Will the NBL finals race ever get any clearer? The Cairns Taipans went close to sealing their place in the postseason with a win in round 15, but fourth place is still very much open. With four teams all within half a game of each other, it could come down to the most minuscule of margins. Every possession, every shot, every hustle play takes on some extra meaning down the home stretch for the teams still in the hunt.
Similarly, the NBL awards are all still up for grabs. Bryce Cotton and Scott Machado are both leading their teams into the postseason with a full head of steam. LaMelo Ball's season-ending injury has left the door open for the Rookie of the Year. Dane Pineau and Eric Griffin have led in their respective categories for weeks, but Bullets Will Magnay and Jason Cadee are making a late charge. The 2019/20 season is one of the most open contests ever, in every possible way, and there's still plenty of action to come.
MVP: Bryce Cotton
Vs SEM: 25 PTS, 3 REB, 7 AST, 8-16 FG, 2-6 3PT
Per-game stats: 22.1 PTS, 4 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.7 STL, 43.3% FG, 39.7% 3PT
Let's talk about Bryce Cotton's defence. Yes, he scored 25 points against the South East Melbourne Phoenix, above his league-leading season average. It somehow felt like a quiet 25 points, though, and it was hardly needed as the Perth Wildcats strangled the Phoenix on the defensive end.
It was Cotton and fellow guard Mitch Norton that led the way on that end. Switching onto John Roberson on the perimeter, they held the superstar point guard to just 11 points on 3-9 shooting. Cotton's defence is far too often underrated, by everyone except those inside and around the Wildcats. He's leading the league in steals (min. five games) but, more importantly, he does so without the unnecessary gambles that some of his contemporaries make. At the same time, he has the quickness and length to lock in when required and guard the opposition's best player when Norton and Damian Martin sit.
Now back to your usual programming; Cotton was outstanding offensively once again, adding 11 points in the third quarter as Perth build a decisive lead. With such two-way excellence and Perth's position in the top two all but locked away, it's hard to see anyone overtaking Cotton for MVP honours.
MVP honourable mentions
Vs ADE: 21 PTS, 3 REB, 9 AST, 1 STL, 8-16 FG, 3-7 3PT
Per-game stats: 16.9 PTS, 3.5 REB, 8.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 45.5% FG, 38.8% 3PT
Scott Machado is now part of a clear top two in the MVP race. The Cairns Taipans are tantalisingly close to locking up their playoff spot, and while their import trio have all been vital contributors, it is Machado that has set the tone all season long.
Round 16 was no exception, as he had his way with the Adelaide 36ers defence. Machado has had every skill in the book since he landed in Australia, but his confidence to use them has grown with every game. Against Adelaide, he broke down every defender that challenged him. If they stepped out, he finished strong at the rim; if not, he shot with confidence from deep. After struggling with turnovers in his last few games, nine assists to three turnovers was a promising return to the mean as well.
Vs ILL: 20 PTS, 9 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 7-10 FG
Per-game stats: 20.6 PTS, 6 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 46.7% FG, 31.7% 3PT
As the Brisbane Bullets struggled with inconsistency early in the season, Lamar Patterson flew under the radar somewhat. Maybe that was because he was slightly below his own high standards from a year ago. Over Brisbane's first 12 games this season, he averaged just under 19 points per game but shot just 41.5% from the field and an icy 26% from three.
Since that point, and as Brisbane have made a decisive push towards the top four, Patterson has played arguably the best basketball of his NBL career. Since that opening span, he's put up 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, per Spatial Jam. The biggest factor has been his outside shot-- while his 37% shooting from deep during that time isn't unbelievable, it's been enough to make defenders respect him as a threat from three once again.
As Brisbane's secondary stars have stood up, Patterson has been able to take something of a back seat by his standards. He's still carrying a heavier load than most in the league, though, and the extra support from his teammates has allowed him to be more efficient while affecting the game in more ways.
Vs SYD: 30 PTS, 6 REB, 5 AST, 13-26 FG, 2-6 3PT
Vs MEL: 22 PTS, 9 REB, 2 AST, 2 STL, 1 BLK, 8-16 FG, 4-6 3PT
Per-game stats: 19.4 PTS, 6.1 REB, 4.3 AST, 1 STL, 49.2% FG, 42% 3PT
Scotty Hopson is not a complete player. That much became clear in round 15, when the New Zealand Breakers were without lead guard Sek Henry against the Taipans. Thrust into more ball handling duties, Hopson finished with an eye watering ten turnovers, which proved costly in a game that was lost by just six points.
With Henry back in the lineup, though, Hopson is able to focus on his strengths, namely his scoring. He has far less problems in that area, and he poured in 52 points across New Zealands two wins. When Corey Webster departed for China it was hard to see a real path forward for the Breakers this season. They've had contributions from across the board as they've stayed in the finals hunt, but a handful of game-winners and explosive scoring games like these have made Hopson the face of their resurgence.
Vs NZB: 17 PTS, 5 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL, 7-22 FG, 2-12 3PT
Vs SEM: 14 PTS, 1 REB, 6 AST, 5-12 FG, 4-10 3PT
Per-game stats: 19.8 PTS, 2.7 REB, 4.1 AST, 38.4% FG, 29.4% 3PT
It seemed like Ware was returning to his usual standard with his hot shooting through the middle of the season. Now, the last month is looking more like a regression to the mean. He hasn't scored over 20 points in his last five games, and he's shot 31.7% from the field and 26.9% from deep over that span.
He had a real chance to make an impact in both games during round 16 - the Breakers were without both Sek Henry and RJ Hampton, and the Phoenix have struggled to defend point guards all season with John Roberson and Kyle Adnam both undersized. Ware's defence remains at an all-league level, but his inability to thrive offensively with such favourable matchups is a concern.
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
It's official-- LaMelo Ball's time in the NBL is over. His chances of winning Rookie of the Year might be gone with him, as he played in just 12 of his team's 28 games. Sunday Dech's surprise candidacy (more on that later) could be the nail in the coffin, but Ball is arguably still ahead of his other nearest competitors. Kouat Noi (16 games) and RJ Hampton (15 games) have both missed significant time with injury, and both weren't quite at the same level as Ball even when on the court. If Dech is ruled ineligible, Ball is as good a chance as anyone to take home the trophy.
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 16 (ankle injury).
Per-game stats: 8.8 PTS, 3.8 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 40% FG, 29.5% 3PT
RJ Hampton was again on the sidelines in round 16, and reports have emerged that he, like Ball, may be out for the rest of the season. However, those reports also stated the Breakers being "close to being mathematically eliminated from postseason play" as a potential reason. That's no longer true after back-to-back wins in round 16. Would Hampton be tempted to hang around for a playoff run? And would Dan Shamir and the Breakers want to re-integrate him into the lineup?
Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau
Vs PER: 9 PTS, 8 REB, 1 STL, 3-3 FG
Vs SYD: 2 PTS, 13 REB, 4 ORB, 1-5 FG
Per-game stats: 8.3 PTS, 8.7 REB, 3.6 ORB, 0.9 STL, 1.1 BLK, 67.2% FG
It's been said before in these rankings, but it can be hard to judge Pineau's impact at times on this South East Melbourne Phoenix team. Their offense was woeful, but he's not someone that can create his own shots and change that much. Their defence was suspect, but the opposition's big men were relatively quiet in both round 16 games.
The one constant and tangible factor is his rebounding. Across the whole season, Pineau is averaging 8.7 rebounds per game; in their last four contests, that has skyrocketed to 14.5 per game, with 4 offensive rebounds. He didn't quite hit the historic heights of a week ago, but his round 15 performance on the glass was still rock solid.
With Keith Benson gone, the workload has also increased and Pineau is spending more and more time guarding the opposition's best big man. Against Perth, Miles Plumlee struggled with foul trouble but had just two points, while Nick Kay had ten points shooting below 50%. In the Phoenix's second game against Sydney, reigning MVP Andrew Bogut scored six points. It seems safe to say that Pineau is still doing his job defensively too.
Most Improved Player honourable mentions
Vs ILL: 11 PTS, 8 REB, 2 AST, 6 BLK, 5-7 FG
Per-game stats: 8.1 PTS, 5.7 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.9 BLK, 49.6% FG
If there was a Most Improved Player of the Week award, Will Magnay would surely have the NBL's biggest collection. In the midst of a breakout season, the Bullets big man somehow managed to have yet another breakout game in round 16.
Brisbane held the Hawks to just 77 points on just 41.9% shooting from inside the arc. That was in large part thanks to Magnay's presence around the rim-- his six blocked shots were a season-high across the league. While his athleticism and timing have been evident all season, he has improved as a post-up defender and kept AJ Ogilvy to two points for the game. Now extending his lead as the league's leading shot-blocker, Magnay is hot on the heels of Dane Pineau with award season fast approaching.
Vs BRI: 3 PTS, 5 REB, 1 STL, 1-10 FG, 1-3 3PT
Per-game stats: 8.8 PTS, 3.6 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 37.5% FG, 29.9% 3PT
Sunday Dech probably won't win the Most Improved Player award. There is a chance, however, that he could still take home some silverware at the end of the season. The Pick and Roll has reached out to the NBL and, after some mixed reports, we are waiting for confirmation on his eligibility for Rookie of the Year. Until that is confirmed, though, he remains worthy of some consideration here.
Update: the NBL confirmed on Thursday afternoon that Dech is not eligible for Rookie of the Year, but qualifies for Most Improved Player.
As that discussion goes on and with LaMelo Ball's departure, it's unfortunate that Dech had one of his worst games since moving into Illawarra's regular rotation. His shooting has been patchy all season, but a 1-10 effort from the field was a new low point. It's hard to be too critical of a young player, though, on a night where his team shoots just 38.8% as a whole.
It was a similar story defensively, as Brisbane's guard rotation of Sobey, Gliddon and Cadee combined for 47 points. Again, the Hawks got torched across the board, so it's hard to place too much blame on Dech's shoulders. Games like these will happen when you're playing for the league's worst team.
Vs ADE: 28 PTS, 3 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 11-16 FG, 6-7 3PT
Per-game stats: 19.6 PTS, 2.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 50.9% FG, 42.1% 3PT
Truth be told, DJ Newbill feels a little overqualified for this list. After another outstanding performance in a Taipans win, he's knocking on the door of the MVP shortlist. Another six triples against the 36ers took his total for the season to 53, and he's the only player with more than 40 made threes while shooting 50% from the field.
Against Adelaide he showed off his full arsenal, scoring from all three levels both off the dribble and spotting up. Some lax defence certainly helped, but Newbill has made his money this season by taking advantage of what the opposition gives him and fitting in around his fellow star imports.
Best Sixth Man: Eric Griffin
Vs CNS: 3 PTS, 1 STL, 1-3 FG
Per-game stats: 15 PTS, 6.6 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.3 BLK, 55% FG, 35.6% 3PT
Well, wasn't this bizarre? A little over ten minutes of action was enough for Eric Griffin to rack up three turnovers while making just one field goal. Throw in a strangely lethargic effort on the defensive end, and it was a disappointing outing for one of the league's most exciting players.
He still gets a pass here, with the loss to Cairns his worst game since his move to the bench. It couldn't have come at a worse time, though, with the 36ers still on the outside of the top four looking in. A huge clash with the Bullets looms on Saturday night, with both teams neck and neck in the finals race. Griffin will need to stand up and deliver against the twin towers of Matt Hodgson and Will Magnay.
Best Sixth Man honourable mentions
Vs ILL: 15 PTS, 2 REB, 5 AST, 2 STL, 5-10 FG, 4-8 3PT
Per-game stats: 11.1 PTS, 2.1 REB, 2.6 AST, 43.7% FG, 43.6% 3PT
It's tempting to move Jason Cadee into the lead here, if only because he simply doesn't have games like Griffin did this round. As Brisbane have made a push towards the top four, Cadee has been as steady as always in all facets of the game.
His performance against the Hawks was the quintessential Cadee game; four made threes, five assists and no turnovers while playing a complementary role on both sides of the floor. It came as part of a strong all-around outing for the Bullets, as almost every player in the rotation played to the best of their ability. While that was a rarer occurrence for some than others, it was no surprise to see Cadee at his best at the pointy end of the season.