If you missed the Cairns Taipans at the NBL Blitz and just glanced at the box scores, you could be forgiven for thinking that import Scott Machado wasn’t pulling his weight.
A year after winning just six games and finishing last in the NBL, the Taipans went 2-0 in Tasmania with wins over the Adelaide 36ers and the NBL1 All-Stars. That was despite their new American-born, Brazilian point guard --the man trying to fill the shoes of league-leading scorer Melo Trimble-- scoring just six points on 1/11 shooting against the 36ers. He followed that up with three points on 1-6 shooting against the NBL1 side.
After a preseason plagued by a nagging heel injury, it looked like a lacklustre debut for Machado. But raw numbers can and often will lie, and one look at the Taipans' offence during the Blitz showed the real impact that Machado could have on the team this season.
They looked like an entirely different side to last season, as they moved the ball around cleanly, got out and ran on the break and shot the ball at a very high level. That all started with Machado, who is the kind of playmaker that encourages others to make plays.
Against the 36ers, Machado showed a willingness to make the right play every time down the floor, even if it meant the ball spent less time in his hands. His seven assists were impressive, but it was the handful of secondary assists that stood out, as he gave it to his teammates with an eye on the next pass from there.
That’s a good sign for Cairns, as they lacked playmaking across the board last season and ranked dead last with just 16.5 assists per game. With Machado leading the way at the Blitz they tallied 22 assists against the 36ers and 23 against the NBL1 All-Stars, numbers that would lead the league over the course of a season.
While a two-game sample size can be taken with a grain of salt, this wouldn’t be the first time that Machado has taken a team to new heights offensively. He’s made plenty of stops in his career, but there are two times where he was given the kind of freedom to run the offence that he’ll have in Cairns; his final two college seasons with Iona, and his two most recent years in the G-League with the South Bay Lakers.
As he finished a record-setting career at Iona in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, Machado helped the Gaels to become one of the best offensive teams in the country. He averaged 7.6 assists per game (second in the nation) and, among the NCAA’s 344 Division I schools, Iona ranked second in total assists, 27th in assist percentage and 18th in offensive rating. Both Machado and the Gaels were even better the following year, as he led the country with 9.9 assists per game and his team finished second in total assists, 14th in assist percentage and ninth in offensive rating.
It was a similar story with the G League’s South Bay Lakers, where he led the team to the conference finals in 2018. In that season, he finished fifth in the league in assist while leading a team that ranked inside the top five in assist percentage (fourth) and offensive rating (second). South Bay lost three of their top five scorers the following year, but Machado was again fifth in assists and the team was again fourth in assist percentage.
With Machado running the show, there’s every chance that the impressive numbers from the Blitz are more than just a flash in the pan. It helps that the Taipans have built a roster to suit his skillset, with plenty of athletes that can run in transition for easy baskets.
New import Cameron Oliver showed off his ability to finish above the rim during the preseason, and he will be a consistent lob target for Machado. Rookie Kouat Noi flashed his all-around potential with a double-double against the NBL1, a tidy 10-4-4 line against Adelaide and some serious speed in the open court. Majok Deng also had a double-double in their second game and will provide a handy change of pace from veteran big man Nate Jawai.
When he first joined the Taipans before last season, coach Mike Kelly said he wanted to recruit an up-tempo team; one year later, he looks to have done just that. It showed in the preseason too, as his team finished second at the Blitz in fast break points a year after playing at the slowest pace in the league.
The player set to benefit most from Machado’s presence may be a familiar face - DJ Newbill is primed for a big year. The second-year Taipan struggled with his shot last season, firing at 42% from the field and 33.1% from deep. It was a similar story the previous year with New Zealand, where he shot just 43.8% overall and 35.4% from three.
In both of those seasons, though, Newbill was playing alongside a score-first point guard. Both Edgar Sosa in 2017-18 and Melo Trimble last year led their respective teams in shot attempts, leaving Newbill to fill in the gaps in the offence and occasionally run the second unit. This season will be his first in the NBL with a playmaker as talented as Machado, and his performance in the Blitz against Adelaide showed the best-case outcome for Cairns as he poured in 18 points and hit all but one of his shot attempts.
None of this means that the Taipans are title contenders or even a playoff team—they still lack the overall depth of talent of the title favourites. It does mean that they should be a more competitive outfit than a year ago, though, and they’ll also be one of the most fun offensive teams to watch with Machado pulling the strings and leading the way.