By Liam Melrose and Ollie Nash
Bryce Cotton had 36 points as the Wildcats cruised past the Adelaide 36ers. Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images
Wildcats taking over the league once again
After being written off by many and a shaky start to the season the Perth Wildcats are now clicking on all cylinders. They’ve won their past five games and sit at the top of the NBL ladder with a record of 11-4, something this organization is so used to. I wasn’t sure how they’d go without an import wing to compliment back-to-back MVP Bryce Cotton, however the balance of the team is perfect right now. John Mooney has had a great first 15 games in the league averaging 17 points and 11.7rebounds per game, while Todd Blanchfield and Mitchell Norton compliment Bryce Cotton nicely on the wings. This team knows how to get the job done regardless of the personnel and after Cotton’s 36 points and Mooney’s double-double against the Adelaide 36ers, the Wildcats look to be taking over the league once again.
In the NBA, the period between the All-Star break and just before the playoffs is a bit dead. The excitement of the start of the season is gone, the bad teams are bad and the good trams are good. Everyone is sort of just waiting for the playoffs to come. Same thing in the AFL from about round 10 to round 17. Melbourne United have entered that lull period. They’ve lost three of their last four, including a 28-point loss to Sydney in round 10. Am I worried? No. They’re just waiting for that excitement of the impending playoffs to come, then I think we see the best of what United has to offer.
The Brisbane Bullets are a contender as the finals race heats up. Photo: Chris Hyde/Getty Images
The finals race is well and truly heating up
We could see the ladder shake up a fair bit from the way it stands now, however the most intriguing battle at the moment for me is third through to sixth. Currently in order of how the teams sit right now it includes the South-East Melbourne Phoenix, Illawarra Hawks, Brisbane Bullets and the Sydney Kings. Each of these teams are playing really good basketball right now with both the Phoenix and Kings on winning streaks. All four teams have looked good enough to mix it in the finals at their best, however there are only four spots in the finals. You’d expect both Perth and Melbourne to finish first and second unless things seriously fall apart. That leaves third and fourth open for most likely one of these four teams. With only a game separating third to sixth as we enter round 11 the finals race is well and truly on. Who will peak at the right time?
Rookie of the Year battle
I’ve seen discussions lately on the rookie of the year battle at the moment and it’s an interesting one. Josh Giddey is probably the leader for most putting up 10.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.3 steals on 41/30/67 shooting. Vasilijevic is putting up 17.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists on 49/46/87 shooting. Giddey is filling the stat sheet, I’ll give you that. He can’t shoot though. Vasilijevic however, is playing the perfect shooting guard role this season. Elite shooting (almost the amazing 50/40/90), decent rebounding for a 190cm player and passable defence. Close battle, but Vasilijevic is the man.
Ben Moore was massive for the Phoenix in Mitch Creek's absence. Photo: Getty Images
He’s an On The Pine man and he’s had an impressive season off the bench after a slow start to the season. He put up 23 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and 8-9 from the field and 7-8 from the free-throw line against Adelaide as he replaced Mitch Creek in the starting line-up. On the season he’s been a great energy guy for South East Melbourne however, in his first start we saw the dominance he can display too. If he wants to return, he’ll be a sought after product in the NBL for years to come.
The Breakers need their new signings on the court as soon as possible
The 2021 NBL season has been quite simply a disaster for the New Zealand Breakers so far. For a team that is stacked with so much talent it just hasn’t worked. Being stuck in Australia without a home base has made it really tough for them and obviously it is something out of their control. However, it’s not just not having a home base that has contributed to the disastrous start to the season. The rotations have been all over the place at times, it didn’t work out with star import Lamar Patterson who they eventually parted ways with last week, as well as injuries to star guard Corey Webster. The season had so much promise for the Breakers and while there is still a long way to go they’d be desperate to get Levi Randolph and Will McDowell-White into the lineup as soon as possible as their depth has taken a real hit with things simply just not going their way.
Cover Photo: Sydney Kings
By Ollie Nash and Liam Melrose
Mitch Creek will be a huge loss for SEM, is their season done? Photo: Getty Images
The Phoenix slip is coming
No Mitch Creek means no South East Melbourne. Creek has been charged with assault and will cease training and games while the matter if before the courts. What that means for the Phoenix is the beginning of the end of their season. They face Adelaide in round 10, still a very winnable game but they face Melbourne United in round 11. With the ladder as it is, games are going to become even more important and the Phoenix won’t have the cattle to take it to the finals.
United sent back to the pack
Melbourne United entered round nine with a win loss record of 10-2, two games clear of the Perth Wildcats who sit second on the NBL ladder. They finished round nine with a record of 10-4 and suddenly they’re only one win clear at the top of the ladder. Since round five United has been in clear air with the best record in the league by a long way however, after losing three straight games they’re suddenly back in the pack. It doesn’t get any easier for United as they face the Sydney Kings on Friday night in Sydney who won’t be beaten easily. They’ll return to Melbourne to face the Illawarra Hawks on Sunday at John Cain Arena who defeated them on Saturday night by eight points.
Josh Giddey has exceeded the hype heaped on him in the pre-season. Photo: Getty Images
Josh Giddey has lived up to the hype
Going into the season I wasn’t reading into the Josh Giddey hype. I knew he was extremely talented, however the jump from junior basketball straight into a professional league with grown men isn’t easy, especially with all the extra attention he was drawing. However, he has lived up to the hype and round nine was a perfect example. Across two games he averaged 16.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 12 assists. Let’s not forget he is only 18. He also led the NBL Cup in assists per game, averaging 7.4 across eight games. In my eyes, he is actually playing at a higher level than LaMelo Ball did in his twelve games played with the Hawks last season. Ball was taken by the Charlotte Hornets with pick three in the 2020 NBA Draft, therefor there’s no reason why Giddey can’t be a lottery pick if he continues playing like this for the remainder of the season.
Battle for third and fourth
The top two spots are lined up, Melbourne United and Perth will be the one and two seeds, the order of the two is yet to be determined. The battle for third and fourth is intriguing, however. As it stands, Illawarra are third at 9-6, South East Melbourne are fourth at 9-7, Brisbane fifth at 8-7 and Sydney sixth at 7-8. All four well and truly in the hunt, all four have had great stretches and poor ones this season, we’ve seen their best and their worst. We can’t forget about New Zealand either, who are way back in eighth at 4-9, but it’s feasible they could make the finals. This race has become the new season in the season. My pick; Illawarra third and Sydney fourth by seasons end.
Lamar Patterson's return to Brisbane might not necessarily be a good thing for the team. Photo: AAP
Why interfere with something that’s working?
When I saw the Brisbane Bullets had released Orlando Johnson to make way for Lamar Patterson I was surprised. The Bullets have been in red hot form and as the NBL Cup progressed it looked as though they had finally clicked. Nathan Sobey is playing at an MVP level, Vic Law has been a terrific find and the bench has been excellent providing strong minutes. Orlando Johnson may not have been putting up huge scoring numbers but he was a good fit defensively and could score the ball if he had to. If you have players like Sobey and Law next to you as well as your reserve options being scorers in Cadee, Drmic and Hodgson you can’t be expected to put up large scoring numbers. The addition of Patterson isn’t ideal as he now has to find his way back into their system under an injury cloud while also being out of form. Before his injury, he was struggling immensely with the New Zealand Breakers averaging just under 11 points per game. Why tamper with something that’s firing on all cylinders Brisbane?
Cairns three-point shooting
It was clear from the opening couple of games of the season that Cairns were going to live and die by the three. They put up the most in the league, 30.8, but shoot the third worst percentage at 34.6 per cent. The way modern basketball is played, this is a recipe for disaster. They put up 7-24 against New Zealand in round nine and lost. They were better against the Phoenix at 10-20, but the damage has been done, their confidence is shot and the seasons done.
Cover Photo: NBL
By Liam Melrose and Ollie Nash
Jason Cadee drives past Jo Lual Acuil in Brisbane's upset win over Melbourne United. Photo: Brisbane Bullets
Here come the Bullets
A lot of people had written the Bullets off early in the season, however any team that is coached by Andrej Lemanis and captained by Nathan Sobey is always going to put up a fight. Going into the NBL Cup the Bullets were sitting at 3-4, they’re now 7-6 and are a massive chance to finish in the top three of the Cup with just two games remaining against both Adelaide and Sydney. More importantly though, they find themselves in the top four on the NBL ladder for the first time this season and above .500. Nathan Sobey is in career best form, Vic Law has been consistent throughout the first eight rounds, Orlando Johnson is starting to find his feet in the line-up, and key reserves Jason Cadee, Anthony Drmic and Matt Hodgson have provided strong minutes off the bench throughout the season. The team is extremely balanced and after defeating the two best teams in the league so far this season to date in Melbourne and Perth in round eight, there’s no reason why Brisbane can’t feature in the finals in 2021.
Kyle Adnam taking the opportunity
It’s amazing what trust and opportunity will do for a players’ confidence. While Kyle Adnam is not someone who has lacked confidence to this point in his NBL career however, he is taking his new starting role with both hands. In the three games he has started he’s put up 15.6 points, three rebounds and six assists. Give a player significant time and watch them flourish. Will there be growing pains? Probably. However, regular opportunity does a lot to a players’ confidence. They’re assertive in what they do on the floor, they get used to the speed and physicality of the game and they become productive. Some won’t, of course, but I can guarantee more do than don’t when given the chance.
Chris Goulding has settled into his new role nicely. Photo: Getty Images
Chris Goulding transition
It’s been fun to watch Chris Goulding’s transition from a heavily relied on star player to the impactful role player that we see today. When I say role player, I’m talking the highest grade of role player. Across the past two seasons we’ve seen him handball the responsibility to the likes of Mitch McCarron and Jock Landale, while he focuses on what helps Melbourne United the most. Spacing the floor and hitting threes. Sunday’s 21 point and six threes performance was the perfect example. Making the most of his touches and impacting the scoreboard. In the upcoming games, he may not get the same looks because the defence will be more attached to him, which open the lane for Landale, McCarron and Yudai Baba. The perfect transition from a star player; seamless and effective.
Space Cam has crashed
Cameron Oliver has been one of my favourite players since he entered the league last season because of how athletic he was around the ring, the way he crashed the boards and his presence on the defensive end of the floor. However, while still averaging 16.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game in 2021 he isn’t having that same impact. Cairns played two games in round eight, the first was a win against the Sydney Kings 96-92, while the second a ten-point loss to the Adelaide 36ers 71-81. Against the Kings, Oliver had just 12 points and four rebounds, against the 36ers he managed only eight points and six rebounds. These numbers are very unlike Cam Oliver, and as a whole the Taipans looked flat against Adelaide, however this is when players like Oliver need to step up the most, his highlight plays can lift the group but when there’s no energy there there’s no fuel for Space Cam to take off. I hope he can re-capture his best form and the Taipans can get their season back on track, as he is one of the best players in this league at his best.
Nathan Sobey is putting together a career year for the Brisbane Bullets in 2021. Photo: Brisbane Bullets
MVP battle down to two
I may be calling it way too early, but Nathan Sobey and Bryce Cotton are my two locks for MVP candidates to this point. Sobey; 23.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists on 49/38/90 shooting splits with his team fourth on the ladder at 7-6. Cotton; 24.6 points, 2.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals on 42/34/89 shooting splits with his team second on the ladder at 7-4. Splitting hairs at this point and while I love the efficiency of Sobey’s scoring, I’m going to stay with my pre-season pick and go with Cotton … for now.
The Jack White injury has paved way for Mason Peatling
Prior to Jack White dislocating his finger against the Adelaide 36ers in round seven Mason Peatling had only seen more than five minutes on the court so far this season once. In round nine Peatling played 17 minutes against the New Zealand Breakers, finishing with eight points and five rebounds providing big minutes off the bench for an injury depleted Melbourne United. In United’s second game of the round against the Brisbane Bullets, Peatling finished with six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes. With Jack White expected to be out for at least three more weeks Peatling will likely continue to see at least 15 minutes per game as the backup power forward, and if he continues to provides strong minutes off the bench like he did in round eight Melbourne United’s incredible depth just got deeper.
Cover Photo: Brisbane Bullets
By Liam Melrose and Ollie Nash
Tai Webster was incredible finishing with 29 points and 11 assists as the Breakers defeated the 36ers by 44 points. Photo: Getty Images
NZ flick the switch
Going into this season I had the New Zealand Breakers finishing in the top three. However, things haven’t worked out as expected for the Breakers in the early part of this season, going into round seven they found themselves sitting in last position on the NBL ladder with a dismal record of 1-6. On Saturday night they flicked the switch, stunning the Adelaide 36ers 106-62 and warning the rest of the league how good they can be. The way they played on Saturday night is what we expected them to play like going into the season. The Webster brothers were magnificent against the 36ers, combining for 58 points, seven rebounds and 14 assists. This win may well and truly ignite the Breakers season.
Kings got swagger
Sydney didn't get the win against Melbourne in round seven, but they got my attention. They have swagger and that f*** you mentality. United are the best team in the league and the Kings went into John Cain Arena as if they were undefeated and they were best players in the world. I love that. Casper Ware and Dejan Vasiljevic especially took it at Melbourne. After every bucket, talking s*** to Dean Vickerman, to the crowd, and every United player that would listen. When you're the underdog, you have to do this. Act 10 feet tall because it may just throw them off their game the slightest bit, enough for you to take advantage. It didn't work for Sydney on Saturday night, but it may pay off down the line.
With Mitch Creek in career best form, how far can the South East Melbourne Phoenix go in 2021? Photo: South East Melbourne Phoenix
Mitch Creek taking the Phoenix to new heights
South East Melbourne superstar Mitch Creek is in MVP form. Across his past three games he has averaged 25.6 points, nine rebounds, and just over four assists per game. He is the Phoenix’s marquee player, and they look a lot more dangerous when he is playing at this level, and when he is in this kind of form they can beat anyone. On the back of Creek's purple patch of form the team has found themselves in the top four, and with the addition of Ryan Broekoff to the team as early as next week, and Keifer Sykes expected to come back into the lineup, how far can the Phoenix go this season?
Hawks in trouble but can turn it around
Illawarra flew out of the blocks, beginning the season 4-0 and finding themselves atop the NBL ladder. However, after winning their first four matches they suddenly look flat and have since won only two of their past seven games, which sees them now sitting fourth with a record of 6-5. Brian Goorjian had the Hawks looking so well balanced with their systems flourishing in the opening rounds of the season, they looked to be a lock for the top four based on how well they were playing as a group. No matter who was on the floor at any given time, everyone looked as though they understood their role and it was working perfectly. It’s vital they regain that early season form as soon as possible, otherwise the season will slip away. However, with Goorjian at the helm I’m confident they’ll turn things around and remain in the top half of the ladder.
Isaac Humphries is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a foot injury. Photo: Getty Images
Humphries injury sucks
The big fella was in MVP form but a 4-6 week injury crushes that dream. It sucks to see. Humphries was enjoying a standout offensive year, adding to the defensive/rebounding parts of his game that he's always had. Putting up 15.5 points, eight rebounds and three blocks per game. He has been shooting at 59.6 percent from the field and 61 percent from two point range. Impressive numbers for a player not known for his offensive game. 2021 has been impacted, but this won't be the end of the young man's offensive burst ... I hope.
Cairns are done
I gave them every chance to turn it around, but Cairns are finished. Two 20-point losses in round seven takes them to 3-9 and well and truly bottom of the ladder. Worst still, they've played 12 games, more than every other team bar Adelaide. Sydney to start round eight doesn't help their case, and even Adelaide to finish is no easy beat. Sorry Taipans fans, season 2021 is finished.
Cover Photo: Getty Images