The NBL season will begin with what looks like a clear title favourite, the defending champions looking shaky, and some wildly impressive local talent set to hit the floor.
It's a recipe for a 2020-21 campaign that will be as exciting as it'll be competitive, but not all is as clear as it seems.
So, ahead of the opening tip, we're here to answer the questions burning the brightest in the NBL stratosphere.
Fact or fiction: Melbourne United is the favourite to win the NBL title
Olgun Uluc: Fact. It's important not to overthink things sometimes. Melbourne United has the most talent and the best depth. They're one of those teams that should be able to cruise through the regular season, but are still built perfectly for a finals run. All you have to do is go through the roster: Jock Landale, Chris Goulding, Mitch McCarron, Scottie Hopson are already the core of the best starting group in the NBL, and Shea Ili, David Barlow, Jack White, Jo-Lual Acuil Jr. and Yudai Baba almost seem too perfect as complementary players. It's championship or bust for Dean Vickerman and Co.
Kane Pitman: Fact. It's impossible to deny United's ability to acquire marquee recruits, with the loss of Melo Trimble and Shawn Long immediately countered by the additions of Jock Landale and Scotty Hopson. Along with those two, Mitch McCarron, Chris Goulding and Dave Barlow make up the most talented starting five in the league on paper ... but Melbourne have been paper champions before haven't they?
Steve Smith: Absolute fact. In years past, there have been many pre-seasons where United were prohibitive favourites to win it all, albeit with a giant 'if' - as in, IF they can share the ball ... IF they can mould all that talent into a cohesive unit ... IF they're willing to sacrifice. I suspect that won't be a problem this season. With Mitch McCarron as the primary playmaker (and the more than capable Shea Ili as his backup - very few teams have a glut of talent in the backcourt like Melbourne does), United can distribute the ball more efficiently than in years past. Throw in a loaded roster headlined by Jock Landale, Scotty Hopson and Chris Goulding, dependable vets like David Barlow, as well as plenty of depth, and Melbourne's title chances are as good as they'll ever be.
Will the Perth Wildcats make it 35 straight post-season appearances?
Uluc: Sadly, no. I've learned in the past to doubt the Perth Wildcats at my own risk, but this feels different. The prospect of no - or limited - home games aside, the Wildcats just didn't get any better over the off-season. Bryce Cotton will have to play at his MVP level every game, and John Mooney will need to be an All-NBL First Teamer for this team to even sneak into the finals, and that's a tall order. Things can change if Cotton gets his citizenship so the team can add another import, but an issue I imagine we'll point to a lot of the season is the Wildcats' lack of creators. Their roster is clearly worse than last season and other teams across the NBL have gotten much better, so this is probably where the absurdly impressive post-season streak comes to an end.
Pitman: Who would dare write off the San Antonio Spurs of the NBL? Like the Spurs of 2020, the Wildcats are facing a changing of the guard this season and while re-signing Bryce Cotton was pivotal, question marks remain over their ability to cover the loss of Nick Kay. If Perth are to once again make the postseason, you will likely find import John Mooney has become one of the most impactful big men in the league, but for the first time in a long time the talent gap appears to be widening.
Smith: [The very deepest of breaths] No. Now, having said that, I hate betting against the Wildcats. Hate it. They've been spectacularly good at many things for a long time, and that includes proving everyone wrong when we write them off. But ... this just feels different. And not in a good way. Of all the teams in the league, it feels like the Wildcats have done the least over what has been a very long off-season. They still have the league's best player in Bryce Cotton and that will win some games on its own. But depth is a massive issue - they may well be starting development player Luke Travers on opening night. Much will depend on Cotton's fellow import John Mooney, new Wildcat Todd Blanchfield and veteran Clint Steindl to give enough offensive support to the reigning MVP. Lots and lots of questions hang over the two-time defending champions.
What was the most underrated off-season move?
Uluc: Anthony Drmic's decision to sign with the Brisbane Bullets happened really early in the off-season, so it's easy to forget that he's a new addition to the team; in saying that, all signs are pointing to the sharpshooter have a really important and substantial role. The early word I've heard is that it's likely he comes off the bench for the Bullets, but don't be surprised to see him finish games, because he really is one of the most reliable spot-up shooters in the league. Drmic will enter his prime going into the season, and he has a good shot at producing at a really high level.
Pitman: When assessing winners and losers of the offseason we too often look at additions and overlook the clubs that retained their stars. In re-signing Cam Oliver and Scott Machado, the Cairns Taipans were the big winners of the winter, and maybe I'm cheating here but I just want an opportunity to talk about Kouat Noi. The 23-year-old draft hopeful was showing flashes of dominance last season before a serious ankle injury cut his season short. A physical presence on both ends of the floor, Noi could be set for a big rise in 2021 and while he was always expected to stay with the Taipans regardless of whether his name was called in the NBA draft, retaining his services was a big boost for the title hopes the snakes.
Smith: Cairns re-signing both Scott Machado and Cam Oliver. Continuity is everything, especially with talented import players who know how to win. Look at Perth in years prior. With both players -- either of whom can win games single-handedly -- locked up for two years, the Snakes have a championship-calibre base. Cairns was this close to making the title round last season, with the extra layer of familiarity with coach Mike Kelly's system it stands to reason the Taipans will be right there again.
Which team are you most excited to watch next season?
Uluc: The Cairns Taipans have a sprinkling of everything: two MVP-calibre players in Scott Machado and Cameron Oliver - one of whom is a passing savant, while the other can get points on the board with NBA-level athleticism - a budding young star in Kouat Noi, and a probably 2021 NBA draftee in Mojave King. Throw in some old school bully ball when Nate Jawai comes off the bench and the Taipans will bring a lot to the table, all while playing an exciting, dynamic brand of basketball.
Pitman: SEM Phoenix: Success in year two for the Phoenix will likely come down to their ability to compete on the defensive end. According to Spatial Jam, SEM were last in defensive efficiency a season ago while holding the second-ranked offence. The electric Keifer Sykes offsets the loss of John Roberson at the guard spot and if import Ben Moore can provide a stable anchor on defence, you should expect to see SEM close out close games with more success than a season ago.
Smith: I can't split United (for the aforementioned reasons), Cairns (ditto), aaaaaand ... the Hawks. It's been a remarkable turnaround for the embattled Illawarra franchise with new ownership, a new (legendary) coach and an almost completely new roster. How Brian Goorjian shapes this team in his return to the NBL will be a must-watch. Throw in an exciting line-up led by Deng Adel, Tyler Harvey and Justinian Jessup and The Hawks will be a dark horse for a finals berth.
Which Next Star will have the most successful season?
Uluc: This one is really tough, because there's a good chance that all four Next Stars will be major impact guys for their respective team. Though Didi Louzada will get a chance to start strong because of Xavier Cooks' injury, I'd put this as a tie between Josh Giddey and Justinian Jessup. Both will have the opportunity to produce a ton, and what we've seen during preseason action bodes well for both of them having success throughout the season. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Jessup averages upwards of 17 points a game, and if Giddey is able to consistently put up 12-7-7 type of numbers.
Pitman: Didi Louzada is going to see an increased role in Sydney by virtue of development and necessity. While LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton stole the spotlight last season, Louzada quietly built an impressive base while battling nagging injuries on a championship contending squad. Year two in the league should see the 21-year-old with the ball in his hands more frequently and that alone will give you reason to watch the Kings.
Smith: It's the boring answer but it HAS to be Josh Giddey. The kid has looked extraordinarily legit in the pre-season and we should only expect more when the real stuff gets going. The LaMelo Ball experience last season showed how good the Next Stars can be when you make a talented kid the ignition system for a team. The Ball experience last season also showed the downside of doing so. That won't be the case for Adelaide with Giddey; expect similar production without the off-court histrionics that followed the Hawks wherever they went.
Who will finish the season in the top-3 of Most Valuable Player voting?
Uluc: Going into the season, my top-three in order looks like this: Scott Machado, Bryce Cotton, and Mitch Creek. In his first season in the NBL, Machado looked more than comfortable, and I fully expect him to take another big step forward, especially with DJ Newbill gone. The Taipans will lean on Machado even more, and I wouldn't be surprised one bit if he goes out and averages 20 points and 10 assists for a team that could be one of the best in the league. The other two are obvious: Cotton is a two-time MVP and will also see his role expand from last season, while Creek - who was in the MVP conversation for the start of last season, before he seemingly burned out -- has the potential to be the best player on both ends for the Phoenix.
Pitman: Ok, let's get wild. I'm predicting SEM to be on the fringe of the postseason and if they are to make the meteoric rise to the playoffs, they might just have an MVP candidate on their roster. While Mitch Creek is the more likely option, I am going to go out on a limb and predict Keifer Sykes will average 20+ points per game to put himself in the conversation to win it. In a more moderate take, give me Cam Oliver and Bryce Cotton to round out the top three.
Smith: Scott Machado will be the MVP. Coming off a season where he was a runner-up for the award, Machado knows his team and knows the league. He was dynamic from the get-go and he's only going to be more comfortable with a year under his belt. With Cairns looking to establish itself as a genuine title contender, expect the former Houston, Lakers and Golden State playmaker to lead from the front. Expect Lamar Patterson and Jock Landale to also be right there for the award at season's end as well. Patterson established his MVP bona fides with Brisbane and there's no reason to think he won't be a similar force for New Zealand this season. With the retirement of Andrew Bogut, Landale is Australia's best big man playing in the NBL - a versatile pivot who can produce at both ends of the court.