The NBL has hit its first major checkpoint of the 2021 NBL season, so there's no better time to take a step back and analyse what we've seen this far.
The entire league has descended on Melbourne for the inaugural NBL Cup - where we'll see 36 games over four weeks - and there's enough of a sample size to properly gauge some of the big talking points going into the event.
Our Roundtable is back to answer some of those burning questions.
Currently at 6-0 going into the hub, is Melbourne United far and away the best team in the NBL?
Olgun Uluc: They really are. At a risk of sounding like a broken record, United just has so many top-tier pieces to be a contender, but then boast near-perfect role players to make them the title favourite.
When healthy, United just has too many weapons, and the chemistry seems to be at a point where everyone knows his role going into each game. But then, even in their game against the Hawks - where they were missing Chris Goulding, Shea Ili, and Jo Lual Acuil Jr. - they could then lean on the likes of Mitch McCarron and Jock Landale to be their superstars. Those two players have taken a step back, relative to their ceiling, for the betterment of the team; as much as the talent makes them the favourites to win it all, that type of selflessness is what clearly separates them from the pack.
Kane Pitman: Yes. It's really that simple and to this point, Dean Vickerman's squad hardly look like they have needed to get out of second gear.
Mitch McCarron leads United in minutes per game at 28.9 per outing. That number is good for 20th in the league, while Jock Landale and Scotty Hopson are still warming up at 26 minutes per night.
Dominant on both ends with the deepest roster in the league, there is daylight between United and the rest at this point.
Steve Smith: Yes. And it's not really close right now. There's a considerable gap to the next best team, which right now is prrrrrobably the Illawarra Hawks but could well be the South East Melbourne Phoenix imminently. United's sheer depth of talent means they can be without the likes of Chris Goulding and Shea Ili and still barely miss a beat. The additions of the surprising and hugely entertaining Yudai Baba and Mr Everywhere Jack White means Melbourne has an embarrassment of backcourt riches. Throw in MVP frontrunner Jock Landale, the ever-present Mitch McCarron, as well as Scotty Hopson, Jo Lual-Acuil and the steady veteran presence of David Barlow and this is a squad that is absolutely built for a special season.
Hot and cold: Which new import has impressed you the most, and which has been the big disappointment?
Uluc: When you look at the production and consistency of the new imports in the NBL, and then add pure effort into that equation, John Mooney has been the guy who's impressed me a whole lot.
Sure, part of it is the big-man vastly exceeding expectations, but really, it's just the fact that he's been such a vital piece on both ends of the floor, has already developed a nice rapport with Bryce Cotton, and is, as advertised, a rebounding machine. There were questions as to whether he'd be able to match the impact that Nick Kay brought to the Wildcats and, early on, he seems to be doing exactly that, and probably more.
As for the most disappointing import, it has to be Lamar Patterson. We've seen flashes of what he's demonstrated he can do in the NBL, but they've been few and far between, and the Breakers are paying a big price for it. He's looked a step slow, apathetic at times, and doesn't look to fit well with the other creators on that team.
Pitman: When Olgun, Steve and myself re-convened for the second NBL episode of Ball and the Real World my guys were shocked I didn't pump up my preseason MVP pick, Keifer Sykes.
The reason for that was that just days before, Bryce Cotton had destroyed the Phoenix in a big-time win for the Wildcats. If you want to be a guard in the MVP discussion you have to beat the best, and Sykes' has delivered since that night.
The Phoenix are 2-0 against the Wildcats since that initial loss, with Sykes averaging 21.5 points and 7.5 assists in those matchups with Cotton.
As far as disappointments go, it's low hanging fruit but I did think Donald Sloan would be a nice veteran guard to play alongside Josh Giddey as the teenager found his feet as a pro. Instead, Sloan was incredibly underwhelming and the 36ers have moved on within a month. Let the Giddey show roll on!
Smith: John Mooney had some wraps on him before he set foot on the court for the Wildcats but I think he's been better than advertised. Perth would be a shambles right now if not for his borderline metronomic frontcourt performances. There's a steadiness to Mooney that is almost reassuring. It seems like you already know what you're going to get every time he plays -- steady scoring at a high percentage clip, double-digit rebounds and a veteran presence that belies his relatively youthful 23 years.
The biggest disappointment without a shadow of a doubt has been Lamar Patterson. The Breakers had high hopes for the dual All-NBL First Team nominee but he simply hasn't lived up to expectations so far. He's currently averaging just 10.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. This stands in stark contrast to his NBL career averages of 18.8 points, 5.8 boards and 4.0 dimes. New Zealand has enough on its plate being the Forever Road Team, having a highly-credentialed import come in out of shape and woefully under-performing shouldn't be one of them.
Predict who you think will be in the top-four at the end of the season.
Uluc: Melbourne United: See above. It's tough to see them ever falling from the top spot.
South East Melbourne Phoenix: There have always been two tiers in this NBL season: United, and then the rest. Well, with the addition of Ryan Broekhoff, along with some of the flashes we've seen thus far, the Phoenix are built to be at the top of that second tier.
Illawarra Hawks: It will be interesting to see how this team operates when Deng Adel and Cameron Bairstow are full healthy, but the heart of Brian Goorjian's group has been what they do on the defensive end, as well as the production from Tyler Harvey and Justinian Jessup. They have the weapons to keep stacking on wins.
Sydney Kings: Health will be the big factor here. When healthy, I truly believe the Kings can compete with any team in the NBL, but whether they can ever get to that point is the big question. Adam Forde's team is keeping its head above water for now, which gives me reason to think that they can then pounce when all of their pieces are 100 percent.
Pitman: Melbourne - This one is a no brainer.
Illawarra - Brian Goorjian coaching a playoff team, who would've thought?! I can't help but watch Justinian Jessup and think Steve Kerr would like him curling around screens in the Golden State offence however....
Phoenix - The Phoenix still need to tighten up things on the defensive end but unlike last season I feel they have the personnel. The guard rotation was a concern with far too much reliance on Kyle Adnam until the Ryan Broekhoff news dropped. Their offence was powerful to start...it just got better.
Breakers - Despite the sluggish start the Breakers have only played five games. I'm keeping the faith.
Smith: Melbourne United, Illawarra Hawks, South East Melbourne Phoenix and ... the Adelaide 36ers.
I hate saying the current top-four will still be exactly that at the business end of the season but the fact remains that United is a clear title favourite, the Hawks have hardly put a foot wrong and both the Nix and the 36ers have just significantly upgraded their rosters in areas that were previously considered weaknesses. It's hard to see Sydney recovering from an absolutely brutal run of injuries, both Queensland teams lack consistency and Perth is going to continue to suffer from a lack of depth to help out their dynamic import combo. As for the poor Breakers, they've been dealt an incredibly unkind hand in a high stakes game.
Who or what has surprised you most so far?
Uluc: The partnership of Isaac Humphries and Daniel Johnson wasn't supposed to work, but we've seen flashes of a really fun and productive duo.
It helps that Humphries is playing at a Defensive Player of the Year-type level, and that Johnson is basically on track for a 50-40-90 season, but the actual chemistry seems to be there, and it's helped the 36ers look decent early on in the season.
We thought it could be a turnstile defensively, but Humphries is leading the league in blocks and doesn't appear to be slowing down. On the offensive end, there was potential for a logjam, but both bigs can play inside-out, pass the ball well (especially to each other), and have effectively taken turns running a two-man game with Josh Giddey. It had the potential to be a disaster but, so far, they're performing as arguably the best frontcourt in the NBL.
Pitman: Illawarra's import duo. Tyler Harvey and Justin Simon have been electric on the surprise team of the league so far.
The NBL is hardly lacking for primetime weapons at the guard position and Simon's ability to defend on the perimeter and protect the rim has been simply stunning for a player at his position.
Offensively, Harvey has been on a tear. Third in the league for scoring and pouring in 42 percent of his tries from deep, the American has consistently bent opposition defences with the ball in his hands.
Smith: OK, I thought Tyler Harvey would be good. But not THIS good-good. As Hawks coach Brian Goorjian noted earlier in the season, Harvey just has a will to win.
Third in the league in scoring at a 21.9 points per game clip, the former Eastern Washington Eagle is also hitting 42% of his attempts from beyond the arc, hitting some absolutely audacious shots in the process with that picture-perfect jumper. Combine that with an ability to not only get hot in a hurry but to make it a sustained scoring burst and the Hawks have themselves a guard who can hurt opposing teams in so many ways, especially with that lethal floater that has given teams absolute nightmares.
It's not just the elite scoring though; Harvey has helped give the Hawks an on-court presence and identity that they desperately needed after the circus that was LaMelo Ball's lone NBL venture last year.
Fact or fiction: Cairns Taipans and New Zealand Breakers are, as their records indicate, the two worst teams in the NBL.
Uluc: I'd lean toward fiction here, but I'm not confident in it.
With the Taipans and Breakers, we have a pair of teams who just don't seem close to figuring out their identity. Mike Kelly's Taipans don't look like a team that brought the majority of its roster back, because there just doesn't seem to be any cohesiveness, especially on the defensive end. Replacing DJ Newbill's output was always going to be difficult, but the Taipans haven't been able to find that consistent piece, if it exists at all.
The Breakers get somewhat of a pass because of the mental toll being perennially on the road takes, but, with the talent that roster possesses, it's still fair to say they've been quite disappointing. Again, the firepower is there to make us believe they'll find their way - it was the reason we all thought they'd be an obvious finals team - but there's a saying about too many cooks in the kitchen, and that's what the Breakers look like right now.
Pitman: Cairns have been by far the biggest disappointment of the NBL season so far. Unlike New Zealand, there really is zero excuse for the slow start. This is only amplified when you look at the healthy stretch of home games they had to start the season.
Ranked second last in offensive and defensive efficiency (spatialjam.com), the Taipans problems expand to both ends of the floor. Now onto the Breakers with the next question....
Smith: I hate saying this for two very different reasons but it's absolutely true right now. The Breakers - as mentioned earlier - have been dealt the absolute worst of hands. It's borderline impossible for them to find a playing rhythm when they can't enjoy all the benefits that entails playing in the friendly confines of home. Never mind the ancillary advantages of staying in your own home, sleeping in your own bed and being around family and friends. All the things every other team in the NBL currently enjoys. Combine that with the sub-par performances of Patterson as one of the three main offensive options and it's an absolutely sure-fire journey to Struggle Town.
Cairns is a different matter entirely. The Snakes were a pre-season favourite to return to the postseason but the absence of DJ Newbill has hurt them far more than most of us anticipated. The expectation that role players would step up to fill the void hasn't quite been realised and subsequently the Taipans blew a golden opportunity to stash some early wins in an extended home stand at the Snag Pit. A 2-6 record (2-5 at home!!) is well below a passing grade for them but the NBL Cup gives them a chance to turn that around quickly if they can string together some stretches of cohesive basketball.
Which team needs the NBL Cup - a lot of games in a really short amount of time - the most?
Uluc: The Perth Wildcats have largely relied on two players so far: Bryce Cotton and John Mooney. Trevor Gleeson's team has also played four of its first five games against the South East Phoenix.
It's a weird situation to be in, so entering the NBL Cup - where they'll play eight games, against a different opponent each time - could be beneficial for the Wildcats in a heap of ways.
First, just getting reps in against different teams will be huge; getting reps is important, but doing it against a variety of opponents can't be understated. The quick turnaround with games could also play a big role. With so many games in such a short amount of time, Cotton and Mooney will need to take a step back at some point, forcing others to step up. In this quick succession of games, Gleeson can get a good look at who else can make a consistent impact on the offensive end, and build on that with the next game just around the corner.
In the same way the 36ers have already figured out significant parts of their offensive identity by playing a whole lot of games in a short amount of time, the Wildcats may be able to earn the same sort of progress.
Pitman: Coming into the season I had the Breakers reaching the postseason with a huge asterisk next to their name. Being removed from their home base and living permanently on the road loomed as a monumental challenge.
While it's still not home, the NBL Cup will give the Breakers a nice stretch of games in one city where they can begin to find some rhythm and perhaps run Lamar Patterson back into some vintage form because 10.4 points per game from the star forward isn't going to cut it.
Smith: As mentioned, the Cairns Taipans could turn their woeful start around in a hurry if they can find some momentum in the early stages of the NBL Cup. But I think the South East Melbourne Phoenix could well be in the same boat. Every time the Nix has taken a loss they've bounced back in spectacular fashion; look no further than the 56-point turnaround against the Wildcats in the space of three days. The addition of Boomers sniper Ryan Broekhoff to the squad at the back end of the Cup is obviously a welcome boost, but South East Melbourne also has a tremendous opportunity to consolidate its position inside the top four with eight games, if not all at home, at the very least in their home city. Keifer Sykes looks more and more like an absolute steal each game, and with Mitch Creek shouldering plenty of the load at both ends and Yanni Wetzell continuing to look comfortable, the Phoenix will be a handful for everyone, never mind when Broekhoff suits up and locks in from deep.