The 2021 NBL Grand Final is a battle between a superteam and a super team.
Note the distinction. Melbourne United is wildly talented and deep; led by a trio of Australian Boomers, with starting-level players coming off the bench. Conversely, the Perth Wildcats may not have the same amount of esteemed talent, but every player fits the team's system to perfection.
At the helm of each are a pair of the most accomplished head coaches in NBL history, both out of country Victoria but who are forced to approach things in different ways.
For Trevor Gleeson, this season's Coach of the Year and a five-time NBL champion with the Wildcats, it was about finding the pieces that fit the system he'd executed to perfection for nearly a decade.
"It's like a big jigsaw puzzle," Gleeson told ESPN. "You've gotta get the right piece to the right place.
"You could have the best piece in the whole lot but it doesn't fit right. You've gotta tinker with it to make sure you get the strengths out of that player. We want the strengths of the team to come through... How can we melt those strengths into our system and incorporate that?
"That's one of the things we've done. Even though you see a lot of systems, we've got reads out of that. We're playing to the individual's strengths, and we'll change it to suit the individual's strengths."
That sentiment is what saw these Wildcats earn the second best record over the regular season, and why, even without Bryce Cotton, they were able to book a spot in the Grand Final. The Wildcats are probably the only team in Australian basketball that could lose the best player in the NBL to season-ending injury and still find a way to be effective.
It's because the system remains. The gravity of Cotton is a big loss, but the identity these Wildcats forged over the NBL Cup remains, thanks to what the team calls 'the beat of the drum'.
"Normally, we'll work around and get Bryce the ball, especially late game, because he can deliver," Gleeson said.
"We're still working out how we're going to finish, and these seven or eight games have allowed us to develop those kinds of things. All the time, we've deferred to him, he gets double-teamed, and we've got plan B. It's what we call the beat of the drum, then the next beat, then the next beat."
Vickerman's job is slightly different. While the player empowerment element remains vital -- especially when it comes to the team's second-tier guys -- getting a team with such an abundance of high-calibre talent to click takes skill, and time.
It starts with creating a culture of humility within the group, then a clear definition of roles and a buy-in for the ultimate goal of a title.
"The biggest lesson was to make sure that you do treat people very similar in the way that you coach them," Vickerman, a six-time NBL champion -- two as head coach, and four as an assistant -- told ESPN.
"This year, in some ways, we've probably done the best job of using all of our talent. There's the balance of those other parts as well. It's about treating people the right way and making sure you're coaching everybody, and then using the talents of everything that you've got. I think we've found some defensive things with Sammy Mac that have really helped us. Yudai, Shea. All these guys understand the role."
When expensive, talented teams come together like what United has done over the past five years, the sentiment that flies around is usually something like: 'there's only one ball'. The charge, of course, is that a team may have five legitimate stars on the floor, but the ball can only be shot one time on every possession; those who may be superstars on other teams will likely be forced to take a step back and accept a lesser role.
That's been evident for United. Scotty Hopson, one of last season's most impressive players, now comes off the bench for Vickerman's team, while we've seen stretches where Jock Landale or Chris Goulding may go multiple possessions without a touch.
"I guess you continue to trust your gut and coach, and then if there's a change in role, whoever that affects, you've had good conversations," Vickerman said.
"Over the off-season, conversations we've had and the trust we've built with the group was all about that. It was all about coming together to win a championship. It was never about someone trying to do something outside of what the team really wanted."
Different coaches in different circumstances, but the same result: a spot in the Grand Final. And there's a sense that we're going to see a true battle between Gleeson and Vickerman; both of whom have made quick and impressive adjustments over the course of the 2021 NBL finals thus far.
Vickerman knows that Todd Blanchfield and Clint Steindl have stepped up in the absence of Cotton -- with the two sharpshooters now the big threats within the Wildcats' offence -- but is confident United has the bodies to contain them, even in a volatile environment like Perth.
"There's a greater emphasis on those guys," Vickerman said. "A lot of it, as far as what we've got to shut down, it's turn-out threes above the foul line. I think our defenders in the South East series, and all year, chasing off screens has certainly been one of our strengths."
"And it's about staying composed in Perth. There's gonna be runs, there's gonna see emotions, there's gonna be calls, there's gonna be all those things that happen. I just love the composure of our group.
"Jock, we need him to be good to win this championship. We saw when he fouls out early, and some things South East Melbourne did in that Game 2 that we have to learn lessons. They found some ways to slow us down and to change our rhythm. It was great preparation for going into Perth, because we know their offence is not quite as good as when Cotton's running around, so they know their defence has to be at another level, so we expect all kinds of disruption in this series."
Gleeson is going into the series knowing that it'll be won on the defensive end, so that's where he's placed the crux of his focus.
"We've done it throughout the season, no question," Gleeson said of his team's defence against United. "We matchup better with these guys than we did with the Phoenix, because we didn't have the speed of a [Keifer] Sykes.
"We're really confident, we believe in each other, we have a great chemistry, and we know it's gonna be tough. It's gonna be one of the toughest things that we do, but we have faith in the next man mentality... that was really shown out when we were one game down on Illawarra's home court. Third quarter and Mitch Norton goes down, we're down by eight, and we could've fell into a hole and lost the game.
"We had guys stepping up and taking responsibility and we really needed it. That's the sign of that chemistry and trust, and everything we've built through the year coming to the surface."
So, while all eyes will be on the talent on the floor: from Landale, to John Mooney, Goulding, McCarron, and Blanchfield, playoff games are more-often-than-not won on adjustments. Whether it's game to game, or minute to minute, Gleeson and Vickerman won't stop coaching until it's all said and done.
"We're two country Victorian guys; we grew up on different sides of the city, but there are a lot of similar things to our upbringing," Vickerman said. "We coach the game hard. I absolutely enjoy the battles against Trevor. I've coached against him in two Grand Finals and he's beaten me both times so I'm trying to get one back on him.
"We'll fight each other, shake each other's hands, and at some stage after that we'll have a beer together. That's how it goes with us."