If a road team is to win in this NBL grand final series it appears Sunday’s Game 4 is the chance for the Perth Wildcats, but Melbourne United is confident of bouncing back without some of the obstacles they feel come in Perth.
Excitement is growing year on year surrounding the NBL and the anticipation heading into 2017-18 is as high as it’s been in perhaps 25 years with the league continuing to grow and all eight teams looking playoff contenders.
Five years ago, or perhaps as recently as three, the NBL looked in serious trouble of becoming irrelevant and perhaps even struggling to survive especially without making much of an impact in Australia’s three biggest cities Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
But how quickly things change. Under the ownership of Larry Kestelman and management of Jeremy Loeliger, the NBL is right back as a competition and claims of it being the standout summer sport are a realistic goal when two years ago it was an unrealistic fantasy.
The on-court action the last two seasons in the NBL has continued to go from strength to strength, and there’s every reason this season will see more of the same.
Bryce Cotton and Casper Ware will be here for full seasons and there’s star power everywhere you look from locals like Nathan Sobey, Mitch Creek, Damian Martin, Chris Goulding, Kevin Lisch, Brad Newley, Daniel Kickert, AJ Ogilvy, David Andersen, Tom Abercrombie and Kirk Penney to imports Travis Trice, Dayshon Smith, Rotnei Clarke, Casey Prather, Josh Boone, Edgar Sosa and Perry Ellis.
Add in that crowd numbers have risen rapidly with Perth and Melbourne leading the way, but Sydney getting behind its Andrew Gaze-coached team while Brisbane will return in force when they see this Bullets team while Adelaide, Illawarra and Auckland are behind their clubs.
Topping that off with the continued support of Fox Sports televising every game live and SBS now showing two games per week, and the increased overall media exposure and public interest, and the 2017-18 season shapes as a beauty.
It’s hard to look past the Wildcats as favourites for a three-peat but Melbourne United will be better coached and are stacked to be a real contender. But don’t sleep on the Adelaide 36ers who will be motivated by last year’s exit with a team led by the best Australian contingent.
The Illawarra Hawks are again capable of being a contender, the Sydney Kings will look to maintain for a full season what they did last year for half a season while the Breakers and Bullets could comfortably end up making playoffs.
Last season’s finish: 17-11, Losing semi finalist
Predicted 2017-18 finish: Third
Season opener: Thursday October 5 v Melbourne United at Titanium Security Arena
Coach: Joey Wright
Roster: Mitch Creek, Majok Deng, Adam Doyle, Anthony Drmic, Matt Hodgson, Daniel Johnson, Ramone Moore, Ronald Roberts Jr, Shannon Shorter, Nathan Sobey, Brendan Teys
Arrivals: Ramone Moore, Ronald Roberts Jr, Shannon Shorter
Departures: Terrance Ferguson, Eric Jacobsen, Jerome Randle
Snapshot: The 36ers were the standout team for most of the 2016/17 season but they were bitterly disappointed with losing to the Hawks in the semi finals.
That has left a sour taste in their mouths over the off-season and even though they have lost reigning league MVP Jerome Randle, most of the rest of the group is back again and they might even be a stronger all-round team.
Randle was a remarkable individual player. But there was a number of times particularly in that semi-final series where he went one-on-one and left his teammates out in the cold. As good as he was, his teammates might shine with more time with the ball in hand without him.
The obvious two there are Nathan Sobey and Mitch Creek. They could be unstoppable this season. Add in big men Daniel Johnson and Matt Hodgson with help from Majok Deng, Anthony Drmic, Brendan Teys and Adam Doyle, and that’s the best Australian group in the league.
The imports are now icing on the cake for the Sixers rather than relied upon like Randle. Point guard Shannon Shorter, swingman Ramone Moore and big Ronald Roberts Jr will be there to help the Australian talent, not take over from them.
With the motivation of last season and with Sobey, Creek and Hodgson given the license that this is their team, Adelaide will surely be a genuine championship threat.
Last season’s finish: 10-18, Last
Predicted 2017-18 finish: Eighth
Season opener: Saturday October 7 v Perth Wildcats at Perth Arena
Coach: Andrej Lemanis
Roster: Shaun Bruce, Perrin Buford, Adam Gibson, Stephen Holt, Tom Jervis, Matt Kenyon, Daniel Kickert, Anthony Petrie, Reuben Te Rangi, Travis Trice, Mitch Young
Arrivals: Perrin Buford, Stephen Holt, Travis Trice
Departures: Cameron Bairstow, Torrey Craig, Jeremy Kendle, Isaih Tueta
Snapshot: Their return to the NBL last season might have ended up with a wooden spoon finish, but that doesn’t tell the tale of how the Bullets were looking before the injury curse struck.
They were right in the mix for top spot at the halfway mark but lost veterans Anthony Petrie and Adam Gibson for the season, import Jermaine Beal didn’t work out and was replaced, and Cam Bairstow never really got going due to his body.
That’s why coach Andrej Lemanis has largely backed in a similar squad this season to give it another crack but there is every chance of a slow start with Tom Jervis dealing with an injured finger, Shaun Bruce a sore ankle and Mitch Young being struck down by glandular fever.
The arrival of Stephen Holt and Travis Trice give the Bullets the potential as the league’s best back court with Gibson’s return and once Bruce is up and running.
Perrin Buford was a late signing to replace the NBA-bound Torrey Craig so he has big shoes to fill, but if he can become an all-round contributor at both ends of the floor then Brisbane will be happy.
The injury troubles early days are going to make it tough, but with Gibson and Petrie like new recruits and Holt, Trice and Buford looking good and with Daniel Kickert back again, it’s a good-looking squad.
The hard part for the Bullets is to stay afloat in the early part of the season because with the league so even, it’s not easy to play catch up. But if they avoid too many early losses, they will be every chance to make a big run for the playoffs in the second half of the season and perhaps emerge as a contender.
Last season’s finish: 15-13, Losing semi finalist
Predicted 2017-18 finish: Fifth
Season opener: Friday October 6 v Illawarra Hawks at Cairns Convention Centre
Coach: Aaron Fearne
Roster: Michael Carrera, Nnanna Egwu, Cameron Gliddon, Damon Heuir, Nate Jawai, Kuany Kuany, Alex Loughton, Mitch McCarron, Dayshon Smith, Jarrad Weeks, Stephen Weigh
Arrivals: Michael Carrera, Kuany Kuany, Dayshon Smith
Departures: Fuquan Edwin, Tony Mitchell, Travis Trice, Mark Worthington
Snapshot: The Aaron Fearne-coached Taipans continue to buck the odds to remain a force in the NBL despite not having anywhere near the money to spend on players and resources as some of their rivals do.
They did another tremendous job to make the playoffs last season before being steamrolled by Bryce Cotton and the Perth Wildcats. But they likely matched up better on the two teams in the other semi-final series where a grand final berth wouldn’t have been out of the question.
That meant there was little reason for much change to happen with the Snakes and the retirement of Mark Worthington is offset with the retention of veterans Alex Loughton and Stephen Weigh who will be able to step up further both in minutes and leadership.
It’s then really only a swap in imports and while Dayshon Smith has a lot to live up to so he can match what Travis Trice did last season, the Taipans can expect much more than they got in the three-man spot last season with the signing of Michael Carrera.
If Carrera can deliver and if Smith can match Trice’s production, there’s no reason why the Snakes won’t be around the mark with Cameron Gliddon, Mitch McCarron and Jarrad Weeks in the back court, and Nate Jawai, Nnanna Egwu and Loughton up front.
Last season’s finish: 15-13, Losing grand finalists
Predicted 2017-18 finish: Fourth
Season opener: Friday October 6 v Cairns Taipans at Cairns Convention Centre
Coach: Rob Beveridge
Roster: Rotnei Clarke, Tim Coenraad, Demitrius Conger, Cody Ellis, Oscar Forman, Delvon Johnson, Nick Kay, Rhys Martin, Mitch Norton, AJ Ogilvy, Kevin White
Arrivals: Demitrius Conger, Delvon Johnson
Departures: Marvel Harris, Michael Holyfield
Snapshot: Rob Beveridge enhanced his reputation as one of the great NBL coaches last season by taking the Illawarra Hawks to the grand final despite not having the natural talent in his squad or the resources of clubs he got there ahead of.
A lot can be said for putting great belief and confidence into your players, creating a team culture where everyone will do everything possible to win and to help their teammates, and sometimes that can overcome clubs with bigger budgets and more talent.
While the Hawks didn’t get the job done in the grand final against the Wildcats, being there was a great achievement although that’s not the way they would be feeling themselves.
The pain of losing a grand final does stick with you and the returning group will be looking to use that as added motivation to get another crack at it.
The Hawks achieved what they did last season on the back of probably one and-a-half imports. Rotnei Clarke was terrific but Marvelle Harris was hit and miss, and Michael Holyfield basically offered nothing.
That’s where the natural improvement can come this season. Clarke is back again and then Demitrius Conger and Delvon Johnson look significantly better than the two men they are replacing.
If that proves the case and then Nick Kay and Mitch Norton continue their upward curves, AJ Ogilvy is a force inside and the experienced Kevin White, Tim Coenraad, Oscar Forman, Rhys Martin and Cody Ellis keep delivering, don’t be surprised for Illawarra to be a real threat once again.
Last season’s finish: 13-15, Fifth
Predicted 2017-18 finish: Second
Season opener: Thursday October 5 v Adelaide 36ers at Titanium Security Arena
Coach: Dean Vickerman
Roster: Kyle Adnan, David Andersen, David Barlow, Josh Boone, Chris Goulding, Peter Hooley, Majok Majok, Craig Moller, Casey Prather, Casper Ware Jr, Tai Wesley
Arrivals: Peter Hooley, Craig Moller, Casey Prather
Departures: Todd Blanchfield, Igor Hadziomerovic, Owen Odigie, Nate Tomlinson
Snapshot: This could be finally the year where it all comes together and they go from the most talented group of individuals who underperform to finally putting it together to be a genuine championship threat.
For several seasons now, Melbourne has likely been the most talented group in the NBL. That has ended up with precious little aside from a minor premiership two seasons ago before being beaten by the New Zealand Breakers in two games in the semi finals.
Again last season they promised the world and ended up missing the playoffs.
There’s every chance a lot of that has been because they haven’t been well coached the past two years. That’s not necessarily the fault of Dean Demopoulos, he just had no background in Australian basketball and didn’t quite fully grasp what it was all about and how to get the best out of his group.
That excuse is gone and being well-coached is likely a given this season with the arrival of Dean Vickerman. He was a long-time assistant at the Breakers and then took them to a championship before becoming the brains behind the Andrew Gaze, Lanard Copeland Sydney Kings.
If any coach is capable of pulling together a great group of talent to produce as a team then it’s Vickerman.
Having talent to work with is hardly going to be a problem. Casper Ware has signed on and based on what he did for half a season, he will be an MVP candidate but so should be Chris Goulding and Casey Prather who arrives from the Perth Wildcats in the biggest off-season move.
David Andersen and David Barlow should both have better impact than they did last season, and a front court of Josh Boone, Majok Majok and Tai Wesley combined with Andersen looks phenomenal.
Craig Moller can play an important role too even if at times minutes will be hard to come by and the same for Peter Hooley and Kyle Adnan.
If we are going by pure talent and depth, then this Melbourne team doesn’t lose a game and cruises to the championship. Nothing is ever that easy, but what is for sure is that the time for excuses is over and it’s time they deliver.
New Zealand Breakers
Last season’s finish: 14-14, Fifth
Predicted 2017-18 finish: Seventh
Season opener: Sunday October 8 v Cairns Taipans at Spark Arena
Coach: Paul Henare
Roster: Tom Abercrombie, Finn Delany, Shea Ili, James Hunter, Rob Loe, DJ Newbill, Jordan Ngatai, Kirk Penney, Alex Pledger, Edgar Sosa, Mika Vukona
Arrivals: James Hunter, DJ Newbill, Edgar Sosa
Departures: Paul Carter, Kevin Dillard, Akil Mitchell, Corey Webster
Snapshot: Last season saw just about everything that could go wrong, go wrong for the Breakers in Paul Henare’s first season in charge as coach.
Their back court was never settled starting with the loss of import Ben Woodside who was firstly replaced by David Stockton and ultimately Kevin Dillard while Corey Webster didn’t see out the season, and the arrival of Paul Carter didn’t have the impact they hoped.
A Tom Abercrombie injury didn’t help either, but still the Breakers only narrowly missed out on reaching the playoffs and they sure could have made a big impact if they got there.
They still weren’t far off the mark so coming into 2017-18 and with a bit of a better run then Henare has plenty of reason for optimism for this Breakers team.
There are a lot of unknown quantities though. There’s no reason to suggest that Abercrombie, Kirk Penney, Alex Pledger and Mika Vukona can’t keep performing at a high level.
More opportunities to Finn Delany could prove fruitful while Rob Loe and Shea Ili have growth in them too.
But the unknown really is in the imports at the Breakers.
If point guard Edgar Sosa and swingman DJ Newbill can prove quality NBL players, then the Breakers will be a genuine contender again this season with the added ability to add a third import if they choose along the way.
Last season’s finish: 15-13, Champions
Predicted 2017-18 finish: First
Season opener: Saturday October 7 v Brisbane Bullets at Perth Arena
Coach: Trevor Gleeson
Roster: Angus Brandt, Derek Cooke Jr, Bryce Cotton, Greg Hire, Jarrod Kenny, Dexter Kernich-Drew, Matt Knight, Damian Martin, JP Tokoto, Jesse Wagstaff, Lucas Walker
Arrivals: Derek Cooke Jr, JP Tokoto, Lucas Walker
Departures: Jameel McKay, Casey Prather, Shawn Redhage
Snapshot: From the moment Bryce Cotton joined the Wildcats last season, they went from wooden spoon fancies to championship contenders.
The dynamic match-winning guard ended up taking the Wildcats all the way to a back-to-back NBL championship and he did so in just 15 games.
It seemed likely he would return to the NBA on the back of that particularly considering he did get a deal during his stint in Perth. But that didn’t happen and his second choice was to return to the Wildcats for a full season.
That prospect of having Cotton for a full season should have his team as the championship favourites once more considering what he did.
Now it wasn’t a one-man show. His back court partnership with captain Damian Martin was superb and will be again if both can remain healthy and on the floor.
But the other key piece was Casey Prather who has now moved on to Melbourne. The job of stepping into that void falls to JP Tokoto who is a late arrival having replaced Devondrick Walker who went down injured in pre-season.
Jameel McKay is also gone after playing an important role as a defensive presence at the rim last season with Derek Cooke Jr now to add some size. But this is Angus Brandt’s time to stamp his authority as a big man in the NBL.
Matt Knight slots into the Shawn Redhage veteran role who can be called upon when needed and healthy. But with Jesse Wagstaff, Greg Hire and Jarrod Kenny, there’s good depth and experience on the bench.
Dexter Kernich-Drew is likely their best shooter now but after sitting out most of the off-season and then playing in the WA SBL with the Rockingham Flames largely unimpressively and without control, he’s likely further away from big minutes than this time last season.
However, with Cotton and Martin in the back court, they are natural contenders. If Brandt can stand up and Wagstaff, Hire, Kenny and Knight keep doing what they do, then anything from the other two imports is a bonus.
All in all, how can they not be the championship favourites when they are the Perth Wildcats and Bryce Cotton is there from the start this time.
Last season’s finish: 13-15, Seventh
Predicted 2017-18 finish: Sixth
Season opener: Saturday October 7 v Adelaide 36ers at Qudos Bank Arena
Coach: Andrew Gaze
Roster: Todd Blanchfield, Jason Cadee, Perry Ellis, Tom Garlepp, Isaac Humphries, Travis Leslie, Kevin Lisch, Brad Newley, Dane Pineau, Amritpal Singh, Adam Thoseby
Arrivals: Todd Blanchfield, Perry Ellis, Isaac Humphries, Travis Leslie, Dane Pineau, Amritpal Singh, Adam Thoseby
Departures: Jeromie Hill, Garrett Jackson, Aleks Maric, William McDowell-White, Craig Moller, Josh Powell, Dion Prewster, Greg Whittington
Snapshot: All the attention was on them coming into last season with Andrew Gaze taking over as coach, Lanard Copeland his assistant and Boomers stars Kevin Lisch and Brad Newley on board.
NBA championship-winner Josh Powell soon joined them as well and they started the season on fire as did his ex-Lakers teammate Steve Blake.
They started with an 8-4 record to be championship favourites and league-leaders. By December 9, they had won two more games inside four days to be 10-6 and they were the team to beat.
But from there things fell apart. They won just three more games the rest of the way to miss the playoffs leaving plenty more question marks over the group than there were answers.
There has been a mass turnover in players in the off-season with the departures of Aleks Maric, Craig Moller, Powell and Greg Whittington.
Todd Blanchfield is on board and looking to play a bigger role than he was given with Melbourne so that’s a big get for the Kings.
Isaac Humphries looks to be an exciting young big as well and import guard Travis Leslie has the chance to provide a strong back court alongside Lisch and Jason Cadee.
But there are two big question marks over this Kings team. Their biggest problem the longer last season went was the lack of a true point guard. Instead Lisch was forced into that role and while capable, he is much better as the second ball handler on a team and it greatly hurt his efficiency.
His numbers plummeted and so did his shooting percentages from his MVP season with the Illawarra Hawks when he wasn’t the primary ball handler. Cadee too is best when not the main ball handler and Leslie looks the same.
That is a glaring problem already with the Kings. And then inside they look like they will rely on rookie Humphries but they do have an import spot up their sleeve which they would be wise to use on a genuine big to help fellow import Perry Ellis.
Without a genuine point guard or big, they are questions that need answers before the Kings can be considered title threats. But based on pure talent with Lisch, Ellis, Newley, Cadee, Blanchfield and Leslie they will be dangerous and can cover up any number of holes that might appear.
Champions: Perth Wildcats
Runner-up: Melbourne United
MVP: Bryce Cotton (Perth Wildcats)
Rookie of the Year: Isaac Humphries (Sydney Kings)
Most Improved Player: Matt Hodgson (Adelaide 36ers)/Angus Brandt (Perth Wildcats). Expect them to become breakout centres in the league.
Surprise packet: Lucas Walker. Having bided his time last season training with the Wildcats, he is set for a career-best season to make up for lost time.