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Year of the Taipan?
The Cairns Taipans have come a long way since their founding days in 1999. Led by head coach Rod Popp and backed by a crowd of 4,407 fans, the Taipans of yesteryear made their debut with a dismal 2-26 season record.
Despite close calls of the team and the league falling apart, something which NBL fans have now become accustomed to; the Snakes have well and truly built the foundations of a successful culture from the bottom up.
Now, the club is sitting on top of the 2014/15 NBL ladder with a 19-7 record with two games to play. Previous club achievements are tumbling over, which means the time has come for all of the years of suffering to be used as guidance in their quest for their latest goal: An NBL championship.
Front page of the Cairns Post 'sport' from this week
With the club making the Grand Final just once in his past 15 years, the 2010/11 runners-up were unable to complete their Cinderella story as they were no match for the dynasty that was to be created by the New Zealand Breakers.
While the story remains a pastime, the current squad can certainly use this knowledge to their advantage. As you may see, the 2010/11 squad isn't quite dissimilar to that of the Taipans players running around today.
How is this team similar to that of the previous Snakes team four years ago you may ask? Well, what shall be questioned, may be answered.
It was called early and often throughout the pre-season that this team just didn't have enough firepower to keep up with the big guns.
Nearly five months later, this team can be declared the deepest team in the league.
Cairns Taipans 2014/15 Team Photo
No roster NEEDS a star player, no volume scorer, no face of the franchise. We've all heard that a champion team will beat a team of champions and that's exactly the persistent culture that head coach Aaron Fearne is preaching in his locker room.
This team is eight, possibly nine players deep (we'll get to those players a little bit later) which means there's no pressure on the starters to play a bucket load of minutes. Foul trouble is no longer a major concern, despite playing in a league that is prone to bouts of trigger-happy foul calls.
Fearne has a bulk of dual position players at hand, which many of you fantasy buffs would love to pick up on and call 'DPPs'. Cameron Gliddon can handle the ball when required, Cameron Tragardh can be called upon to play the four or five when coming off the bench, and the Stephen Weigh/Torrey Craig combination can be played at both forward spots.
Their Finals competitors just don't seem to have the same luxuries.
Adelaide have not been able to play a full team all season, even with the additions of key players half way through the season. Could their fairytale run be cut short just like the Taipans of old?
New Zealand struggles with depth and consistently runs with a rotation of seven in close games. While that seven may be a very good squad, will it be enough come playoffs?
Finally, Perth has been damaged by injuries all season. Injury could prove to be the Achilles heel (no pun intended) that derails their season.
In addition to their depth, each player brings something different to their playing positions.
Scottie Wilbekin possesses a killer transition game. He is also fast becoming one of the NBL's elite point guards, thanks to the multiple ways he can get his teammates involved. Scottie is undoubtedly a true floor general who has a knack of using his vision to complement those around him.
Wilbekin is this year's Ayinde Ubaka from the 2011 Taipans, a season when the American import is led his team from the front. In short, that is what a point guard is supposed to do. With similar scoring figures (Ubaka 13.9ppg; Wilbekin 14.6ppg) both players have led their team in scoring whilst not setting the world on fire. Wilbekin's leadership will be on display in the post-season, just as much as Ubaka put the team on his shoulders during big moments back then.
On the other hand, Shaun Bruce is a high percentage player. Unlike the risk taker Wilbekin is, he would much rather make the pass that has the highest percentage of continuing the offensive possession while minimising turnovers. When the situation is in doubt, he is capable of knocking down in long range shot.
Cameron Gliddon is coach Fearne's 'Mr Fix It'. If there is a gaping hole on defense where the Taipans are being penetrated and are leaking points, or situations when the team can't seem to find any energy on offense, Gliddon is there to fix it all.
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His output might not be rising as fast as what many thought the former Rookie of the Year would show, but his responsibility in this team cannot be undermined.
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Most importantly, Matt Burston can be considered the most consistent player on the roster. A productive rebounder every night, and a capable attacker that can get on the scoreboard early to put pressure on opposing big men, Burston mirrors Snakes center Ian Crosswhite, who provides the Taipans with extra possessions with his hustle on the offensive glass.
The ying and yang combination of Alex Loughton and Cameron Tragardh cannot be forgotten, as Loughton's ability to spread the floor and shoot that impeccable top of the key three pointer is the complete opposite of what his teammate Trigger can bring. A volume shooter once released, Tragardh loves a tussle inside to gain position and uses his sublime footwork to get his defenders off-balance.
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With every successful team must come some sort of flair that creates, builds and maintains that ferocious intensity. View image | gettyimages.com The Taipans hit the jackpot this season when they were able to sign Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin fresh out of college off a blistering NCAA Final Four appearance.
While the jury may still be out regarding some of his off-court antics (see: whatever you call that thing sitting above his cranium), his play on the hardwood is up there with the best of the NBL. It's no wonder he's one of the many contenders to take out this season's Most Valuable Player.
Coach Aaron Fearne was heard talking about his star point guard early on in the season and has continued to spread nothing but positivity throughout the season.
"He is obviously extremely talented, he can defend and he sees the floor and plays like a true point guard...He can make plays when we need them made."
While Wilbekin may have strong words to say on the court, most of his off the court interviews are very relaxed, in an attempt to minimise the hype.
"It's just basketball – it's what I love to do and what I've been doing all my life – it's just in a different country now" - Wilbekin
Looking back at past champions in recent history, James Ennis, Cedric Jackson and even Kevin Lisch all provided that extra energy needed to win elusive titles.
Who said the mid-range game is dead? Cairns have taken 438 attempts from that area throughout the entire season, making up nearly 25% of their shots, a number only just behind possible playoff opponent Adelaide 36ers (451), who of course lead the league in scoring.
Spearheaded by Fearne and the Cairns coaching staff, this select style of play and philosophy has been well and truly cemented into the players' minds. The Taipans have been playing their best basketball with utmost confidence, and have put this excellence on full display throughout the course of the season.
That team mentality dates back to their 2011 days, where four players averaged double figures throughout the season. A statistic that looks awfully familiar to that of the present.
With the multitude of ways the Snakes can put points on the board, this now shies away from needing Stephen Weigh's streaky shooting to get them out of deficits; something on show throughout the second half of last season.
Never forget that Cameron Tragardh is a large part of the team's success, as his good health has meant there are no setbacks from 2013's New Year's Eve season-ending ankle injury.
Recently, Tragardh spoke to Downtown Ball's Liam Santamaria and Tommy Greer (Grizz & Tizz) and talked about how he was enjoying playing the type of basketball the team plays up in Cairns.
“I’ve learnt how to find my spots in the system and Fearney has taught me to calm down and not be so anxious,"
"If you’re not getting shots up it’ll come, and just pick your spots. Finally, I’ve exhaled and taken a big breath, and realised I can contribute in other ways then just scoring.” - Tragardh
It may seem simple, yet it's effective. Here's just a sample of highlights which expose the Cairns Taipans style of play.
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In their 19 victories this season, Cairns have had leads of four points or less in the final four minutes, showing enough poise and determination to grind out win after win.
In addition to that, there were numerous times in those games where the opposing team had in fact made a go-ahead basket to take the lead down the stretch. The Taipans' grit and grind has been on display throughout fourth quarters this season, profiled by their incredible scorelines against Wollongong (17-5 4th quarter), Perth (31-6 & 33-16), New Zealand (19-7) and Sydney (31-8).
Cairns just seem to get the job done no matter the situation at hand, which will go a long way when having to face adversity in the post-season.
Their three fourth quarter comebacks this season further exemplifies that mental toughness. The core of Gliddon, Loughton, Tragardh and Burston have created a locker room culture that coach Aaron Fearne had always preached about through his coaching career.
2015 looks to be the year that the Cairns Taipans have their equation finally right. Having the right coach and culture, surrounded by a healthy and switched-on group of players, hints that it's now or never for the north Queensland outfit.
If the Taipans were to win the NBL championship, it may not be the Cinderella story like it may have been in 2011. However, it certainly will be one hell of a ride for the Cairns faithful. And boy, do they deserve everything they're getting right now!