The Roar
The Roar


Four genuine title threats will battle out the NBL playoffs

11th February, 2015

The top four for the NBL playoffs is now set with Melbourne United falling in a heap.

With two rounds of the regular season remaining, the Cairns Taipans, New Zealand Breakers, Perth Wildcats and Adelaide 36ers all look capable of winning a championship.

The result is either going to be New Zealand winning a fourth championship in five years, Cairns its first ever, Perth winning back-to-back and a record-extending seventh overall or Adelaide its fifth in total and first since 2002.

Interestingly, with Cairns and New Zealand guaranteed to both take up the first two positions, it will be the first time in NBL history that the top two teams missed the playoffs altogether the previous season.

And it will also be the first time since 1995, and the second time in history, that the two teams who met in last season’s grand final will occupy the third and fourth spots come the end of the next season.

Back in 1995, the North Melbourne Giants and Adelaide finished third and fourth respectively after playing off in the 1994 NBL grand final.

It is rare heading into a finals series where all four teams have every right to lay claim to being a legitimate chance to win the championship.

In recent years, it has been a foregone conclusion that the championship would either be heading to Perth or New Zealand, with the Wildcats winning in 2010 and 2014 and the Breakers in 2011, 2012 and 2013.


Despite the Gold Coast Blaze, Taipans, Townsville Crocodiles, Wollongong Hawks, Sydney Kings, Melbourne Tigers and then the 36ers all taking part in the NBL playoffs in the last five years, none have seriously threatened to dethrone the Breakers or Wildcats.

However, right now it is the Taipans and Sixers who are in the best form a fortnight away from the end of the regular season, with the Breakers seemingly in cruise control with a top two spot secured and the Wildcats only beginning to play close to their best after a horror run in January.

Cairns does look to be in prime position to claim the minor premiership for the first time in franchise history since becoming the North Queensland city’s only professional sporting team.

The Taipans have already won the most games in club history in a season (19) and won the most games on the road (8) and will be looking to continue making their mark by claiming a minor premiership for the first time, and then trying to win a first championship.

Cairns did make a grand final back in 2011 but that was only after New Zealand and Perth played out a semi-final series for the ages, and then the Breakers beat the Taipans in three games largely thanks to home-court advantage.

Aaron Fearne was the coach then as well, but the Taipans have failed to make the playoffs since and some patience and faith has been necessary.

Fearne and the Taipans have done well to build a core group in recent seasons made up of veterans Alex Loughton, Cam Tragardh and Matt Burston while new captain Cameron Gliddon and Stephen Weigh have developed into strong leaders.


By being able to keep that group together, it gave Cairns the chance to recruit the exact type of imports required and that’s where prolific guard Scottie Wilbekin and the exciting Torrey Craig came into play.

With a front court of Burston, Loughton, Tragardh and Mitch Young, three men in Weigh and Craig, and back court featuring Wilbekin, Gliddon and Shaun Bruce, the Taipans have a group that plays well together, complements one another and could very well win a championship.

The Breakers could still finish on top of the NBL ladder, though, if they are able to come through a tough finish to the season over the final two rounds against Adelaide, Perth and Cairns.

New Zealand has suffered surprise losses to Sydney and Townsville the last couple of weeks, but remains on a strong 18-7 record and can’t fall below second position on return to the playoffs after an absence last season.

Cedric Jackson left following the 2013 championship and with Kerron Johnson not quite able to deliver the same as a point guard, and then with import struggles and an unwillingness to adjust to new interpretations from the referees, the Breakers didn’t take part in finals last season.

However, the return of Jackson this campaign has made an immediate difference and he could very well win his second NBL MVP award.

Fellow import Ekene Ibekwe has delivered plenty as a big man and veterans Mika Vukona, Tom Abercrombie and Rhys Carter are playing well with Tai Wesley and Corey Webster putting in some starring performances.


The one question mark over the Breakers is the fitness of starting centre Alex Pledger and they will need him to at least play some role during the playoffs, but assuming that happens there is every chance New Zealand could still make it four championships in five years.

The Wildcats are the defending champions and looking to win a seventh title overall, but only back-to-back for the second time after doing so in 1990 and 1991. It has been quite the mission just to qualify for a 29th straight playoff appearance, however.

Perth had minimal personnel changes following last season’s championship with only a swap of imports with DeAndre Daniels replacing James Ennis. But last season saw them benefit from New Zealand struggling, the competition not being as high from other teams and a lack of injury problems.

The Wildcats had a horror run in January losing five of six games on the back of being with Earnest Ross, Greg Hire and Matt Knight for the most part, and then battling form and a tough road schedule on top of it all.

That had their playoff spot in jeopardy, but the return of Knight, and to a lesser extent Hire, has seen them beat Sydney and Cairns at home the last two weeks to book in a playoff berth. Their trademark stifling defence also made a return to shut down the Taipans last Friday night.

With a team featuring two-time championship winners Damian Martin, Shawn Redhage and Jesse Wagstaff, and then Jermaine Beal, Greg Hire, Matt Knight, Tom Jervis and Drake U’u back from last year, they can’t be written off come playoff time.

Then there is the Adelaide 36ers, who have secured a playoff spot despite having started the season in horror fashion including a seven-game losing streak.


Coming off making last season’s grand final, Adelaide lost Gary Ervin, Daniel Johnson and Rhys Carter, and by the time they lost a seventh straight match against Cairns on December 6, they had just a 3-9 record with playoffs only a far-off dream.

New import guard Jamar Wilson was battling injury, Boomers big man Brock Motum wasn’t settling in after arriving five games into the season and the 36ers looked more like a wooden spoon team than a playoff contender.

However, things soon began to click. Wilson found his feet on return from a second hamstring injury and started to deliver in the big moments, and most importantly Motum has now dominated the NBL over the past two months showing the form that had him narrowly missing an NBA roster spot.

The injury to energetic back-up big man BJ Anthony did look like it might hurt, but the 36ers have now replaced him with the team’s backbone of the last few years in Johnson.

Adelaide have won seven straight matches and have a remarkable squad on paper, with the front court of Motum, Johnson, Luke Schenscher and Anthony Petrie, back court of Wilson, Adam Gibson and Brendan Teys, and swingmen Mitch Creek and Peter Crawford.

That means little if they aren’t playing well together, but without question they are now, and have been for almost two months. The 36ers firstly had to book in a playoff spot, and now that they’ve done that they very well could go all the way.

The most exciting part of any finals series in any sport is having numerous contenders for the title and with Cairns, New Zealand, Perth and Adelaide, that is what the NBL has in 2015.