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What does Casey Prather's return mean for Melbourne United?
Melbourne United get a lot of stick from NBL fans, due to their status as a club who have more cash than Scrooge McDuck and seemingly sign players for fun. Regardless of how well United play, NBL fans will always point out their immense wealth and the idea that they ‘buy’ wins.
United now have the luxury of easing a three-time championship winner and former All-NBL First Team member like Casey Prather into a squad who have won four straight games - I’m sure anti-Melbourne fanatics are dealing with this well.
Adding a superstar in the meat of his prime to a team firing on all cylinders seems unfair, but that’s exactly what United are getting with Prather's return. While he looked rusty in his opening pair of games, the dominant two-way force we remember from a couple of years ago should be back soon.
One area where Prather will absolutely add value, even if he doesn’t shake off the rust, is in supporting Melbourne’s bench units. Thus far, Dean Vickerman’s regular starting unit — Melo Trimble, Chris Goulding, Mitch McCarron, David Barlow, and Shawn Long — have torn teams to shreds. Per Spatial Jam, that grouping is embarrassing opponents by more than 20 points per 100 possessions.
This raises obvious follow-up questions: United as a whole are only outscoring teams by 4.5 points per 100 possessions, so what on earth is happening when their bench starts getting introduced?
Vickerman has done his best to stagger the minutes of his star foursome (Trimble, Goulding, McCarron, and Long) so that two of them are always sharing the court. Yet, Vickerman’s men are still struggling in those minutes — when two or more of that quartet have rested, United see a net rating of -6.3 points per 100 possessions.
At the very least, Prather adds another good basketball player to the rotation and will help to solve that issue. Prather will allow for Vickerman to utilise three of his five superstars at all times to stabilise units normally cluttered by bench bodies. This type of advantage should be illegal — United might never experience another scoring drought with that sort of talent on the court.
There is no doubt that Prather is going to help United stop the bleeding their bench-laden lineups have encountered. However, it should be noted that this is not what he was brought in to do. He’s not there to make sure that United don’t crumble when a couple of their stars rest, but to actually play with those stars.
Prather is obviously a phenomenal basketball talent with a diverse skill set, but his fit next to Melbourne’s studs, especially Trimble and Long, is questionable. At his core, Prather is a high-usage scorer who does the vast majority of his work inside the arc. Last season, Trimble posted the league’s highest usage rate, and Long was found in the top 10. Prather, on the other hand, across his three year stint, posted a 37.3% usage mark that supersedes even Trimble’s otherworldly figure, per Spatial Jam. This season, Long and Trimble both rank in the top 5 league-wide for usage, despite playing with each other. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there is some significant overlap here.
According to jordanmcnbl.com, Long has been the most frequent post-up player in the NBL by a gigantic margin (he has attempted 30 more post ups than anyone) and the second most frequent pick and roll man in the NBL. Meanwhile, Trimble is the most pick and roll-heavy ball-handler in the league and has isolated the fifth-most amount of times.
This is all to say that Trimble and Long, who have controlled the flow of Vickerman’s top-ranked offence so far, do not have styles which lend themselves to playing with a third high-usage, ball-dominant star. Post ups and pick and rolls have been effective for Trimble and Long to date, but they are play types which exclude others from the action and force them to be floor spacers. McCarron and Goulding have already had to sacrifice playing on-ball, where they are incredibly effective, for the benefit of the team.
Prather’s presence will only serve to truly jam McCarron and Goulding into those roles for good, as he is a reluctant long-range shot-taker. Just 22.7% of his total NBL field goal attempts have come from deep — far below the league average rate, especially for a wing. Any thought of Prather being utilised as some form of spot-up wing shooter should be eliminated immediately. He will, for better or worse, be playing with the ball firmly in his hands.
With Long and Trimble controlling the offence, Melbourne already see spot-up plays make up just 16.9% of their shot attempts — the second-lowest proportion in the NBL. Furthermore, just 3.8% of their shots have come off cuts, which is also the second-lowest mark in the league, per jordanmcnbl.com.
Cuts and spot-up attempts are two of the surest ways of generating efficient offensive looks, but are play types which require quality floor spacing and ball movement. Prather guarantees neither. He will likely increase Melbourne's reliance on isolations, pick and rolls, post ups, and your-turn-my-turn basketball with his high-usage style. Just 46.5% of United’s shots this season have been assisted (good for 8th in the NBL) and that rate will surely only decrease.
Prather, Long, and Trimble are all very good at operating in isolation-heavy roles and are even relatively efficient when doing so. Hell, Melbourne are currently blowing teams out of the water with their first-placed offence playing this way. Melbourne can afford to dabble in an inefficient style of offence because of their sheer, overwhelming talent. Yet, you still get the feeling that this may catch up to United in the long run, especially if the efficiency of this style starts to regress towards the mean.
Additionally, playing Prather more obviously means fewer minutes for Barlow, McCarron, and Goulding, all of whom have allowed Long and Trimble to thrive scoring-wise. That trio is incredibly unselfish and provide the space needed for Long to crush small humans in the post and for Trimble to cook flat-footed perimeter defenders.
It’s easy to praise Trimble and Long, but without Barlow, McCarron, and Goulding making life easier for them, they would be struggling. Take a look at how easily the Perth Wildcats are able to double Long in the post by leaving Tohi Smith-Milner, instead of a guy like David Barlow, wide open:
One only needs to look at Melbourne’s plus-minus numbers to understand that trio’s importance to Vickerman’s offence. According to Spatial Jam's on/off metrics, the offence performs better with Trimble and Long on the court, but it is astronomically more deadly when McCarron, Goulding, and Barlow are out there. Unless we see Prather completely change his outlook on three-point attempt frequency, that spacing is in jeopardy as the current Melbourne starters see their minutes decline with Prather’s return.
While it makes some sort of sense, with these questions around fit, to limit Prather’s minutes, United need him in full force against the likes of Perth and Sydney. United can out-talent most teams, but when it comes to taking on the big dogs, they desperately need Prather to both be back in form and fitting in with the rest of the squad.
Perhaps most importantly, they desperately need a healthy and firing Prather on the defensive end of the court. Melbourne currently rank dead last in defensive rating — they allow a staggering 16.2 points per 100 possessions more than Will Weaver's Kings. In Vickerman’s five previous seasons as an NBL head coach, his teams have ranked first or second in defensive rating four times. Vickerman is a defensive warlock, but even he hasn’t been able to do much with this particular United lineup so far.
Adding Prather will aid them on that end of the floor — he and McCarron make up a fearsome wing duo capable of locking down perimeter threats across the league. Unlike most of the United rotation, Prather is a legitimate two-way threat, which has significant value for Vickerman who has overseen a club incapable of playing at high-level on offence and defence simultaneously.
Prather being a plus-defender helps Melbourne, but he alone won’t take their defence back to where it needs to be. There’s only so much the addition of one wing can do to help a defence. Prather won’t be taking lead ball-handler assignments, nor will he be in charge of preventing attacks on the rim. Trimble has done a better job at taking care of the former in recent weeks (though he still has a long way to go), but Long is struggling with the latter:
Long rarely makes wise decisions when covering pick and rolls, and has never shown an ability to protect the rim effectively without fouling. Opposition squads are hitting 65% of their attempts at the rim (5% above the league average) in large part due to Long’s ineptitude. No matter what Prather does, he won’t be able to solve that issue.
Aside from his defence, Vickerman will be counting on Prather being able to fill in minutes as a small-ball power forward. Prather has never played this role at the NBL level, but Melbourne may need him, given how reliant they are on 36-year old David Barlow. United are 16 points per 100 possessions better with Barlow on the hardwood and are being outscored when he sits, per Spatial Jam. Smith-Milner and Jo Lual-Acuil have struggled to find their niche while playing next to either Alex Pledger or Long.
Prather would be in unfamiliar territory and may struggle to match up with some of the league’s bulkier power forwards (such as the Hulk-like Jae’Sean Tate). Still, Vickerman will likely need to see Prather succeed as an option up front if Melbourne are to avoid the struggles their bench pieces have faced.
This wouldn’t be unforeseen for Vickerman, either, as the foursome of Casper Ware, McCarron, Goulding, and DJ Kennedy played over 180 minutes together last season. Those minutes were uber-successful — Melbourne outscored enemies to the tune of 25.2 points per 100 possessions.
Prather’s skill set isn’t as adept to playing minutes as a small-ball four as Kennedy’s was, but he could easily succeed in the role. As a nominal 4, he would run traditional power forwards off the court. On top of this, his reluctant nature from the three-point line would become a non-issue.
There are of course some problems: United lack the athletic, rangy wings which typically allow for small-ball lineups to succeed and Long’s defensive burden (ugh) would likely grow as big men sniff out mismatches down low.
Still, it’s something Vickerman has to try. At the very least, it’s hard to see these lineups working out any worse than the minutes currently being played without. A Trimble-Goulding-McCarron-Prather-Long fivesome might also be the single most talented five-man lineup anyone has ever fielded in the NBL. It is dripping with potential, and downside, but needs to be explored. Regardless of how these lineups pan out, it’s clear to see that adding a superstar to a team currently flying high doesn’t automatically equal a championship.
Casey Prather is a talent the NBL is lucky to have, but as things stand right now, Melbourne United have a lot more questions than answers, when it comes to his return to action.