By: Andrew Price / @andrewbprice
We’re about eight and a half weeks into our season down under and it’s starting to heat up, thanks in part to the unbelievable parity of the league, in part to some outstanding individual performances and in part to the summer sun returning to our shores (yes, we play hoops in the summer down here).
It’s seasons like this that stat heads like me struggle with. There is no way of telling which player or team will perform well on any given night. Players like Breakers star Gary Wilkinson go from dropping 28 one night to 8 the next, the lowly Adelaide 36ers take a road trip to beat top ranked Perth after losing by 30 to Sydney the previous week, Cairns import guard Andrew Warren has back to back 21 point games after spending the first quarter of the season struggling to hit double figures.
From a fan’s perspective however, this is bliss. The standings seem to change with every game. Every team has a chance to win on any given night. Any player can step up from relative obscurity to become a hero over the space of a week, and most importantly the championship is still anyone’s for the taking.
The NBL does sport a hard cap structure, with the aim to keep the league competitive across the board and to stop big market teams like Sydney or Melbourne from buying championship rings - but it’s rare for a cap to work this well and create a league where there is no such thing as picking an upset win.
That said, there are a few teams that have begun to separate themselves from the rest of the pack and make a push for the playoffs. The top three teams in the league should be easy picks at the moment; Perth, New Zealand and Gold Coast have all shown that they are the teams to beat – despite many of their wins being all but convincing. In which order these teams fall remains to be seen. It’s the coveted fourth and final playoff berth however, that will turn into a dog fight as the season progresses.
Here’s a look at the teams in contention for that spot:
The Melbourne Tigers, who were early season title favourites have seen the financially inspired departure of NBA point guard Patty Mills to China, which has left glaring weaknesses in the team. Where before their back court offense could make up for their lack of size on defence, now the team look outclassed by any team that has a consistent power forward and/or center – as was seen in their rivalry game against Sydney last week. Still, should the Tigers find a big man to fill their painted area, they’ll be around come end of season.
Small market teams and close rivals the Townsville Crocodiles and Cairns Taipans should be in the conversation, too. Thanks in no small part to their respective imported point guards. Eddie Gill (Townsville) and Jamar Wilson (Cairns) have put these teams on their shoulders and practically carried them kicking and screaming into contention for that final berth. It could be argued that these teams don’t run deep enough to make a serious claim for the title, but neither of these underdog teams nor their staunchly loyal fans have ever let that stop them. In fact, as I write this Cairns have just upset the hottest team in the league (both in terms of form and name) the Gold Coast Blaze with an 87 – 78 win.
The Sydney Kings also have shown signs of getting their season back on track thanks to the burgeoning big-man partnership between superstar center Julian Khazzouh and import power forward (and nephew of Horace Grant) Jerai Grant. The Kings have shown they can out rebound any team, but it appear to be a team struggling for an identity. Their inconsistent offense (worst shooting team in the competition) needs to be addressed before this team can be taken seriously.
But for now, all Grant can do is keep catching alleys and dominating those top plays:
It remains to be seen which of these teams can string together enough wins over the course of the season to steal the playoff spot. If I were to make a call, I’d bet on Melbourne, but this is anyone’s game – and I’d be a fool to bank on it this early.
Whoever gets it, we can guarantee one thing; it’s going to be close.
Andrew Price is the creator of lobpasstoabercrombie.com, where he writes about his love affair with basketball, the NBL and of course, his hometown team New Zealand Breakers. Follow him on Twitter @andrewbprice and read him every week on ELA.