NBL Finals Preview: Why each team can and can't win the 2021 title

Well, we finally got there. After 21 rounds over six months, the NBL finals are upon us, and there's no rest for the wicked.

The Illawarra Hawks found out on Tuesday evening that their semi-finals matchup would be against the Wildcats, meaning flights to Perth were booked for the next morning, with Brian Goorjian's team given just 48 hours to prepare for Thursday's Game 1.

The other matchup has Melbourne United and the South East Melbourne Phoenix going at each other, but taking place in Sydney because, of course, COVID-19 was going to swoop in and continue to disrupt what's felt like the longest season on record.

No matter the circumstances, let's all just be happy that the playoffs are finally here.

With Bryce Cotton (quad) out for the season, it's not a shock that United has quickly been given the 'favourites' label; because, well, it's true. They are the favourites to win it all.

But, like any postseason, teams are coming in to compete, and you don't get this far by letting a narrative push you over. The reality is, this is the NBL; any team can come out and win any game. And that means any team can mess around and win it all.

Here's why they all can... and why they can't.

Melbourne United

Why they'll win it: There's a sense that we shouldn't get too cute with this.

United finished the regular season with the best record in the NBL, the No. 1 defence (a 105.8 Defensive Rating, according to RealGM), have the most impressive top-tier talent, and are the deepest. What do we usually look for when judging which teams might earn success in a playoff series? Elite talent, defence, and depth.

Jock Landale is one of the best players in the league and anchors what United does on both ends, and he's flanked by an elite two-way point guard in Mitch McCarron and one of the best scorers to ever come through Australia in Chris Goulding. This team can hurt you inside and out and, with the attention opposing defences are forced to put on guys like Landale and Goulding, seemingly always get a good look.

Does the opposition have a star perimeter threat? United has a smorgasbord of elite defenders to throw at him, from McCarron, to Shea Ili, to Sam McDaniel, and Yudai Baba.

We've gotten this far and haven't even mentioned Scotty Hopson, who's looked more and more like his former self as the season has progressed, and leads Dean Vickerman's second unit.

United will win it because they're unequivocally, and demonstrably, the best team in the NBL.

Why they won't win it: Honestly, and at the risk of sounding too confident, the only reason United won't win it all might be health.

Vickerman's team is so deep even that might not matter, but it's the one thing that would make them mortal to opposing teams. An injury or ailment, or any reason for a key player not to suit up, splashes blood in the water, and would give the opposition the confidence to pounce.

Outside of that, it'll come down to the role players making shots. You'd expect multiple bodies to be thrown at the likes of Landale and Goulding, so then we're looking at whether Ili can continue his impressive shooting season, or if McDaniel can keep gunning with confidence from beyond the arc. If those complementary guys aren't hitting, then the load grows for United's Boomers trio and the team might not look so invincible.

Perth Wildcats

Why they'll win it: Because Perth is Perth.

More than ever, the Wildcats need to lean in to what they do best: unapologetically stick to playing team basketball on both ends. No Cotton means Trevor Gleeson's team no longer has that bail-out, creating superstar, and it'd be silly to pretend that there's a player on the roster who can replace that skillset.

Still, there's real hope for the Wildcats if they stick to their fundamentals. It's what got them to this point despite what many people would've considered a severely diminished roster, and it's what can keep them ticking. They'll run that flex offence to death, creating open looks that you'd bet on the team's veteran guys hitting more times than not.

John Mooney has been one of the most consistent and productive players in the league, and the work rate he's demonstrated up to this point indicates that he should be okay with taking on more of a load. Todd Blanchfield is in the midst of a wildly impressive season, too, so the Wildcats will be in a great place if his form can carry over into the finals.

With no Cotton, a lot will come down to how Mitch Norton can steady the ship. We know he does that defensively, but the other end is where he'll need to step up. Norton isn't a pick-and-roll maestro, but he does his job extremely well and you'd trust that sort of player in a playoff environment.

Why they won't win it: This one's easy. The Wildcats won't win it because Cotton isn't playing.

It's the simple answer, but clearly the right one. The Wildcats had the best offence in the NBL this season, but that was largely due to Cotton's impact; the two-time MVP (and probably soon-to-be three-time MVP) leading the league in scoring with 23.5 points a game, while also dishing out just under six assists a game.

Any team missing its best player would struggle mightily, and there just isn't a replacement for what Cotton brings. Blanchfield has been terrific but a lot of his looks came because of the crowd Cotton draws, and the same can be said for why Mooney has shone. The Will Magnay experiment has been fine, but the big-man has never been the sort of player who can take over for a team, so that's not expected to happen going into these finals.

Can they get through the semi-finals relatively unscathed? Potentially; the crowd at RAC Arena will do its best to make sure of that. But, can they win a finals series against (probably) Melbourne? Not likely. Home court can only get the Wildcats so far.

Illawarra Hawks

Why they'll win it: It starts with Tyler Harvey.

The Hawks have leant on Harvey in a big way, and he's delivered. The combo guard was third in the league in scoring (20.4 points per game), shooting just under 40 percent from downtown on a whole lot of attempts. The Hawks looked mightily impressive over the last two months of the regular season, and a lot of that came down to Harvey's dominance on the offensive end.

The Hawks have one of the most potent offensive weapons in the league, and also one of the best defences - masterminded by Brian Goorjian; led by Justin Simon and AJ Ogilvy - so there's good reason to be confident that they can make some noise in a postseason.

Sam Froling has been one of the NBL's most improved players and his consistency toward the back-end of the season has given the Hawks a huge boost, especially considering their lack of front court depth. We know how talented Justinian Jessup is and, though he's had some trouble stringing back-to-back great games together, he can heat up in a hurry and change the complexion of a game in a few minutes.

Defence has always been this team's calling card, but their offence has flowed a whole lot better since signing Tim Coenraad and adding Isaac White back into the rotation. The spacing is there to allow Harvey, Froling, and Jessup to be at their best, and the other end of the floor remains as reliable as ever. These Hawks are a dark horse going into the playoffs.

Why they won't win it: Live by Tyler Harvey... die by Tyler Harvey.

How much can we really trust these Hawks to get points on the board when Harvey isn't hitting?

Jessup was drafted for a reason but he's had some issues finding consistency with his scoring in the NBL. Who steps up on the perimeter? Again, there's some interesting talent, but the Hawks' depth is extremely young, and a playoff game in Perth is no joke.

The Hawks' defence is generally not something we have to worry about, but if Harvey is contained, it's very difficult to see how Goorjian's team can keep up with even a Cotton-less Wildcats, let alone the other two teams in the postseason.

Perth, South East Melbourne, and Melbourne are the three most efficient offensive teams in the NBL... the Hawks are last. They've improved of late, but the Hawks rely a lot on Harvey hitting big, back-breaking, but difficult shots; what makes them special may be what ultimately sees them crashing down.

South East Melbourne Phoenix

Why they'll win it: The key to postseason success for the Phoenix is balance.

The talent is definitely there, and there are plenty of reasons why Simon Mitchell couldn't make this team click consistently throughout the regular season. Injuries were a big issue - particularly to Keifer Sykes - and then Mitch Creek went on his legal hiatus. Ryan Broekhoff was in and out of the lineup, and up and down with his form, and that all contributed to guys just not being able to get completely comfortable.

Going into the playoffs, though, the Phoenix are mostly healthy, with pieces that shouldn't be stunned by the limelight.

Sykes, in particular, has looked like the EuroLeague-level point guard we all expected to see throughout the season, and he clearly knows where his spots are on the floor. Creek remains one of the best local players in the league and has been deep into an NBL postseason before, while Broekhoff is another veteran guy who can settle things for the Phoenix.

Throw in really quality bigs in Ben Moore and Yanni Wetzell, as well as impact bench guards in Kyle Adnam and Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa, and you have a side that's talented enough to compete with anyone.

Why they won't win it: Talent is cool and all, but whether it fits is another thing completely.

No-one is denying how accomplished some of this Phoenix roster is - especially at the top-end - but, for big stretches throughout the season, it's just looked like a mish mash of high-level players who never really worked out how to exist alongside one another.

As much as Sykes has found his form of late, Creek has seemingly dropped off, and that's concerning for Mitchell's team. On top of that, the Phoenix will likely be missing Cameron Gliddon for their semi-finals series (he joined his wife for the birth of his child), and no-one has really shown the ability to consistently fill that three-point shooting, off-guard spot. Broekhoff has been up-and-down since signing in the NBL, and Reuben Te Rangi is a sub-30 percent shooter from downtown. Adnam has improved a ton offensively, but you're giving up so much on the other end of the floor.

The reason the Phoenix won't win it is because they haven't shown that they can perform at a high level on a consistent basis. A lot of that comes down to an inability to lock in on an identity, and time is probably up for them to figure out what that is.