Despite finishing with a league-best 18-10 record and having the league’s MVP, the Sydney Kings fell far short of their lofty expectations during the 2018/19 NBL campaign.
Many, like the great Corey ‘Homicide’ Williams, believe that the Kings simply didn’t show up in the playoffs and were introduced to the fact that this is “NO CUPCAKE LEAGUE!”
However, looking deeper than their impressive 18-10 record, what happened in the playoffs should have been expected. In reality, the Sydney outfit outscored teams by just a point per 100 possessions. That sort of point differential suggests a team hovering just above .500, rather than a realistic title contender of any sort. In a 28-game season, it can be easy for teams to exploit the small sample size at hand and artificially inflate their win percentages.
Sydney’s level of overperformance was genuinely historic. Since the NBL reverted to a 28 game season in 2009, 15 other sides have logged 18 or more wins. Of those squads, only Dean Demopoulos’ 2015/16 Melbourne side (who were also swept aside in the semi-finals) recorded a points differential worse than Gaze’s Sydney, per the Spatial Jam database.
Although they weren’t a truly legitimate title contender, the Kings still had the talent to be one. Andrew Gaze’s squad lacked depth, but with Andrew Bogut, Kevin Lisch, Jerome Randle, and other quality veterans, it’s hard to say that player personnel was the primary issue at hand.
From a team-building perspective, the question then becomes puzzling: How do you improve a team when talent isn’t the issue? The simple answer: You get smarter.
Enter Will Weaver.
Weaver is the exact type of progressive basketball brain the league has been longing for. He sees the game from the same perspective that the very brightest and most forward-thinking NBA minds view it from. There’s a reason why the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets — two franchises at the forefront of basketball innovation — were enamoured with him.
Instead of being concerned with designing highly intricate and complex plays, Weaver prioritises getting his team to play in the most efficient manner possible. After being hired by the Long Island Nets in 2018, Weaver fundamentally changed the team’s play style, completely rejigging the team’s offensive and defensive systems. The biggest change he made was in regards to pace - the Nets jumped from 102.6 possessions per game to a ludicrous 108.5, according to NBA.com. For reference, no team in the NBA registered a pace of 105.
Flying up and down the court enabled Weaver to produce remarkably good looks for his players while defences scrambled. On attack, Weaver’s Nets took 43.84% of their shots at the rim (the most in the G-League) and just 3.72% of their attempts from mid-range (the second-least).
Logic would dictate that playing at this exceedingly high speed would lend itself to giving up the same quality of shots on the other end of the court. Yet, this simply wasn’t the case — Weaver’s Nets instead forced opposing teams into tough mid-range jump shots and post-ups on the other end. Nets opponents in 2018/19 took a minuscule 34.23% of their shot attempts at the rim and an absurd 16.13% of attempts from mid-range. In contrast, the year prior under coach Ronald Nored saw those numbers at 43.08% and 14.32%, respectively.
Weaver’s transformation of the Nets’ strategic outlook allowed for the Nets to see a 7-win boost, the best record in the league, and strong statistical improvement:
Stats via NBA.com
In the modern era of basketball, the way that coaches distribute their shots across court locations is of paramount importance. Over a recent nterview with Liam Santamaria,Weaver emphasised this:
“If our shot quality can improve, our ability to decrease opponent’s open threes and high-value shots will also improve and that will mean it’ll be easier to rebound it, which then will create more unsettled situations for us to get to the rim more. Conversely, if there’s a breakdown in any of those areas we will get the negative end of that cycle.”
With this in mind, Weaver’s focus on the “cyclical nature of the game,'' as he puts it, inevitably lends itself to a careful selection of efficient shot locations. As a result, Weaver’s perspective gives his teams an advantage every time they hit the floor.
Using the Spatial Jam shot machine, in the NBL last campaign, teams scored at a rate of 1.18 points per possession at the rim, 1.08 from three, and just 0.77 from everywhere else on the hardwood. Coaches who don’t do everything they can to ensure their team abides by the laws of shot efficiency would be better served gifting the opposition a 10-point head start every game.
Will Weaver is not one of those coaches. Andrew Gaze, on the other hand, was a different story.
Gaze’s 2018/19 Kings were remarkably inefficient with their shot distribution. Sydney attempted just 69.3% of their shots from the rim or three-point line, the lowest mark in the league (the NBL average was 74.5%). This was especially egregious seeing as the Kings held the league’s best three-point percentage, canning over 38% of their looks from beyond the arc.
Somewhere, Daryl Morey is clawing his eyes out.
Even with this highly questionable offensive strategy, the Kings were still comfortably the third-best team in the league last season. Now, Sydney have the switched-on Weaver in charge of a championship-calibre roster. Kings fans everywhere should be salivating just thinking about the potential the upcoming season possesses.
That potential should be especially high due to the fact the Kings’ front office have catered the roster to Weaver’s basketball philosophy.
Most, including myself, expected the Kings to sign an army of sharpshooting wings to surround Bogut, thus staying consistent with their 4-out lineups from last season. Instead, Sydney went in the other direction, signing rangy athletes who can switch on defence and jack the pace of play up in transition. The new additions of Craig Moller, Kuany Kuany, Didi Louzada, and the freakish Jae’Sean Tate all fit this mould. All four will be given the freedom to nab defensive rebounds and kickstart fast breaks immediately with their blazing speed. Brad Newley has been doing this for years, and will thrive if given the chance to bump the Kings’ pace up a couple of notches.
Last season, the Kings ranked dead last in pace and had to rely heavily upon Bogut to unlock a wilting halfcourt offence. It’s safe to say that they won’t be facing the same issues under Weaver.
Keep an eye out for Tate in particular. As a 6’4’’ power forward who bounces off the screen, he will beat any NBL big man up the floor with considerable ease:
It’s actually difficult to imagine a more ideal player to plug into Weaver’s basketball ideology.
The only other player who might come close is Casper Ware, who was also acquired by the new-look Kings’ front office. Ware is practically an inverse of last season’s version of Jerome Randle and Sydney will be better for it. Under Gaze, Randle constantly dribbled into bad jump shots from inside the three-point line and struggled on defence. Ware, on the other hand, saw over half of his field goal attempts come from three and is an undeniable defensive titan.
Ware will shoot even more threes under the analytically-inclined Weaver and will thrive in a faster-paced system. Ware killing teams with pull up threes in transition after the likes of Tate, Newley, and Louzada push the pace after a defensive stop isn’t hard to imagine at all. The return of the Kevin Lisch we saw with the running-and-gunning Illawarra Hawks could be on the cards as well — the increased pace of play and green light he’ll receive from three-point range should suit him perfectly.
I’ve talked a lot about the Kings’ offence so far, but the defence has the potential to be even more tantalising. As mentioned, Weaver’s Nets expertly coaxed opposition offences away from the rim and three. This was actually one of the areas Gaze got bang-on during the 2018-19 season — just 70.7% of Kings’ opponent attempts came from three or at the rim, which would’ve been the lowest mark in the league had it not been for Dean Vickerman’s wizardry.
To be fair, most of the credit for that impressive mark should go to Bogut, whose presence around the rim caused penetrating guards to regularly cower in fear. Bogut’s rim protection not only scared would-be penetrators away from the basket but enabled Sydney to limit their help defence and stay home on shooters.
The Kings now have the imperious Bogut partnered with a coach who will force an even greater number of inefficient opposition attempts. The possibilities are boundless.
Weaver’s defence will be boosted significantly by the addition of Ware, who forms easily the most fearsome defensive backcourt in the league with Lisch. Those two will terrorise guards together. How does a ball-handler even begin to negotiate a pick-and-roll, with Ware or Lisch chasing them off the three-point line and Bogut scaring them away from the rim?
The backbone of the Kings team last season was their imposing defence, which ranked third in the NBL, per Spatial Jam. The Kings have now extinguished their biggest liabilities on that end of the court (Randle and WILD Kyle Adnam), established the best defensive backcourt in the league, added switchable, rangy wings, and still have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. It's not hyperbole to say that those assets combined with Weaver’s smarts could result in one of the best defences in recent NBL history.
The potential of that defence compounded with a much improved, faster-paced offence with far better shot selection? Yikes.
Ultimately, with a small sample size of 28 games, just about anything can happen in the NBL. However, an 18-10 team being supercharged by the signature of an uber-intelligent, forward-thinking coach seems like a fairly safe bet.
Watch out NBL fans, Kings supporters are about to become a whole lot more insufferable.