Every week, ESPN's Olgun Uluc runs through what's catching his eye across the NBL, and takes you inside the conversations trickling around the Australian basketball ecosystem. This week, there's a focus on a Melbourne United team that looks untouchable, the Sydney Kings' fascinating tip-off strategy, and the Boomers head coach making the rounds.
Is the league being over-officiated?
I was on the receiving end of texts from multiple head coaches, general managers, and players as the Perth Wildcats' thrilling win over Melbourne United came to an end. It was all about officiating.
We've just finished a round of NBL basketball that had multiple games go way over time, largely because of an abundance of free throws taken in all of them.
The Brisbane Bullets vs. South East Melbourne Phoenix game had 54 total fouls called, and the teams shot a combined 77 free throws. Both teams are physical and do their work down low, but the number was still abnormally high. The Phoenix's next game, against the Cairns Taipans, had 50 total fouls, for 56 free throws; it was a flop fest. Then, we had the Perth-Melbourne game that went to overtime, where we saw 61 total fouls, and 79 total free throws attempted.
After this round, the feeling from those around the league is a mixture of things. A bulk of stakeholders believe the NBL is being over-officiated; officials seemingly aren't allowing incidental physical contact, while rewarding flopping from known embellishers. That's combined with an inability to decipher what is and isn't a foul. For the most part, those around the league want to see some level of freedom of movement, but the inconsistency in calls made seems to be a bigger issue than the perceived quality of certain foul calls. Those around the league, at the very least, just want consistency from game to game.
All of that isn't even going into the missed calls at the end of Monday's game, which included one the NBL says it made a mistake on. Matthew Dellavedova was fouled on a drive to the rim (the league admitted that the next day it was a hands foul), the foul was called, but not the right type of foul, so the call was (rightly) overturned, because of a replay system the coaches around the league (in hindsight, wrongly) agreed to.
At least three teams -- including Melbourne United, who said it publicly -- planned to make an officiating complaint of some sort to the league after Round 6, sources told ESPN.
There seems to be a build up of frustration across the league, and the numbers appear to warrant that, to an extent.
Over this NBL season, there's an average of 39.9 fouls called per game, which is the most since the 2016-17 season, according to the NBL Stats Centre. On average, teams are shooting a combined 45.1 free throw attempts per game, which is the most ever in the NBL's 40-minute era.
Players have a role in adapting, too, and the league has attempted to make strides toward improving its officiating. There are now four fulltime officials in the NBL, and Scott Butler -- the league's head of referees -- was at the score bench for every game of the NBL Blitz, judging every call made during the tournament. Butler also heads the replay centre during games, so the processes are theoretically in place for things to improve.
We all have our opinions, and rightfully so. Really, though, those opinions don't matter. We're not the ones that can affect change toward positive outcomes. Ask around the league, and the consensus seems to be that any sign of improvement is nowhere to be seen. So if teams want change of some sort, those conversations between them and Butler need to happen sooner rather than later.
Daniel Johnson finds a new home
It's been more than 10 years since Daniel Johnson was in an NBL jersey without an Adelaide 36ers logo on it, but that time is imminent.
Johnson -- the 35-year-old, three-time All-NBL First Teamer -- has signed a deal with the South East Melbourne Phoenix, sources say. The big man will be an injury replacement for Gorjok Gak, who's currently out with a calf issue.
The expectation is that Johnson will be around for two to three games, sources say, but there's scope for it to be longer.
The long-time 36er had a deal with a team in Qatar that recently fell through, so he was available for an NBL team to snatch him up. The Phoenix have been in contact with Johnson since the start of the season, sources say -- when Gak first got injured -- so, with an injury replacement opportunity now available, that process was expedited.
Assuming Johnson's contract gets executed by the NBL in time, he should be available for the Throwdown on Sunday afternoon. The Phoenix's game after that: a matchup with the 36ers in Adelaide.
Breakers seem to be staying put
The New Zealand Breakers' season has been interrupted in more ways than one.
The FIBA World Cup meant a bulk of their players were with the New Zealand Tall Blacks during part of the preseason. They opted to play in the NBA preseason games, and, to top it off, they're already dealing with multiple long-term injuries.
The latest was arguably the most impactful, with Zylan Cheatham -- maybe the team's most talented player -- going down with a fracture in his foot that had him out for 6-to-8 weeks. Initially, one segment of the Breakers' organisation was hopeful to find an injury replacement for Cheatham, but finding a player for that period of time is difficult.
Players around the world are looking for season long jobs, so finding someone who's both good enough to make an impact and willing to take on a contract for an awkward length of time is near impossible.
That's why it sounds like an injury replacement is no longer on the cards, sources said. The Breakers will be rolling with what they have, with the hopes of keeping their heads above water until Cheatham returns.
Some numbers I find interesting
• This is very early, but a fun one to keep an eye on. Last season, D.J. Hogg was the 'stocks' king. He was the only qualified player in the NBL to average at least one steal and one block per game; he averaged 1.3 each. He's played just three games since coming back from his shoulder injury, and is averaging two blocks and 1.3 steals a game. The only other players averaging at least one of each are Tyrell Harrison and Gary Clark.
• Bryce Cotton has yet to make a spot-up three. In this instance, spot-up is defined as 'waiting to receive the ball on the perimeter (or mid-range) without using a screen to get open to make the catch', according to jordanmcnbl.com, and, in 15 plays, Cotton is logging zero points per play. For context, Cotton had 60 spot-up plays last season, and was an impressive 1.39 points per play.
• A huge part of what the Sydney Kings do is their unyielding switching on the defensive end. They switch everything, no matter what, with very little leeway. It's something Mahmoud Abdelfattah obviously believes will yield the best outcomes and, thus far, it's been quite effective; the Kings currently have the third best defence in the league. The thinking would be the Kings would get burned on post-ups and isolations due to mismatches; teams are trying, but not really succeeding. According to jordanmcnbl.com, 10% of the Kings' defensive possessions are post-ups -- easily the most in the NBL -- but they allow just 0.9 points per play, which is below the league average of 0.96. One more: 13.6% of the Kings' defensive possessions are in isolation -- second in the NBL -- and they give up just 0.7 points per play, which is the best in the league and well above the league average of 0.86.
• The Adelaide 36ers have been a different team since adding Dejan Vasiljevic, and in more ways than one. According to Spatial Jam, prior to adding Vasiljevic, the 36ers posted 101.9 points per 100 possessions, which was easily the worst in the NBL. On the other end, they were actually reasonably effective, allowing 109.4 points per 100 possessions; better than the league average. Since adding Vasiljevic, the 36ers' offence has expectedly improved -- a 114.3 ORTG in the four games he's played, which is fourth in the league over that stretch -- but, in those games, they allowed 115.9 points per 100 possessions, which is fourth-worst in the league.
My favourite plays of the week
Jonah Bolden's best skill has always been his elite passing, and it was on show this round.
Jonah Bolden is elite at finding cutters. pic.twitter.com/iq7OFAw7nX— Olg's Notebook (@OlgsNotebook) November 4, 2023
Alan Williams had two fouls midway through the first quarter of the Bullets-Phoenix game, and Mike Kelly took a big risk by putting him back into the game. Enter Aron Baynes.
Veteran play from Aron Baynes to draw Alan Williams' 3rd foul. pic.twitter.com/f9Rn3oboGS— Olg's Notebook (@OlgsNotebook) November 8, 2023
Mantas Rubštavičius has flown under the radar, but his really high skill level makes me think he could be one of the Next Stars that make the most impact late in the season.
Mantas Rubštavičius' skill level is really high. pic.twitter.com/grn71goBj2— Olg's Notebook (@OlgsNotebook) November 8, 2023
Bryce Cotton knows when an opposing big is about to preemptively prepare to trap him, or at least hard hedge. As soon as Cotton sees the big-man veer toward the side of the screen he should be using, the three-time MVP rejects it and gets wide open.
Twice this round, Bryce Cotton rejected the screen to get wide open for 3. pic.twitter.com/yeXfDxy6TX— Olg's Notebook (@OlgsNotebook) November 8, 2023