Six early NBL trends that could define the 2019/20 season
We haven’t reached the halfway point of the season, but some trends are starting to make themselves apparent. Because of the limited sample size, some of these are real, but some are assuredly a sham.
At this point last season, the Sydney Kings were posting an offensive rating of 117 and a defensive rating of 111.5, looking like true title contenders. By season’s end, those numbers dropped to 114 and 113, respectively, and the Kings were swept aside in the semi-finals. In basketball, even stuff that we are certain is real sometimes turns out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
Regardless, here are six of the more interesting trends I’ve observed over the course of the season thus far. Whether these trends are authentic or not could define the season from here on out.
Andrew Bogut’s non-regression
Corey ‘Homicide’ Williams is one of the world’s premier trolls. I should know better than to get riled up by something that he says. Still, this tweet irked me:
Yes, Bogut’s raw production is down:
|Points Per Game||Rebounds Per Game||Assists Per Game||Blocks Per Game|
OK, he’s not averaging a double-double. OK, he’s barely scoring. But, no, he’s not regressing.
Corey, of course, completely forgets to mention that Bogut’s productivity is only down because Will Weaver has toned his minutes down significantly. Weaver is smart — he knows his team is good and he knows post-ups aren’t an efficient way of generating points. Thus, he is saving Bogut’s minutes for when the Kings need him most and isn’t asking the big man to create his own shot at all.
Bogut, under Weaver, has instead gotten even better at the things he’s good at. He leads the league in defensive rebounding percentage by a mile at 34.6% (an increase of over 4% from last year’s league-leading mark) and has upped his assist percentage to a rate greater than the likes of Nathan Sobey and Jerome Randle, according to Spatial Jam. His elite playmaking is a huge reason why the Kings’ offence has remained afloat amidst Casper Ware’s struggles from the field and Kevin Lisch’s injury troubles.
Despite being the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, his impact might even be more pronounced this season. Opponents are converting just 55% of their shot attempts at the rim against the Kings (the league-leading mark), down from 58% a season ago. The Kings’ defence allows 9.7 points per 100 possessions less with Bogut on the court than off.
For reference, when Bogut is off the court, the Kings are posting a defensive rating of 111.9. That figure would rank first in the NBL by nearly five points per 100 possessions. Bogut is making by far the best defensive team in the league 9.7 points per 100 possessions better than they already are.
Let that sink in for a minute.
To Homicide’s credit, Bogut should be regressing. He’s 34, with ton of miles on him. If he starts to fall back down to earth soon, it wouldn’t surprise me. If that happens, the Kings might not be the championship locks everyone rightfully thinks they are. At this point though, a Bogut regression of any substance seems unlikely.
The (relative) struggles of Perth’s core four
Although they were the best team in the league by far last season, the Wildcats were awfully reliant on Terrico White, Damian Martin, Bryce Cotton, and Nick Kay. Per HoopsDB, in the 323 minutes in which those four shared the floor, Perth outscored opponents by 18.3 points per 100 possessions. It didn’t matter who the fifth member of those lineups was, Gleeson just had to deploy the four to get results.
Well, that mark has dropped. Drastically. The Wildcats are now outscoring opponents by just 2.2 points per 100 possessions with those four sharing the court, as shown on Spatial Jam.
That mark is not bad by any means, but it is a worry for Gleeson, who is currently relying on his bench to maintain his team’s elite status. Jesse Wagstaff is playing like a man possessed, Mitch Norton has stepped up, and Clint Steindl is hitting more than enough shots to shift the landscape of Perth’s spacing. When those three share the floor, Perth are crushing teams by nearly 20 points per 100.
That level of play, while amazing, is not something Perth should rely on to win games. It’s a rate that is bound to regress — no team should be that dependent on their bench, especially against the very best clubs.
Instead, Gleeson needs to figure out how to get his core foursome rolling once more.
One potential solution which Gleeson has yet to utilise is using Wagstaff as the fifth member of those lineups somewhat regularly. A Martin-Cotton-White-Wagstaff-Kay lineup is close to unguardable, yet Gleeson has only deployed that five for 11 possessions throughout the entire season, according to Spatial Jam.
Then again, Perth are struggling to corral defensive boards as is — going smaller with a Wagstaff/Kay frontline would surely only hurt them in this regard.
At 8-4, there’s no real reason for Perth to panic just yet, but as we inch closer towards February and March, there’s reason to believe that the Wildcats may not be able to match the league’s other superteams. Doubting the Wildcats, though, has never been a good strategy for any NBL viewer.
Scott Machado’s knockdown shooting
Every indication we received about Scott Machado in the preseason was that he was some sort of Rajon Rondo clone — a wizard of a passer who simply can’t shoot. His Basketball-Reference page shows that in 4 G League seasons, Machado drilled just 32.8% of his threes and got progressively worse over time.
To start the season, teams dared Machado to take above the break triples to take away his slash and kick game. Teams regularly ducked under ball-screens to seal off driving lanes, politely asking Machado to jack one up. Given his history, this is a logical and worthwhile investment for opposing coaches.
The thing is, Machado is currently killing coaches who employ this strategy. The point guard is hoisting up more than 4 bombs per game and is nailing over 40% of them. Only 7 other players (not counting those who are injured) are matching those numbers league-wide. His back-to-back clutch threes against the Hawks showed just how dangerous he is when you go under screens for him:
According to jordanmcnbl.com, Machado is scoring 1.04 points per possession when attempting shots as the ball-handler in pick and roll scenarios. Of the 18 ball-handlers across the league who have attempted more than 25 of these plays, no one scores at a more efficient rate than Machado. This includes John Roberson, who is essentially a human flamethrower from deep. This stat doesn’t even account for Machado’s work as a dime-dropper in the pick and roll.
Speaking of, Machado is already the league’s savviest and most prevalent distributor, but his improved shooting touch opens up so many new avenues for this side of his game. As teams can’t duck under screens without getting regularly burnt, Machado is able to attack defences running downhill when they chase him over screens. When he starts going downhill, with his unrivalled passing ability, he is finding open shooters and the incredible Cam Oliver for easy buckets constantly.
His shooting also means that DJ Newbill has been handling the rock a little more than I thought he would be able to in this offence. Teams can’t sag off Machado when he doesn’t have the ball, which is opening up the same driving lanes that Newbill thrived in when he played next to both Edgar Sosa and Melo Trimble.
I’m sceptical that Machado will keep up his shooting form given what we’ve seen from him in the past, but we’re almost halfway through the season and he hasn’t really dipped at all. Should he continue shooting like this, the good times will roll on for Mike Kelly’s offence — Machado at least being a threat from deep unlocks so many doors for the Taipans. A downturn in form could shut those doors, halt Cairns’ offensive output, and end their top-4 hopes.
How Machado’s shot fares from here could prove to be a solid indicator of the Taipans’ future success.
Brisbane’s superstars are not playing like superstars
If you received your NBL analysis entirely from Shane Heal and Derek Rucker, you’d think that Taylor Braun and EJ Singler have committed grand larceny.
In reality, the former is plugging a number of holes on the defensive end, provides strong secondary playmaking, and rarely fires up bad shots. Braun has one of the highest 3-point attempt rates in the league — once he starts making them consistently, watch out. He’s the exact type of complementary force you’d want next to a pair of ball-dominant stars like Nathan Sobey and Lamar Patterson.
On the other hand, Singler is shooting the lights out — he ranks 7th in true shooting percentage. This, combined with his versatility on the defensive end, has allowed for Brisbane to be 25 points per 100 possessions better with Singler on the floor than off, per Spatial Jam.
Neither are to blame for Brisbane’s slow start.
If you’re going to point the finger squarely at anything, it might be worth first looking at the efficiency of Patterson and Sobey. As I explained in preseason, this entire roster has been constructed with the idea in mind that the two of them are true superstars, who can handle the bulk of shot creation.
Brisbane are incredibly reliant on Sobey and Patterson for creating shots, and have put the type of malleable, complementary pieces around them for the two to succeed. The Bullets offence is filled with shooters who spread the floor for Patterson and Sobey and allow for them to have the requisite space to dominate. Despite being surrounded by these ideal complements on offence, the two have not been nearly as efficient as they should be.
Patterson is struggling with his shot selection — less than two-thirds of his shot attempts have been at the rim or from deep. The ex-NBAer was able to sustain this type of shot selection last season by shooting a ridiculous 52% from mid-range, but just 39% of those looks are dropping this season. Meanwhile, Patterson is drilling less than a quarter of his looks from deep. All of this has helped Patterson’s offensive box plus-minus number slip into the negatives, per Andrew Price.
Sobey’s shot selection has been a lot better, but he’s struggling to finish around the rim. In Adelaide’s frenetic, fast-paced system, Sobey converted 65% of his shots at the basket last year. In Lemanis’ halfcourt attack, that mark has dropped by 11% (to a mark far below the league average), despite taking roughly the same proportion of his shots there.
The Bullets offence has been good when Sobey and Patterson are on the court, but they could take it to a new level if they pick up their efficiency. Brisbane’s offensive rating ranks seventh, but they have the infrastructure in place to allow for their star pairing to lift that rating. Sobey and Patterson are stars — it’s up to them to show us now.
Anthony Drmic, making ‘the leap’
Earlier in the year, I defined ‘the leap’, as “when a legitimately good basketball player puts it all together and evolves into a legitimately great one”. It’s a different discussion to the Most Improved Player conversation, which is awarded to the guy who simply makes the most pronounced improvements in their game from one season to the next.
In that article, I offered up Majok Deng, Finn Delany, and Anthony Drmic as potential leap-makers. So far, it has been Drmic who has made the best case.
Any wing who can make threes and defend at an adequate level is automatically a good, valuable basketball player. Drmic was already doing more than that on both ends last season and has added a bunch more to his game.
In his first three NBL seasons, Drmic was a three-point specialist who took over 55% of his shot attempts from deep, making them at a league-average rate. While this is good, Drmic had very little off-the-dribble game and took just 30% of his shots at the rim, per Spatial Jam.
This year, that has changed drastically. Drmic’s three-point attempt rate is down to 41%, but rather than being replaced by mid-range attempts, he’s now taking a whopping 45% of his shots at the rim. He’s creating these looks, in large part, using his own, newfound slashing ability. Drmic wasn’t operating with this sort of off-the-dribble nous last year:
Adding these sort of moves to his arsenal has made him a diverse, complete scoring threat. Data from jordanmcnbl.com shows that he’s getting his buckets in a wide variety of ways:
|Spot Up||Transition||Pick and Roll||Isolation||Hand Off||Cut|
|Points Per Play||1.1||1.35||1.45||0.9||1.38||1.6|
His increase in proficiency with the ball in his hands has also been displayed by his assist rate this season nearly doubling his rate from his initial three seasons. He’s coupled this with a decrease in his turnover rate, showing that he has evolved into a genuine playmaking threat, which the 36ers desperately need when Jerome Randle is off the court.
Drmic’s evolution from spot-up shooter to secondary initiator capable of creating shots for himself and others has been superb. He was already good, but if his start is no fluke, he could be on the cusp of local stardom.
Daniel Grida: not making the leap
As the driver of the Dan Grida bandwagon, it physically pains me to write this, so I’ll keep this short and sweet.
Grida has plainly not been good this season. His rookie season numbers indicated that he was tracking along the same path many local stars have, but he has been bad through 11 regular season games. Grida remains a defensive plus with his energy and smarts, but his offence has fallen off a cliff. The second-year Hawk has made just 9 of his 48 field goal attempts and has registered more turnovers than assists.
He’s only 21, so there will, of course, be ups and downs. The LaMelo Ball show probably isn’t helping his development, and the departure of Rob Beveridge is likely hindering him. Still, I remain extremely high on Grida’s upside — he still has most of the things you’d want out of a young wing player and his work ethic is something to behold. I’m not close to relinquishing my surplus of Grida stock.
However, if he doesn’t start to show glimpses of last season’s Grida over the second half of the season, it may be time for some of my fellow believers to start worrying.