How small ball could ignite Melbourne United's return to the NBL Grand Final

With last season's Grand Final loss firmly in the rear view mirror, Melbourne United looked for change, making notable player signings during the offseason. A revamped squad then welcomed back five players from national duties, forming an interesting roster with several intriguing combinations for head coach Dean Vickerman.

Without entirely changing their identity, the new look team holds the potential to go with conventional big man lineups, or shift towards a more dynamic small ball unit which emphasises perimeter defence and attacking play. Melbourne will look to increase their scoring trend by playing undersized this season, allowing for an exciting, dynamic brand of basketball in what promises to be a sensational season of Australian hoops.

Lual-Acuil's addition deepens United's versatility

The acquisition of former Baylor centre Jo Lual-Acuil from the Israeli National League gives Melbourne an additional post option. Lual-Acuil's best work comes at the low block where his strength is enabling second chance points through strong rebounding.

The South Sudanese-Australian 7-footer averaged 16 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3 blocks per 40 minutes of college ball, and returns to the city of Melbourne looking to further develop his skill set by providing valuable bench minutes. The expectation is that head coach Vickerman will look to experiment with his roster; so far in preseason both Lual-Acuil and Long have been seen on court together at the four and five position.

Chatting with The Pick and Roll at the recent NBL Blitz in Tasmania, Lual-Acuil described the influence United's veterans have had on him in since joining the navy and white.

“Looking up to guys like Dave [Barlow], Chris [Goulding], Macca [Mitch McCarron], guys like that are just helping us with the system and helping us get comfortable,” said Lual-Acuil. Although still learning, the versatile Lual-Acuil will look to establish position in the paint and provide Melbourne with an extra option to group with outside players.

After time spent maturing in college, fans will be eager to see how Lual-Acuil applies himself in the NBL. The versatility at both ends of the court are his strengths; his ability to block shots and then run the floor in transition makes Lual-Acuil a dangerous prospect. Filling up the final roster spot with a player who can also guard different positions ––as he told United media in a preseason interview–– enables Melbourne to be flexible with who they place around Lual-Acuil as they attempt to push the game tempo.

United going small

The quality of Melbourne's roster creates intrigue on roles and responsibilities. It also remains to be seen, if limited preseason chemistry will translate to a slow start for the group.

The departures of DJ Kennedy and Casper Ware––two of United’s top three scorers last season––opens the floor for more activity. When predicting minute distribution, expect to see a starting lineup of Trimble, McCarron and Prather with Barlow and Long playing as bigs, something Melbourne displayed in their final game of the NBL preseason Blitz.

Getting the start doesn't always equate to increased minutes, and an early Barlow substitution enables Melbourne to go for speed. With the ability to play Long at the five while retaining a rebounding presence, United can push the pace of play with additional outside guards. While other teams can put small-ball units on the floor, the depth of United's roster gives them more flexibility to play up to three --or even four-- guards.

The extra guard play will come from New Zealander Shea Ili, who can provide shooting and ball movement off the bench. Ili gave United fans a glimpse into his game at the recent FIBA 2019 World Cup, shooting 50% from long-range through five matches. The 26-year-old excelled in his passing game, recording nine assists (tournament high for New Zealand) against Greece in the first round, suggesting he could share point guard minutes with both McCarron and Trimble.

After receiving All-NBL second team honours for their stellar 2017/18 seasons, both Trimble and Long will look to become a dynamic duo, making plays for one another as prolific scorers, defenders and leaders. Adding two-time United champ Casey Prather into the mix creates space for small-ball action with Long playing at centre.

Owning the Mr. Double-Double nickname, Long finished top five in the league last season for scoring, and second in rebounds (9.1) as well as blocks (1.5) per game. The American big even showcased his shooting range, drilling 40% from three-point range. Whether it be Barlow or Long at the centre position, Melbourne can expose other teams by distributing minutes between a smaller five who can all shoot from long-range.

The high energy Long will unequivocally become a fan favourite at Melbourne Arena. He spoke to United’s media team last month about his unique style of play and dunking ability.

“What I’m going to bring this year is a lot of dunks, of course, and just excitement,” Long said after arriving in Melbourne preseason, declaring, “I don’t think you really had that last year. You were all kind of pretty and we’re going to get ugly this year.”

Was China Chris Goulding's breakout defensive party?

Playing small doesn’t always equate to great improvements on the defensive end, but relying on an undersized lineup is a growing possibility for Melbourne after witnessing Goulding's breakout campaign in China.

Vickerman expressed appreciation for Goulding’s contributions while donning the green and gold. “Chris has just been a great punch for that team off the bench and I love how aggressive he’s been, how he’s getting feet in the paint––all critical things.”

Boomers coach Andrej Lemanis rewarded Goulding's efforts on both ends by playing him nearly 18 minutes on average. If the shooting guard can continue his strong defensive form, it'll help United minimise opposition scores, putting the rest of the playing group at ease after watching their leader set the tone.

Goulding's defensive consistency in the World Cup gives Vickerman hope for another option alongside the defensive-minded Mitch McCarron. If all goes to plan, Trimble, McCarron, Ili and Goulding could form a tenacious perimeter roster, and make the dream of a Grand Final reappearance extremely possible. Seeing it all come together will be a talking point throughout the NBL season.

Following the aptly named 'Throwdown' against the newly-formed Phoenix on opening night, United will be seeking valued redemption with the next two games coming against Perth. If a back-to-back against the defending champions isn’t a quality test, United then prepare for when NBA draft prospect RJ Hampton and the Breakers come to town on October 26.

Bringing a sixth championship back to Melbourne is the common goal for the current roster. With extensive options at coach Vickerman's disposal and expectations raised, it seems logical to predict United's return to the finals, and a profound cohesion between the players will give them the best chance of glory.