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Why the Brisbane Bullets aren't the scoring machine they can be, yet
After recording a fifth straight win to start his NBL coaching tenure, Sydney Kings coach Will Weaver expressed gratitude in victory towards the Brisbane Bullets, in particular, alluding to their offensive weaponry.
“I think at the end of the day [Brisbane will] be there in the finals. I just feel like they’re still trying to figure stuff out together, but they’ve got a lot of firepower.”
Friendly connection between Weaver and Bullets head coach Andrej Lemanis aside, it’s high praise from someone who continues to get the most out of his squad.
The Brisbane Bullets opened the season with four wins from nine appearances, and currently sit fifth. Despite having a flurry of prolific scorers, the team seems to be limited on the offensive end. Through nine performances, the Bullets have an offensive rating (points per 100 poss.) of 113.9 – ahead of both Illawarra and New Zealand by the smallest of margins, good for seventh place.
There has been an identity crisis, of sorts. Bullets head coach, Andrej Lemanis and his staff avidly recruited versatile wings to help take some of the load off Lamar Patterson – who had the highest usage rate of any player last season– and get him more operating space by generated by perimeter shooters. However, success has been relative, creating question marks over whether this team can fulfil the offensive potential Lemanis likely envisioned.
There are several layers to Brisbane’s struggling start, and it begins and ends with offensive consistency. Boasting several players with strong shooting and skill, this team was assembled in hope of being one of the strongest offences the league should offer. The numbers haven't quite translated. In four of their past five games, the Bullets have posted a below average offensive rating, with an average team score of 83 points. Right now, Brisbane is in no man's land, as a middle-tier team that struggles to pile on consecutive wins.
In contrast to the rest of the competition, Brisbane sit about par for points created from spot up plays, per Jordan McCallum’s play-types. Scoring just 0.95 points from their spot up plays is lower than what was expected from a team with a surplus of volume shooters. All of Patterson, Jason Cadee and Nathan Sobey own a high assist rate, but poor shooting has kept the Bullets out of winnable contests.
The Bullets surely miss Cam Gliddon's deadeye shooting, who made 39% (on nearly seven attempts per game) of his long-range attempts last season, but has seen reduced minutes this season. Reuben Te Rangi shot a lights out 45% from deep last season, but has barely been sighted, averaging just nine minutes in this current outfit. This season, Patterson has made a career-low 25% of his 3PT attempts.
Te Rangi and Gliddon have barely been sighted this year because of the plethora of Brisbane's wing depth. Gliddon has built a career cashing in triples, he's a member of the World Cup squad and one of the best shooters in the country. The 2018/19 Most Improved recipient Te Rangi is another player who has lost his spot in the rotation and inadvertently fallen out of favour following injury, something that's being managed by the team, according to Lemanis. With improved health and increased minutes, Te Rangi, who was an exceptional shooter last season, is a capable and versatile defender that could fill an obvious need. The same applies for Gliddon, whose back issues, when properly managed would improve Brisbane's perimeter shooting.
At the top of the list should be getting Gliddon healthy, and increase his role and output once again. The role Te Rangi plays should be similar, albeit on a smaller level. Vukona helps change the pace of play, even at his age he can bring certain traits to the floor that few can with his physicality, relentlessness and experience, but his days of playing high minutes over the stretch of a season have seemingly passed.
Health management aside, the Bullets right now, lack consistent perimeter shooting. Interestingly, they haven't been pushing offensive pace for quick scoring opportunities either. As seen in Jordan’s play-types, Brisbane are ranked eighth in transition frequency, a strange position for a team with Sobey as the lead guard alongside multiple ball-dominant players. The Bullets use a modern lineup that tends towards playing only one big, with most of the forward play distributed between Patterson, Gliddon and Taylor Braun. Despite the mobility, they haven’t shown any urgency upping the game tempo, and Patterson returning without improving his fitness only adds to the patient, slower than expected offence.
Another source of scoring that hasn't worked out - free throws. As recorded by Spatial Jam, Brisbane is currently second-last in free throw rate, and a part of it is related to Nathan Sobey. After departing Adelaide for the Sunshine Coast, Sobey has been nowhere near as aggressive as he was under the frenetic Joey Wright offence. He seems to have lost the desire to get to the line, electing for difficult long-range attempts in lieu. Sobey was brought to Brisbane to help facilitate alongside the talented Patterson, opening floor space to find spot-up shooters along the perimeter. Outside of last round's Sunshine Stoush, where he finished with a team-high 20 points and seven assists, Sobey hasn’t looked to create his own shot or drive through contact. The 29-year-old attempted 3.9 free throws per game with the 36ers last season. After nine games with Brisbane, Sobey has managed just 2.3 attempts per game from the stripe.
It doesn't look as if Brisbane will go for a quick fix by swapping out an import either, be it upgrading to an athletic four who leans more towards genuine power forward minutes, or bring in an import point guard so Sobey can be shifted to the two position, so they need to focus on utilising their current pieces.
An obvious roster tweak might come in the way of EJ Singler. Fresh off a solid season in the New Zealand NBL with the Hawke's Bay Hawks, Singler has been contributing and making the most of his 17 minutes per game. The American averages a Bullets-high 1.2 steals, and he's poured in more points than fellow import Braun, who has started in each of Brisbane's games. With similar rebounding stats, there's enough reason to increase Singler's minutes while pulling back on Braun's 28 minutes per game.
Overall, it’s far from panic stations for the Bullets. They're close to where they were projected to be on the ladder, even if their results have been somewhat confusing in terms of expectation. Their star import is still averaging a a handy 19 pts, five assists and six rebounds. They’ve only played three games at their new home venue with a 2-1 record, and they'll return to ‘The Armoury’ this Friday night, where they play three of their next four games. So naturally, you'll expect them to improve as they become more familiar with their surroundings.
There’s reason to believe they are still finding rhythm with a bunch of fresh faces, but how much time can they afford to spend experimenting with wing options? Lemanis is normally steadfast about his approach, opting for process over results, looking to build system and culture before everything else. Right now, the Bullets are a long way from being viewed as a championship team, but Lemanis remains bullish about the squad's potential this season.
"I genuinely believe we have the talent and chemistry to win the championship."
It isn't impossible, but the Bullets have to rediscover their secret to success, and unleash the offensive potential that's lying in wait.