The 2021 NBL season has reached its midpoint, and things are starting to become a lot clearer.
We've gotten through an ever-changing start to the season, an NBL Cup that was obviously won by the Perth Wildcats, and are now in the midst of the most normal stretch of games. Fatigue is kicking it for both players and observers, but there's half a season to play and a title to be won, so there's no rest for the wicked.
The good news is there's no outright favourite to win it all and, as of now, most teams are still in the finals race. Here's where each team sits as we edge closer to the post-season and records begin to matter more and more.
The title favourites going into the 2021 season remain just that, but it's nowhere near as clear cut as it once was. Let's start with the fact that, apart from a blip in March while undermanned, United has been as advertised; Landale is their main two-way threat, the centerpiece for a team that has a heap of talent. Mitch McCarron has been the steadying force and Chris Goulding's scoring punch is barely rivaled in the NBL, as Dean Vickerman's team showed it can legitimately go nine-deep and not lose a step.
But things shifted when Jack White went down with an achilles injury that will keep him out of the remainder of the season. All of a sudden, United lost a starter; its defensive spark and a key energy piece. What White brought won't be duplicated by whichever replacement player United chooses to bring in, and that severely hinders their chances at winning it all. United is still as talent-laden and well-coached as they come, so betting against them to walk away with the NBL Championship wouldn't be the smart thing to do -- they're still the favourites -- but there are some questions marks that no longer make it a forgone conclusion.
Bryce Cotton in Trevor Gleeson's offensive structure has always led to a finals appearance, so, in hindsight, it wasn't very smart for most of us to assume that wasn't going to happen again.
The reasoning was there: the Wildcats had clearly lost talent compared to last season, so assuming they'd perform worse wasn't supposed to be a stretch. What got lost was that the team just recruited extremely well -- finding players who perfectly fit their structure and culture -- and they still have Cotton, who remains the best player in the league. At this point, Cotton is the clear MVP favourite, while John Mooney may well be coming in second. The import is the only player in the NBL averaging a double-double, seamlessly transitioning from college to the pros to become an elite international big-man.
At this point in the season, the Wildcats have the best import duo in the NBL, probably the frontrunner for the Best Defensive Player award in Mitch Norton, and Todd Blanchfield in a career year; all on a roster full of players who know how to accept a role. They're the hottest team in the league, and are rightly in the thick of the title race.
THE BIG THREAT
South East Melbourne Phoenix
It's been an up-and-down, sometimes volatile season for the Phoenix, but there's reason to believe their ceiling is high enough to be a legitimate threat to those two title favourites.
Adding Ryan Broekhoff does that to a team. And with Mitch Creek back in the mix, the Phoenix are a healthy Keifer Sykes away from having the firepower to truly compete with anybody.
Creek was playing at an MVP level before legal issues temporarily sidelined him, so his return can't be understated. With Ben Moore finding his footing in the NBL, Yanni Wetzell, doing the same as a rookie, and Kyle Adnam thriving during Sykes' absence, there aren't too many weak spots for this team. It took a while for Broekhoff to get his legs underneath him after a long hiatus from basketball, but the Boomers wing is looking good, and opens things up in a big way for the Phoenix.
Things still need to fall into place in order for Simon Mitchell's team to hit that sweet spot but, when they do, they may be a threat to win it all.
ON THE FINALS BUBBLE
When the Hawks started the season 4-0, there were premature calls of them being a title threat to Melbourne United. Tyler Harvey emerged as one of the best scorers in the NBL, Justinian Jessup was showing why the Golden State Warriors used a second-round pick on him, and Justin Simon was a terror defensively; things were looking up.
Since then, the team just has seemingly lost all of its offensive flow. Harvey's recent back injury aside, the spacing has felt off and opposing teams have been able to just load up on the Hawks' main offensive threats without much consequence. A lot of that falls on the shoulders of Deng Adel who, at this point, maybe just isn't the player we all thought he was; he was a 13-points-a-game-guy in the G-League, so assuming he'd come and dominate in the NBL probably wasn't the right line of thinking. Still, he should be performing at a much higher level, especially if this Hawks team wants to reach its potential, which is relatively high. A high ceiling is usually the case with a team coached by Brian Goorjian; one that expectedly has among the best defences in the league, but has struggled in the half court on the other end.
Sam Froling making a Most Improved Player case has really helped this team a lot, and AJ Ogilvy has been an unheralded force on the defensive end, so there are effective, steadying pieces there. It all just needs to come together, so we'll see whether these Hawks can find their flow as the postseason nears.
As the Kings get healthier, they get scarier. After a down year, Casper Ware is showing signs of that two-way monster of a point guard we've seen before, and now he has Jarell Martin back on a consistent basis to lead the team's frontcourt. Martin is this team's best player, so him being healthy lifts these Kings in a huge way. So, that's some import duo, and just a really good foundation for a team that, when healthy, isn't one you want to be up against in the finals.
One of the swing factors for the Kings was going to be their young talent, but that's where those injuries have perhaps been a blessing in disguise. Dejan Vasiljevic was this team's No. 2 option for a good portion of the season, so he's developed a level of confidence that could help this team moving forward, assuming his Achilles injury isn't serious. The same can be said for Jordan Hunter, who looks to have locked up the starting five spot after excelling during Martin's early absence.
When you look at the contenders in the NBL, though, there's always that reliable third option, so the question for the Kings is who that will be for them. Going into the season, they thought it was going to be Didi Louzada, but he's been moderate, if that. Can it be Vasiljevic on a consistent basis -- his production has dipped, of late -- or is Adam Forde banking on Xavier Cooks returning from a difficult injury to slot into that spot? If the latter is what ends up manifesting, don't rule this team out as June rolls around.
As teams left the Melbourne hub, Nathan Sobey was in the MVP conversation and things were really looking up for the Bullets. That's until the injury bug hit them particularly hard.
Vic Law, the team's best two-way talent and one of the most effective players in the NBL, suffered an ankle injury that will see him sit for the remainder of the season. Even with Lamar Patterson entering the fray, that's a substantial loss for Andrej Lemanis.
The Bullets really were on a nice little roll for a bit there, with Matt Hodgson looking dominant in stretches, Anthony Drmic getting to his spots really well, and Jason Cadee being as reliable as ever; they had emerged as a potent offensive team in a league that rewards that. Law's injury just makes it unlikely that they can compete with those teams at the top. Sobey remains a bright spot, and the leap his taken as a player truly is remarkable and could very well keep the Bullets afloat, but they're one of the worst defensive teams in the league, so they're hanging around in this tier by a thread.
THERE'S A GLIMMER OF HOPE
New Zealand Breakers
When looking at the Breakers' season up until this point, it's important to note the franchise's particularly difficult obstacles. They were hit by the league-wide injury bug, but have also been on the road for 100 percent of their season, and even lost a player who had to return home to his family.
That context matters, and it's obviously a big reason why Dan Shamir's team is 5-12 up until this point. Why there's still hope is that they have a few games in hand, are getting bodies back, and look to be finding some semblance of a groove. Tai Webster has shown to be a really solid local option at the point, with most of the Breakers' offence coming off his penetration, while Finn Delany has looked really reliable on both ends. Then, we have the recent emergence of Colton Iverson; a guy who we always thought would be one of the premier bigs in the league, but took a little while to find his footing. Thomas Abercrombie has also been really serviceable, and Rasmus Bach might just be the best move of the off-season; he's the most efficient shooter in the league.
William McDowell-White is a weird fit but adding another ball-carrier to a basketball team in 2021 is generally a good thing, and let's see what Levi Randolph can bring when he joins the group, but is it too late? Is it too late to have this team mesh as one that can make a late finals run? We still have half a season to go, so it's possible, but there are teams with better records who are a lot closer to finding their respective identity, so it won't be easy for New Zealand. Perhaps some home games at the end of April might speed things along.
It's easy to forget that the 36ers were 5-3 at one point in the season; and yes, while most of those games were played at home, they had developed a nice identity. Then, Isaac Humphries -- perhaps the league's MVP up until that point -- went down with a foot injury, and that's when things began to spiral.
Conner Henry's team hasn't been able to play a consistent brand of basketball since their two-way anchor was sidelined, but not all hope is lost. Daniel Johnson is still an offensive savant, Josh Giddey is improving every game and looks like a Rookie of the Year favourite and lottery lock, Sunday Dech is playing his role to perfection on both ends, and Brandon Paul now gives the 36ers that high-level import they needed from the start. Throw in Humphries, who isn't far from returning, and the pieces are there to make a late run to the finals. The question is whether they can tread water until that point, and then put all of the puzzle pieces together in time to make some noise.
THINGS ARE GRIM
Things just haven't panned out for the Taipans.
Going into Round 13, they sit on a 5-16 record with no real sign of their fortunes turning around. Scott Machado and Cameron Oliver have performed at around the same level as they did during the 2019-20 campaign, but the hole DJ Newbill left was never filled. It wasn't Kouat Noi, before he went down with a PCL injury; nor was it Mirko Djeric or Mojave King, the latter of whom has never really given the opportunity to shine. What we were left with was a team that's below average on both ends, and with no way to compete with teams that have multiple high-level players and depth to match.
There's no real solution here, either, so it seems Mike Kelly's team has resigned to the fact that they'll be walking away with this season's wooden spoon.