The top two teams in net rating at season's end will once again collide in the league's showcase series. Perth and Melbourne both stomped over their respective semifinal opponents, evincing a superiority in offensive execution, smart team defence and jaw-dropping individual offensive artistry, when needed. Neither team will have a meaningful rest advantage leading into Friday's Game 1 at the RAC Arena.
As such, another five-game epic is likely in this year's Grand Final. Perth and Melbourne split their season series, with the home team prevailing on each occasion.
The Wildcats have home court -- and the RAC Arena is a formidable advantage -- yet United hold no fear of the venue and have the more complete team; they are an amorphous unit that shape-shifts depending upon the match-up. They are the defending champions.
Trevor Gleeson, criminally overlooked for Coach of the Year consideration, will match wits against the now two-time Coach of the Year in Dean Vickerman. There is no decided advantage in the coaching battle.
The Wildcats have the greatest singular offensive talent in the league in Bryce Cotton. United have the best backcourt rotation. In Damian Martin., the Wildcats have a legendary defender who will literally run himself into oblivion to contain said backcourt. United has more pieces.
We are primed for what may be the greatest Grand Final series of the modern era.
Whilst the bulk of United's defensive attention will rightfully focus upon Cotton, the Nick Kay-David Barlow match up looms as series defining.
Nick Kay has blossomed into perhaps Gleeson's best all-around player. It's easy to recognise the gaudy counting numbers but he has become a secondary fulcrum in the offence. He toggles seamlessly between the 4 and 5 spots, defending his butt off. He is inhaling rebounds for breakfast.
Much has already been said of Dave Barlow's production and 3-point shooting, yet his greatest impact may be his ability to defend along the perimeter, and hold his own in the post.
The value of nimble 4s cannot be overstated. We tend to focus on the offensive end and their ability to either stretch the floor or act as secondary playmakers. Yet that only represents half of their value. Both Kay and Barlow are so quick, and so smart, that they can blow up pick-and-rolls on their own; when their enemy is the screener and pops, they have the uncanny ability to show, force the ball-handler back, and then recover to their assignment who has relocated to the 3-point arc. They effectively keep it to a two-man game, limiting crisis rotations across the backline.
When United invariably blitz any pick-and-roll action involving Cotton, they will make some hard choices.
Melbourne will be comfortable trapping Cotton, whenever Angus Brandt is the screener, and having McCarron rotate off Damian Martin in the corners to tag the rolling big man. They will flat-out disrespect Martin as an offensive force - and that is the right play. Every team regularly deploys this blatant disregard. Martin still finds ways to contribute, either as an outlet or offensive rebounder. He is perhaps the sneakiest setter of flare screens in the league.
Things get a little dicier when Kay is the screener -- he is the Wildcats' main screen-setter -- because he has the most diverse skillset amongst the Perth bigs. He's comfortable working in space and sliding into little pockets of space, even when the opposition deploys a zone. He is shooting a preposterous 71.4 percent from deep against United (small sample size alert!), per SpatialJam.
Across four games this season, Kay has averaged 17.3 points and 11.3 rebounds against Melbourne whilst shooting 55 percent from the field.
On defence, he's an Energiser bunny, always moving, head always on a swivel, looking for ways to fortify the paint. In their January stoush, Kay was fearless in abandoning Tohi Smith-Milner, a non-shooting threat, to crash the defensive glass.
Barlow's offensive value lies mostly in his 3-point shooting, whether in the pick-and-pop, or as the outlet at the top of the arc. Kay cannot abandon him.
On defence, Barlow needs to stay out of foul trouble - United does not have another appropriate major minutes match-up for Kay unless Kennedy slides up (or Kay moves to the 5 to match up with Boone), but that runs the risk of being bullied on the glass.
I am not sure we will see Melbourne downsize with Barlow at the 5 for any extended stretches. There is no value in that play for this series - Kay is essentially a better version of Barlow at this point.
In Round 18, the Wildcats eviscerated United in the middle, such was the focus with rushing at Cotton. Perth thrived in that chaos and feasted upon the offensive glass. Melbourne cannot risk that by going small. Instead, we will likely see a heavy dose of conventional line-ups with two big men for both teams.
Per HoopsDB, the Wildcats' starting line-up of Kay-Angus Brandt-Martin-Terrico White-Cotton has been by far and away their most used unit, logging in almost 232 minutes for a net rating of plus-16.4 per 100-possessions. They are good.
They also can't seem to shoot; their collective 3-point percentage was 30.7 percent.
When it is crunch time, when United dial up the intensity, when Casper Ware (or Mitch McCarron) are denying Cotton, can this unit eke out enough points?
Gleeson could flip Brandt for Jesse Wagstaff for some added shooting and playmaking, and the offensive efficiency rises to 128 points-per-100-possessions. This unit is shooting the 3-ball at 44.4 percent - the Wildcats morph into the Brisbane Bullets.
Wagstaff, who looked cooked for the first half of the season, has lifted in the new year. Since February, he is shooting 50 percent from 3-point territory, albeit in a low volume of attempts, per SpatialJam.
Of course, basketball is a zero sum game. The pull for shooting necessitates a sacrifice in size - they concede 126.3 points per-100-possessions. This unit barely breaks even with their opponents. They die on the defensive glass.
How Trevor Gleeson deploys Clint Steindl for some extra shooting throughout the series will be fascinating. Defensively, Steindl can hang with Craig Moller or Peter Hooley, but there is no hiding spot when United deploy their full armada of perimeter stars.
In positive signs for the Red Army, Terrico White is shooting 42.9 percent from deep for the playoffs - he has become the second/third banana for Cotton that the Wildcats envisaged. Can he replicate his long-range shooting against Melbourne? Over three games against United this season, he's at 19 percent from 3-point range and 28.3 percent overall from the field.
The last time these two sides met, White was unavailable and Greg Hire started in his place. United abandoned Hire along the arc. When United forced the ball out of Cotton's hands, the offence flat-lined.
On a related note, Cotton has his lowest effective field goal percentage against United, per SpatialJam. His finishing powers in the paint dissipate against Melbourne - United have effectively shunted him off the 3-point line, and made him finish over bodies in the paint.
We have not seen this 3-point version of White against United before. If he continues his shooting form, it stretches Melbourne's defence enough - they won't be able to harass Cotton and clog the paint with such abandon.
White potentially swings the cost-benefit of the "trapping Cotton" strategy towards Perth. Yet every miss will embolden United. Vickerman will relentlessly keep his charges on task. They will force the Wildcats to extract every bit of offence from anyone outside of Cotton.
The Wildcats will target Alex Pledger when he spells Josh Boone, knowing that any pick-and-roll involving the giant human will yield something fruitful - likely open airspace, for Cotton. Yet Pledger has dominated the Wildcats on the offensive glass, with the second best o-board rating against Perth in the league, per SpatialJam.
United destroyed the Kings on the 3-point line in their semifinal series. Ware was an unconscionable 52.6 percent from beyond the arc in 9.5 attempts per game; Chris Goulding was at 40 percent, from 10 attempts per contest. Those numbers are ludicrous.
Thriving around that shot-making, Mitch McCarron and D.J. Kennedy were perfect secondary stars in their dismantling of Sydney. This is the ecosystem in which United's players work within.
Their talent level is unfair. Their stars have more space in which to work with. The Wildcats will not trap simply because United have too many options (disclaimer: they will when Craig Moller is on the court).
Martin will start on Ware, and toggle onto Goulding when the United flamethrower checks in. United will start conventionally with Ware matched up on Cotton, and McCarron freelancing off of Martin. Vickerman will throw different bodies at Cotton; Ware, McCarron and D.J. Kennedy all offer different challenges.
Depending upon the health of Mitch Norton, Gleeson does not have the same luxury of defensive options along the perimeter - it is basically Damian Martin, the greatest defender of a generation. No one is better at sliding with his enemy, or locking and trailing. No one is more opportunistic with swipes and deflections if you're foolish enough to expose the ball for even a split second. No one converges on the split line with such zeal, every damn possession, to snag a timely rebound. Yet he will be hard-pressed in this series.
United have seemingly mastered the ability to weather a storm, stay relatively close, and close out a game like a boxer, with a flurry of heavy-hitting blows for the knockout. They have more two-way potential. They are not afraid of playing in Perth.
Ware and Goulding are humming. Peak Boone is back.
I oscillated between Perth and Melbourne a dozen times; The Wildcats are good. But United are better.
Prediction: Melbourne 3-2 Perth