NBL Season Preview

Image courtesy of perthnow.com.au
Just once before has a team won three straight NBL championships, but the New Zealand Breakers can stamp themselves as one of the league’s great teams if they can complete a hat-trick of wins and take the Dr John Raschke Trophy across the ditch again this season.

Not for the first time there was plenty of upheaval during the off-season thanks to the Gold Coast Blaze folding. This created plenty of interest in the player market, with the Adelaide 36ers the main beneficiary of the demise of the club from the Glitter Strip.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, though, with the Breakers and Perth Wildcats again favourites to meet in the NBL Grand Final series. Here’s a breakdown of each team and its chances this season, as well as a look at some of the MVP favourites.

Perth Wildcats - The adage goes ‘Why fix it if it ain’t broken’. The Wildcats are in that mindset, with the core of last year’s grand final roster lining up again for coach Rob Beveridge. Centre Luke Nevill has tried his luck in the States with the Indiana Pacers, which might give the Wildcats match-up problems against big teams like Adelaide, but the likes of Shawn Redhage and Matt Knight will ably look after the Cats’ interior.

Key Man – Kevin Lisch won the NBL’s MVP award last season, but the heartbeat of this team is point guard Damien Martin. He runs the offence with aplomb, snaps up way more rebounds than a 188cm player ever should, and is a defensive pest who averages two steals per night. Martin needs to find his outside shot again, though. He averaged almost 50% from the three-point line in 2010, but shot at just a 23% clip from the perimeter last season.

Prediction – 1st

New Zealand Breakers – The Breakers’ chances of completing the three-peat will by and large rest with the same group that took out last season’s championship. There is a sizeable void to be filled following the departure of American big man Gary Wilkinson, who was the go-to man last year in a team full of clutch players. Ex-Blaze centre Will Hudson has joined the team, but he’ll most likely play second fiddle to emerging Kiwi Alex Pledger , who has showed plenty of promise off the bench the last couple of seasons.

Key Man - Andrej Lemanis has a history of bringing first-class imports to the North Shore Events Centre, and last season was no exception when he nabbed fringe NBA player Cedric Jackson. After 10-day contracts with Cleveland, San Antonio and Washington, the New Mexico-native finally found a home in Auckland. He set single season records for the Breakers in assists and steals, as well as scoring almost 13 points per game.

Prediction – 2nd

Townsville Crocodiles – Forget that Townsville lost starting centre Luke Schenscher in the off-season. Take no notice of the Crocodiles decidedly average pre-season form. Ignore the fact the club was in turmoil a week ago when it sacked its two imports. All of that matters little now because on Monday the club announced it had secured the signature of one of the most talented imports ever to play in the league, 2010-11 MVP Gary Ervin. The point guard terrorised opponents that season with the Wollongong Hawks, averaging 20 points and 4.5 assists per game. If Ervin is as good off the dribble as he was a couple of seasons back, collapsing defences will allow plenty of open looks for marksmen Peter Crawford and Michael Cedar. The Crocs also have veteran Russell Hinder returning from a year off the court due to a broken leg.

Key Man – Larry Abney fills the second import slot for the Crocs, returning to the club where he made his name in Australian basketball half-a-dozen years back. Now 35, the Birdman will need to use all of his wingspan to take care of Townsville’s interior. While centre Ben Allen has made some big strides in the off-season, the Crocs will still need Abney to be the main man in the middle, which is a big ask for a player in his mid-thirties.

Prediction – 3rd

Adelaide 36ers - It was difficult to watch a proud ball club stutter along like the 36ers did last season, finishing with just eight wins and the dreaded wooden spoon. The Sixers, though, were the biggest beneficiaries from the Gold Coast Blaze fire sale, picking up Adam Gibson, Anthony Petrie and Jason Cadee, as well as seven-footer Luke Schenscher who returns home to Adelaide. History shows that stability breeds success in the NBL, but if there’s one team that could buck that trend it’s this team, given the familiarity between the Blaze players and the young Australian talent they’ve retained in Stephen Weigh, Daniel Johnson and Mitch Creek.

Key Man – Adam Gibson stole the last guard spot on Brett Brown’s Boomers roster for the London Olympics, and he has most likely established himself as the best Australian point man in the league. The Sixers finished second last in assists last season and gave up more points on defence than any other team in the NBL. Gibson finished second in the league dishing out 4.7 dimes per game in 2011-12 and is a previous winner of the NBL’s best defensive player. Problem solved – if his teammates keep up their end of the bargain.

Prediction – 4th

Cairns Taipans - There is no doubt the Snakes haven’t been the most exciting team to watch over the past few seasons, but coach Aaron Fearne has wrung every last bit of defensive intensity out of his roster, making the GF in 2010-11 before missing out on the finals last year due in a tie-breaker to Townsville, which would have hurt. Import guard Jamar Wilson wasn’t far off league MVP status last season, and he makes a welcome return, as does forward Alex Loughton. Last in the league in scoring in 2011-12, the Taipans pulled off a coup with the signing of Cameron Tragradh, a man who has the nickname ‘Trigger’ for good reason. They also nabbed rookie of the year candidates Clint Steindl and Cameron Gliddon, who both weren’t afraid to fire away from outside throughout their college careers.

Key Man – Cameron Tragardh may be the best Australian-born scoring big man in the NBL, but he replaces Ian Crosswhite, who was a very solid defensive presence in the middle for the Snakes. As much as he needs to add offensive punch to the line-up, Tragardh will also need to turn up on D, something he’s not exactly famous for. The Snakes were a poor rebounding team last season, so Trigger will need to crash the boards, especially given he’ll be playing the five-spot in a smallish line-up.

Prediction – 5th

Wollongong Hawks - The Hawks have gone with an All-American backcourt this season with ex-Gold Coast guard Adris Deleon and the uber-athletic Lance Hurdle who comes straight from the NBA’s Development League. There’s no doubt the Hawks will be fun to watch this season with those two in transition, but whether the rest of the roster can get out and run with them is another matter. The two speed machines may dominate when they’re out on the fast break, but if the Hawks can’t function in their half-court offence, then they’ll be nowhere near the playoffs.

Key Man – Larry Davidson had a below par season by his standards in 2011-12, but much of that can be put down to a concussion that knocked him around in the early part of the season. As much as he loves lurking around the perimeter, Davidson remains the Hawks’ biggest presence inside. He’ll have to suck in the bulk of their boards and give them some sort of offensive threat inside the key, otherwise the likes of Deleon, Hurdle and sharpshooter Oscar Forman won’t be getting much space on the wings. A knee injury in the pre-season tournament hasn’t helped his cause.

Prediction – 6th

Melbourne Tigers - The Tigers will be nothing if not athletic this season. With the likes of Lucas Walker, Chris Goulding and Liam Rush in the line-up, Melbourne fans will certainly see their fair share of dunks at Hisense Arena. That’s hardly a recipe for success for a club that has spent the past three seasons in the finals wilderness. New coach Chris Anstey has sensibly opted for experience in his recruiting with American point guard Kevin Braswell back for his third NBL season, while naturalised Australian Adam Ballinger comes across from the 36ers in what, just quietly, may be one of the best off-season transactions for any club in the league.

Key Man – Seth Scott is a journeyman import, but how the centre adapts to the NBL will go a long way to determining Melbourne’s fortunes. Scott has an inside/outside game and he has bounced around some decent leagues in Europe, so his pedigree is good. While he needs to add some scoring and rebounding punch, if he can be a commanding presence at both ends of the floor, it will allow the vastly experienced Ballinger to flourish back in his favoured position of power forward.

Prediction – 7th

Sydney Kings - The fans haven’t jumped off the Kings yet judging by the crowds in Sydney last season, but just about everyone else has thanks to an off-season where they lost their two best players. Centre Julian Khazzouh has been dominant at times in recent NBL seasons, while Anatoly Bose exploded on to the scene in 2011-12 and raced away with the rookie of the year crown. Khazzouh spent time with the LA Lakers in the NBA’s Summer League, but is now plying his trade in Poland, while Bose returned to his native Kazakhstan. As much as Ian Crosswhite and James Harvey are solid veteran pick-ups, they’re unlikely to replace the output of Khazzouh and Bose.

Key Men – Darnell Lazare and Corin Henry have probably the biggest task of any import duo in the league. It’s a throwback to the old days of the NBL when Americans were expected to carry the scoring load with a bunch of Australian role players around them. These two have been relatively impressive in pre-season, and they don’t have a great deal to live up to, given the minimal production Kevin Ratsch gave the club last season.

Prediction – 8th

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