Strength in Numbers: How the Kings bench are the real reason behind Sydney's success
The Sydney Kings will finish the 2019/20 NBL regular season as the league’s best team. They have posted the league’s best defensive rating (by a comical margin), best net rating, and are the first team in NBL history to hold top spot on the ladder for the entire season. They are a superb basketball team.
Despite their incredible work as a team, much of the narrative around the Kings has been dominated by the idea that they have bought their success. This is no Greek tragedy — the Kings are flush with cash, they aren’t victims and I don’t pity them one bit. But still, the idea that their wealth is the predominant reason why they have been successful this season is overblown.
Their cash has indeed secured a collection of stars that other teams could only dream of having. Between Casper Ware, Andrew Bogut, Jae’Sean Tate, Xavier Cooks, Kevin Lisch, and even Brad Newley, Sydney have as much top-tier talent as any team in NBL history. Without their cash, those stars wouldn’t be there. Those six should make the core of a title contender, regardless of who else is on the roster. It’s only natural to think that Sydney have bought their success.
But that’s where I think that the collective NBL fandom has taken a left turn. The Kings aren’t winning this season solely because of their stars. They’re winning, in large part, due to those ‘regardless of who else is on the roster’ guys. In my estimation, those forgotten players have formed the best bench in the league.
Will Weaver’s bench is so good that he has received stick from commentators for riding his bench for too long during tight contests. Weaver trusts his bench mob so much that only one King (Ware) ranks among the top 25 in minutes per game this season.
With Sydney’s stars carrying huge reputations, you can see why commentators are sceptical. Trusting a bench filled with journeymen like Shaun Bruce and Lucas Walker instead definitely feels strange. In fact, although I picked the Kings to win it all in the preseason, I doubted my analysis due to my lack of trust in their second unit.
The lesson? Never trust what I have to say. As it turns out, Weaver’s bench is positively lethal.
When talking about Sydney’s bench, you have to start by discussing Shaun Bruce and Daniel Kickert. Both are nominated for Sixth Man of the Year but their chances of winning are slim. Neither have received a ton of buzz and they’ll inevitably take votes off each other. On top of this, they don’t have the raw production that guys like Eric Griffin and Jason Cadee have.
To me, Bruce and Kickert deserve to share the award (of course, this goes contrary to the award’s rules, but bear with me). No two bench players positively impact games quite like Bruce and Kickert do every single night. With that pairing on the floor, the Kings have outscored opponents by a frankly absurd 17 points per 100 possessions, with an offensive rating of 124, according to Spatial Jam. With both off the court, Sydney’s offensive rating drops by 11 points and the Kings don’t outscore teams at all. Without Bruce and Kickert, Sydney’s offence crumbles and the team treads water.
For that duo, their success comes down to their incredible fit together. With Kickert playing exclusively at centre, Bruce has all the room in the world to traverse into the lane and unleash his slash and kick game. Bruce has always had excellent vision, but with the extra space Kickert provides him, he ranks eighth league-wide in assist percentage.
With that deadly drive and kick game, Bruce is reciprocating Kickert’s love. As mentioned last month, Kickert is posting one of the most efficient shooting seasons in league history. Per jordanmcnbl.com, Kickert is generating 1.45 points per possession from pick and rolls/pops and 1.49 points off spot-ups. His efficiency in both play types likely wouldn’t be possible without Bruce’s crafty distribution.
Bruce and Kickert’s spotless synergy make them the most potent off the bench combination in the league. They are a huge reason why the Kings’ reserves continue to produce stupendous figures in comparison to their star teammates. For example, per Spatial Jam, with Ware and Bogut sharing the floor, the Kings outscore teams by 5 points per 100 possessions. In the nearly 400 possessions with both of them off the court, the Kings are a ridiculous +20 per 100 possessions. Take that for data.
Or maybe take this for data instead: When Ware, Bogut, Newley, and Tate share the floor (the four Kings who have held their starting lineup positions all season), Sydney blitz teams by 7.4 points per 100 possessions. In the limited time with all four of them off, Weaver’s side have bulldozed enemies by 30 points per 100. Their stars are so good that the Kings would probably still be good with a worse bench. But would they be the regular season buzz saw that they are without guys like Bruce and Kickert?
I’ll let old mate Stephen A. answer that.
While Bruce and Kickert are the cornerstones of Sydney’s second unit, the importance of the rest of their reserves shouldn’t be downplayed. Sydney’s other rotation members have provided steady support all season long.
For instance, take Deshon Taylor. The 23-year old wasn’t able to join the team until the quarter pole and took a while to fully integrate with the rest of the squad. But since about mid-season, Taylor has been an uber-valuable resource off the bench. Despite his subdued counting stats, Taylor’s impact shouldn’t be taken for granted.
He’s not your typical import point guard by any means, but Taylor does a bunch of stuff that contributes to winning basketball. The most obvious asset he has is his swarming on-ball defensive ability. Patrick Beverley comparisons have been hilariously overdone, but he does have that same dogged on-ball toughness. With his ball-hounding skills, he has been able to give Casper Ware needed rest on the defensive end, allowing him to save his energy for clutch shot-making down the stretch.
On offence, Taylor has improved significantly. As an off-ball guard, his early-season struggles from long-range hampered him. But as of late, he has been lava-hot — Taylor has made 20 of his last 33 attempts from downtown and is 11 for 14 over his past four games. His hot stretch has helped to take his three-point shooting clip on the season to 40% and is now one of the league’s most potent threats from deep.
With his improvement, it’s a shame that we likely won’t be seeing Taylor in the Finals due to his replacement player status. However, his exit means the return of Craig Moller, who was doing all the little things prior to his injury troubles.
Even though Moller was ice cold from deep, the Kings were still 7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court, according to Spatial Jam’s on/off figures. Moller has made just 4 of his 25 three-point looks, but through smart cutting, offensive rebounding, and unselfishness, he was still a positive on attack. Through providing lineup versatility, defensive switchability, and an obscene amount of hustle, Moller was a remarkably important piece for Sydney everywhere else too.
Much like Moller, Didi Louzada adds a frightening amount of versatility. Since returning from injury, Louzada has settled into a bench role, allowing him to bring his diverse skill set to an already loaded second unit. Didi does a bit of everything for Weaver — he’s devastating in transition and can torch teams from behind the arc on his night. He’s gotten better at putting the ball on the floor and harnessing his physical tools to abuse defences as well.
On defence, Louzada has been a standout. He fights through every screen and drapes himself all over his assignment. It should come as no surprise that the Kings are a whopping 9.8 points per 100 better defensively with Louzada on the court.
Between Bruce, Kickert, Taylor, Moller, and Didi, the options at Weaver’s disposal are truly insane. No coach would pass that bench up. I have heaped on the praise, but Sydney’s money is obviously still a factor when it comes to their bench play. Because of their cash, they can overpay for a 12th man if they want to. Adding Xavier Cooks purely because you felt like it, says a lot about your financial situation.
While this is a valid argument, it should also be noted that Sydney took a lot of their bench pieces straight off the scrap heap. Taylor was a reject in Adelaide who was cut because Joey Wright believed he needed an upgrade. Shaun Bruce has been on NBL fringes for years and has never found a home — anyone could have signed him. Moller wasn’t exactly the most coveted free agent on the market during the offseason and neither was Lucas Walker. At his age, it’s unclear how many teams would’ve given Kickert to a two-year deal in 2018.
Rather than spending a huge chunk of Paul Smith’s empire on their bench, Sydney took guys that other teams overlooked and turned them into hugely influential pieces. Their over-performance isn’t a result of money. It’s instead predominantly a result of Weaver, who has unlocked their potential using his analytics-friendly approach to coaching.
As I wrote last year, Weaver ensures his team gets the most efficient attempts possible on offence, while making certain that opposition offences don’t get those same shots. Under Weaver, the Kings get 88% of their shot attempts from 3-point range or the rim. On defence, with their drop-back coverage, just 68.5% of opponent shots come from those same zones. Both marks easily top the league in their respective categories.
Their philosophy has enabled role players to flourish. Because of their desired shot profile on offence, Weaver barely plays Bogut and Kickert together. This has allowed the latter to spread the floor as a centre and bomb away as much as he wants. With their drop-back style, Kickert doesn’t defend out in space any more and just patrols the rim instead. No coach should ever let a 6’10’’ 36-year old try to stay in front of a speedy guard — that’s a felony in most states.
With Kickert playing the 5, Bruce has acres of space to penetrate. He has also been given the green light from deep, which most coaches haven’t afforded him. As a result of these changes, his true shooting percentage this year is 13% greater than his career average. Moller and Walker, meanwhile, have been coached out of taking mid-range looks, improving their shot selection.
Taylor has perhaps experienced the biggest boost in Weaver’s system. Under Weaver, Taylor only has to do the things he’s good at — he gets to shoot a ton of threes and hound guys over ball screens to lead them straight into mid-range attempts. His job is that simple and it makes him extremely effective. For my money, he would’ve been worse in Joey’s system, which encourages completely different behaviour.
Without Weaver in charge, it’s unclear if any of their fringe players would be nearly as impactful. His style on both ends has gotten the best out of guys passed over by other clubs. In the case of Bruce, he’s gotten the best out of a guy who could’ve been out of the league entirely.
While their core players carry vast amounts of star power, the case can be made that they aren’t even the primary reason why the Kings are where they are. With a bench that overpowers rivals, Sydney are winning on the fringes. While the Kings’ stars trade punches with other upper-echelon names, Weaver’s bench always seems to deliver the knockout blow.
The discussion about the Kings’ wealth won’t and shouldn’t disappear. If they win the title, NBL Twitter might explode. But before we go on and say that they are buying the title, their work on the fringes should be acknowledged. Their acquisition and development of overlooked players is just as important as the money that they have spent on superstars.