What's next for the Cairns Taipans?
The Taipans have several key players coming out of contract. How can the team look to improve on what has been another disappointing season?
Credit: May Bailey Photography
It was hard to predict exactly where the Cairns Taipans might sit in the NBL pecking order, ahead of this 2021-22 season. After finishing in last place a year ago, a new head coach and plenty of roster turnover promised a different result, for better or worse.
When that overhaul is broken down to an individual level, it would be easy to assume that the Taipans should be in good stead. Former MVP finalist Scott Machado sits among the league leaders in assists once again. Tahjere McCall is just behind him on that list, and has been a two-way force for long stretches. Stephen Zimmerman is averaging a near-double-double while leading the NBL in rebounding. Bul Kuol and Keanu Pinder have vastly outperformed expectations, with Kuol in the running for Rookie of the Year and Pinder a frontrunner for Most Improved Player.
Almost all of Cairns’ new additions have performed well, and that makes their lack of overall progress this season a little disconcerting. The Taipans struggled once again, their 8-17 record leaving them well outside of the finals race. A net rating of -8.3 ranks them ninth in the league and ahead of only New Zealand, per Spatial Jam, and their offence is comfortably the worst in the competition.
Injuries have certainly played their part, with coach Adam Forde even offering to sacrifice a goat to the basketball gods in the offseason in a bid for better health moving forward. All three imports have missed at least eight games, and key locals Kouat Noi and Mirko Djeric have spent even longer on the sidelines. Late ailments have already confirmed that, at season’s end, the Taipans will not have played a single game this season with a full roster available.
Still, there are plenty of questions now around the best path forward for the club. With several of their key players coming out of contract, who should return and who might be moved on?
All stats correct to April 16.
After three years in the NBL, there is little mystery left around Scott Machado’s game, and his ceiling as a player is clear. He stepped into the league as its best playmaker, averaging a league-high 8 assists per game along with 17.1 points and 1.4 steals. By the end of that debut campaign, he was an MVP runner up and an All-NBL First Team selection.
His impact on the Taipans that season was profound, and it showed what the ceiling could be for a team with Machado at the helm. Predicted by many to finish near the foot of the table, they instead reeled off 16 wins, matching the club’s second-best winning percentage in their history, and narrowly fell to the eventual champions in the semi-finals. While fellow imports DJ Newbill and Cam Oliver were also stars, Machado was the unquestioned leader of a surprise contender.
The Taipans clearly didn’t reach those same heights this season, and there are real concerns around Machado’s ability to return to his best. His numbers dipped slightly last year before nosediving this campaign. With the Tapains confirming that his season is now over, he ends with career-low averages in points (10.2), assists (5.4), field goal percentage (30.3%) and three-point percentage (22.8%).
It seems safe to blame at least some of his struggles on the injuries that have kept him off the court. He managed just one full game before going down early in round two, with an “irritation to the base of his Achilles tendon” keeping him sidelined for two months. COVID-19 interruptions in the Taipans’ schedule meant that only caused him to miss five games, but he was clearly hampered even once back on the court.
Machado has never been an explosive athlete, but movement is still a crucial part of his game. Navigating screens and weaving through traffic becomes much more difficult without the ability to push off quickly. Unable to find separation from defenders, Machado struggled to create good shots for himself and others. It’s why so many Taipans possessions ended with him stuck on the perimeter, with 50% of his total shots this season coming from three and at very low efficiency, per Spatial Jam.
There were signs, however, that Machado was edging back closer to his best self in recent weeks. After hitting double-figure points just three times in his first 12 games, he reeled off five straight such outings, averaging 14.4 points and 7.8 assists per game in that span and finding more success from three (34.4%). Most importantly, the Taipans were 4-1 in those games despite McCall playing in just two of them and Zimmerman in none.
That hot streak was interrupted by yet another setback, a high grade ankle injury that has ruled him out of the final two rounds of the season. It’s no coincidence that the team’s winning streak ended right there too, as they fell in a hole late after his injury against Tasmania and then were blown out by Melbourne two days later.
With Machado’s contract expiring at the end of this season, Cairns are left with two big questions when considering his future. How much stock should they put in his late surge? And is he now too much of an injury risk to invest in?
Plenty of signs point to Machado’s horror season stemming from a lack of match fitness. After all, it’s rare to see a player slip from transformational playmaker to a zero-to-negative contributor by most metrics. He was the lowest-ranked Taipan in both box plus-minus (-4.4) and value over replacement player (-1.1), with both marks placing him in the NBL’s bottom ten players, per Spatial Jam.
That five-game run would have assuaged some concerns around his return to full fitness and form, but his most recent ailment would have only doubled them once again. Only Machado’s medical team could know for sure, but back-to-back lower leg injuries to a player in his 30s is enough to cause concern for outside onlookers.
As the only remaining not-for-profit club in an increasingly cashed up league, the Taipans generally can’t attract star locals with big money contracts. That means they need all three imports to fire in order to push into the finals positions. Machado has proven to be the type of high impact player they need, but any lingering injuries would put them behind the eight ball before next season even starts.
When he signed his last two-year extension, it was as a known quantity and to be the centrepiece of a team that was on the rise. Things are less certain now, and the Taipans would need to be confident in his health and before drawing up another deal.
Both McCall and Zimmerman came to the NBL with reputations as defensive specialists. McCall was a G League All-Defensive Team selection in 2021, a year where his Lakeland Magic won the championship; Zimmerman came into the league with the goal of winning Best Defensive Player after some prolific shot blocking stints in Europe. With Machado running the offence and Kouat Noi expected to take a leap as a scorer, it seemed that they would both settle comfortably into those niches.
Instead, both imports have shown that they are legitimate two-way threats.