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2021 NBL season preview: Predicted starting teams, key players, X factors and how each team can win

This NBL off-season lasted nearly an entire year. Think about that for a second.

We had a pandemic disrupt everything, players opt in and out of contracts, salary cuts across the entire league, the start to the new season pushed back and back, and teams re-located then re-relocated some more.

Sides were forced to operate amid unprecedented uncertainty, while the league did its best to outsmart a virus that's seemingly uncontrollable. It seems miraculous that, in the end, we ended up with all nine rosters filled without losing a significant amount of talent, ahead of a season that will do its best to flirt with normalcy.

Yes, some teams will be forced to be perennial road-dwellers, and some strict protocols will be in place to minimize the risk for players and fans, but the bottom line is that NBL basketball will be played. If nothing else, that's a certainty, and thank goodness for that.

Rosters are slightly smaller and each team's import limit was cut to two, so front offices across the NBL went to work over the last 10 months to make sure they were ready for a 2021 season that'll undoubtedly have even more COVID-related twists and turns to come. Until then, here's what to expect from each team.

Adelaide 36ers

Head coach: Conner Henry

Predicted Starting 5: Donald Sloan, Sunday Dech, Josh Giddey, Daniel Johnson, Isaac Humphries

Key Player: As much as a lot of eyes will be on the exciting Next Star in Josh Giddey, or the pair of new imports, or Isaac Humphries coming off a stint in the NBA, the 36ers always come back to the man who, time and time again, has demonstrated his ability to dominate the NBL. That's Daniel Johnson. The big man is an offensive savant at this level, and will be hoping to feast off the new array of talent the 36ers have brought in. Johnson will see a lot of the ball, and it would be a shock if one of the league's known quantities isn't among his team's top-two scorers.

X Factor: It has to be Josh Giddey. We saw with last season's Illawarra Hawks that making an 18-year-old point guard the focal point of an offence is exciting and can draw eyes to your team, but doesn't necessarily lead to success, and that's part of the reason why many people are already predicting the 36ers will be a bottom-three team, when it's all said and done. Well, Giddey will have an opportunity to flip that sentiment; if he does, and performs like the NBA prospect we know he is, then the 36ers' fortunes could change drastically for the better. The good news: from what we've seen so far, there's reason to think the teenager is already comfortable enough to be a consistent contributor at this level, and all signs are pointing to him having a significant role on Henry's team.

How they can win: On paper, the 36ers really don't look like the sub-par team many expect them to be. Their probable starting lineup features two former NBA players, one of the best scorers in NBL history, a legitimate NBA prospect, and a defensive stopper. Throw in a bench crew that features a veteran EuroLeague scorer in Tony Crocker, and Jack McVeigh - two wings who can shoot the lights out - and this team has a seven or eight-man rotation that has the potential to, at the very least, be exciting and dynamic. The depth and defence looks like an issue, and that's what may end up keeping them out of post-season action and potentially one of the bottom teams in the league, but if Humphries can stay healthy and play at the level he did over his last two seasons in the NBA and NBA G-League, while Sloan and Giddey rise to the occasion as the main creators on the team, then Henry's 36ers should be able to get a lot of points on the board and put themselves in a position to compete.

Brisbane Bullets

Head coach: Andrej Lemanis

Predicted Starting 5: Jason Cadee, Nathan Sobey, Orlando Johnson, Vic Law, Matt Hodgson

Key Player: Vic Law might just mess around and lead the NBL in scoring. The versatile wing wasn't shy about getting shots up during his time with the Orlando Magic in the NBA bubble, and that came after a G-League stint where he averaged close to 20 points a game. With Lamar Patterson out of the picture, the Bullets have a big hole they need to fill, and Law should have the freedom to get to his spots and put points on the board. There's a good chance this Bullets team rolls as Law does.

X Factor: We seemingly say it every season, but Harry Froling has the skillset to be the break-out player in the NBL, and this might just be his best chance yet. Will Magnay earned a two-way contract and Matt Hodgson is the only other big man on the roster who's proven in the NBL, so there should be a big chunk of minutes for Froling to step into. He's a 6'11 big who can stretch the floor and pass the hell out of the ball, but his body has held him back a lot; if he can go into the season with the level of fitness he showed in the Bullets' two preseason games against the South East Melbourne Phoenix, that'll be an important step. Production from Froling will also help the Bullets, who look iffy on paper, immeasurably.

How they can win: With Law likely to be the focal point for this team, it'll all come down to how the rest of the team works off the attention he'll get. Nathan Sobey showed some promise in the preseason as an off-guard, so he could be in for his best season yet, and that's without even mentioning the backcourt chemistry he seems to have developed with Jason Cadee, who'll be part of a perimeter rotation that features Johnson and Anthony Drmic. Speaking of Drmic, he'll have the likes of Law, Sobey, and Orlando Johnson demanding the majority of the attention, so don't be surprised if the former 36er - maybe the best sharpshooter in the NBL - has a career year. The Bullets' roster, overall, is slightly underwhelming, but they have a crop of solid creators, and that'll likely dictate whether or not they can sneak into the post-season. If their complementary role players step up, too, then they might have the potential to surprise us.

Cairns Taipans

Head coach: Mike Kelly

Predicted Starting 5: Scott Machado, Mirko Djeric, Kouat Noi, Majok Deng, Cameron Oliver

Key Player: There are two here: Scott Machado and Cameron Oliver. The pair are a rarity for the Taipans franchise, with both choosing to return to Cairns on multi-year deals, following a successful season that saw them only just miss out on a Grand Final appearance. Machado is the best floor general in the NBL, while Oliver is one of the most talented producers on the offensive end, so the two teaming up again immediately makes the Taipans as close to a post-season lock as there is.

X Factor: The import limit being cut to two was a big blow for the Taipans, who weren't in a position to bring back DJ Newbill, so who steps up in his absence? All eyes should be on Kouat Noi. The wing isn't the same ball-handler Newbill was, but he showed flashes over his last season where, if he remained healthy, there was a good chance he would've won the league's Rookie of the Year award over LaMelo Ball. Noi has the skillset to be a really effective shooter and cutter off Machado and Oliver, who'll absorb a lot of the defence's attention, and he can heat up in a hurry. The Taipans could use a third option, and Noi has the potential to be that guy.

How they can win: The young crew has to step up. Again, we know what Machado and Oliver can bring to the table, but the goings on around them will be the key to success. Firstly, we're looking at how effective Mike Kelly's young wings can be; so, can Mojave King use his stellar preseason to continue to show why he's a potential first-rounder in the 2021 draft? Is Noi ready to make the leap as the third option on this team? Can Mirko Djeric and Fabjian Krslovic use their experience from last season to continue as key role players going into this one? To be honest, the answer is probably yes to most of those questions. Add in a healthy Nate Jawai, who's still one of the best post players in the NBL, and this Taipans team is a contender.

The Hawks

Head coach: Brian Goorjian

Predicted Starting 5: Tyler Harvey, Deng Adel, Justinian Jessup, Cameron Bairstow, Sam Froling

Key Player: The Hawks have an interesting array of ball-dominant talent, but Deng Adel is the one who should stand out from the pack. The wing is an NBA-level athlete who can shoot the ball and guard as well as anyone in the NBL, and the Hawks have surrounded him with guys who could complement that skillset quite well. You can already see Adel grabbing a defensive board, pushing it in transition before anyone else can even react, with shooters like Tyler Harvey and Justinian Jessup filling the wings. That's a recipe for success for Brian Goorjian and co., who may just have the best Australian two-way player in the league.

X Factor: Which Cameron Bairstow will the Hawks be getting? And, more importantly, will that Cameron Bairstow be healthy? The big man's last stint in the NBL was marred with a serious knee injury, and he's had some issues getting to full health for this season, so it's unclear how much of an impact his signing will make from the get-go. At his best, Bairstow was an extremely reliable player in the NBL, and showed some flashes during his most recent European stint. With the Hawks' frontcourt depth not looking too amazing, a healthy Bairstow would drastically improve the team's stock.

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Patty Mills clutch in OT for Spurs

Patty Mills drains a 3-pointer and follows it up with a mid-range jumper to beat the shot clock, as the Spurs prevail in overtime vs. the Timberwolves.

How they can win: The Hawks played more preseason games than any other team, and there were a lot of positives to take from what we saw. Adel showed why he's the team's marquee local player, Harvey looks like he could be an elite scorer in the NBL, and Jessup is, quite frankly, in the same boat. As far as guys who can initiate an offence from the perimeter, there's maybe only two other teams in the NBL who can match what the Hawks have. Don't be surprised if, like the preseason, they throw their small ball lineup with Deng Deng at the four-spot, with the likes of Emmett Naar, Justin Simon, AJ Ogilvy, and Isaac White providing a punch off the bench. There's some good balance with this team, but the success will come down to whether they can stay healthy, and how well that bench unit is able to compete. They say never to write off a Goorjian-led team so, if all of those stars align, the Hawks will probably end up flirting with a spot in the finals.

Melbourne United

Head coach: Dean Vickerman

Predicted Starting 5: Mitch McCarron, Chris Goulding, Scottie Hopson, David Barlow, Jock Landale

Key Player: Chris Goulding has been the face of this franchise for years, Scottie Hopson is the star import, and Mitch McCarron is the heart and soul of the roster, but there's a reason why this team was prematurely crowned champions when Jock Landale signed. Landale is one of the best bigs in the country - he started for a full-strength Boomers team in the 2019 World Cup - and has proven what he can do on both ends at a high level in Europe; he can come in and be a focal point for a United team that already has so many. What's a gamechanger is that Landale can also be a complementary player - so this isn't a 'there's only one ball' type of situation - and he's well regarded as a quality locker room guy. Before his signing, United was a contender; after he put pen to paper, they became the favourites to win it all. And rightly so.

X Factor: In Australia, we talk a lot about 'Boomers Patty Mills', and the Australian guard recently told ESPN that he was bringing that iteration of himself to the NBA. Well, United will be hoping that they get 'Tall Blacks Shea Ili' for the new season. Ili really is one of the best local, two-way point guards in the NBL, but he just hasn't shown that on a consistent basis for United. If this is the season where we see that version of Ili over long stretches, then it's a wrap; it's such a luxury for Dean Vickerman to have this caliber of point guard off the bench, adding to the slew of players on his roster who can create for themselves and others.

How they can win: If United stays healthy and guards, then the rest really should work itself out. The talent is there and, in my opinion, balanced, so we should have full confidence that the offensive end will work itself out. Defensively, there are no real red flags, so then it's really just about getting reps as a group and staying as healthy as possible. Even when you look at depth, there's reason to believe this team will be just fine. Jack White and David Barlow are effectively like-for-like at the four-spot, Ili has the talent to be a starter in the NBL - and United gets to have him come off the bench - Jo-Lual Acuil can hold his own on both ends, and the early glimpses we've seen of Yudai Baba lead us to believe he could be a dynamic piece for Vickerman's side. Simply put, United is the favourite to win it all; on paper, they're impressive as hell, so let's see how it manifests.

New Zealand Breakers

Head coach: Dan Shamir

Predicted Starting 5: Tai Webster, Thomas Abercrombie, Lamar Patterson, Finn Delany, Colton Iverson

Key Player: The Breakers lost Hopson, who was arguably the best talent in the NBL last season. His replacement: Lamar Patterson, who was one of the league's best scorers during his time with the Bullets. This is another team that looks like an obvious contender, purely because of the talent across the board, but Patterson will go into the season as the primary guy for Dan Shamir. Patterson can score at all three levels, and will be buoyed by Tai Webster primarily taking control of the ball-handling duties. Patterson is coming off two straight All-NBL First Team appearances and finished last season as the league's second-leading scorer, and all signs are pointing to him continuing to play at that level on his new team.

X Factor: I'll be the first to admit that we don't talk about Finn Delany enough. The 6'7 wing is coming off a season with the Breakers where, as maybe a fourth or fifth option, he averaged a tick over 12 points a game while shooting above 40 percent from downtown. He's also just 25 years old and one of the NBL's best athletes, so there's the potential for him to take yet another step in his development, just as the Breakers have put together their most talented team in the last five years. The Breakers will need a versatile, athletic wing to fill the lane, and also step up defensively against a growing list of talented small forwards in the NBL. They have Thomas Abercrombie -- who's been doing just that for years -- but there's every reason to think Delany could successfully step into that sort of role, too.

How they can win: We've yet to mention Corey Webster because he'll miss the start of the season because of a hand injury - he hurt himself cutting an avocado; cut around the pit, not through it, guys - but his decision to accept a Sixth Man role for the Breakers is beyond huge. When healthy, Webster is one of the best scorers in FIBA basketball, so he'll provide an incredible spark off the bench for a roster that's already loaded. The key going into the season, though, is that the Breakers didn't try to be too sexy with their roster creation; they focused on putting together a balanced, proven side. Both Websters, Patterson, and Colton Iverson have all excelled at a level higher than the NBL, while Rob Loe and Jarrad Weeks have demonstrated their ability to produce in this league, and will play big roles off the bench. Shamir has his team well-drilled, and there are already signs of improved chemistry within the talented group. If there's a team that can challenge United for the title, it's this one.

Perth Wildcats

Head coach: Trevor Gleeson

Predicted Starting 5: Mitch Norton, Bryce Cotton, Todd Blanchfield, Luke Travers, John Mooney

Key Player: This one doesn't need much explaining. Bryce Cotton is the reigning NBL MVP and Grand Final MVP, and the Wildcats will be expecting even more from him going into a season with a two-import limit. Cotton is as known of a quantity as there is in the NBL; he's unmatched in his ability to take over games, as is the reason why the Wildcats are hunting for a three-peat going into this 2021 campaign.

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LaMelo shows off incredible court vision with no-look pass

LaMelo Ball shares the love around the court as he passes to Terry Rozier for the easy bucket.

X Factor: After analysing the Wildcats' roster and seeing how they operated in the preseason, it seemed clear that they really needed another quality creator. Cotton is special but, beyond that, who do you trust to initiate offence, other than a Clint Steindl coming off the bench to maneuver through a maze of screens? This is why Todd Blanchfield is so important, and why the Wildcats need him to step up as their third option. An aggressive Blanchfield - one who shoots without a conscience, is assertive off pindowns, and isn't afraid to put his head down and get into the lane - is what the Wildcats need to be successful, otherwise there may not be enough firepower to get them over the line each night.

How they can win: Cotton needs to play at his usual MVP level if the Wildcats want to compete this season, but he can't be alone. We saw some nice glimpses from John Mooney during the preseason, and Trevor Gleeson will be leaning on him to dominate the interior in the same way he did over his senior year in college; if the Wildcats can get All-NBL-level production from their second import, then that would alleviate a lot of concerns. Then, it'll come down to how much of an impact the team's playmaking Australians can have. We've touched on Blanchfield, and while Mitch Norton isn't Damian Martin, he has the potential to bring game-changing energy every night. Luke Travers also has the potential to be an X factor for the Wildcats. He may be the first development player to open a season as a starter, and he showed some really impressive flashes as a passer and two-way presence; he's an NBA prospect down the line, and this is his chance to build his stock, all while helping his team along the way. The Wildcats are hunting for a 35th-straight postseason appearance, but it still feels like they're a quality frontcourt player short, so they look to be like one of the teams that will fight for the last spot in the finals.

South East Melbourne Phoenix

Head coach: Simon Mitchell

Predicted Starting 5: Keifer Sykes, Cameron Gliddon, Reuben Te Rangi, Mitch Creek, Ben Moore

Key Player: Mitch Creek has a legitimate case as the best local player in the NBL; it's a simple as that. He's physically imposing on both ends, and has developed a masterful knack for finishing at and around the rim, so his dominance inside opens up the floor really well for his teammates. Creek is 28, so he's probably right in his prime as he enters his second season as the Phoenix's physical and spiritual leader.

X Factor: How best do you maximise Creek's talents inside the paint? Widen the floor. So that's why the team's addition of Cameron Gliddon and Reuben Te Rangi was so important. An argument can be made that both were misused as members of the Bullets, with their arrival in South East Melbourne widely regarded as a fresh start for the pair; both of whom have shown to be knock-down shooters in the NBL. Tommy Greer has built a team that seemingly ticks all of the boxes when it comes to its starting lineup: ball-dominant perimeter players in Creek and Keifer Sykes, a versatile small-ball big in Ben Moore, and a pair of shooters in Gliddon and Te Rangi. The ability of that latter duo to shoot the ball at a high level will be a major key to putting the Phoenix's primary players in positions to be successful, so it's what we'll be looking out for early on.

How they can win: The Phoenix suffered a dip toward the end of last season, and a lot of that can be put down to Creek simply fatiguing; he had carried the load for a lot of the campaign, and it caught up to him. Sykes is the type of point guard who can run and take over an offence, while Moore has the versatility to make plays, as well as guard multiple positions on the defensive end, similar to what we saw from Jae'Sean Tate last season. This season shouldn't place as much of a burden is on Creek, so that bodes well for this team's long-term success. The starting lineup is really impressive and balanced, and shouldn't have many issues; the depth, however, is a slight concern. Kyle Adnam and Yanni Wetzell had an impressive preseason, but Dane Pineau's back injury is a concern, and that's on top of the fact that the Phoenix don't really have that spark off the bench who can give you a ton of points and make plays consistently. They're talented up top, without question, but their bench unit will have to perform above expectations if they want to see finals action.

Sydney Kings

Head coach: Adam Forde

Predicted Starting 5: Shaun Bruce, Casper Ware Jr., Didi Louzada, Craig Moller, Jarell Martin

Key Player: Casper Ware Jr. is coming off a down year by anyone's standards, and the Kings' roster has only diminished in talent since then - losing Andrew Bogut to retirement will do that - so all eyes will be on the import point guard to revert to his norm. The good news: Ware Jr.'s norm is an MVP candidate and someone who's good enough to single-handedly make the Kings a post-season contender. He's the team's best player on both ends and has proven that he can lead a team to an NBL title, so Adam Forde will be hoping to have vintage Casper Ware Jr. from the get-go.

X Factor: The Kings will be without their best local player for "three-to-four" months, after Xavier Cooks suffered a foot injury during a preseason game. That means Craig Moller will likely step in at the four-spot for the majority of the season, and the team will lean on him to bring energy. As far as an X factor goes, it's a mixture of Cooks and Didi Louzada. The Kings' Next Star will go into his second season with sky-high expectations, because he'll have to be the team's key wing option, and will have a ton of opportunity to show his worth. As for Cooks; he was named an Australian Boomer for a reason: he's a proven, versatile wing who can play on both ends, and was set to initiate a lot of offence for the Kings. With a healthy Cooks, the Kings are a completely different team, so how quickly he returns to the court could determine how well they're placed in the playoff race.

How they can win: Primarily, the Kings will be looking at three main guys for production: Ware Jr., Louzada, and Jarell Martin. Martin, a young big-man who played legitimate minutes for the Memphis Grizzlies over the years, has been weirdly unsung as a signing, but he should make a significant impact for the Kings and could be one of the most productive frontcourt players in the leagues. Beyond those three, there's a question of where the team gets consistent production from. Dejan Vasiljevic and Angus Glover were brought in as promising local guards, but can they be effective for a playoff-level team? They very well could, but neither have done it before, so it remains an open question. If both of those combo guards can produce at a high level off the bench, while Shaun Bruce and Brad Newley can perform at a similar rate to last season, then Forde's team will be in a good place. Without Cooks, it's tough to see the Kings as a legitimate title contender, but there's enough talent there to see them make some noise and potentially crack that top-four.