Credit: Russell Freeman Photography
Every year, Zach Lowe and a raft of imitators craft their annual NBA League Pass rankings. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the idea is simple: rank every NBA team from 30 to 1 in terms of watchability.
Today, I’m joining those imitators — welcome to the NBL TV/SBS On Demand/YouTube/Twitch rankings!
To determine each team’s overall watchability, I’ve devised a formula based heavily on the original Lowe/Bill Simmons algorithm. Each team will be graded in the following categories:
Play Style (Out of 15 points): Does the team have an engaging, entertaining style of play? Do they align more with the 2014 San Antonio Spurs or the 2020 Illawarra Hawks?
Player Buzz (10): Star power, intriguing youngsters, and fresh talent make me tune into games, for better or worse. Case in point: LaMelo Ball made me tune in to every one of his games last season, even though the Hawks were close to unwatchable as a team.
Team Relevance (9): Being good matters! If half your team’s games don’t mean anything, your team isn’t particularly watchable.
Highlight Potential (7): Do I switch off in the middle of a blow out, or do I stay glued to my laptop screen in case something freakish happens?
Unintentional Comedy (5): Do I switch off in the middle of a blow out, or do I stay glued to my laptop screen in case I spot something meme-worthy?
Minutiae (5): Does the team enhance or diminish my viewing experience with their uniforms, court design, mascots, and, in the case of the Breakers, their commentary team?
So why the mostly random scoring for each category? The maximum score is 51. What’s the significance of 51? It’s Rob Loe’s old college number, of course! And I love Rob Loe. (And these are my rankings. Sue me.)
Let’s get into it.
9. Adelaide 36ers (34 points)
Without Josh Giddey, the algorithm would have dropped the Sixers from 34 points into the twenties. With him, they’re just two points off seventh.
After watching him in preseason action, I think there’s a case to be made that he’s already the NBL’s second-best passer (behind Scott Machado). His vision, timing, and awareness is legitimately special, especially at age 18.
Passing is admittedly not the sexiest skill to have as a player. Giddey dabbles in other, sexier aspect of the game, too:
But still, it’s his supremely unselfish and dynamic playmaking that will make him one of the NBL’s most watchable stars immediately.
Outside of Giddey, the Sixers have few other bright spots from a watchability standpoint. I view their roster as the weakest in the NBL, an assessment which the oddsmakers appear to agree with (Adelaide opened the season with $26 title odds — easily the league’s longest odds).
Additionally, I’m sceptical that Conner Henry will put together a particular engaging play style. For one, his roster is way too front court dominant. Meanwhile, his coaching history suggests that his team won’t shoot many threes and may instead play a plodding style of ball. We’ll see if he changes his approach, but until proven otherwise, that’s the analysis I’m sticking with.
Adelaide make up for some of that with unintentional comedy. Jack McVeigh’s energy remains unmatched and still gets way too hyped for his own good. There’s a non-zero chance that he self-combusts after collecting an uncontested defensive rebound this season.
Oh yeah, and Henry did this in game one!
8. Sydney Kings (35.5)
I’ll admit that this feels low. But while I was a big fan of last year’s Kings team, they weren’t always fun to watch. Under Will Weaver, the Kings were more analytically-driven than any other team. Their offensive approach revolved around maximising their efficiency every possession, which led to them taking a ton of attempts from deep and at the rim. This is a winning formula, but the Kings’ approach was extremely calculative. It took quite a bit of the art of basketball out of their games.
Their offensive approach led to 13.9% of their possessions ending in isolation, according to jordanmcnbl.com. Not only was that the highest mark in the league, it was nearly 5% higher than the league average. It’s unclear if Adam Forde will stick with Weaver's approach given he’s a first-time head coach. The bet here is that he doesn’t change last season's winning formula all too much given he was Weaver’s right hand man.
To pile on, a lot of the pieces that did make them watchable last season are now gone. Jae’Sean Tate is in Houston, the league's best and prettiest high post passer in Andrew Bogut retired, and so too did Kevin Lisch, who was able to break up stagnant offensive possessions with his veteran guile. Moreover, Xavier Cooks is out for the first couple months of the season. His ability to swallow dudes whole on the defensive end would have boosted the Kings’ total by at least two points by itself.
Outside of those areas of scepticism, the algorithm generally likes the Kings! As a bare minimum they should be squarely in the playoff hunt all season long, and they’ve recruited a load of intriguing young talent. I’m beyond excited to see what Angus Glover, Dejan Vasiljevic, and ex-NBAer Jarrell Martin do in Sydney. Add that young nucleus to Didi Louzada and they’ll likely always have a must-watch youngster on the floor.
They’ve got a smattering of other bonuses, too. Casper Ware heating up is still one of the most exhilarating things the NBL can offer. Commentators will make fun of Brad Newley and Daniel Kickert’s age all the time. Shaun Bruce's smooth and crafty style is supremely easy on the eyes. Craig Moller’s hair is majestic.
7. Brisbane Bullets (36)
The Bullets feel very blah to me. Their uniforms are blah. They’ve got a bunch of good players but no real superstar. Outside of Matt Hodgson’s free throw trips, there isn’t much comedy on offer.
They rise above Sydney and Adelaide for a couple of reasons: I love watching Andrej Lemanis' teams play, and they rate strongly in the highlight potential category.
At their best, Lemanis’ teams play with a kind of unselfish, flowing elegance. They play with precision, plenty of space, and ping the ball around the court effortlessly. During his last 10 seasons in the NBL, Lemanis-coached teams have ranked lower than third in assist percentage just twice — the same amount of times they’ve topped the league in that metric, per Spatial Jam. With the right set of players, a Lemanis team can play as beautifully as any other team.
Crucially, this group of players is absolutely suited to that egalitarian style. Not having an out and out superstar actually works in their favour from this perspective. Instead of relying on one bloke to generate offence, this year's Bullets will have to depend on their movement, passing, and system more than in years past.
Every one of their perimeter threats is at least an OK, willing passer. Among players who averaged over 2 assists, Jason Cadee ranked third in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Nathan Sobey has quietly evolved into one of the best playmakers in the league. Vic Law and Orlando Johnson, in spite of their NBA pedigree, project as solid, unselfish distributors and guys who won’t dominate the ball.
Their X-factor from this perspective is Harry Froling. Joey Wright didn’t let him show it off in Adelaide, but Froling flashes an ability to be a homeless man’s Nikola Jokic at times. With more freedom in a different system, he could thrive as a playmaking big in Brisbane.
If you’re not convinced that Lemanis’ style of play blended with their group of players will translate to a good viewing experience, you should be convinced by the highlight potential of this team. Sobey does five spectacular things every game, and Vic Law can leap out of the gym. Tanner Krebs and Jason Cadee are heat checks waiting to happen. Tamuri Wigness will light up the internet whenever he’s given a chance to showcase himself on the court.
I still think the Bullets are too blah to rank higher than this, but they are certainly more than meets the eye.
6. Melbourne United (37.5)
For Melbourne, I need to start with the minutiae and say this: I should have given them a zero out of five. Their black and white uniforms are boring.
They managed to get a generous boost up to a 3/5 via the great Dean Vickerman. Why? Because Dean Vickerman is in contrast, dapper as hell.
He puts all other coaches to shame.
Vickerman also adds a couple of points in the comedy department — the algorithm loves his angry timeouts!!!
Vickerman excels with his style and at making good teams great, but he struggles to make fun teams really fun. His offence, to me at least (remember: I’m an idiot) has never really popped off the screen. Despite consistently having ultra-potent offensive weapons, I’ve never felt like his stars look as compelling or dynamic as they could be in a different system. The Shawn Long and Melo Trimble experience from last year was a prime example.
This is probably all bluster on my end, but this season will be a good test of that narrative. Melbourne nearly maxed out the player buzz-meter with their signings this offseason and now have as much offensive firepower as anyone.
Between Scotty Hopson and Jock Landale, Melbourne arguably have the league's two most explosive free agency acquisitions. Landale is especially exciting to see after we watched him thrive from a distance for years.
To add to that duo, Melbourne retained Chris Goulding, who is no longer in his prime years, but remains a human flame thrower. Those three stars will fit together effortlessly. Hopson will assume the ball-dominant creator role, Landale will demolish dudes down low, and Goulding is happy to park himself on the perimeter. Add in Mitch McCarron, who is happiest when doing the dirty work, and you’ve got a potential buzzsaw of a team.
The rest of their roster is filled with NBL TV-friendly players, too. Yudai Baba looks like he could be an electrifying force off the pine. Jack White will lead the league in dives for loose balls that are already out of bounds. Catch Shea Ili on the right night and you’ll think he’s the craftiest dribble-driver in the league. Jo Lual-Acuil is 7-foot tall and does stuff that no 7-footer should be able to do.
5. South East Melbourne Phoenix (38)
In some ways, it can be hard to build a team around Mitch Creek. His lack of a reliable jumper as an undersized 4 means he doesn’t fit next to everyone. In response, the Phoenix have kept their team-building plan simple — surround Creek with as much shooting as possible and give him athletes he can run with.
At times, last season’s Phoenix showed the potential of this strategy. Over the first half of the season, South East Melbourne were second-top in pace and had the most efficient offence in the league, per Spatial Jam. Surrounding Creek with shooters gave him the space he needed to pulverise any defensive matchup. Playing fast minimised halfcourt possessions in which Creek’s jump shot would hurt most.
South East Melbourne’s season fell apart when teams were able to slow them down over the back half of the season. Having to cater for Tai Wesley’s old school game once he returned from injury probably didn’t help in this regard.
To stop history from repeating itself, the Phoenix have gone even further with their strategy. If Dane Pineau’s progression is real, everyone on the roster is somewhat of a three-point threat. Meanwhile, everyone, even their bigs can get out and run. New import big Ben Moore is a perfect fit for this pace and space style. Keifer Sykes isn’t the shooter that John Roberson was for the Phoenix, but he adds an elite athlete that should make the Phoenix more dangerous in transition.
Going all-in on this roster construction makes life easier for Creek and is a recipe for greater success and, importantly, even more fun.
Seeing Creek rampage down an open lane possession after possession with shooters around him doesn’t get old. Creek isn’t the best player in the league, but he might be the league’s most watchable one. Nobody plays with his combination of energy, unpredictable herky-jerky moves, and explosiveness. He’s a one-of-one and making it easier to do stuff that only he can do makes my viewing experience all the better.
As an added bonus, Creek’s hair adds one of the best comedy wrinkles in the league. In fact, this entire section could have been about South East Melbourne’s collection of hairdos. They may have lost Terry Armstrong, but they added Reuben Te Rangi (who appears to be channelling Justin Bieber circa-2010) and have kept WILD Kyle Adnam and his surfer look.
I’m still sceptical of this team’s ability to be competitive and stay in the playoff picture all season long. I’m unsure if Keifer Sykes is the elite point guard they need and I don't think their collection of wings is up to scratch.
Still, with Creek and a roster which will maximise his strengths, the Phoenix remain extremely watchable in 2021.
4. New Zealand Breakers (40)
If I was certain the Breakers would play home games in 2021 and that the elite commentary duo of Andrew Mulligan and Casey Frank would be calling said games, the Breakers would rank second. No other team has Mulligan and Frank calling their games, so it's not like the Breakers are losing out too much. But, honestly, it just won’t feel quite like watching Breakers games without the their duo. They add a ridiculous amount to the overall experience.
Seriously, could anyone outside of maybe Mike Breen do a better job with this?
The Breakers still rank this high because of everything else they offer. Dan Shamir’s Euro-style offence adds a point of difference to how the rest of the league operates and is worth watching for that reason alone.
Their new acquisitions demand viewing, too. Lamar Patterson and Tai Webster were two of the biggest signings of the offseason — only United have acquired more overall star power. Even Rasmus Bach is kind of intriguing, even if it’s only because no NBL fan has the faintest idea who he is. Together, those acquisitions have, in most minds, vaulted the Breakers into title contention. As I’ve written previously, I don’t share the same view, but at worst they’ll be sniffing around the playoffs and stay relevant all season long.
Outside of their ring-ins, in Finn Delany and Jarrad Weeks, they’ve got two of the most explosive locals in the league. Delany is arguably the league’s most violent dunker. Weeks is up there too, only he’s 6’0’’ and all of his dunks feel like they’ve got an extra ten layers of difficulty added to them. Not to mention that Tom Abercrombie can still do stuff like this…
None of this discussion takes away from the Breakers’ main attraction, though — the unrivalled hilarity they will bring.
Mody Maor consistently looks like he’s going to murder anyone who misses a defensive rotation. Corey Webster is out for the first couple weeks due to an avocado-induced injury. Rob Loe is criminally underrated, but also remarkably uncoordinated at times.
And this is all assuming that we won’t get to see Matt Walsh nervously stand behind the bench at every home game, screaming at any official that makes a semi-dubious call.
3. The [REDACTED] Hawks (40.5)
If you think you know how competitive this [REDACTED] Hawks team will be, you're lying to yourself. They're easily the NBL's biggest question mark. They’ve got a ton of talent, which kinda-sorta fits together and are led by the greatest coach the league has ever seen, who also hasn’t been in the league for over a decade.
Goorjian is the wildcard for me from both a competitive and watchability standpoint. It’s been 12 years since he was last in the NBL and 6 since he was last a head coach at all. It’s anyone’s guess as to how modern his approach will be. Without knowing how Goorjian translates to the NBL in 2021 and how he will want his team to play, it’s hard to gauge exactly where the Hawks should be placed on these rankings.
Yet, the frankly bonkers upside of this Hawks team outweighs any potential downsides as far as these rankings are concerned. No team has more brand new, fascinating faces. With Deng Adel, Max Darling, Tyler Harvey, Justin Simon, Cam Bairstow, and Justinian Jessup, the Hawks legitimately might be too intriguing for their own good.
Every one of those guys is going to demand eyeballs every game. Deng Adel is an MVP candidate, while Harvey could lead the league in scoring. Justinian Jessup could be the most prolific three-point shooter in the league — he looks like the NBL’s answer to Duncan Robinson. Justin Simon is an elite perimeter defender who has had NBA look-ins. We know what Cam Bairstow can do; no one knows what Max Darling is capable of.
Seriously, that’s legitimately too many interesting newbies for one team. My head’s spinning. There’s no way I’m going to be able to pay attention to anyone on the other team during their games.
Amongst that group of intriguing players lies a ton of highlight potential. I’d bet heavily that a super violent Darling dunk makes ‘Homicide’ call for him to be in the NBA prematurely. Adel, with all of his length, skill, and athleticism, will have at least one jaw-dropping play per game.
The sheer number of newbies even overshadows one of the league’s very best prospects in Sam Froling, who will be looking to build upon his hugely impressive injury-plagued rookie season. If he stays healthy, he should prove himself as one of the NBL’s most skilled bigs at just 20 years of age.
I’m as sceptical of this Hawks team as anyone. My guess is that they’ll finish somewhere between sixth and eighth. But with their unbelievably captivating collection of young talent, nobody can deny that until they’re mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they will be must-watch TV.
2. Perth Wildcats (43)
At first, this feels implausibly high.
The Wildcats haven’t brought in a load of fresh faces like Melbourne, New Zealand, or [REDACTED].
Outside of Bryce Cotton, there’s also not a ton of star power or highlight potential lying within.
But the Wildcats peg those negatives back because they are the most relevant team in the league in 2021. Simply put, no team’s wins and losses will feel as important as Perth’s in 2021. I don’t think they’ll be as good as Melbourne or Cairns, and I actually have them missing the playoffs, but that makes their games mean even more. The 34-year long playoff streak seems like it's in serious, serious jeopardy. Whether they can keep one of the greatest dynasties in sport alive is easily the most engaging storyline of the season.
Mixing all of that with their exquisite offensive system means that nobody should even dare miss a Wildcats game this year. Gleeson’s flex offence is the most gorgeous looking attack in the league. It’s also its most effective, considering the Wildcats finished first in offensive efficiency last season, scoring a whopping 119.7 points per 100 possessions. That mark doesn’t just sound historically good, it was historically good. In fact, it’s the best mark the NBL has seen since 1991, per Spatial Jam.
Perth have less playmakers surrounding Cotton this season than in years past, so I’d expect a slight drop off in 2021. Any dip in efficiency they see this year, though, won’t diminish the experience of watching Gleeson’s men run his beautiful offence with unrivalled precision.
There are a few other bits and bobs which help to push the Wildcats way above the pack in these rankings. For starters, I’m all aboard the Luke Travers hype train. He looks like a genuine long-term NBA prospect already.
As a bonus, their uniforms are elite and, provided they definitely get to play home games, they’ve got the best homecourt advantage in the league. The Jungle always comes across great on TV, especially with the brass section blaring in the background. It’s somehow daunting, magnificent, horrifying, and resplendent all at the same time.
1. Cairns Taipans (44.5)
Last year’s Taipans were off the charts on the entertainment scale and they’ve brought almost the entire band back. That’s without mentioning the addition of Mojave King, one of New Zealand’s (revenge is sweet) most exciting prospects, who is already a must-watch.
The Taipans got close to maxing out every category.
To most observers (including myself), they’re a playoff lock and should be instant contenders. Their minutiae is elite. They’ve got the best colours, uniforms, team name, and stadium nickname in the league (the ‘Snag Pit’!!!).
And then there’s the highlight potential and my goodness, there’s a lot of it. Cam Oliver will probably shatter a backboard this season (followed by someone’s eardrums with his celebration). Scott Machado is a near-certainty to throw at least nine of the ten wildest passes of the season.
With those two stars at the centre of everything they do, the Taipans’ play style is unbelievably easy on the eyes.
On offence they're able to dabble in everything. They’re dominant in transition, with the likes of Oliver, Machado, Deng, and Noi all able to rebound and go. Alternatively, the Scott Machado/Cam Oliver pick and roll is maybe the most unstoppable and entertaining play any team can offer. When they don’t feel like doing that, they can just run Mirko Djeric off screens, let Noi cook, or ask Nate Jawai to pulverise significantly smaller members of (somehow) his own species in the post.
Defensively, they’re arguably just as fun.
When Oliver plays centre, they can capably switch everything and blow up any action. Even without reigning Defensive Player of the Year DJ Newbill, they are littered with versatile, long-limbed athletes who should be able to maintain the Taipans’ defensive status. While Newbill won the award last year, it was Oliver who was the centrepiece of their defence last season. His versatility and freakish athleticism allowed the Taipans to play uber-aggressive defensive schemes without any trouble.
Cairns have got it all. They’re really good, really fun on both ends, and have got star power galore. No self-respecting basketball fan should miss any of their games in 2021.
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