What just happened?
While the biggest league in the world of basketball continued to be dominated by one of the greatest teams we have ever seen on a court, there was plenty of other action on the floor throughout 2018.
With the World Cup just around the corner, 2018 saw qualifiers ramp up, while the NBL continued to go from strength to strength as Melbourne United finally broke through for a title.
Across the pond, the Golden State Warriors had no trouble building on their success once more with a romp through the finals.
But 2018, unfortunately, might be remembered mostly for one huge incident between Australia and the Philippines – the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ – but more on that later.
We might as well start in the biggest basketball competition this world has to offer.
While the money and skills are higher than anywhere else, that doesn’t necessarily make it the best competition in the world when you look at it from a competitive standpoint.
The Golden State Warriors managed to keep their ridiculous super team together, and despite some scares at various points, they had no problems dispatching their surprise final opponents and winners of the Eastern Conference in straight sets to claim another crown.
At the end of the regular season there were concerns over the Warriors, and while they were nowhere near as good, there were also learnings taken from the previous season when they set all kinds of records.
By the time 82 games were played, the Warriors had only the second-best seed in the west, behind the offensively impressive but defensively worrisome Houston Rockets.
The Western Conference was always going to be where the champions were coming from last year – and they probably will again this year – and neither Golden State nor Houston had a problem in the first two rounds of the finals.
Out in the east it was Toronto and Boston who looked like they were going to pose the threat of moving through, but the Raptors continued their outrageously poor finals record to bow out in the second round, setting up a conference finals series between Boston and the Cleveland Cavaliers, featuring LeBron James.
While LeBron brought Cleveland back from the brink time and time again in their series to pick up a 4-3 win and another NBA finals series, the Warriors were right up against it taking on Houston.
Eventual league MVP James Harden, who averaged 30 points per game across the regular season, had the Rockets up 3-2 after Game 5 of the series. However, it proved to not be enough.
It should have been all over in Game 6 as well, but the Warriors rallied from a 17-point deficit to run up a 64-25 second half and win the game. From there they went on the road and kept the momentum rolling to knock out the Rockets.
They were never going to be stopped by the one-man army from Cleveland either, notching up another NBA title in the easiest of circumstances.
The off-season brought with it one of the biggest changes in recent memory, with LeBron moving along to the Los Angeles Lakers for the new season. The other huge change was Kawhi Leonard going from San Antonio to Toronto.
The Raptors also took the stunning step of firing relatively successful coach Dwane Casey, but it’s worked wonders for them as they sit top of a weak Eastern Conference ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers.
Meanwhile, in the west, the second-worst record of the New Orleans Pelicans would have them sitting tenth in the east at the time of writing, with the surprise packet being Denver, who lead that conference at Christmas.
Back home, and the NBL continues to go from strength from strength. While relations with the NBA have never been stronger following seven preseason games between NBL and NBA teams, last season’s NBL was a record-breaking one.
While the on-court product was good, both crowds and TV ratings were up across the season, and while the league still has a heap of work to do, it’s fair to say they are back and climbing through Australia’s summer sporting landscape.
Further to that, expansion of the competition has also been announced for next year, with a team from South East Melbourne set to join the competition, bringing Mitch Creek back to the league as their key signing.
Speaking of key signings, there has never been a bigger one in Aussie hoops than that of Andrew Bogut. He finished his NBA career on a sour note but is now playing at home and loving life with a humming Sydney Kings team.
A strong Sydney Kings team is not something that has been talked about over the years, because it simply hasn’t existed.
Last season saw Melbourne United finally deliver on the promise in their squad and come up with a championship, beating the Adelaide 36ers in a tense grand final series after another stunningly close season.
Chris Goulding and Casper Ware led the way for Melbourne, who were strong right across the court under new coach Dean Vickerman.
The semi-final series was something of a let-down after another ridiculously close season in which the top seven teams were separated by just nine games, so to see the Perth Wildcats and New Zealand Breakers bounce out of the finals in straight sets was something of a surprise.
It marked something of a change in the league, though, with a fresh grand final series bringing attacking basketball and a five-game series which went back and forth and tick for tack. Melbourne ended up winning Game 5 by 18 points, but it was a superb series and advertisement for basketball in this country.
Back to the current season, and at the time of writing it’s Sydney who lead the competition ahead of Perth and Melbourne. Again, things are travelling pretty closely, and the influence of Andrew Bogut has been immense on the Kings.
While he is a huge figure, the Brisbane Bullets being successful again is also hugely important for the league, with things looking up for a very different and intriguing finals series throughout February and March.
The rise of international basketball around the world has continued throughout 2018, with the qualification campaign for the World Cup – and within that, the Olympics – raging on.
Given the World Cup is the qualification tournament for the Olympics, making the World Cup took on extra importance this year.
While the Boomers qualified easily in the end with a roster made up mostly of NBL stars, it’s not their qualification which will be remembered by the basketball public both here in Australia and around the world.
Instead it’s going to be the chaotic scenes which led to fines, suspensions and a game called abandoned in the third quarter against the Philippines in Manila.
I still get shudders thinking about the incidents of that night – incidents which could well have set international basketball back several years.
Scenes like that haven’t been seen on the basketball court for years – maybe ever. They were awful, with the Philippines bench emptying and some of the Boomers genuinely having fears for their lives as support staff and fans became involved.
It was an incident that should never be repeated, and with suspensions and fines across the board, one would hope that it never ever will.
Outside of the incident in the Philippines, though, Australia were superb. Their only blip on the radar was a shock loss to Japan away from home (with Matthew Dellavedova and Thon Maker in the side), but qualification was confirmed with three games up their sleeve when they blew Iran out of the water in Melbourne.
Following on from the success of the 2017 Asian Cup victory, the Boomers have dropped just a single game since they moved into the Asian zone, and it’s working wonders for Andrej Lemanis and his team.
While the NBA stars will be back for the World Cup in China next year, the Boomers are a genuine chance to medal both there and at the 2020 Olympics with the weight of talent they are continuing to build up both internationally and domestically.
There is a thought process that says the international windows need to be worked in better around seasons, but at the moment basketball is a franchise-driven business, and so long as that’s the case, NBA players playing in more than one or two qualifying matches during the middle of the NBA off-season is a pipe dream.
Of course even that might be a dream now after the chaotic events in Manila, which will undoubtedly give some of the franchises in the States cold feet.
It’d be hard to look at international basketball without talking about the Opals as well. They went to the World Cup with big hopes this year and so nearly pulled off a stunning result.
They had a stunning tournament, with Liz Cambage asserting her dominance potentially as the best female player in the world.
She led the way for the Opals as they got past Spain in the semi-final, only falling fractionally short to the USA in the final of the tournament in what was an effort to be proud of.
All up, it’s been a great year for international basketball in Australia, and there will be plenty to look forward to in 2019.
2017-18 NBA Western Conference top seed: Houston Rockets
2017-18 NBA Eastern Conference top seed: Toronto Raptors
2017-18 NBA Western Conference winners: Golden State Warriors
2017-18 NBA Eastern Conference winners: Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 NBA champions: Golden State Warriors
2017-18 NBL minor premiers: Melbourne United
2017-18 NBL premiers: Melbourne United