What happened and what's next for Melbourne United?
They fell agonisingly short of a play-in berth, but Melbourne United played like a title contender down the stretch. What went wrong in NBL23, and where do they go from here?
Credit: May Bailey Photography
For a team with permanent championship aspirations, the last two seasons have been a major disappointment for Melbourne United. Prior to the 2021-22 campaign, the club had appeared in three of the last four grand final series and claimed two NBL titles while winning almost 70% of their games. Last season looked set to be more of the same when they topped the table with a 20-8 record, but that all came crashing down as they suffered a shock semi-final loss to the upstart Tasmania JackJumpers.
This season was a different beast altogether for United, with a good chunk of their core departing in the offseason. MVP finalist Jo Lual-Acuil left for the riches of China, star guard Matthew Dellavedova sealed a return to the NBA, and fellow Boomers representative Jack White also travelled to the US to chase his dream at the top level. Still, with three new imports signed along with one-time Boomer Isaac Humphries, expectations remained high – in NBL Media’s preseason predictions, nine out of ten experts had Melbourne qualifying for the new-look postseason, with two picking them to win the title.
Instead, they fell even further short than the year prior, missing out on a play-in berth by a minuscule percentage difference to Perth. That they came within a handful of points of the playoffs felt remarkable after a slow start to the season, but in reality, it was a disappointing end for a team with plenty of promise. At their best, Melbourne looked and played like a title contender; that counts for nothing, though, when the team is left sitting at home while the title is being decided.
The energy was high in John Cain Arena as United wrapped up their regular season. A final-day win over Adelaide kept them in contention for the play-in, with a late scoring flurry giving them an extra buffer in the race for sixth while also exciting a sellout crowd. With the tenth victory from their final 13 games, United had capped a remarkable midseason turnaround in impressive fashion.
There was a relaxed feel to the post-game press conference, where head coach Dean Vickerman was upbeat despite the uncertainty around his team’s future. “There’s a lot of people that talked to me and said it’s not about where you’re at right now, it’s about how you get up and how you get your group up, how you respond and how you start believing,” Vickerman said.
Sitting alongside him was American wing Rayjon Tucker, who spoke openly of his love for his teammates and his pride in their late season surge. “I just love how this group, coaches included, staff included, has rallied together and made sacrifices, and just got it done,” Tucker said.
Those flowery sentiments were made redundant just hours later, when the Wildcats squeezed past them and into the play-in tournament by the barest of margins.
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