There are four teams vying for the last spot in the NBL’s top four and they all just happen to be playing one another on Thursday night to open Round 17.
The Perth Wildcats are the NBL champions once again after winning an eighth title among 31 straight finals appearances and as hard as the Cairns Taipans and Illawarra Hawks fought, the exploits of the NBA-calibre Bryce Cotton proved too much.
The Taipans fought hard in the second game of their semi-final series against the Wildcats at Perth Arena after finishing in second position at the end of the regular season.
However, they couldn’t quite get the job done in Perth and that was on the back of a stunning performance in Game 1 in Cairns from Cotton, who delivered what was then his NBL high of 34 points.
Cotton again was good in the opening two games of the grand final series against the Illawarra Hawks, but saved his best for Sunday in a history-making NBL performance.
The 24-year-old former NBA guard who won a Big East championship with Providence in New York showed that he could very well be the best talent to play in the NBL in a long time with a performance for the ages.
Cotton delivered a stunning 45 points on the back of 12 of 17 from the field, seven of 12 from three-point range, and 14 of 15 from the foul line.
It is the best ever performance by a player at Perth Arena and the highest individual score in NBL grand final history. In eight less minutes than what the first 30 years of the league played with no less.
Not only did Cotton prove that he is an NBA-calibre player, but he highlighted just what a difference signing one player of the highest quality can make.
When Cotton arrived in Perth at the start of January, the Wildcats were precariously placed with an 8-9 record and a 31st straight playoff spot was in serious jeopardy.
But he delivered a sign of things to come with 26 points on debut and helped the Cats sneak into the playoffs with a nail-biting win over Melbourne United in the final regular season game.
The difference in what a player the quality Cotton can make against clubs that fight valiantly, but have less money and resources – like the Taipans and Hawks – was then on display in the playoffs.
The Snakes had done a terrific job against the odds to get to the finals and do so in second spot. But they just weren’t ready or able to handle Cotton’s onslaught in Game 1 in Cairns and the series was all but over from there.
Cairns had a team with plenty of warriors and a good talent pool with veterans Mark Worthington, Alex Loughton and Stephen Weigh, those in their prime Nate Jawai, Cam Gliddon, Mitch McCarron and Jarrad Weeks, and handy imports Travis Trice, Nnanna Egwu and Tony Mitchell.
But they didn’t have someone capable of doing what Cotton did.
Then in the grand final, the Hawks too had enough pieces to be a title threat but someone who could match or quell the influence of Cotton was a bridge too far.
Illawarra had the dynamic Rotnei Clarke who hit 30 points in Game 3 while AJ Ogilvy, Oscar Forman, Cody Ellis, Nick Kay, Tim Coenraad, Kevin White, Mitch Norton and Rhys Martin are all strong NBL performers.
Ultimately what they got from imports Clarke, Marvelle Harris and Michael Holyfield didn’t come close to what Cotton, Casey Prather and Jameel McKay gave the Wildcats.
Nor do their pay packets come close to being on par and you get what you pay for in most instances.
If Cotton had been playing in the finals for either the Taipans or Hawks, they likely would have won the championship. That’s how good he is. But neither could afford the Arizona native.
Melbourne could and they got Casper Ware, who if given the chance might have been able to deliver a title. Sydney could as well but they went with Josh Powell, who wasn’t able to ever get to a point of taking over games in the NBL despite his pedigree.
Without signing Cotton, it’s hard to see the Wildcats making the finals at all, let alone winning an eighth championship and going back-to-back for just the second time.
Wildcats coach Trevor Gleeson knows how special a player Cotton is and how the Cats were blessed to get him when they did.
“It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen. He was aggressive and he was quick, he was shooting threes, he was dishing for dunks. That was one of the best performances and I thank goodness he was playing for us and had the red top on,” Gleeson said.
“He carried us to get that offence ticking over because Illawarra played a great game and should be very proud of themselves. But we’re so proud of Bryce to have a game like that and we would love to have him back don’t get me wrong but I don’t think he will be back.”
Cotton received a ten-day contract offer from the Atlanta Hawks back in late January.
He turned that down to stay in Perth and without question he would have increased his NBA value by any scout who looks into his historic grand final performance.
“I think his place is in the NBA. He can be a Patty Mills type player who can come off the bench and energise, and shoot and be another ball handler,” Gleeson said.
“I would be surprised if there isn’t a couple of knocks on the door real soon. Sometimes you can get players that good who are engrossed in themselves but Bryce is the ultimate unselfish guy.
“That unselfishness to say no and want to play out the season with us and not go to the NBA on a 10-day contract, that’s one of the most selfless things that I’ve ever seen. That flowed through the team that if he’s prepared to do that for us, that shows the culture here at the Wildcats.”
Hawks coach Rob Beveridge has every reason to be tremendously proud of the effort of his under-resourced club to make the grand final after knocking off the minor premier Adelaide 36ers.
Ultimately, though, Cotton proved too much for his team to stop.
“We didn’t embarrass ourselves in the grand final and people will always talk about it being a sweep, but in two of those games in particular we were leading and just couldn’t get it done. That comes down to the Wildcats knowing how to win and our players don’t yet,” Beveridge said.
“That performance by Cotton is as good as you will ever, ever see. What an amazing player he is. That was as good as I’ve seen.
“Some of the shots he made, we were defending him with double teams and switching out, and he was making huge shots. He is one of the quickest, most athletic and dynamic players that I’ve gone up against. He is an NBA player right there.”
Sunday, February 26
Game 1: Perth Wildcats 89 beat Illawarra Hawks 77 – Perth Arena
Wednesday, March 1
Game 2: Illawarra Hawks 77 lost to Perth Wildcats 89 – WIN Entertainment Centre
Sunday, March 5
Game 3: Perth Wildcats 95 beat Illawarra Hawks 86 – Perth Arena