They say there are no guarantees in life, and it seems that the same applies to the NBL. The topsy-turvy recent results have left just three teams with a record above .500, and in round twelve two of them suffered losses to teams below.
There were some disappointing moments for our award leaders too, with rough shooting nights for Casper Ware and Bryce Cotton, tough losses for Mitch Creek, Dane Pineau and Eric Griffin, and injuries for the cream of the rookie crop. Among all of that hardship, who has scrapped and clawed their way to the top of the pile?
MVP: Casper Ware
Vs BRI: 26 PTS, 5 REB, 3 AST, 8-19 FG
Vs SEM: 9 PTS, 2 REB, 7 AST, 1 STL, 4-10 FG
Per-game stats: 20.8 PTS, 2.9 REB, 4 AST, 39.8% FG, 28.9% 3PT
After trending upwards in recent weeks, Casper Ware's perimeter shooting took a nosedive in round 12. That didn't hamper his overall impact, though, as he flashed his versatile skillset across two games.
His 26 points against the Bullets almost dragged the Kings across the line in a game where they couldn't click offensively. They were able to stay close in the first half as Ware dropped 16 points, but they were blown out late and managed just 13 points in the decisive third quarter.
That down stretch was disappointing for Ware, as was his 1-10 shooting clip from three, but he reached deep into his trick bag to get to the rim and stay effective. Hard drives, stop-and-go moves, spins and floaters-- you name it, he tried it and succeeded. His craftiness in close was the reason he got to the free throw line 11 times, and he now trails just Melo Trimble for total free throw attempts this season.
It was a much easier night for the Kings and Ware on Monday, as they blew the Phoenix away in the second term and held that lead until the final buzzer. With the supporting cast of the Kings all firing offensively, Ware was able to sit back and operate more as a facilitator. With six assists at half time he already had his second highest tally of the season, and he had his number called much less in the second half as Shaun Bruce and Deshon Taylor ran the show.
The win over the Phoenix showed the luxury of playing for a team so jam-packed with talent. That shouldn't take away from Ware's individual excellence on a team that is still leading the league despite their recent mini-slump.
MVP honourable mentions
Vs MEL: 15 PTS, 2 REB, 3 AST, 3 STL, 5-17 FG, 2-9 3PT
Per-game stats: 20.9 PTS, 3.9 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 42.7% FG, 39% 3PT
Cotton continues to be the barometer for the Wildcats, and Saturday's game against Melbourne showed it in the worst way possible. His 15 points still led the Wildcats in scoring on a night where United held them to just 74 points, their lowest total of the season. That mirrored the shooting percentages, as Cotton's 5-17 from the field and 2-9 from deep looked a little less drastic alongside his team's field goal percentage (37.7%) and three point percentage (22.2%).
Given the team's overall struggles, it seems to fair to give a lot of credit to Melbourne's defence. Since the start of December, United have had the second best defensive rating in the league, per Spatial Jam. Still, it was a disappointing performance from both Cotton and the Wildcats, particularly on their home floor. Cotton has had more quiet games this season than we have come to expect, but it's hard to judge him too harshly with Perth still sitting second on the ladder.
With his propensity for stepping up when it matters, it's hard to view this as anything more than a minor blip on the way to the Finals. The MVP is a regular season award, though, and games like this drop Cotton's case ever so slightly.
Vs NZ: 24 PTS, 3 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 10-15 FG, 2-2 3PT
Vs SYD: 16 PTS, 12 REB, 2 AST, 3 STL, 7-16 FG
Per-game stats: 22.4 PTS, 7.4 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 50.6% FG, 36.5% 3PT
It might be time to have a discussion about Mitch Creek's shot selection. It's not the discussion you'd usually expect around a superstar like Creek; most players of his calibre are more likely to be accused of jacking up too many attempts.
With Creek, it sometimes feels like the opposite is true. There are moments and stretches of games where it feels like he needs to take over, but it doesn't quite happen. In a vacuum, the shots he's giving up to his teammates aren't bad shots, but when others aren't making baskets the best players stand up and shoulder the load. As the great Mark Titus often says, if you're having a good shooting game, that means you're not shooting enough.
In the Phoenix's loss against Sydney, Creek had 16 points by the end of the first half. By the end of the game, he had... 16 points. He was on the court for almost the whole second half, as he played more than 38 minutes in the game, but he couldn't have the impact that his side needed.
Make no mistake, this is nitpicking in what has been a tremendous season for Creek. He was outstanding as always against the Breakers, and he still chipped in against the Kings with his work on the glass and his defensive effort. But when your team has lost four of their last five games questions will be asked, no matter how strong your individual form has been.
Vs ADE: 3 PTS, 2 REB, 13 AST, 3 STL, 1-11 FG, 0-4 3PT
Per-game stats: 15.1 PTS, 3.2 REB, 8.8 AST, 1.5 STL, 42% FG, 39.2% 3PT
If you tuned into Sunday's clash between the Taipans and the 36ers during the fourth quarter, you would have seen Cairns with a handy lead. As Scott Machado pulled the strings of the offence and his team protected that buffer, you probably would have assumed that Machado had been his usual dynamic self. And then you would have heard the line from the commentary booth-- "this is one of the best 0-10 games you'll ever see".
Indeed, it was a bizarre performance from Machado, as he finished 1-11 from the field but still led his team to a huge win. The first quarter summed up the influence he can have on his team, as he had six assists at the first break and didn't take a single shot. That was the defining period of the game for Cairns, as they built a 14-point lead that they never relinquished.
A case can be made for Cam Oliver as the most important Taipans player, as the big man has tallied six double-doubles in his last seven games. The NBL is a league run by the point guards, though, and Machado is among the very best.
Vs PER: 23 PTS, 13 REB, 3 STL, 1 BLK, 10-14 FG
Per-game stats: 19.8 PTS, 9.7 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.6 BLK, 54.7% FG, 34.4% 3PT
He still has his ups and downs, but Shawn Long's best is as good as any player in the NBL. That was on full display against the defending champions in round 12, as he dominated on both ends to power his team to a win.
The Wildcats won their previous two encounters in NBL20, and they scored 18 and 19 points respectively from second-chance opportunities in those games. On Saturday, they were held to nine offensive rebounds, from which they scored just six points. That was in large part thanks to Long's work on the boards, as he recorded his tenth double-double of the year.
Over his past six games, Long has four double-doubles. The two games where he didn't were against Andrew Bogut's Sydney Kings, where he was limited to 20 minutes and 15 minutes respectively due to foul trouble. That is still Long's biggest weakness, but if he can avoid fouling and control his temperament he has a chance to be the MVP of the season's second half.
Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball
Per-game stats: 17 PTS, 7.5 REB, 7 AST, 1.7 STL, 37.3% FG, 24.4% 3PT
Did not play in round 12 (foot injury).
Rookie of the Year honourable mentions
Per-game stats: 11.4 PTS, 6.8 REB, 1 AST, 42.9% FG, 34.8% 3PT
Did not play in round 12 (ankle injury).
Per-game stats: 9.5 PTS, 4.2 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 42.2% FG, 32.4% 3PT
Did not play in round 12 (hip injury).
Vs ADE: 8 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 2-3 3PT
Vs NZ: 9 PTS, 1 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 7-8 FT
Per-game stats: 4.6 PTS, 2.1 REB, 1 AST, 42.9% FG, 22.2% 3PT
We have to write about someone here, right? With the three runaway leaders for the Rookie of the Year all sidelined through injury, Glover has been the young gun that has emerged over the last two weeks.
His real breakout came in rounds 10 and 11, as he scored a combined 32 points across two games. It was a remarkable leap for a player with just eight points total in his five previous appearances this season.
After seeing limited playing time early, injuries to Aaron Brooks and LaMelo Ball have opened the door for Glover to have an impact. With two ACL tears in 2017 now well and truly in the rear view mirror, he's back on the trajectory that many envisioned for him during his junior career.
Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau
Vs NZ: 9 PTS, 9 REB, 5 ORB, 1 STL, 2 BLK, 4-7 FG
Vs SYD: 8 PTS, 6 REB, 4-5 FG
Per-game stats: 8 PTS, 7.4 REB, 3.6 ORB, 1 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.1 BLK
It was another round of typically robust play from Pineau, but he's swimming against the tide trying to anchor the Phoenix defence. Their 120.7 defensive rating is the worst in the league, and since the start of December that has ballooned even further as they have given up 127.2 points per 100 possessions, according to Spatial Jam.
The eye test doesn't suggest Pineau as a contributor to that problem, though, and the numbers agree. As per Spatial Jam's on/off data, the Phoenix defence is an eye-popping 19.3 points per possession better defensively when he's on the court compared to when he sits.
He's still not the finished product, even on that end of the floor. There were moments against the Breakers where he looked a little lost guarding the pick and roll, and that may have contributed to his fouling out of that game. Still in his first season as a starter, though, his defensive instincts and progression this season are almost unmatched.
Offensively, he's still filling his niche as a hard screener, at-rim finisher and rebounding fiend. The Phoenix continue to drop games at a rapid pace, but it's hard to know what more Pineau can do to fulfil his requirements.
Most Improved Player honourable mentions
Vs SYD: 23 PTS, 14 REB, 1 STL, 2 BLK, 8-14 FG, 3-6 3PT
Per-game stats: 8.1 PTS, 5.1 REB, 1 AST, 1.2 BLK, 48.2% FG
Where on earth did this come from? Coming into round 12 with just two double figure scoring games and no double figure rebounding games, Will Magnay easily did both en route to his first NBL double-double.
The pick and roll remained his bread and butter offensively, but it was a display of all-around excellence from the blossoming big man. He was 0-10 from three coming into the game, but he knocked down three triples with a gorgeous shooting stroke for a player his size. That opened up the rest of his game, as he used his speed to exploit Sydney older heads like Andrew Bogut and Daniel Kickert.
Spending time at the four and the five, Magnay showed off his versatility on both ends of the floor. NBA buzz may have seemed like a pipe dream not too long ago, but the player that torched the Kings is exactly the type of big man that executives in the US dream of. Now, he needs to produce as consistently offensively as he has been all season defensively.
Vs ADE: 18 PTS, 2 REB, 2 AST, 2 STL, 6-12 FG
Vs NZ: 8 PTS, 6 REB, 1 STL, 3-13 FG
Per-game stats: 7.7 PTS, 3.4 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.9 STL, 37.6% FG, 30.6% 3PT
Sunday Dech's offensive game is still a work in progress, with ebs and flows on a game-by-game basis. That was displayed perfectly in round 12, as one of his best games in Adelaide was offset by a rough shooting night against the Breakers.
It's hardly surprising that he still has down games, given his breakout came largely playing off of LaMelo Ball. With the young playmaker still sidelined, and with new imports Darington Hobson and Billy Preston struggling mightily, Dech is shouldering a bigger load than he is likely ready for. With that considered, his rise this season and recent performance has been quite remarkable.
Even when his shot isn't falling, he brings a ton of energy at all times. His first two buckets against the 36ers were putbacks from offensive rebounds, and that got him rolling for a big game. Add in a consistent defensive intensity and the ability to lock down in one-on-one matchups, and Dech is continuing to develop into one of the league's best young players.
Best Sixth Man: Eric Griffin
Vs ILL: 9 PTS, 10 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 3-6 FG, 1-2 3PT
Vs CAI: 11 PTS, 11 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 2 BLK, 4-9 FG
Per-game stats: 15.1 PTS, 6.8 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.4 BLK, 55.7% FG, 35.3% 3PT
It was a tough weekend for Adelaide, as they dropped both their games and fell outside of the top four. Despite that Eric Griffin remained an effective contributor, and he was one of the few 36ers to address some problem areas.
They were demolished on the glass against Illawarra, as they gave up 16 offensive boards and lost the rebounding battle 44-30. Griffin had 10 of those rebounds, more than double that of his nearest teammate, as he battled manfully under the basket.
In their second game against the Taipans, the 36ers shot 38.2% from the field and struggled to find any sort of flow offensively. Griffin did his best to allay those shooting woes, as he pulled in seven offensive rebounds on his way to a double-double off the bench.
In both cases, his efforts weren't enough to earn his team a win. Ideally, Joey Wright would bump up his minutes each night-- he's played over 30 minutes just once this season, in a round three win over the Bullets. Foul trouble has been a consistent issue for him, though, and he'll need to allay those concerns and stay on the court more consistently.
Best Sixth Man honourable mentions
Vs SYD: 8 PTS, 4 REB, 4 AST, 2-10 FG, 2-8 3PT
Per-game stats: 11.3 PTS, 2.2 REB, 2.3 AST, 42.6% FG, 41.8% 3PT
It was a rare off shooting night for Jason Cadee, but he was still able to chip in as the Bullets caused a boilover against the Kings. Even in games where his scoring is down, he's a steadying presence for a team that can be erratic at times.
His four assists came alongside just one turnover, and he and Brisbane's other guards did an excellent job guarding on the perimeter. Sydney's perimeter rotation of Ware, Louzada, Newley, Bruce and Taylor shot a combined 14-48 (29.2%) from the field. That kind of smothering defence is a team effort, but that's where Cadee's true value lies; even on a quiet individual night, he plays his role within the framework of the team.
Vs BRI: 4 PTS, 4 REB, 2 AST, 2-7 FG
Vs SEM: 12 PTS, 2 REB, 5 AST, 5-9 FG, 2-4 3PT
Per-game stats: 7.4 PTS, 1.7 REB, 3.4 AST, 50.6% FG, 38.9% 3PT
Much like the rest of his teammates, Shaun Bruce was quieter than usual against the Bullets. Four points marked his lowest scoring total since early November, and he missed all five of his shots from deep.
He bounced back strongly against the Kings, as he and Deshon Taylor's hot shooting allowed Casper Ware to take a backseat for long stretches. It was the quintessential Bruce performance-- good shooting in the flow of the offence, five assists to just one turnover and solid fundamental defence. It's the kind of excellence that you can go a whole quarter without noticing, but that doesn't make it any less important to the Kings.