Where to from here? The road to the NBL Finals

It's been an NBL season of surges, marked by inconsistency across the board. Here we are, about to head into February, with no clear-cut juggernaut emerging to lay claim to the title race. There's been no iconic run, no squad that has owned the season.

Instead, we have a gaggle of flawed teams merely fighting to make the playoffs.

Case in point: The top two teams are going through an existential crisis; The Sydney Kings - those head-scratching Kings - are still searching for an identity, and the core tenets you grasp onto that lead you through the tough times.

Melbourne United have spent a season searching for their mojo, yet to truly flex their muscle. Do they have another gear in them?

Perth started strongly, but look at them now: mired in a malaise, and navigating irrational vehemence towards their roster construction. Brisbane and Adelaide, doubted during the season, are surging.

So with the proverbial home straight approaching, we look at how teams have fared up to this point in the season, and their run home.

*Unless otherwise stated, all statistics garnered from Spatial Jam and RealGM, and accurate as of 19 January.

PERTH WILDCATS
Record: 13 - 9
Last 5 games: LWLLW
Remaining schedule: Adelaide (H), Sydney (A), Illawarra (H), Sydney (H), Adelaide (H), Melbourne (A)

We start out West, where there have been rumblings of malcontent amidst an anxious Red Army, before a bounce-back win against United over the weekend. You know what's really topical? Airing grievances at the Wildcats via social media: How dare you not sign a third import!

Cut through the fervour and indignation, and ask yourself this: Who exactly was available? What position was in dire need of an upgrade?

We'll never truly know how far management - and the inner sanctum - considered those questions. We'll never know the trickle-down effects of a hypothetical import coming in this late in the season; not everybody is Bryce Cotton. We'll never know if the necessary adjustments and the time needed to acclimatise to league for a new import - and its officiating - would have helped or hindered this team.

What we do know is that the Wildcats remain as constructed since the preseason. We know that this is the same roster that started the season 10-1, solidifying their status as playoff contenders.

We also kind of knew, and predicted, that a blazing start to their offence was never going to sustain. They still rely far too much on Cotton.

Terrico White, recruited for his supposed ability to stretch the floor is quietly not a very good 3-point shooter. Jesse Wagstaff, a pivotal figure, has aged about five years and is borderline unplayable.

After pounding the paint early in the season, they suddenly can't get to the free throw line anymore - they're last in the league in free throw rate since December. But that's fine.

As with all things, it's a culmination of events that conspire to chip away at the competitive margins; lose a bit here, and a bit there, and it starts to matter.

Perth were never built as an offensive juggernaut. Instead, the Gleeson era has known nothing but defensive stinginess, and this team profiled to be the same. Their style has always relied upon grit; score enough - and I mean barely enough - and ride what was supposed to be an elite defence to victory.

Look back at the numbers throughout the Gleeson-coached teams out West: Perth have never finished outside the top two in defensive efficiency - apart from last season, when it was clear something was wrong. Since mid-December, the Wildcats have the second-worst defence and second-worst offence in the league. You can have one - but you can't have both - if you want to contend.

The defensive morass, combined with a downturn in offensive efficiency, has coalesced into a tailspin from which they haven't recovered. Yet.

Teams have had zero fear challenging the Wildcats in the interior. The Wildcat's armada of bigs are all ground-bound; Brandt tries but he's not Matty Knight, with nimble feet and a mind two steps ahead of the offensive player. Tom Jervis is... uh... foul-prone.

Nick Kay is their most nimble big and averages 0.2 blocks per game. Just for context, Cam Bairstow averages 0.4 blocks.

To complicate matters, their offensive rebounding has fallen off a cliff. Long a staple of the Wildcats, and symptomatic of effort and athleticism, it's jarring to see the Cats no longer pounding the offensive glass. They've long been adroit at smushing fools, generating second possessions, and neutering enemy transition attacks.

They're just no longer good at it, and it's creating havoc with their floor balance. When you're loitering below the 3-point arc, but not really contesting the offensive glass, that's a recipe for transitional defensive disaster.

And I hesitate (I'm queasy, in fact) to say this: Is there a soft edge to this team? The Wildcats have never been all blustery fire and brimstone (Hi, Harry Froling and Jack McVeigh), but there was a cold-iron edge to them. They bullied teams. I'm not sure teams are afraid of them anymore.

It might not matter. The Wildcats dug in against United and pulled out the much-needed victory. And they did it with their calling card: defence.

They'll need to ratchet it up, with a tough run home, including Adelaide and Sydney twice, before ending the season at Melbourne.

SYDNEY KINGS
Record: 13 wins - 8 losses
Last 5 games: LWWLL
Remaining schedule: Brisbane (A), Perth (H), Brisbane (A), Brisbane (H), Melbourne (H), Perth (A), Cairns (H)

"I want to make sure that I can figure out a way to bring a championship to this team," Jerome Randle recently told ESPN. "We have an interesting group of guys who all want that championship as well. We're just trying to figure out who we are, and how we can contribute to create a championship atmosphere.

"A lot of people have to be unselfish and take a little bit from their self in order to get what we want. Everyday we're starting to figure it out. Sometimes, it can be a struggle because, personally, everybody can get a little selfish, at times. Even myself."

Randle was explaining how, despite the starry talent on the roster, the Kings were still learning how to co-exist and become greater than the sum of their parts. He was optimistic.

Well, we're about to find out what the Kings really are. In a five-game span, they've lost twice to the Hawks. Their only two wins were against the basement-dwelling Taipans and Breakers by a total of 12 points. Yikes.

The Kings' remaining schedule is a murderers' row of top-four teams, with only the final game of the season against Cairns - what could be a must-win - offering any form of respite. Even then, the Taipans have made the Kings work in all three wins this season.

That upcoming gauntlet includes trips to Brisbane twice - they play the Bullets three times over the next fortnight - and one to the RAC Arena at Perth.

The advanced numbers paint the Kings as a defensive powerhouse, but that has always jibed with the eye-test; outside of Andrew Bogut and Kevin Lisch, I'm not sure there's another proven plus-defender on the roster.

You can point to the numbers suggesting great 3-point defence, but then you watch a Kings game and see a litany of botched rotations that lead to wide open looks. There's an element of blind luck that they hold their opponents way under league average in 3-point shooting percentage; they've only played Brisbane once - the best 3-point team in the league. And that's about to change.

Their defensive rebounding is a shambles whenever Bogut sits. They've long punted on crashing the offensive glass, opening themselves up for transition attacks. On a related noted, their transition defence remains spotty.

Defensive rotations can be lackadaisical; symptomatic of schematic confusion regarding where they're meant to be. Trapping on-balls invariably leads to disaster, and open 3-point looks.

A 20-point loss to the 36ers was ugly, but the Kings have always struggled against Adelaide - Joey Wright's team exacerbate the Kings' defensive transition woes. Their matchups against Brisbane will tell us more.

BRISBANE BULLETS
Record: 12 wins - 9 losses
Last 5 games: LWLWW
Remaining schedule: Sydney (H), New Zealand (A), Sydney (H), Sydney (A), Illawarra (H), Cairns (A), New Zealand (H)

I predicted the Bullets would win the wooden spoon. I was wrong.

In my defence, I did not see what Andrej Lemanis was quietly building. I also did not see a Lamar Patterson signing on the horizon.

Lemanis points to the challenges of the Bullets' first two years back in the league, when building a program from scratch meant they were at the mercy of the free agent cycle. Star players did not want to play for a franchise that was building from the ground up, with no physical and metaphorical infrastructure.

"Players also want to go to successful programs," Lemanis told ESPN. "Someone needs to take a leap of faith."

The Bullets continued to target the types of players they felt could lay the platform towards building a winning culture.

"It starts with good players and good people," says Lemanis.

Now in his third year, Lemanis finally has the team he wants; a hard-nosed unit that shares the ball.

A huge difference this year has been the uptick in 3-pt shooting, a combination of personnel and a stylistic shift.

"Certainly 3-point shooting is one of the things that we do well," says Lemanis. "It's a function of understanding the group, and how we're going to give ourselves the best chance to win games."

Cam Gliddon, Reuben Te Rangi and Adam Gibson are all shooting over 40 percent from deep. Gliddon is a freaking metronome. He's at 42 percent from deep for the season, and an obscene 52.3 percent in the new year. He's the Klay Thompson of the NBL - a guy who plays solid defence on the other team's best guard, and shoots fireballs.

Patterson is the best all-round wing in the competition, and arguably the most talented 3-man the Bullets have had since their return to the league. The Bullets finally have their "closer", the one guy who can generate a quality shot in the clutch, when the action bogs down in the half-court. He's their answer to the Bryce Cottons and Casper Wares of this league.

The Bullets are the form team in the competition at the moment. Three straight wins against United, the 36ers and the Taipans have the Bullets primed for their mini-series against the Kings.

ADELAIDE 36ERS
Record: 12 wins - 10 losses
Last 5 games: LWLWW
Remaining schedule: Perth (A), Cairns (A), New Zealand (A), Melbourne (H), Perth (A)

The 36ers have a road-heavy end to their season, yet strangely, they have a better record away from Titanium Security Arena.

The loss of Ramone Moore undoubtedly chips away at their depth, and unintentionally leads to more minutes for Jack McVeigh (gulp). But a silver lining may be the inevitable redistribution of touches that should go to Demetrius Conger.

The 36ers have found form, having won seven of their past nine including a 20-point demolition of the Kings in Round 14. During this run, their offence has scored at an insane 120 points per 100 possessions (this mark was before they curb-stomped the Kings). In that same stretch, they've also led the league in offensive rebounding and true shooting percentage.

But is it too late? They walk a playoff tightrope, and their three remaining games against the Wildcats should decide their season - as well as potentially dooming Perth.

MELBOURNE UNITED
Record: 12 wins - 8 losses
Last 5 games: LWLWL
Remaining schedule: Illawarra (H), New Zealand (A), New Zealand (H), Sydney (A), Adelaide (A), Cairns (H), Perth (H)

Melbourne's form guide isn't exactly stellar. Since the calendar flipped to 2019, United have lost to Brisbane and Perth, whilst eking past the Taipans in a game they probably should have lost.

Casper Ware has had an MVP-calibre season, and I want whatever David Barlow is having. But the rest of the roster has been up-and-down.

Josh Boone has not looked the same all year; this gimpy version has been outplayed at times by Alex Pledger. Mitch McCarron is Mr Fix-It, but that might be his destiny - a do-everything utility who binds everything together. That version of him is still valuable, but is it enough for a United side that craves another creator when Ware is trapped, and when Chris Goulding slumps (or gets into foul trouble)?

Goulding remains the bellwether for this United side, someone who can singlehandedly win his side a game in a five-minute span of breathtaking shot-making. Over the past four games he's 9-of-29 from deep. D.J. Kennedy has been injured.

The defence, their bedrock for success, has been decidedly leaky. But this should hearten United supporters: In a season-long trend, they've been best team in denying 3-point looks.

When teams are trapping Ware (something the 36ers did in last season's grand final series), and forcing other United players to make a play, the champs still look shaky. Nobody guards Craig Moller, nor Peter Hooley, from the perimeter. The floor can feel cluttered.

It still feels as though Melbourne are figuring out their optimal line-up. Dean Vickerman has spent much of the season figuring out the limits of this roster, and they've ground out wins due to a championship-winning ecosystem that has trust and belief, and a selflessness to it. It's perhaps their greatest advantage in the run home.

ILLAWARRA HAWKS
Record: 10 wins - 11 losses
Last 5 games: LWLWW
Remaining schedule: Melbourne (A), Taipans (H), Perth (A), Taipans (H), Brisbane (A), New Zealand (H), New Zealand (A)

At this point in time, I've given up predicting anything about these Hawks. The only consistency they've displayed all season is the ability to back-up an abominable display with a giant-killing performance the following week. Do you even trust this team to string together the necessary streak?

This is the same team that succumbed to a 26-point thumping to the Bullets on New Year's Eve, and a 40-point destruction at the hands of Perth, yet have also managed morale-boosting wins against the Kings and the Wildcats.

It's a bizarre lack of consistency. Since December, they own the second-best defence in the league, yet this is mitigated by far and away the least efficient offence.

The Hawks have already over-achieved with this Frankenstein cast that still doesn't make sense. Brian Conklin has been beasting in the interior of late, and Daniel Grida and Emmett Naar have been bright spots. Todd Blanchfield has successfully resuscitated his career.

NEW ZEALAND BREAKERS
Record: 8 wins - 12 losses
Last 5 games: LWWLL
Remaining schedule: Cairns (H), Brisbane (H), Melbourne (H), Melbourne (A), Adelaide (H), Illawarra (A), Cairns (A), Illawarra (H), Brisbane (A)

The Breakers have the equal most games remaining on their slate, but the next three may well decide their playoff chances. It might be a mercy.

We noted the alarming lack of leadership at New Zealand in the first trimester report, and it appears little has changed. There just doesn't seem to be a sense of playing for each other, and playing for a greater good.

That's perhaps personified by the assist numbers; the Breakers have easily the worst assist rate in the league, that's somehow regressed since the new year. It's inexplicable.

Far too often, a shot is barfed up after nary a pass. It's like watching a bunch of hired mercenaries gunning for numbers to reach contractual obligations. Of regular the rotation pieces, the ageless Tom Abercrombie, Jarrad Weeks and Finn Delaney toil above the shameless chucking.

Here's a sequence that sums up the Breakers: With about 30 seconds remaining in a wild Round 14 clash against Illawarra, Shawn Long drove past David Andersen and attempted to muscle a shot past a backtracking Conklin, whilst Andersen recovered to get back into the play.

Long missed, tipped the ball in and proceeded to stomp and glower at the baseline official. Meanwhile, Long's defensive assignment, Andersen, noticed the preening and sprinted down the court. With Long still disengaged, Andersen caught the outlet, and with no Breaker near him, crammed the ball home.

That sequence serves as a microcosm of the Breakers' season. There's an overall aimlessness to it all. What do these Breakers stand for? What are their values?

For the season, the Breakers are the only team worse than the Kings at protecting the defensive boards. Compounded by the team-wide lack of urgency in help defence; only Abercrombie seems dialled in. Shawn Long continues to chase blocked shots and leap out of position.

To exacerbate the problem, Kevin Braswell's go-to defence has been the zone, partly to protect Long from foul trouble (and Webster along the perimeter), but also to stop his team from muddling their defensive rotations.

The accountability we hoped would be ingrained by now has not materialised, and as a result, this has not been a pleasant team to watch.

CAIRNS TAIPANS
Record: 4 wins - 17 losses
Last 5 games: WLWLL
Remaining schedule: New Zealand (A), Illawarra (A), Adelaide (H), Illawarra (A), New Zealand (H), Melbourne (A), Sydney (A)

There's not too much to say here. Cairns are out, but they could play spoiler to a number of teams vying for the postseason.

Still, if the NBL had a mercy rule, it would long have been enacted for the Taipans. The sorry Snakes perhaps reached the nadir of their season over the weekend, a 31-point hiding at the hands of the Bullets.

The NBL season is not a long one, but it must feel like a grind right now.

This will be taken as a year of growth for rookie head coach, Mike Kelly. Despite the litany of losses, it's been an opportunity to develop his voice, and his style: how he handles adversity in-game, how he handles the locker room. And he's adapted, slowly.

The inexplicable pairing of Nate Jawai and Rob Loe, as the starting frontcourt, despite both being notional centres, was finally excised in Round 9. The early-season abject figure on the sideline has slowly morphed into one that isn't afraid to rip into his team's effort when the need arises.

This roster will change, and mould, into one which fits the style he wants to play. Though it's been a season of a disappointment, Kelly has Cairns playing an attractive brand of basketball.

There are foundations to build upon.