So, it begins. After a relentless sprint over 18 rounds, we finally reach the NBL playoffs where things get mighty interesting. Coaching matters in the regular season, but it really matters in the playoffs. Moves along the margins have exponential effects as they trickle down the entire game-plan.
With that in mind, the most pertinent question to ask may well be: how will each team set the terms of engagement against the opposition star player?
Let's get straight into it.
Perth (1) v Brisbane (4)
Season series: Tied 2-2
The Wildcats and Bullets have not played each other since pre-Christmas, with both sides splitting their season series -- the home team prevailing on each occasion.
The Wildcats have roared into the playoffs behind the seemingly incandescent play of Bryce Cotton and a perked up defence, after a cacophony of doubts a month out from the postseason.
Since Trevor Gleeson debunked any third import chatter in early January, the Cats have smothered everyone, sporting the best defensive efficiency in the league during this stretch, at 107.4 points-per-100-possessions, per SpatialJam.com - by far and away the best mark in the competition. No other team is even remotely close.
And for those of us fretting over their offence -- oh, they need a third import, damn you! -guess what? The Wildcats offence still stank (well, relative to the competition), ranking third from bottom in that span.
Their free throw rate during this mini-resurgence is still blah. They have resumed their duties in crashing the offensive glass. Greg Hire is throwing his weight and picking fights once more in his farewell tour.
Since Mitch Norton was lost to injury, Damian Martin has upped his minutes to 32.7 per contest. The Wildcats defence looks elite again.
The point is, it was never about their offence; they are not built to be an offensive juggernaut. They are a veteran, defensive unit with an offence uniquely tailored to Bryce Cotton, and only Cotton.
The Bullets having scraped into the final four - barely overcoming a disastrous late-January/early-February stretch - need a plan to stop the most dangerous sniper in the league.
The biggest question in the series will be how the Bullets navigate the challenge of slowing Bryce Cotton. We tend to succumb to recency bias and believe that the now-former MVP has been near unstoppable in this recent stretch. The truth is, he's had similar production compared to the rest of the season. In fact, his efficiency has dropped off of late.
Still, he's the first item on the Bullets' whiteboard. So, what do they do?
During their season series, Andrej Lemanis assigned either Cam Gliddon or Adam Gibson to chase the Perth guard, with the sole purpose of denying catches, or making it as deep into the shot clock as possible.
The Bullets generally mixed up their coverage of Cotton, with a combination of traps, hard shows, and having their big man drop back in the pick-and-roll whilst Cotton's defender fought over the screen.
Cotton has enjoyed playing against the Bullets; across the 4 games he's sauntered to the front of the rim with ease. He's 16-of-26 at the rim, and 7-of-10 from the key, per SpatialJam - inhuman marks. He has an effective field goal percentage of 57 against Brisbane.
He has not been afraid of getting to the rim against this relatively slow poke squad. The Bullets have had no answers.
Adelaide's strategy in defending Cotton during their Round 18 clash may be instructive. The 36ers switched everything off-the-ball, ensuring that there was always a body on Cotton wherever he ventured. They made him work.
When there was a pick, the 36ers trapped Cotton, forcing the ball out of his hands. Generally speaking, and depending on location on the floor, Martin's defender was comfortable sagging off and tagging the rolling big, enabling the backside defence to stay put.
On-balls involving Cotton often have the big man setting the pick to his right. He's a jitterbug going that direction. But more often than not, that's just a setup to pull the ball back left -where he's elite - for that patented pull-up 3.
If the Bullets do trap, Cotton has a few options. He can get rid of it - to Martin as the perimeter release valve, or the rolling big - but that usually amounts to a reset and essentially a surrender.
Or he might just attack. Cotton's so fast that sometimes he just jets past the defence - his defender and the lurking big man on the show - and with uncanny control, loft soft runners at full speed that somehow that kiss off the glass. Good luck.
Given those options, the Bullets need to be bold - anything to get the rock out of Cotton's hands. There will always be a non-shooter among the Wildcats perimeter on the court, whether it's Damian Martin, Greg Hire or even Rhys Vague. They can make 3s, but you absolutely want them to be the ones to take them.
You can take your chances with Terrico White, who is at an unspectacular 29.8 percent from deep for the season, per SpatialJam. Jesse Wagstaff is shooting a lower 3-point percentage for the year than Martin, although he's perked up since the new year - he's at 43.8 percent over the last 10 games.
Heck, you even allow Nick Kay to shoot if it means Cotton does not. Any possession without a Cotton touch is a win.
For the Bullets, Jason Cadee cannot be stuck on Cotton; he will be roasted. But he can absolutely hide on Damian Martin in the corners. Lemanis needs peak Adam Gibson.
The Bullets coach could always downsize in the frontcourt to Mika Vukona, where there's an added frenzy defending the point of attack.
Watch for the opportunistic Lamar Patterson, dangerous hunting steals in passing lanes, pouncing on those release valve passes after the initial trap. Something off the beaten path: as odd a match-up as it may be, Patterson might be best as a free safety hiding on Martin (alas, I don't think that will happen).
Downsizing also allows the Bullets to play a little faster, and attack in transition before the Wildcats can set up in the half-court.
The Bullets do have enough shooters to trouble the Wildcats. Brisbane have the players to build some tantalising line-up combinations. But rather frustratingly, Lemanis has been loathe to try things beyond the marginal tinkering - usually a more blah like-for-like swap, such as Vukona subbing in when Matt Hodgson invariably gets into early foul trouble.
There is strange inertia at work here.
Per HoopsDB, the Vukona-Reuben Te Rangi-Patterson-Gliddon-Gibson five-man line-up has only logged a total of 27 minutes for the season. That group has a net rating of plus-11.8 and an outrageous defensive mark. That's a combination of stout, switchable defenders, who can space the floor.
Te Rangi has scorched nylon against the Wildcats, shooting the 3-ball at a 56 percent clip. Vukona will throw his weight around like a madman.
Flip Vukona for Cam Bairstow, for a little more shooting, and the numbers are mind-boggling.
They're very small sample sizes, but it's been interesting that the Bullets have not experimented more considering the personnel that they have. There's an odd reluctance to play Jeremy Kendle as well.
Damian Martin will toggle match ups, but he'll spend a significant chunk of time chasing Gliddon; the Bullets' sharpshooter will have a tough series getting open. Instead of fretting, Lemanis could leverage that attention to the Bullets' advantage, using Gliddon as a decoy to free up space in their half-court offence.
Gliddon does not have to force up contested shots just because people are clamouring for him to shoot more - they are likely the same beseeching the Wildcats to, you know, sign a third import.
Gliddon has an obvious gravity along the perimeter, and he's a canny cutter, when engaged, playing off the Bullets' system of whirring series of dribble hand-offs and cuts. During the season against the Wildcats, the Bullets were able to leverage that same attention and slip him free on a few back cuts for open layups.
Cam Bairstow won't have the physical advantage in this series. It might be better to simply park him along the baseline, or along the corner, and allow space for Hodgson rolls. Hodgson has an aerial advantage over his Wildcats counterparts, and Patterson is an elite passer.
I'm not entirely sure what AJ Davis brings to the table.
Watch the Terrico White and Patterson match up. White can be vacuous on defence, particularly off-the-ball. Patterson can sidle into dangerous positions when White invariably turns his head. White is bulky enough not to be bullied by Patterson.
The Bullets have the personnel to match the Wildcats' physicality in the paint. They have the personnel to deploy shape-shifting line-ups that can stretch the Wildcats' defence to its limits. But will they?
Prediction: Perth 2-1 Brisbane
Melbourne (2) v Sydney (3)
Season series: Melbourne 3-1
This series will be a slog.
The Kings' blah offence meets United's second-best defence, per RealGM. The Kings themselves boast the third-ranked defence, whilst United grades out as an above average offensive unit.
In many ways, it's a mirror match. And as the season series suggests, this is going to be a grind.
United's go-to starting line-up of Josh Boone-Dave Barlow-D.J. Kennedy-Mitch McCarron-Casper Ware boasts a combination of length, defensive versatility, smarts, and enough shooting surrounding the Ware and Boone pick-and-roll dance.
On defence, they're almost entirely switch-proof (you don't want him to, but Ware is stout enough to at least stonewall a bigger dude for a while). McCarron and Kennedy are stars at putting out fires in a scramble, and helping on the defensive glass.
Via HoopsDB, that line-up has logged almost 191 minutes over the season, scoring at 115.9 points-per-100 possessions, and boasting a ludicrous defensive mark of 98.1 points-per-100 possessions. That is bonkers.
Despite the above average offensive mark, there's a sneaky suspicion that United relies a little too much upon Ware to generate points - a very Cotton-esque situation that has been overlooked.
Ware isn't Cotton on the offensive end - he's not quite as fast, he's not as good a shooter, and he doesn't inspire the same off-the-bounce panic. He needs more airspace to let it fly. He relies more upon physicality (same with his defence) to gain separation for his looks, either along the perimeter, or at the rim.
Teams have generally played the Casper Ware and Josh Boone pick-and-roll with two defenders, happy to corral that two-man game with two of their own, limiting rotations.
Andrew Bogut will play that to the extreme.
The biggest question surrounding United might very well be how to negate the defensive impact of Andrew Bogut. The league's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year has cast a salient shadow across the paint, disrupting possessions simply by being there.
Teams have been so spooked that they have surrendered layup attempts. In United's second match-up against the Kings this season, Alex Pledger, in layup territory, was so rattled by the mere sight of Bogut that he flung his attempt off the underside of the rim. He was open.
Re-watch the tape of any Kings/United encounter this season and you'll notice how Bogut almost disdainfully plays off of Boone. The United centre will desperately try to lure him out of the paint, even dabbling in midrange line-drives. Bogut doesn't care, content to play the percentages.
The spectre of a Boone screen mushing Jerome Randle does not faze Bogut the same way it would if it was Bryce Cotton getting that same air space. Cotton eviscerated the Kings, knowing he had a free look once his defender was caught on the screen for a split second.
Randle, Ware's primary defender this season, has been remarkably engaged in slivering around picks and staying in front of the United playmaker. He should sit on Ware's right hand, knowing he prefers that direction - even when he gets some separation on his left, he invariably snakes back to his right.
Ware is bulkier and does not generally rely upon speed, often attacking from static positions; he doesn't fly through a thicket of screens to collect the ball, with a clear head start over his defender. Randle has been comfortable staying in front of him, and Ware has struggled to gain separation, at times resorting to shoulder blocking Randle for some airspace. The lack of separation only emboldens Bogut to lay off and wall off the paint.
The series outcome could very well be distilled into that one simple action: how profitable can Ware (and Goulding when he's on the court) be in those encounters? If the drop-back scheme loses its payoff, the odds tilt in favour of United.
Will the Kings trap Ware, forcing the ball out of his hands? Probably not. At least not when Bogut is matched up on the screener. They don't want Bogut to be dragged outside the key, nor for the big guy to exert too much energy chasing around smaller dudes along the perimeter, and then turning tail to recover.
They will force the likes of D.J. Kennedy to shoot. They will not even bother closing out on Craig Moller and Peter Hooley. Alex Pledger will need to hit those midrange suckers.
When Dean Vickerman inserts Chris Goulding into the game, the push-and-pull of extra offence for a downgrade in defence surfaces.
One major note: how much rope does Vickerman give Goulding when he gets into foul trouble? United need Goulding to boost their on-court collective shooting, but he has a bad habit of head-scratching fouls. He tries most of the time; he's just not very good at defence.
Yet Goulding has had success against the Kings this season; he shot 46.7 percent from deep against Sydney over 3 games, per SpatialJam; Ware was at 29 percent, albeit from double the attempts. Ware was also 32.8 percent overall from the field against the Kings, from a high volume of attempts, per SpatialJam.
This might be the series where Goulding's dose of unpredictability needs to come to the fore. He plays at a different pattern to Ware - whilst Ware is metronomic, Goulding's arrhythmic jinks and behind-the-back dribbles somehow generate space.
Kevin Lisch is a quiet warrior. He will have the thankless task of chasing Goulding. He probably starts on Mitch McCarron (not Ware), who plays bigger than his stature, and can bully smaller dudes in the post. McCarron is not a star in the conventional sense - he's more a dot-joiner and elite defensive player - but his do-it-all skillset gives Vickerman line-up flexibility. That is invaluable. McCarron can be a table-setter on offence, but he can't be the guy who initially bends the defence.
Josh Boone's value comes on the defensive end, where his balletic feet make him all-in-one defensive savant - nimble enough to stay in front of guards on switches, rim protection, and rebounding.
As the screener/roll-man on offence, the Kings (Bogut) have been content to let him force the action and make a decision. Boone has improved on this front, but this counts as a Kings win - please, Josh! Take those jumpers! It has essentially forced United to play 4-on-5 offence - that can take its toll. Pledger offers a different look and has a far more reliable midrange jumper.
United will have to eke out points - Wildcats-style - to win.
How much will Vickerman lean on his Dave Barlow-at-centre trump card if Boone becomes a liability on offence?
For the season, the five-man line-up of Barlow-Kennedy-McCarron-Goulding-Ware has logged 56 minutes, per HoopsDB, and blitzed teams on the offensive end at 119 points-per-100 possessions, whilst allowing 106.7 points-per-100 possessions. The defensive glass has more than held up. It's their own version of the Death Line-up.
Yet when Vickerman did loose that alignment in their final match-up of the season, the Kings were ready. Bogut simply switched to D.J. Kennedy, an iffy shooter. Kennedy never stretched Bogut with his off-the-bounce game; he will need to.
Kennedy is one of the best in the league in attacking off a catch, once the defence is scrambled, mitigating his so-so outside shooting.
In this match-up, he has to engage Bogut, and not allow the Kings' centre to set the terms. That's one reason why the Wildcats have enjoyed success over the Kings this season - Angus Brandt is not afraid to attack Bogut.
If you don't, he's too smart. He's too good at playing the angles and the percentages. Attack Bogut and you can get him into foul trouble.
United should dominate the offensive glass whenever Bogut does sit. Pledger is too big without bodying him early - I just don't trust the other Kings bigs. Ray Turner tries.
Jerome Randle has been spectacular against United and outplayed Ware. Per SpatialJam, he was 49.2 percent from the field against Melbourne this season, including 42.1 percent from deep. His outside shooting is symptomatic of the Kings at large; they are mostly good from deep, yet highly selective.
Brad Newley, relegated to fourth option at times, is shooting the 3-ball at 20 percent in 2019, per SpatialJam. Just quietly, Kyle Adnam has also been below league average at 31 percent.
Randle can cannibalise possessions within a 2-minute stretch, but it sometimes feels as though he's the Kings' best source of offence.
During the season, United toggled between hard shows, traps and drop-back schemes in the pick-and-roll against Randle. Barlow has been nimble enough to chase Randle until Ware recovers, and then sprint back to his mark.
The Kings have been smart enough when they sense a team's coverage. Those Randle-to-Bogut alley-oops are in part generated by preying on the opposition's tendencies.
United needs to be on high alert when Randle gives up the ball and jets around the baseline, only to emerge from a thicket of screens on the other side to collect the ball at speed. When defenders jump out at Randle, he's lofted loopy passes to a rolling Bogut for the alley-oop.
Whilst Vickerman has been happy to tinker with line-ups, the Kings have mostly relied upon their starting group.
The Bogut-David Wear-Newley-Lisch-Randle unit has logged almost 365 minutes of court-time, by far and away the most used line-up in the league, per HoopsDB. It has been good.
Flip Wear for Daniel Kickert, and the offence gins up (with a very noticeable drop-off in defence and rebounding). Wear might not be the archetypal import, but his shooting has been respectable. He's a better defender and rebounder than Kickert.
The Kings' rebounding, as a whole, has been shocking whenever Bogut sits (and sometimes when he's on the court, courtesy of a zone). The squeaky wheel has been the alarmingly low offensive rebounding numbers.
For the loud voices bemoaning the Kings lack of o-board zeal, there's a certain lack of context surrounding those cries. Basketball things such as types of shots, location of shots, floor balance and personnel on the court matter. Offensive rebounding is a philosophy, not a must.
The 2006 Melbourne Tigers sported the second-worst offensive rebounding rate in the league, per SpatialJam. Guess what? They won the title anyway.
Offensive rebounding is great, but what if it comes at the cost of transition defence? I know what I would prioritise.
On a related note, teams that took the most long 2s - the Kings and the Hawks, per Crunchtime Shots - sported by far the worst offensive rebounding rate in the league. Jerome Randle, a superstar midrange shot-maker, took by far the most in the league.
For the Kings, were they intentionally punting on the offensive glass to focus on their atrocious transition defence? Or did the types of shots, and players they have, impact their rebounding profile?
The answer probably veers towards the middle of the spectrum, but the point is that context matters.
Overall, the Kings' defensive record has not been altogether surprising - Bogut is a transformative figure on that end - though the manner in which they arrived there certainly is. Bogut and Lisch mostly carry the heavy burden on this end.
Great defences have lapses; the Kings have funks.
It's hard to reconcile the defensive numbers with what we see on the court. It has been alarming to see the manner of their breakdowns, the wide open 3s that opponents have inexplicably missed, and the continuing struggles with locating dangerous shooters in defensive transition.
There seems to be a missing connectivity, a collective grasp of a shared identity and purpose. Little things build upon one another to become pillars of that identity, such as diligence in boxing out, selflessly covering a teammate in rotation. There is a pride.
I don't quite see that consistently with the Kings - yet. Still, here they are in the playoffs, with a chance to progress to the Grand Final series.
After all this, it's still a coin flip for me. It's going to be tight.
United have the championship experience from a mere 12 months ago, but the Kings have arguably a better bench. United has the clear edge in coaching nous and has home-court advantage. United might have more two-way potential. The Kings have less line-up flexibility.
I'm going with United by a hair.
Prediction: Melbourne 2-1 Sydney