NBL Playoffs: Each team's case for (and against) winning the title

Four teams remain. The Kings, Wildcats, Taipans and United all believe they have a legitimate chance to advance to the Big Dance. And from there, anything can happen.

With that in mind, let's take a quick look at the case for, and against, winning the title for each team.

All numbers courtesy of Spatialjam.com and jordanmcnbl.com unless otherwise noted.

Sydney Kings

Offence rank: 7th
Defence rank: 1st

The case for:

Defence wins championships and the Kings have boasted the top rated defence all season.

Andrew Bogut may be the centrepiece of their vaunted resistance, but at Will Weaver's disposal is a platoon of long-armed, mean dudes flanking the smartest defensive centre in the league. Will Magnay is a legitimate, fearsome shot-blocking presence, but no one comes close to matching the interior smarts of Bogut.

The mid-season addition of Xavier Cooks has vaulted the Kings to another level. Cooks is essentially the Kyle Anderson of the NBL - a super smart menace who seems to read things ahead of the play.

His defensive rebound rate is 30.3 percent. To put that into perspective, Cooks cleans the glass better than most centres. For players to have logged at least 300 minutes of action, he trails only his All NBL Second Team centre in defensive rebound rate across the league.

His ability to toggle forward spots provides added versatility for the Kings. They have every defensive scenario covered; they can stay big, go small, go medium.

Against their first round opponents in Melbourne, the Kings have a massive advantage at the four-spot in Jae'Sean Tate. United have no natural match up for him.

Per RealGM, the Kings' bench ranked third in the league in scoring and led the league in true shooting for second units. That has been powered by Daniel Kickert, but the flame-throwing of Shaun Bruce in the first half of the season at also helped. Bruce's shooting has since fallen off a cliff.

United's bench have struggled for consistent production all season, though the Melo Trimble gambit as a sixth man may change the calculus here.

Does Will Weaver continue with his dogmatic approach towards substitutions, keeping everyone fresh and jack up the pace? United would love a fast-paced game.

The case against:

Despite finishing top, the offence remains a question mark. Via Spatialjam and data from jordanmcnbl.com, the Kings rank 7th for the season; they're 8th on RealGM. They have been slightly better in the new year, ranking 4th since January 1.

Casper Ware's season-long doldrums in efficiency is hard to ignore, but offsetting Ware's cold shooting has been a surprising development.

Deshon Taylor can't seem to miss from deep, after posting an effective field goal percentage of 41 in his first 13 games in the league. The same surge applies to Didi Louzada.

Will they be able to replicate this in the postseason hothouse?

We know what Ware is capable of, but will he rise for the occasion? Does this, in turn, raise our hopes for the Kings unit as a collective to rise with him on the offensive end?

That certainly appeared to be case during the regular season series against United, which the Kings won 3-1, including three straight. Their average margin of victory was 17 points - that is significant.

Across those four regular season games, Ware averaged 28.75 points, including 48.8 percent from deep (10.8 attempts per game).

Take out those United games, which appear to be outliers, and Ware's numbers drop: 18.2 points per game for the season, at 48.5 percent for two-pointers and 26.7 percent from downtown.

Which Ware do we see in the playoffs?

Perth Wildcats

Offence: 1st
Defence: 2nd

The case for:

The Wildcats' overall season numbers include the best offence in the league and the second best rated defence. That combination seems important.

Zoom in a little, and in the final month of the season, the Wildcats boasted by far and away the best defence in the league, ahead of even the Kings.

The Wildcats are the amongst the best in forcing opposition turnovers - keep that in mind considering their first-up opponents in the playoffs.

Something else the Wildcats are good at? Crashing the offensive glass.

Excluding Dario Hunt, only Majok Majok and Nick Kay amongst Wildcats reside in the top 15 players across the league (minimum 100 minutes) in o-board rate, but they somehow rank in the top echelon. It's baked into their DNA. Nick Kay just regularly outworks his opponent.

Miles Plumlee has been inconsistent (hey, another five-man who can't nail down consistent minutes under Trevor Gleeson), but there is one very identifiable skill that he brings to the table: defensive rebounding.

The Wildcats' defensive rebound rate was a putrid 69.6 percent before Plumlee's arrival - an unfathomable mark. He has solidified that area for the Wildcats.

Where Plumlee will also excel is as the roll man, if he plays major minutes. Like all teams, the Taipans will focus their energies in forcing the ball out of Bryce Cotton's hands, with multiple bodies chasing him. Both Kay and Plumlee offer sanctuary as different types of outlets - Kay as the playmaker, or Plumlee as the ferocious rim-running giant.

Case against:

Cairns, their semifinal opponents, hold a 2-1 season series edge over the Wildcats, though they have not played each other since December, when both teams were still figuring out who they were.

Terrico White's form is a worry. Since January, he's down to 12.3 points and 25 percent from deep. Against the Taipans, he averaged 18 points in two games.

His lack of reliable production has been mitigated by Clint Steindl's shooting and Kay's consistency, but White is that secondary perimeter shot-creator to relieve Cotton.

Also, how will Trevor Gleeson reintegrate Damian Martin into the rotation? Will he start? Martin could have won Grand Final series MVP last year, such was his brilliance in shutting down Casper Ware and Chris Goulding.

We know that defenders will sag off him to help on Cotton. We know that he will either float into spaces and launch those runners, set an off-ball screen, or crash the offensive glass

Mitch Norton has been exceptional as the fill-in starter, not only approximating the defensive tone that Martin sets, but being able to space the floor. He's 30.9 percent for the season from deep, though that mark has improved to 34.8 percent since the new year.

Cairns Taipans

Offence: 6th
Defence: 3rd (tied with United)

The case for:

October 18. Do we still remember that game?

Those Taipans had started the season 0-3 (and weeks later would be a disastrous 2-6), and staggered into RAC Arena. For 40 minutes, we saw a snapshot of what the Taipans could become in a 99-76 stomping of the Wildcats in their famed fortress.

Scott Machado and D.J. Newbill were known quantities, but Cam Oliver announced himself - Cairns opened their scoring with an Oliver triple from the top of the arc - with a flurry of rim acrobatics and triples.

Of course, those early-season Taipans were not the fearsome unit we see now. They sported line-ups in which neither Machado nor Newbill were on the court - a preposterous notion to consider now.

Still, it was the foreshadowing of a free-wheeling Cairns offence, with shooters dotting the perimeter and opportunistic transition buckets. Since the new year, and excluding their final game capitulation, the Taipans scored at 1.29 points-per-possession for transition attempts. That mark would have easily led the league for the season.

Heading into the final round, since December 22, the Taipans owned the best net rating in the league, per Spatialjam.com. They gave up the stingiest true shooting percentage and owned a 9-1 record during that span.

Newbill emerged as an elite two-way force. He has managed to limit Bryce Cotton during their head-to-head match ups. For the season, Cotton only averaged 16 points against the Taipans.

The case against:

After a stodgy start to the season, Machado has coughed up the ball at unseemly levels for someone of his stature. Cam Oliver hands the ball over to the opposition whenever he tries to do too much.

During the debacle against the Bullets, the Taipans committed a mind-boggling 27 turnovers. In all, the Taipans threw the ball away 44 times in Round 20. That is stunning.

Perhaps the satisfaction of securing finals basketball, coupled with the ratcheted-up intensity of opponents frothing at the mouth was a factor. Who knows? But that is a staggering figure in the face of opposition pressure. How does that bode in the playoffs?

How will the Taipans deal with the inevitable Wildcats opening term barrage on Friday night? They crumpled and looked completely lost amidst the Bullets frenzy - wild shots, ugly turnovers and a general lack of composure. Even the normally composed Machado went bonkers. Well, dial that pressure up ten-fold when the Wildcat press in the cauldron of a playoff series.

What happens if Perth go up 15 inside five minutes? The Wildcats are masters at the possession game.

In related news, the Taipans are the worst defensive rebounding team in the league. This has plagued their campaign. They haemorrhage offensive rebounds.

We have wondered at Cam Oliver's season-long trend to abandon the concept of boxing out, relying purely on hops and the self-confidence that he will always have an athletic edge. He has largely been okay, but he has also ceded o-boards due to inconsistency in application.

This is not the team to be lazy and inattentive. The Wildcats will eviscerate teams as a collective.

It's not all on Oliver. Majok Deng is slight, and gets thrown around; Nate Jawai and Fabijan Krslovic are not exactly feasting on the glass. The Taipans will certainly welcome the return of Kouat Noi to their regular rotation, an athletic specimen who is an elite rebounding wing.

It's contingent that the Taipans finish defensive possessions with the rebound to split the possession battle as they're unlikely to get many chances on the offensive glass.

Melbourne United

Offence: 4th
Defence: 3rd (tied with Taipans)

The case for:

United's greatest advantage might be that they are battle hardened. Their final month featured a gauntlet of high stakes, must-win games. Their final round, when they had to defeat both the Taipans and the Phoenix, were clinical displays.

It featured ferocious scrambling on defence, something that has been rather haphazard all season. At their very best, they are indeed as good as any team left standing.

United's defence -- a supposed weakness -- has actually been better than the Taipans since the clock struck midnight on 1 January, 2020.

There has better backcourt balance. After season-long fit issues, Chris Goulding and Melo Trimble appear to be coalescing with both given their own moments to shine.

Dean Vickerman has probably settled on the perfect role for Mitch McCarron on a team which features a bunch of first options on offence.

United are also getting to the line - only the Adelaide 36ers have had a higher free throw rate over the past two months - which is important for a team that goes through offensive lulls.

Defensively, against the Kings, Vickerman has to deploy McCarron on Casper Ware. I get that Shea Ili is now starting but Ware has scorched Melbourne all season. You've got to utilise your best defender.

Shea Ili is an expert at denying the catch, but McCarron has the size and the ability to recover around screens to impact the shot of Ware.

The case against:

Game-to-game, quarter-to-quarter consistency has been the bane of United's season. Even amidst their final round heroics, there were worrying bouts of offensive stagnancy. Third quarters seem problematic.

Power forward has been a sore spot all season, although Dave Barlow has perked up of late. He could very well foul out in every game in this match up. Tohi Smith-Milner struggles.

Lual Acuil Jr has been a positive development, but defensively, he's not quite there yet.

The offensive resurgence of Goulding and Trimble has come at the opportune moment with Shawn Long's individual offence tanking over the final month.

Courtesy of data provided by jordanmcnbl.com, Long's post game has regressed over the past six games. His post-up volume has more than halved from 6.8 per game to 2.7 during that span; his efficiency has dropped from a respectable 0.89 points-per-possession, down to 0.68.

Verdict

Each team has question marks. There are scenarios in which any of them could advance. For what it's worth, I suspect the top two seeds will meet in the Grand Final series (my pick is the Kings sweep United, while the Wildcats win 2-1), but we will find out soon enough.