Well, well, well. With just over a third of the season completed, the Perth Wildcats sit atop the NBL throne. The Cats are seemingly invigorated, boasting the league's best offence (!!), augmented by the league's best defence.
Over the past 6 seasons, no eventual champion has finished outside the top two in defensive deficiency. That they lead the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency spells danger for the rest of the competition.
It might also be dangerous for us to pass too much judgement at this juncture; there are too many variables at play, including the merry-go-round existence of imports, and the magical alchemy of chemistry that plays out over the long haul.
The 2016 Kings serve a cautionary tale of jumping ahead of ourselves; at a similar juncture, they destroyed the league in point differential (a harbinger of postseason success) only to miss the playoffs entirely after a second half swoon.
Still, we now have a large enough sample size to identify how teams are tracking, relative to our preseason expectations.
How are teams performing on both ends of the floor? Who is leaning too heavily on a star? Are certain players outperforming in roles that can't possibly be sustainable? What are the key ingredients of a title team?
Here's a dossier, in no particular order.
All statistics are from the end of Round 6 and garnered from RealGM, unless stated otherwise.
Preseason prediction: 2nd
The Breakers came into the season as the deepest team in the league, and for a while, they looked ... broken? They look like they are going through an existential crisis.
Those early rounds were a cesspool of ugly basketball. Something just smelt off. The whiff of a stench still faintly lingers.
When things don't go their way, there's finger pointing and a collective slump of the shoulders. Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise considering the leadership and cultural voids left with the departure of club stalwarts in Mika Vukona and Kirk Penney.
The early season struggles of the Breakers have paralleled the decline of Shea Ili, in the middle of a morass. A season after winning the league's Most Improved Player gong, Ili's play is - ironically - declining.
His usage rate has plummeted to absurdly low levels; he's shooting -- never a strong suit -- at under 17 percent from deep. He often looks unsure if he should just attack, a natural inclination for him, as opposed setting up the offence as a floor general (alas, point guard play was a preseason concern).
It's been bizarre as the revamped Breakers' offence was tailor-made for his talents.
After dawdling through last season, the Breakers offence has emphasised early transition, a move that should have benefited Ili's game.
Braswell might be better off playing his best players together instead of having a point guard on the court at all times. Pat Richard can easily slide into the starting line-up, relegating Ili to a spark-plug role he's perhaps more suited to.
Elsewhere, Corey Webster is hunting shots with an air of ball-hoggery. He's jacking up 20.5 shots per 40 minutes, the highest mark among big minutes rotation players.
I'm not sure he's good enough on offence to be that guy - he barely gets to the free throw line either. The trickledown effect of those jump-shooting barrages is the lack of foul calls. The Breakers have the worst free throw/field goal ratio.
Yet despite all this, they still rate as the second best offence in the league, which speaks to the overall talent on this roster. It just feels as though they could be so much more.
But their defence? Ugh.
A bottom-feeding defence allows 117.9 points per 100 possessions - an historically disastrous mark.
Some of it should normalise; opponents are shooting an unsustainable 42.6 percent from beyond the arc, a mark that would annihilate any historical record for a season. For context, I'm unable to find any data that comes close to such defensive futility in defending the 3. I repeat: this should normalise. Gulp.
But some of it is systemic.
They've largely punted on a switching defence, ditched for the more conservative drop-back scheme.
Their perimeter defence has been shambolic at times - they allowed Bryce Cotton to feast in their Round 4 clash against the Perth Wildcats (once Ili or Weeks were mushed by enemy screeners).
Webster is a prime culprit with little regard for defensive duties. A particularly galling sequence that stands out: In their Round 6 clash against the Kings, Webster -- already 0/5 from deep at the time -- launched another ill-fated attempt, only to pose with his follow through. Andrew Bogut lumbered down the length of the court for a hit-ahead pass and jam.
Shawn Long chases blocked shots a little too much -- even when he has no chance -- opening up offensive rebounding opportunities enemy bigs.
Thomas Abercrombie is a defensive savant though; Ili and Weeks are bulldogs. Pat Richard and Armani Moore (when he does return) are tough. Finn Delany tries hard.
You would expect greater accountability on the defensive end as Kevin Braswell grows into the gig.
Preseason prediction: 3rd
Backed by a league-leading defence, the Cats have blown away some preseason concerns over their ability to compete.
The real surprise has been on offence -- historically a sore point -- that is blitzing the competition at a preposterous 117.5 points per 100 possessions. No other team in recent years comes close to that mark, save the 2015/16 Illawarra Hawks, who were an offensive juggernaut.
The easy answer for early season success would be to attribute this to the output of Terrico White, but that's not entirely accurate.
Whilst White came in with a reputation as a knockdown shooter to complement Bryce Cotton, he's shooting an icy 27 percent from beyond the arc, at six attempts per game.
In fact, the Wildcats as a whole still don't shoot the 3-ball well at all! Apart from Cotton and Clint Steindl (he's back, baby!), no other Wildcat shoots above 32 percent from deep.
Functionally, the Cats aren't really doing anything a whole lot different from last season.
They are shooting more 3s (up from bottom three last year), and rank only behind the chuck-tastic Bullets in attempts.
The heavy lifting is still done by Bryce Cotton, rated by ESPN as the league's best player leading into the season.
The offence is still very much predicated on springing Cotton free off screening action, or manufacturing the switch against an enemy big.
What the Cats are doing particularly well is getting to the free throw line a league-leading 25 times per game. That figure becomes more remarkable when you consider they play at the slowest pace.
For a team that's been middle of the road in free throw rate in recent years, that's been enough to juice the offence (that and more 3-attempts).
Cotton himself gets to the line 6.9 times per game, his best mark yet during his time in the NBL. Mitch Norton is also a foul magnet.
Nick Kay has been amongst the best bigs in the league (please stop shooting 3s, Nick) in two-way play. His ability to toggle up to centre gives the Wildcats more line-up flexibility with Angus Brandt missing time, and Tom Jervis inevitably in foul trouble.
Kay at centre, flanked by Wagstaff is the Wildcats' best closing lineup, allowing switch-ability on defence and more offensive spacing.
Clint Steindl making shots (and taking them!) has been an early Christmas present for the Red Army.
Mitch Norton is quietly having a career year, and has been terrific cover for Damian Martin; he's provided precious scoring punch from the lead guard position.
They've weathered inevitable injuries (seriously, is this a Perth thing?) with Martin, Terrico White and Angus Brandt all missing time.
Will the offensive explosion sustain? My guess is that it won't, and the offence will come back to the field. Cotton's load remains too high.
But it's been a very encouraging start.
Preseason prediction: 4th
The Kings, eh? I'm still trying to figure them out.
Here's the good. They're second in the league in differential (which bodes well for future success). They own the second best defensive mark behind only the frugal Wildcats. Bogut is embarrassing any fool silly enough to challenge him at the rim.
And yet: They're a so-so rebounding team, even with Bogut inhaling defensive boards. They don't force a lot of turnovers. And I'm not entirely sure what to make of those defensive numbers which suggest they're an elite defensive unit. It jibes with the eye test.
Sure, they lead the league in defensive field goal percentage at this early juncture. Kings' opponents are shooting a pathetic 30.4 percent from downtown. But is it sustainable? My guess is no.
The Kings defence has allowed wide-open enemy looks and they're just flat out missing. My mind takes me back to their Round 3 overtime win against the Taipans. The Snakes generated any look they wanted that afternoon from simple pick-and-roll action, and the subsequent swing pass sequence, only to barf up 10-of-35 from deep ... 35 attempts.
On offence, Sydney is scorching nets from deep, shooting those suckers at a 40 percent clip.
Those numbers may be fool's gold, as they've feasted on the Breakers' defence; over two games, they have an effective field goal percentage of 67.3 percent (!!) against Kevin Braswell's team, per Spatial Jam.
As we noted in preseason, I'm not sure all the pieces really fit. There's something I can't quite put on my finger on; it's like a disconnect that makes me uncomfortable.
Maybe it's just role delineation, and the team coalesces as the season matures and the hierarchy is established.
Randle needs the ball to be effective; he's not a three-point threat away from the ball. But the Kings have looked their best when orbiting around Bogut as the fulcrum. Action that centres around their pick-and-roll dance seems to yield the most desirable results.
The late-game tactics and substitution patterns are still head-scratching, at times. It's still unclear why David Wear starts ahead of Daniel Kickert. Kickert is not a change-of-pace player. You're better off playing your five best players and maximising those minutes.
The bench ... has been OK! Kyle Adnam is having his best NBL season to date. Brian Bowen II isn't asked to do much, but he does it well.
They're all signs of progress after a predictably disjointed preseason.
Preseason prediction: 1st
Forget the hubris - United are (and always were) the title favourites. All that staged indignation from the champs about the Kings' preseason fanfare was nothing more than heaping pressure interstate. We see what you're doing, Melbourne!
United, who led the league in defensive efficiency a year ago, are sitting pretty with the 3rd best defence. They're building. With Barlow playing power forward, they're better weaponised to switch everything.
David Freaking Barlow, man. He's always been a good 3-point shooter, but at age 35, he's taking five attempts a game and canning them at 43 percent. His usage rate has skyrocketed to levels not seen for a decade. He continues to barrel-chest fools who dare to come in his path.
Dean Vickerman -- still finding out what this team really is -- has tinkered like the master tactician that he is. Somehow, United are still comfortably second on the ladder, and with Chris Goulding struggling through this early portion of the season.
Contrary to public opinion, Casper Ware isn't having his best NBL season to date. That would be his first season with United when he came in late and topped out at 18 games. Per Crunchtime Shots, Ware was an insane 30-of-38 from within the restricted area that season; he was un-guardable from all over the floor.
But it does feel like he's having his best year. He sees every situation now, mastered every counter, every contortion of the body to finish through contact, or find the open shooter. He remains the best two-way point guard in the league.
Josh Boone continues to be incredible - it's impossible to separate him and Bogut as the best defensive players in the league. Sure, Bogut's raw numbers and rim protection are huge, but Boone is more versatile, has balletic feet, and is switch-proof.
Mitch McCarron is starting to find his feet. His all-court versatility and ability to contribute in any given area -- to make winning plays -- means he could shine in any roster. He's like a smaller Glen Saville.
Early season fretting over D.J. Kennedy was bizarre but he's settled into his role nicely as a third option when needed. When his number is called, he looks comfortable jab stepping and bum-rushing enemy defenders into the lane.
Some guys just get it, and Kennedy looks the goods. He's not hyper athletic, but his mind is fast; he has high basketball IQ, doesn't force the issue, and his defence is all wondrous little details - deft touches, flicks and deflections. He rotates well (like McCarron) and is usually always there at the split line ready to help.
He's a star.
Look, the champs are biding their time nicely. Move along, nothing to see here.
Preseason prediction: 8th
The Bullets were second only to the 36ers in pace in the early parts of the season, but things have normalised in recent weeks. They're back to being a middle of the road team in pace of play.
They're not a particularly good offensive rebounding team, a factor which extends possessions and slows down pace numbers.
Brisbane have been feisty, but they might be what we thought they were all along: a slightly robotic team that lacks dynamism.
Alonzo Gee didn't help in this regard; the jury is still out on Lamar Patterson.
Still, the Bullets have modernised their offence.
A year after refusing to take 3-pointers, they now constitute a preposterous 41.1 percent of Brisbane's shot attempts -- easily tops in the league -- and an outsized diet of deep balls, per Spatial Jam.
Gliddon, Te Rangi and Adam Gibson (sometimes Stephen Holt) are searing nets from afar. The tactic makes sense; with a lack of shot creation, 3-point shooting is a great equaliser. Just let them rip.
The world was not ready for Reuben Te Rangi morphing into Shawn Redhage 2.0. There were signs of dependability under a heavier minutes last season, but the 3-point outburst has been wild. Those shots are pure.
Gliddon has been the Bullets' best player and repaid the faith Lemanis has shown in him. But he might be miscast as an alpha dog.
He's probably the NBL's version of Klay Thompson in this league - an elite shooter, who plays solid defence, but one who struggles to create his own shot.
I'm just not sure he's your go-to guy. Right now for the Bullets, he is. And teams are on hyper-alert, chasing him all over the floor.
His continued evolution might be to continue to leverage that enemy alertness to up his assist rate. Case in point: Against the Wildcats in Round 5, two defenders jumped out to chase Gliddon over a pindown, leaving Mike Vukona to slip in for an open layup.
For the Bullets overall, it all just feels a little difficult at times to engineer points.
You look up and down the roster, and you start to scratch your head over who can be a reliable scoring option.
Side note: Vukona has been frisky, and his post-ups have been yielded some cheap points off the bench.
Maybe it's the overall lack of zip (the Bullets look much better when Vukona and Te Rangi are on the court together). On a related note, they have own the second worst defence in the league. They also foul a tonne. Only the Cairns Taipans hack more.
Preseason prediction: 7th
These Hawks, man. They own the second-worst differential, with only the Taipans trailing them. Things aren't looking good.
A third of the season in and the expected "clunkiness" of the import fit has played out.
Brian Conklin, Jordair Jett and Cedric Jackson are essentially high usage players who love occupying the same real estate close to the rim. You could throw A.J. Ogilvy in there.
As a result, each possession feels like they're all trying to get out of the way of each other in the half-court. Each possession feels like they're walking an offensive tightrope within said cramped spacing. Each possession feels a little icky.
The offence can finally exhale and breathe a little when Rob Beveridge inserts Tim Coenraad onto the court.
Todd Blanchfield has been good, having his best season to date. Cedric Jackson hasn't been, uh, good.
Preseason concerns over a collective lack of shooting have transpired - they have the worst effective field goal percentage in the league.
They can mitigate that by playing up-tempo, and racing down the court for transition opportunities before an enemy half-court defence is set. They're currently second in pace behind only the 36ers.
Bevo loves to junk up the game, and this has kept them afloat. They just aren't a very pleasant watch at the moment.
Surprise, surprise: the Hawks aren't a good rebounding team, a perennial weakness.
Adelaide Currently: 5th Preseason prediction: 5th
Adelaide might be the most baffling team at the moment.
The biggest issue with the 36ers has been an offence that has failed to reach the heights of past campaigns. Part of that is injury.
Ramone Moore, mercifully back from injury, is shooting 25 percent from deep and 37.5 percent overall.
Part of that is regression.
Majok Deng's development has stalled. He's also shooting the 3-ball at a tick under 17 percent.
That's putting added pressure on their two stars. And that might be the crux of the issue.
Last season's 36ers were the deepest team in the league. Their strengths lay in the interchangeability of pieces; when one set of 36ers sat, another fresh group entered the fray. They bludgeoned teams through wave after wave of high-octane basketball.
This team operates more on the star model.
This is Nathan Sobey's team now. 3-point shooting has never been a strong suit, but at 30 percent, opponents will keep ducking under screens. Daniel Johnson is a star, but he's having one of his worst shooting seasons to date.
Anthony Drmic has been good. He's doing a little more this year, shooting more and upping his assist rate. He's shooting 28 percent from deep at the moment, but that should stabilise.
Opponents will keep using the zone until the 36ers show they haven't forgotten how to shoot.
The 36ers also shooting 40.1 percent in the paint (outside the restricted area), per Crunchtime Shots. They were at 47 percent last season. All this adds up to chip away at the margins.
Brendan Teys has surprised, improbably playing meaningful minutes and doing meaningful things.
Jacob Wiley is a worker - his effort levels are astronomical - but any preseason thought bubbles about his MVP candidacy were always overstated. His game fits snugly around the real stars in Sobey and Johnson. He's all grunt work, all arms and legs.
Demetrius Conger was a huge pick up and allows the 36ers to play line-ups that switch across all positions. He also adds shot creation, which should ease the load for Sobey and Johnson. Expect Johnson, in particular, to up his shooting percentages.
Preseason prediction: 6th
We now enter bizarro territory.
Cairns play at the third fastest speed, a departure from the Aaron Fearne teams that routinely played at a deliberate snail's pace. Yet the change hasn't exactly yielded an uptick in offensive efficiency.
Talking heads will point out that the Snakes defence is an issue - and it is to a degree - but offence is really where the major concerns lie. Only the Hawks have a worse offence, and we know about their lack of shooting.
Theoretically, the Taipans offence is predicated on pick-and-roll play surrounded by outside shooting threats. Unfortunately, it's only a theory at this point.
With Melo Trimble at the core of everything they do, and the attention he invariably creates, you'd expect an offence that hums.
Cairns are getting the looks they want. It's just that they're not hitting them.
Their best two-way player, D.J. Newbill, is having a stinker to start the season. He's shooting a ghastly 27.8 percent from deep, from five attempts a game. He's 39 percent overall from the field.
Devon Hall's numbers may hurt your eyes.
Nate Jawai is the only reliable scorer inside, but he might be the most perplexing big man in the league. He's just physically incapable of playing major minutes.
In all, the load on Trimble has been enormous (by the way, can we make Melo Trimble Hill a thing?) and it's unsustainable.
Mike Kelly hasn't exactly helped the situation, often trotting out odd line-ups, including the inexplicable Jawai/Loe combination.
The combination of a toothless offence and blah defence equates to a 1-7 record.
If you're a Taipans supporter though, there's hope! Expect a better second half of the season as Mike Kelly grows. D.J. Newbill should break out of this funk, and there are signs of Devon Hall remembering how to play basketball.