their final 16 games, a tailspin that doomed them from the postseason.
Coming full circle, labouring through that final quarter against the Wildcats in round 18 was undoubtedly a dark moment for the Kings – literally going through the motions as they realised that their season was over. Just to put things in perspective, the Kings had a defensive rating of 142 points per 100 possessions in that game. But you could argue their round 17 collapse against Melbourne United was more painful.
Needing a win against United, the Kings mustered a limp effort that effectively doomed their playoff hopes.
The frustrating part was that the Kings looked great running the floor, and but far too often meandered into their half court sets, neutering their roster advantage.
The Kings retain a core of Lisch, Newley, Cadee, Aleks Maric, and Tom Garlepp for the 2017/18 campaign, surprisingly low roster churn for a team that has been known in recent years for chopping and changing, season-to-season. That continuity is a good start, a formula that was worked well for the best teams in the league in recent years – just ask Perth, New Zealand and now the Hawks. Embed from Getty Images
Surround that core with the right pieces and you should be able to run a functional offence that can score more consistently in the half court. Close your eyes and you can imagine the possibilities.
High pick-and-rolls with a scoring guard and rim-diving big, with playmakers and shooters dotting the perimeter.
Want more intricacy? How about some side pick-and-roll with Cadee running through some pindowns on the weakside for some clever misdirection that stretches a defence to its breaking point?
There’s been talk that the league is “trending” towards scoring point guards but that’s not entirely true. Look back in the history of the league and scoring point guards isn’t a new phenomenon. Still, it’s clear that priority one for the Kings should be to look for a backcourt complement to Lisch and Cadee.
That all depends on if Cadee continues to start alongside Lisch next season; remember, he was slated to come in off the bench before a breakout performance in the preseason.
Ironically, a Michael Bryson-type who can make shots and take the heavy-defensive duties off of Lisch would be ideal.
The Kings also desperately need to bolster their big man depth, particularly with Khazzouh, Powell and Hill all free agents.
A rim-running, athletic big to complement their current crew and clean up the boards could work. Most teams in the league this season boasted an athletic big (Jameel McKay, Michael Holyfield, Josh Boone, Matt Hodgson et al.) who attracted defences as they rumbled into the lane, and offered rim protection and solid rebounding on the other end.
Of course, that all depends on how, or if, Gaze revamps his system. The shuffle doesn’t privilege bigs, and requires a level of selflessness that is tough to enact.
You might be tempted to grade the team lower, but the Kings did manage to improve upon their record from last season.
For those who insist that this team was loaded, it quickly became apparent once Steve Blake left that the Kings were severely lacking in the backcourt. Whittington and Powell were unreliable, and the frontcourt rotation always seemed in flux. Andrew Gaze certainly had a baptism of fire in his debut season coaching in the NBL.
Kudos to the organisation for rebuilding the Kings’ profile in Sydney but more work remains, particularly on the court, if Sydney are to return to the playoffs once more.