The Cairns Taipans have made us all look downright silly.
Warm favourites to collect a second consecutive bottom place finish, the Taipans have flipped the script to comfortably double their previous season’s win total, the first team to do so since the NBL 2015/16 season.
Although 2015 was Rob Beveridge’s first season in Wollongong, the Illawarra Hawks' rise were far more predictable. Kevin Lisch and Kirk Penney, who also joined the team, were proven commodities, as was Beveridge, with titles and personal awards as evidence.
Cairns, in comparison, had certainly reshaped their roster but the narrative outside of the club had failed to shift in any meaningful way. There was optimism of being more competitive, but whether that translated significantly to the win-loss column was deemed unlikely.
13 wins and 10 losses later, the Taipans current record is ostensibly more than a best-case scenario, yet here we are with Cairns as the story of the season. How did they do it, and what can we learn?
Rewinding to the end of the 2017/18 season, the Taipans stated that they were “ready for a new chapter”, as Aaron Fearne departed as head coach. One challenge emerging from this move, revolved around the recruiting timeline.
“There were some difficulties with the timings of the appointments [before the 2018/19 season],” explained Cairns assistant coach, Jamie O’Loughlin. “The club needed to continue to move forward while they were identifying who the head coach was going to be. Some things needed to be happening behind the scenes. When [current Taipans coach] Mike [Kelly] was appointed, he had to hit the ground running, and at that point there was no support staff - it was just him and [CEO] Mark [Beecroft]."
O’Loughlin was later re-signed in the role of lead assistant, but in terms of constructing a collaborative recruiting process and having forward planning in place, 2018/19 was a work in progress, compared to what the club was able to do ahead of 2019/20. The additional time was not only beneficial for recruitment, but also allowed the coaching group the opportunity to grow together. O’Loughlin and Kelly’s relationship became stronger under the pressures of a losing season, whilst Brad Hill discovered exactly what went into coaching at the NBL level.
“It was a whole new phase for Brad. He has worked really hard to grow in the coaching space and he’s come a long way in a short time, so we’re reaping the rewards of that,” reflected O’Loughlin.
The club also added intern assistant coach, Lennon Smartt, as well as team manager, Brett Havercroft, who was previously with the Perth Wildcats. Heading into the 2019/20 season, the players were set to be supported by solid infrastructure. With a stronger foundation in place, the club moved forward with building out a roster that would better support their vision and ultimately make them more competitive in 2019/20.
The process wasn’t without its missteps though. Melo Trimble left for Melbourne United. Rob Loe, their best contracted player at the time, requested a release due to personal reasons, and Tom Jervis, a new signing, opted out of his deal to retire.
“We were effectively starting with a clean slate,” recalled O’Loughlin. “It was a good chance for us to sit back and take stock on the players that would be available, dig deep on those guys, and try to work out the players that we wanted, and how they would fit together.”
After taking over from Fearne, a coach whose teams had played in a very deliberate fashion, Kelly spruiked the idea of playing at a higher pace. The transition meant his recruiting timeline was somewhat compromised, resulting in his vision not able to completely align with the playing group that eventually took the court.
“There were limitations around [playing an uptempo style of game] in that first season. It wasn’t necessarily as aggressive in early offence as [Kelly] might have wanted, but with this current group we are able to play with a bit more pace - it suits their skillsets,” said O’Loughlin.
One aspect of the 2018/19 roster that was scrutinised, was the lack of youth in the local contingent of players. Younger bodies could have assisted with a faster style, whilst also offering the club some development pieces to lean on when the wins dried up. The older trio of Alex Loughton, Lucas Walker and Mitch Young departed, as well as Dexter Kernich-Drew and Kuany Kuany - Walker is the only one that remains in the league.
To replace this local group, Cairns opted for six recruits aged in their early to mid-twenties, to go along with a young and athletic import big in Cameron Oliver. This represented a significant shift in the roster dynamic.
“Every club wants to have young players with an upside in there, and hopefully they grow throughout the year to give you an extra boost, but it wasn’t as if we were setting out to recruit a young team either,” said O’Loughlin.
The Australian signings were headlined by Kouat Noi, a ‘three-and-D’ NBA prospect, who elected to bypass his final year of college in the United States. Noi has already shown promise, particularly excelling as a rebounder, and attacking out of handoff actions.
Two other high-minute additions were Mirko Djeric and Majok Deng, players that have allowed the idea of a spread floor to come to life, thanks to their elite three-point shooting. Both have been challenged to improve and take on the most meaningful roles of their career. Aside from Djeric and Deng’s ability to open up the floor, O’Loughlin pointed to the duo’s attitude as stand out attributes.
“[Mirko] wants to get better at attacking in different ways, he wants to get better at defence, and defending different types. He really continues to put the work in, and we’ve seen some steady improvements with him defensively.
“[Majok] runs the floor extremely hard, he crashes hard on the glass, his energy is fantastic, and he definitely helps guys around him by bringing that every game. You can never ever question his passion to play or his competitiveness.”
With the likes of Deng being a positive contributor in increased minutes, Cairns have proven that they are deep enough, even winning six of seven games with Noi sidelined. Wins have not been sacrificed to accommodate the more youthful additions, with the roster benefiting from an increased ability to find quality shots earlier in possessions.
“[Playing uptempo] has definitely been a focus. Playing with pace and space, and then creating opportunities for guys in their areas of strength. We still feel like we can improve and be even more difficult to defend in that first six to eight seconds of clock,” said O’Loughlin.
Cairns are far from a full-on run and gun squad though. Instead, a core strength has been the ability to play both fast and slow, depending on situation or matchup. Much of this ability can be attributed to the poise of veteran point guard, Scott Machado. Coming into the season, Machado’s passing was an obvious strength, but he may have surpassed the expectations of some with his ability to score and defend at a high level.
“[Scott] ticked a lot of boxes because, yes he passes the ball amazingly well and includes his teammates, but he can score the ball himself as we’ve seen,” said O’Loughlin. “He also guards, and I actually think he’s one of the better defenders in the league. I don’t know if he gets much notoriety for that but, certainly internally, we rate his defence extremely highly. He can take it to any of the guards in this league and really make them have to work for whatever they want to get, so he offered us multiple strengths.”
The comparisons between Machado and Trimble came early and were inevitable, especially given their different strengths and playing styles. The Taipans were eager to re-sign Melo back then. How the pieces would have meshed together this season with him on board again, is an interesting thought experiment.
“They’re different," O'Loughlin said. "Melo is an outstanding basketball player and a super talented scorer. We wanted him back. He’s a great kid, he did some great things for us in what was a very difficult situation last year, and the community loved him."
One player who has seemingly benefited from the roster changes the most has been D.J. Newbill, elevating his play to an All-NBL level. “D.J. was certainly one of the first couple of guys to really get in sync with Scott. Scott helped fast track [the group] at the beginning of the preseason, the way he came in and in terms of the way he likes to play. Guys very quickly enjoyed that,” explained O’Loughlin.
With Machado’s pass-first approach and Cairns often playing five three-point shooters to spread the floor, Newbill has thrived. He has more space than he has ever had in the NBL. His bump in efficiency reflects the on-court effectiveness. He is making countless open catch and shoot threes, or alternatively operating as the secondary playmaker with aggressive plays off the bounce to get to the rim.
“The pieces around D.J. have definitely helped so that he can play more of his natural game. The other thing is that last year he had some shoulder problems that just hampered him a bit,” said O’Loughlin. “His season got really handcuffed in the middle part, but this season he came back in good shape. Our strength and conditioning program has seen everyone make significant gains, and he’s been one of those guys to make big strides. I think we can see it with his energy, he’s attacking the rim harder than ever, his mind and body are all on point, and we’re benefiting from that.”
The final member of the import trio that has contributed to each piece fitting together superbly, is Cameron Oliver. At 6’8”, he isn’t the traditional centre, but his combination of strength and athleticism has allowed him to handle minutes at both big man spots with ease.
Oliver is a finisher on offence, someone who spaces the floor, both vertically and horizontally, with his lob-catching and three-point shooting ability. Other bigs have more shot creation responsibility but you would be hard pressed to find many better bigs in the league who can impact offence as he does, when only touching the ball for a second or two each possession. Of course, he does find some post touches throughout games, but for the most part, his teammates create the advantage, and Oliver finishes the play either at the rim or three-point line.
Defensively, Cairns rank second in the league in points allowed per possession. Oliver plays a significant role in that statistic, with his physical tools a luxury that the Taipans did not have in their front court last season. His defence has been inconsistent at times, but the impact has certainly been there and his ceiling is high at age 23.
“Cam is such a dynamic player. He’s got the quickness in his feet to guard on the perimeter, and obviously he has the bounce to be a genuine rim protector and intimidator. His ability to guard multiple positions is huge for us” said O’Loughlin. “He’s continued to get better and better with his communication and he’s really showing that he can help anchor a defence from the back and communicate what’s going on. He’s had some games where I think he’s been way above the mark, and then some other games where he’s been down on how he feels he can play defensively.”
With Oliver’s athleticism, power and three-point shooting, alongside the two-way production of Newbill and Machado, Cairns have found an import trio that legitimately contributes to winning on each end and allows their locals to play suitable roles.
“Those three guys do complement each other, but they’re also complemented by the other players around them. [The locals] are playing important roles and have found a way to work with each other. The group fits together quite well so it makes the game a little bit easier to read,” said O’Loughlin.
Whilst the team’s on-court product needed to improve from last season, the support that the team had received off the floor was already at a high level. The Taipans crowds haven’t suddenly started turning up. Even during the six win season, Cairns were averaging over 4,300 spectators in a 5,345 seat facility, according to austadiums.com. Impressive numbers for their market.
“In terms of support from the board, the sponsors and the fans, that’s actually been exactly the same, which probably speaks to this club and community. We win six games and they’re supporting us as if we’ve won 16,” said O’Loughlin.
The fans from last season may not have been rewarded with many victories, but with the benefit of time, the development of the coaching group’s vision, and the execution of their recruiting strategy, the Taipans have a roster that fits together and is getting results. Suddenly, the club faces the prospect of a home playoff game.
“It’s not like people are jumping on board because we’re winning. We had nothing but support from everyone in the club [last season]. We would love to continue [winning] and keep brining joy to those people because we know they’ve got our back,” said O’Loughlin.