Strap yourselves in, NBL fans. We're getting to the pointy end of the season now, and it's shaping up to be one of the most exciting finishes in recent memory.
With just five rounds to go, there are still eight teams with a realistic shot at a top four finish. Sitting on the bubble in fourth place are Melbourne United; they only have two more wins than the eighth-placed New Zealand Breakers. For those teams still on the brink, every game is fast becoming a must-win.
Among the pressure of the finals race, some players will step up while others will wilt. Who is holding up the best after round 15?
MVP: Bryce Cotton
Vs ILL: 23 PTS, 4 REB, 6 AST, 4 STL, 8-18 FG, 7-13 3PT
Per-game stats: 22.1 PTS, 4.1 REB, 3.6 AST, 1.7 STL, 43.2% FG, 39.9% 3PT
If I asked you to imagine a Bryce Cotton play, what comes to mind? Is it a filthy stepback three? A hesitation move to the basket? A springy dunk in transition?
Cotton has made his money as an isolation, off-the-dribble scorer, but against the Illawarra Hawks in round 15 he showcased his off-ball ability. After starting the game 0-3 while being smothered by Sunday Dech, Cotton was able to manoeuvre his way into some open looks with a range of crafty cuts to the three point line. It's not often a cut can be a highlight play, but his ankle-breaking V-cut that almost floored Angus Glover was a thing of beauty. That got him going near the end of the first quarter, and he stayed hot for the rest of the game as he scored 21 of his 23 points from behind the arc.
Cotton has the fourth-most isolation possessions in the league this season, and he's scoring 1.1 points per possession on those plays, per Jordan McCallum. In the win against the Hawks, and against an admittedly weak defence, he was somehow able to take a back seat while still finishing as the player of the game. It's a wrinkle that teams will need to be prepared for come the playoffs, as the Perth Wildcats and Cotton could look to mix up their offence through a three or five-game series.
MVP honourable mentions
Vs NZ: 29 PTS, 7 REB, 4 AST, 10-19 FG
Vs SYD: 16 PTS, 6 REB, 5 AST, 3 STL, 6-11 FG, 2-5 3PT
Per-game stats: 16.7 PTS, 3.6 REB, 8.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 45.3% FG, 38.5% 3PT
The scoring explosion continued for Scott Machado in round 15. As pointed out by ESPN's Warren Yiu, he's been putting up 20 points per contest since Boxing Day. Just as impressive is his efficiency over that span, as he's shot 53.8% from the field, 36.7% from three and 83.3% from the line. His points have come from all three levels of the floor, something that wasn't necessarily expected when he entered the league.
As his scoring has spiked, though, his playmaking has suffered. The biggest concern is his turnovers-- he's averaged 4.4 giveaways per game over that same span, capped off by eight in the loss against the Kings. There's no shame in struggling against the league's best defence, but Machado will need to tidy things up as the Cairns Taipans try to fight off their fellow finals hopefuls.
Vs CAI: 18 PTS, 4 AST, 1 STL, 7-17 FG, 4-10 3PT
Per-game stats: 20.2 PTS, 2.7 REB, 4 AST, 38.7% FG, 29.6% 3PT
Overall, Casper Ware was solid but unspectacular against the Taipans. As has become the norm, though, his best stretch of the game was when the Sydney Kings built a decisive lead. They won the first term by seven points, and it was three triples from Ware in the quarter that provided the spark. He continued to chip in with big buckets as the Taipans hung around, with a third quarter buzzer beater the most memorable.
Despite low steal numbers by his standards (0.5 per game), he remains a rugged defender and hassled Scott Machado into eight turnovers. Ware is the head of the league's best defence and the general of the league's second-worst offence. That can be viewed any number of ways, but their place on top of the ladder can't be debated.
Vs ILL: 8 PTS, 4 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 3-11 FG
Per-game stats: 20.9 PTS, 7 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 48.9% FG, 38.2% 3PT
Mitch Creek was hot on the heels of one of his worst games to date in round 14, but how did he bounce back? By setting a new season low in scoring, while also going below his season averages in almost every category.
It certainly wasn't the comeback game that the Phoenix would have been hoping for against the Illawarra Hawks. Hampered by foul trouble throughout, Creek struggled to find a rhythm in between regular stints on the bench. He was uncharacteristically poor attacking the basket, as he shot just 1-7 from inside the paint. Still, the Phoenix managed to scrape together a win despite quiet games from both he and John Roberson.
Vs MEL: 23 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 10-19 FG
Per-game stats: 20.5 PTS, 2.8 REB, 4.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 46.1% FG, 35.1% 3PT
Jerome Randle continues to spit in the face of basketball analytics. The Sydney Kings have built their record-setting defence on the principle of allowing mid-range shots; Randle has produced another outstanding season by draining those exact looks. Six of Randle's ten field goals were two-pointers from outside the key, with another two jumpers from just inside the free throw line.
He came up huge in the clutch as the Adelaide 36ers dismantled Melbourne United, with his ten points in the fourth quarter scored almost exclusively from pull-up jump shots. Randle's five three point attempts per game are the most since his debut season in 2015-16. It's clear that he's aware that that's not his strength, though, despite a respectable 35.1% clip on the season. The analytics might disagree, but there's something to be said for a player doubling down on his strengths as Randle did this round.
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 15 (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 15 (ankle injury).
Vs CAI: 3 PTS, 5 REB, 4 AST, 1-6 FG
Vs BRI: 4 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 2-6 FG
Per-game stats: 8.8 PTS, 3.8 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 40% FG, 29.5% 3PT
In round 14, it looked like RJ Hampton had immediately shaken off the rust from his injury layoff. In hindsight, though, he may have just painted over it. That hasty paint job peeled under the heat of both Queensland clubs in round 15, as Hampton and the Breakers had a weekend to forget.
Still on a minutes restriction, the Next Star has at least shown his willingness to take on a reduced role. The next step is to rediscover his shot-- he's shooting just 7-23 (30.4%) from the field and 2-10 (20%) from three since returning last week. That's hardly surprising, given this is the first injury Hampton has had to deal with during his professional career. What will be almost as interesting as his on-court recover is how his demeanour and attitude change as he faces the challenge.
Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau
Vs ILL: 14 PTS, 19 REB, 3 BLK, 7-7 FG
Per-game stats: 8.6 PTS, 8.5 REB, 3.7 ORB, 1 STL, 1.2 BLK, 68.5% FG
In the five games prior to round 14, Dane Pineau had a combined total of 37 rebounds. In the two games since, he's had 39. It's been a remarkable fortnight for the South East Melbourne centre, as he became the first player since Mark Bradtke to pull in at least 19 rebounds in consecutive games, per NBL Facts.
Most of Pineau's success comes down to positioning, even outside of just rebounding. Shooting 7-7 from the field is no mean feat, and he was able to do so by running hard to consistently beat his man to the spot under the basket. John Roberson helped as always with some pinpoint passing, but Pineau's soft hands on both the catch and finish have made him the perfect pick-and-roll partner.
Overall, Pineau is becoming something of a stat sheet stuffer for a defensive big man. He's the only player averaging more than five points and shooting over 66% from the field. Defensively, he's one of only two players averaging more than one block and one steal per game (min. two games). The Phoenix moved away from replacing Keith Benson with a new import big, instead signing wing Devondrick Walker, and that alone speaks volumes of Pineau's improvement.
Most Improved Player honourable mentions
Vs NZ: 9 PTS, 6 REB, 1 STL, 4 BLK, 4-8 FG
Per-game stats: 8 PTS, 5.6 REB, 1.1 AST, 1.7 BLK, 48.2% FG
Another four blocks against the New Zealand Breakers makes it six straight games with two or more rejections for Will Magnay. As The Pick and Roll's own Kristian Amenta discussed, the youngster has found his way into the Defensive Player of the Year discussion with his continual development this season.
He's certainly one of the more eye-catching candidates. In a facet where the smart plays don't always stand out, Magnay's league-leading 1.7 swats per game (min. 2 games) have made him hard to ignore. No longer fighting for minutes with starting centre Matt Hodgson, his move to power forward has unclogged the Brisbane Bullets rotation and helped them to win three of their last four games.
Vs PER: 15 PTS, 5 REB, 5-12 FG
Vs SEM: 13 PTS, 5 REB, 2 AST, 6-16 FG
Per-game stats: 9.1 PTS, 3.5 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 39.2% FG, 29.7% 3PT
Where does Sunday Dech rank among the league's best defensive guards? In his first season as a full-time starter, he's already building quite the resume on that end of the floor.
It was a bright start against Perth in round 15, as Dech picked up former teammate Bryce Cotton in the early moments. He held the former MVP to 0-3 shooting before sitting late in the term, at which point Cotton took advantage and drained two triples before the break. Despite finishing with 23 points, Cotton made sure to praise Dech for his defensive efforts post-game.
In the second game of the weekend, Dech had a little more support from his Hawks teammates. The efforts of he, Angus Glover and Illawarra's other guards kept John Roberson to just 12 points on 4-10 shooting, well below his season averages. The length of Dech made it hard for the smaller Roberson to create the space to shoot, and he's far from the only player to have a similar struggle this season. That's with mentioning his offensive play, where he now has three straight games scoring in double figures.
Vs NZ: 20 PTS, 4 REB, 3 STL, 9-13 FG
Vs SYD: 15 PTS, 2 REB, 7 AST, 3 STL, 1 BLK, 7-15 FG
Per-game stats: 19.2 PTS, 2.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 49.8% FG, 39.5% 3PT
Before the season, I wrote that DJ Newbill was set for his best season in the NBL. Well, even I didn't expect his improvement to be quite this drastic. After two seasons as a serviceable import wing, he's become on of the best two-way players in the league as the Taipans have emerged as a surprise finals contender.
Compared to last season, he's drastically increased his points, assists, steals, field goal percentage and three point percentage, per Spatial Jam. Playing alsongside a talented passer like Machado has unlocked his offensive game, while he's firmly in the conversation for All-Defensive honours. In fact, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Newbill's name in the All-NBL teams come the end of the season, particularly if Cairns can secure a finals spot.
Best Sixth Man: Eric Griffin
Vs MEL: 21 PTS, 11 REB, 1 BLK, 6-8 FG, 1-2 3PT
Per-game stats: 15.5 PTS, 6.9 REB, 2.1 ORB, 1.2 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.4 BLK, 55.3% FG, 35.6% 3PT
There's something about Melbourne United that brings out the best in Eric Griffin. Maybe it's the matchup with Shawn Long; the United start and Griffin both share the same brooding, determined energy that indicates an unwillingness to be outplayed. After dropping 34 points in their last meeting, Griffin had a big double-double off the bench in round 15.
The biggest difference between the two? This time, it was in a 36ers win. As Shawn Long battled foul trouble, Griffin was able to take advantage against Melbourne's other bigs, getting to the foul line 13 times. Both Stanton Kidd (5 mins) and David Barlow (25 mins) suffered as a result, finishing with four fouls each and playing limited minutes.
That's the flow-on effect that Griffin's play can have. He's not a playmaker in the traditional sense, but he helps his teammates in other, less obvious ways. Now sitting second in the league for free throw attempts, he causes havoc for opposing players as his combination of size and quickness make his drives to basket almost impossible to guard without fouling.
Best Sixth Man honourable mentions
Vs NZ: 8 PTS, 1 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 3-8 FG
Per-game stats: 11 PTS, 2.1 REB, 2.5 AST, 43.3% FG, 43.2% 3PT
The past three games have been as close as Jason Cadee will ever get to a "cold stretch". During that span, he's shot 8-24 from the field (33.3%) and 6-17 from three (35.3%). Draining six triples in three games is far from disgraceful, though, and Cadee's usual steady playmaking and defence have helped him to stay effective.
It also helps that the Bullets have won four of their last five to stay close to the top four. If they can add Cadee's usual marksmanship to that resurgence around him, they will remain a finals chance until the very end of the regular season.
Vs CAI: 13 PTS, 1 REB, 3 AST, 3 STL, 5-10 FG, 2-6 3PT
Per-game stats: 8 PTS, 1.5 REB, 3.4 AST, 50% FG, 38.7% 3PT, 90% FT
It's remarkable how efficient Bruce has been this season, given his surprisingly heavy workload. Currently flirting with a 50-40-90 shooting line, his assist:turnover ratio of 3.8:1 is also among the league's best. That held true in round 15, as his 13 points came at a 50% clip and he had just one turnover.
Against Cairns, it was his defensive impact that surprised the most. Bruce works hard as a team defender, but his three steals gave the Kings some much-needed transition opportunities as they tried to break the game open. There's not much else to say about his play-- he's a consummate professional and a consistently steady performer.