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The Adelaide 36ers are down, but are they out?
After entering the season with championship expectations, the 36ers have fallen flat so far amidst turmoil. Will they find a way to recover?
Credit: Dan Bennett Photography
After four straight years without a finals appearance, the Adelaide 36ers came into NBL23 with high expectations. They opened their chequebook and made a big splash in the offseason, snatching star imports Robert Franks and Antonius Cleveland away from NBL rivals, and luring NBA G League star Craig Randall II down under. With a strong local core already in place, the 36ers suddenly had a team that, on paper at least, could match it with the NBL’s best.
If that spending spree wasn’t already enough to raise Adelaide’s profile, then their preseason performances certainly were. By travelling to the United States and outgunning the Phoenix Suns, becoming the first NBL side to beat an NBA team, the 36ers went from potential contenders to national news. Just like that, the team sat among the title favourites. Randall was an MVP dark horse after dropping 35 points on the Suns, and Corey Williams was shouting from the rooftops that they had the best trio in NBL history.
With more than half of the season now in the books, it’s safe to say things haven’t gone to plan in the City of Churches. The 36ers have stumbled to an 8-8 record and are now sitting in the bottom half of the table, with that record only scratching the surface of their struggles. Their much-vaunted “big three” lasted just seven games, with Randall leaving the club amidst reports of chemistry issues with coaches and teammates. Their replacement import, Sydney championship winner Ian Clark, was only announced late last week. Following a brief resurgence after Randall’s departure, the 36ers slumped once again to lose three straight before steadying to win their last two. With just 12 games left on their schedule, do or die time is fast approaching.
Even in the stretch without either of Randall or Clark, the 36ers still have a wealth of talent on their roster. On the surface, their key players are doing exactly what would have been expected of them. Franks sits in the league’s top ten scorers pouring in 17.3 points per game, star local Mitch McCarron is top five in steals and just outside the top ten in rebounding, and Cleveland has been a defensive disruptor averaging 1.4 steals per game. Add in solid contributions from the likes of Daniel Johnson, Anthony Drmic and Sunday Dech, and nothing on the surface suggests that the team should be struggling.
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Dig a little deeper and the cracks start to appear, even in those stars leading the way. Franks is shooting just 27.3% from three, a drop of almost 12 percentage points from last season; McCarron’s four assists per game is his lowest mark in the three seasons since becoming a full-time point guard; and Cleveland’s overall impact hasn’t been the same as in his dominant season with the Hawks, where he was named to the All-NBL First Team.
Most importantly, things just aren’t meshing for the team as a whole. Their win-loss record alone makes that obvious, and the underlying numbers tell an even more troubling story. With a net rating of -1.7 points per 100 possessions, per Spatial Jam, the 36ers rank eighth in the league, ahead of only the struggling Illawarra Hawks and the dysfunctional Brisbane Bullets.
Of course, prior to the midseason FIBA break, “dysfunctional” could have also described the 36ers, with the presence and then non-presence of Randall making plenty of headlines. The American guard was brought in to be a focal point in Adelaide’s offence, but his ball-dominant style of play on the court combined with his reportedly argumentative nature off it saw the team struggle to find a rhythm.
It’s not hugely surprising, then, that the team has improved offensively in his absence — after sitting seventh in the league in offensive efficiency prior to Randall’s departure, they have been fourth in the time since, per Spatial Jam. Their ball movement has sharpened and their assist rate has risen significantly, led by McCarron with four games of five or more dimes. Even as they have struggled to shoot the ball, making just 29.2% of their threes in that span, that improved offensive flow has been a step in the right direction.
With all preseason plans now out the window, those incremental gains are what head coach CJ Bruton has been chasing. “It’s about where we’re at and chipping away bit by bit, and making sure we prepare the right way for the next game,” Bruton said after his side’s close loss to Perth in round ten.
The addition of Clark —a renowned shot creator and shot maker— should further bolster their offence. A key piece in Sydney’s championship run last season, he averaged 13.9 points per game while knocking down 42.7% of his threes. With the ability to both run the offence and play off the ball, he will be able to slot in alongside McCarron while also easing the load for the Boomers star.
Much more perplexing has been the team’s defence, which was leaky prior to Randall’s exit and has only cracked further in the time since. Ahead of round 11, Adelaide was allowing a whopping 115.7 points per 100 possessions, giving them the dubious distinction of having the league’s worst defensive rating. That number had ballooned even further since the FIBA break to 117.0, per Spatial Jam.
The all-encompassing nature of Adelaide’s defensive problems is even more concerning. They give up the most points per play in transition by a huge margin, according to Jordan McCallum, with fast break play so often an indicator of effort and organisation more than anything else. By the same metric, they also sit in the bottom half of the league defending both isolation (third) and spot-up (fourth) plays, showing their issues on the perimeter both on the ball and away from it.
That has all happened despite a backcourt rotation stacked with talented defenders proven at NBL level. Cleveland was last season’s Damian Martin Trophy winner as the league’s best defensive player, and he joined a pair of perennial DPOY contenders in McCarron and Dech. Most expected that trio to form a three-headed monster that would give opposing guards absolutely no respite; instead, the 36ers have regularly been torched by the league’s top perimeter scorers.
Heading into round 11, the top seven scorers against Adelaide across the season were guards, with the likes of Tahjere McCall, Rayjon Tucker, Josh Magette and Trey Kell III all enjoying big games. The 36ers were also in the top half of all teams in made threes allowed, with opponents hitting almost ten triples per game against them. Given the one-on-one proficiency of Cleveland, McCarron and Dech, it’s a little perplexing that Adelaide has had so much trouble defending on the perimeter.
Making matters even worse, the 36ers have had just as many issues closer to the basket. Opposing teams are shooting 50% in the paint, a mark ten percentage points higher than the league average, per Spatial Jam. It’s a similar story right at the rim, where they’re allowing teams to shoot 60%, again above the league average. That makes some sense when looking at the bigs on their roster — Daniel Johnson has struggled defensively for some time now, Kai Sotto is still learning how to best use his size, and Deng Acuoth is largely untried at NBL level. While Franks, Hyrum Harris and Kyrin Galloway all spend time at the four, they are all combo forwards rather than true “bigs” able to consistently protect the rim.
During their round 11 clash against Brisbane, Adelaide’s efforts on the perimeter were aptly described by Pete Hooley on the NBL broadcast as “matador defence”. While their guards have offered brief moments of resistance, it has been far too easy for opposing teams to beat them off the dribble or with a simple cut and pass. Without the safety net of a shot-altering big behind, those mistakes have been even more glaring and the damage done on the scoreboard has been amplified.
That raised the possibility of Adelaide chasing a big to fill their final import slot, but even before the signing of Clark was announced, Bruton tentatively shut that down. In the immediate weeks following Randall’s release he said that “clearly we need a guard, but I’m open to everything,”; more recently, following his side’s loss to Perth in round ten, he again alluded to that fact. “We’ve got a lot of bigs, and we find it hard putting them on the floor at certain times, and I know that they struggle when they’re coming in or coming out,” he said.
It seemed possible that that stance could have changed given the strong play of Adelaide’s reserve guards. Development player Nick Marshall has continued to blossom, with back-to-back games scoring in double digits highlighting his potential, while veteran wing Anthony Drmic has enjoyed some strong performances. If the 36ers had wanted to change tack and look for a big man to bolster their defence, they surely could have found one — Melbourne United has shown that those players are out there, with their midseason signing Marcus Lee coming in and making an immediate impact as a shot blocker.
Even if that had become the plan for Adelaide, though, it would have likely gone out the window the moment that Clark became available. There have been very few players in the NBL that both possess the skillset and resume of Clark and are willing to step in and play their role. Despite his status as an NBA champion with more than 300 games to his name, he joined the Kings midway through last season and came off the bench with no fuss, playing a vital role in their championship win. He will now step into a similar situation with the 36ers — while he may start games for his new side, their crowded backcourt rotation will likely see every player’s minutes fluctuate at times.
Clark will add more than just depth to that group, too, with his skillset a major point of difference on Adelaide’s roster. The defensive prowess of McCarron, Dech and Cleveland is well documented, and they each have their offensive strengths too — McCarron as a playmaker, Dech as a spot-up shooter, and Cleveland as a slasher. In Clark, they now have a genuine offensive spark, one that is able to find his own shot but still defer to others and play off the ball when needed. In that regard, Franks will no longer need to play a lone hand, and the 36ers would have to hope that he will now be afforded some extra freedom while also forming a lethal inside-out or pick-and-pop combo with Clark.
It will be interesting to see how Bruton handles his rotations with another major piece added in, and whether he can simultaneously correct the team’s defensive issues. The hope will be that, with the roster now complete once again, some added stability will help the cause. It’s hard to imagine the trio of Cleveland, McCarron and Dech continuing to leak points to opposing guards, and while a natural correction to the mean might be an uncertain thing to rely on, it could also be the team’s best hope to at least rise to the middle of the pack.
The bigger challenge for Bruton lies in the frontcourt, with Clark’s signing ruling out any extra reinforcements. Sotto was given an audition for a bigger role in Saturday’s win over Brisbane when Johnson was ruled out through illness, and he performed well to finish with 13 points, eight rebounds and a block. He certainly brings more defensive punch than Johnson, despite his own limitations, so it would be no surprise to see his minutes climb.
Rather than trying to correct their defence around the rim, another option may be to steer into the skid and play smaller. With long athletes like Franks and Galloway, as well as the undersized but physical Harris, the 36ers could look to sacrifice any rim protection and instead scramble and switch like crazy. All of McCarron, Dech and Cleveland can guard multiple positions, and while such a change in scheme would be drastic, it could be the best way to fully utilise Adelaide’s full complement of talent. That plan was given a test drive in Tuesday’s win over Tasmania, and with Franks playing centre for the majority of the fourth quarter, they outscored the JackJumpers 27-16 in the period and forced a handful of turnovers to fuel their offence in transition.
That effort was a huge step in the right direction, with Bruton wanting to see his team get out and run more often. “I like how we push the ball, we do a very good job of that and running off stops,” he said after their round ten clash with South East Melbourne. Any lineup featuring Galloway or Franks at centre would be a terror in transition, assuming, of course, that they could consistently get the stops needed to spark fast breaks. To date, Adelaide has played just 15% of their total possessions without one of Johnson, Sotto or Acuoth on the court, per Spatial Jam’s lineup data. Increasing that number and looking to outgun teams offensively could be one path forward.
There’s no doubt that the instability of Randall’s time with the team and his sudden departure has contributed to Adelaide’s struggles. With do or die time fast approaching, though, the time to use that as an excuse has also just about expired. Clark’s arrival will need to kickstart the team’s last push towards the finals, and while he is undoubtedly a huge addition, the rest of their stars will also need to step up in a big way. Whether they can do so or not will determine if their slow start is remembered as a bizarre blip from a title contender, or the start of one of the league’s biggest seasons of underachievement.