Sydney Kings season preview: Will shuffling the deck lead to success?

Last season was a disastrous one for the Kings. It was a campaign that featured a lot of losing, a multitude of injuries to key players, a midseason coach-firing, a stadium reshuffle, more losing, and ultimately, a wooden spoon. And we haven’t even touched on the bizzaro brief flirtations with Al Harrington and Damion James!

To round off a tumultuous season, new owners, AEG Ogden, swooped in leading to sweeping changes across the front office, the coaching staff, as well as the usual roster churn.

The Josh Childress-era is well and truly over. And with the powerful AEG Ogden group bankrolling the organisation, the Kings embarked on an extravagant recruitment drive that started from the very top.

Executive mastermind, Jeff Van Groningen, was brought in as Managing Director to steer the ship.

In comes NBL legend, Andrew Gaze, as the new head coach. Gaze is a rookie at this level, but he will be flanked by another Tigers legend, Lanard Copeland, and former championship-winning head coach of the Breakers, Dean Vickerman.

It almost feels as if the Kings are the Bullets — re-joining the league and starting from scratch.

“It does feel like a fairly new franchise right now,” said Vickerman, in agreement.

So how will a revamped franchise perform in what will be a loaded league this year?


Offseason

Key additions: Kevin Lisch, Brad Newley, Aleks Maric, Greg Whittington (Sioux Falls Skyforce), Michael Bryson (UC Santa Barbara)

Key losses: Josh Childress (back to U.S.), Marcus Thornton (Consultinvest Pesaro/Italy), Angus Brandt (Perth Wildcats)

“We’re chipping away, we’re chipping away. We’re trying to make it better week-to-week, and just make good decisions along the way,” Vickerman told The Pick and Roll last week.

Vickerman was actually referring to the new Kings’ offices, but you could have mistaken him for describing how the team will be approaching the on-court integration of a talented roster.

And boy are there a heap of new faces to integrate.

The Kings outbid the competition and stole the league’s reigning MVP, Kevin Lisch, away from the Hawks. They also brought back Brad Newley and Aleks Maric from Europe – current Boomers squad members – to join Kings’ mainstays in Jason Cadee, Tom Garlepp and Julian Khazzouh.

With the roster still incomplete, with two spots left to fill, the Kings have the potential to stock up on even more talent.

So will there be pressure to win in Sydney?

“I think there’s always pressure to deliver on the court when you have the opportunity to buy good talent,” said Vickerman. “We’ve got a reasonable budget this year to put a team together.”


What to expect

It’s the $64 million question.

The Kings have loaded up on high-end talent and have complementary pieces to make it work. But they’ll also be guided by a rookie coach who will be tasked with merging this jigsaw puzzle into a coherent outfit that contends for the title.

What we do know is that this team will run the shuffle offense. It’s an ecosystem that Gaze has grown up with, and brought with him from the Melbourne Tigers.

“There’s a great comfort level with him in his ability to teach it, and his ability to understand it, to the get the best out of the individual talent that we have,” said Vickerman.

At its core, it’s a pass-screen-and-cut system that should unlock looks for an outfit that boasts multi-dimensional players across its roster.

“What [Gaze] has done is add a few more on-ball screens to it,” explained Vickerman. “It’s important that we have the cutting, penetration and post ups. But we also have a good amount of dribble penetration, and that’s some of the parts that Andrew is incorporating now.”

It’s clear that the team is still learning the system, and there will be teething problems along the way. Don’t forget that Gaze was away for portions of the preseason for a scouting trip to the NBA Summer League, and at the Rio Olympics for his commentary duties.

Like all continuity offenses, there are growing pains in the learning process. The system gives the Kings structure, but it’s also up to the players to read-and-react to the defense. Actions will flow on top of another, particularly when teams who scout extensively work hard to deny the initial action, forcing the Kings to implement their counters.

During the preseason, you could almost see the players’ minds ticking away as they laboured through half-court possessions.

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“I think that’s a fair assessment,” said Vickerman. “We don’t know it well enough.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time to understand all the little intricacies of the shuffle – how it operates, and how to read each other – that part is going take a little bit of time. Right now, we’re showing an exciting running game.”

So far, the Kings have certainly looked most comfortable in transition, with their athletes flying down the court, whilst the defense is back-pedalling.

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In the half-court? It’s been a bit of a grind.

Scoring at the NBL level is hard. Teams scout extensively and execute to deny your first, second and even third options. With Gaze implementing a tried-and-tested system, it’s hoped that it will put the players in the best position in which to succeed.

When the Kings are on the same page in the half-court, and the timing is right, the offense flows into read and react situations.

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Notice how every player movement in the above clip is more crisp and purposeful. The initial action involves the standard shuffle alignment, and flows into a Newley curl cut. Casey Prather easily navigates the Maric screen and the moment is lost. But the possession doesn’t die.

Lisch sees Casey Prather shade to hedge the potential Newley screen, rejects it, and goes one-on-one with Jarrod Kenny, and ices the stepback jumper.

“Whenever we got organised, and everyone was on the same page, we got the shots that we wanted,” said Vickerman of the Kings during the preseason. “It’s just about how many times in a game that we’re able to get that organised.”

He's right -- check out the gorgeous execution here.

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The Kings run through their standard fare but wait, there's a difference!

Watch the pace and purpose at which it is executed. Cadee rushes up to meet the Lisch pass, and swings it immediately to the feeder position in Whittington. Lisch makes the first cut, whilst Cadee races to set what appears to be a double screen for Newley as the second cutter. Newley stops at the opposite elbow and sets a screen for Whittington who has swung the ball back to Maric, and acts as the first cutter again. Essentially, the Kings have reset and the action has reversed.

Cadee becomes the feeder from the other side of the court, and both Newley and Maric are about to set a monster screen for Lisch to reenact that second cut. Casey Prather anticipates this and overplays it, already shaping to slide over the Newley screen. Only Lisch reads it and cuts backdoor instead!

This triggers all sorts of crisis help from the Wildcats. Poor Greg Hire, who was already busy motioning for Jameel McKay to track Whittington, senses the Lisch danger and cuts him off to allow Prather to recover, leaving Newley unchecked, who flares to the top of the arc. Prather realises that he needs to switch out to Newley but lurches right into a bone-crunching Maric screen.

Newley cans the wide open triple.

All of that movement left the Wildcats scrambling on defense. When you cycle through enough actions, there's a greater chance that the defense will break down at some point. That's the continuity and on-the-spot counters that the Kings coaching staff will be drilling into their players.

It's also the challenge the Kings face as they approach the start of the season. How far along will the group be when it comes to internalising the system? How often will they replicate that perfect execution?

“[With] the teams that are extremely disruptive up the court, do we have the ability to still flow into the shuffle very smoothly?” asked Vickerman. “Are there other parts of offense that we’re going to have to make some adjustments so that the ball keeps moving quite early and we’re able to attack pressure?”

Annual question marks over the Kings new imports will also persist.

The new regime eschewed big-name recruits this season, instead opting for fit. It’s certainly a smart approach. As a result, they welcome in Greg Whittington from the D-League, and Michael Bryson, straight out of college. The Kings are particularly high on Greg Whittington, a 6’8” combo forward with go-go-gadget arms, and the skillset of a two guard.

Whittington will start at power forward where he will have a mobility and athletic advantage on most nights. The Kings see him as a swingman who can toggle up and down positions, and it’s that versatility that could make him a tough cover on the offensive end.

“We see him as a mismatch at a lot of different positions. His mismatch at the power forward spot right now is his ballhandling ability and his quickness,” said Vickerman. “His ability to get it off the rim and start the break has been outstanding so far.”

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On the flipside, Whittington is rail-thin, and there are concerns that he could be bullied down low by the burlier types in the league. The Kings know this, but were encouraged by what they saw at the preseason Australian Basketball Challenge.

“He’s just got to be a really active defender and try and get around things, and get deflections,” said Vickerman. “If he goes just power to power, the weight and strength of power forwards in this league can get him where they want to get him.”

In Michael Bryson, the Kings have someone they hope will be a defensive linchpin. It’s his defensive disposition that caught the eye of Gaze and co. at the NBA Summer League when Bryson turned out for Phoenix Suns. He’s a 6’4” athletic wing, but his offensive game is still a mystery at this point. He’s also a rookie who’s trying to find his game and fit into the system.

With Jason Cadee having such a strong preseason (is this the year that he breaks out into a star?), Bryson has found himself coming off the bench and even playing some backup point guard minutes within the rotation.

“He’s trying to do the right thing by organizing and running the offense,” said Vickerman. “We haven’t really seen his natural game yet, but again, as you saw in the dunk comp he’s an amazing athlete and we’ve just got to find ways to use it better.”

Finding out how far Bryson can go will be crucial for the Kings, especially with a lack of bench depth courtesy of an incomplete roster, particularly as they navigate the early portion of the regular season. Tom Garlepp will provide a scoring boost off the bench, whilst Craig Moller and Jeromie Hill are hard-workers, but it’s unclear at this stage how the rest of the roster will fill out.

Of course, that could all change when Julian Khazzouh returns from injury.

“The big one there is obviously Julian is missing, and how long it’s going to take for him to get back, and how we cover that position until he’s ready,” conceded Vickerman.

The former Kings starting centre has been out since last December after tearing his quadriceps off the bone. But things are looking promising with news that Khazzouh’s rehabilitation is progressing well.

“He’s not going to be too far away,” said Vickerman.


Outlook

On paper, despite an incomplete roster, the Kings are loaded. In any other year, they would head into the season as title favourites.

They’ve got the reigning league MVP, recruited two other Olympians with complementary skillsets, have an emerging Boomer in Jason Cadee, and a strong supporting cast. And they haven’t even finished recruiting yet!

But that’s also the problem.

Every move you make, whether it’s the signing of a new player, or the re-integration of an injured one, has trickledown effects on the rotation. Players may have to adjust their role slightly. Minutes might get redistributed. Teammates have to adjust to the presence of someone they haven’t played much with. This stuff matters.

“There’s going to be a little feeling out period in this first month,” said Vickerman. “Hopefully we’re good enough to continue to get a few wins while we’re going through this adjustment period.”

That’s what makes the Kings so damn intriguing. We know they’re loaded, but how long will it take for all these new pieces to gel? Will they gel? Who else are they recruiting? How well will they adapt to Gaze’s system? How will Drewy adapt to calling the shots on the sideline?

Most importantly, with a league that is laden with so much talent, can the Kings really afford a slow start in that first month?

Perhaps that’s the real $64 million question.