The final weekend of a chaotic NBL23 regular season has arrived, with implications all over the final round of games.
Adding to the spice of the week, the NBL announced the finalists for the end of season awards, sparking widespread debate as has become commonplace.
Kane Pitman, Olgun Uluc and Peter Hooley are back on deck for this week's 3x3, where they debate the Coach of the Year, an unlucky snub and make a case for a team to challenge for the title from outside the top three.
Who should win Coach of the Year?
Kane Pitman: Chase Buford.
Historically, Coach of the Year leans towards a team that has overachieved on preseason expectations. Mody Maor and Adam Forde absolutely fit that category and would be worthy winners but equally impressive has been Sydney's start to finish regular season dominance at the top of the table. The Kings lost all three imports from the title team and still hold a top-two offence and defence on the season. Buford is in prime position to win two titles in two seasons in the league. Surely a COTY award would be fitting after missing out last season.
Olgun Uluc: Mody Maor.
This award really does feel up in the air, but my nod goes to Maor because of all of the context. Maor had to enter as head coach and introduce a culture on and off the court -- after the franchise went through two wildly tough seasons due to COVID -- and has done it with flying colours. The Breakers have been a top-two defensive team all season, Maor has gotten the best out of William McDowell-White and his trio of imports, and they're playing a brand of basketball that's conducive to winning a title. From where the Breakers were 12 months ago, to now, Maor's case for this award is immense.
Peter Hooley: Flip a three-sided coin.
With each coach (of Mody Maor, Chase Buford, and Adam Forde) being more than deserving of this recognition, I can't go past what Maor has done in New Zealand. When you look back on all the struggles this entire organisation went through the last two years, it's incredible what they have achieved thus far. Mody Maor wanted to rebuild the Breakers culture and identity and he has done all that and more. Regardless of whether they win a title or not, this season has been a major success for Maor and the Breakers.
Name one unlucky 'snub' from an award finalist spot.
Kane Pitman: Jack McVeigh (Most Improved Player).
McVeigh's teammate Sean McDonald is a finalist and has had a nice season for the JackJumpers, though his improvement is hard to gage given he only played 29 minutes last season. McVeigh has continued his ascent as a reliable scorer for Tasmania, registering double-digit scoring in 22 of his 27 appearances thus far, including an NBL career-high 28 against Adelaide in early January. He's also bumped his 3-point mark up from 37% to 40% on the season on a healthy 4.9 attempts per game.
Olgun Uluc: It has to be Justin Simon (Defensive Player of the Year).
The Sydney Kings have been a top-two defensive team for the entire season, and Justin Simon is both their main point-of-attack defender, but is up there with his teammate, Xavier Cooks, as one of the most versatile players on that end of the floor. I was fortunate to have a vote, and he was my No. 1 selection. Simon not even being included among the finalists for this award -- when he actually should be the frontrunner -- is one of the more baffling outcomes in recent times.
Peter Hooley: Brady Manek (Next Generation Award).
The easy option here would be Justin Simon, but I think Brady Manek probably deserves to be a Next Generation finalist over his teammate Luke Travers. Manek has had some monster performances and whilst still been inconsistent at times, it's no surprise that Perth is at their best when he is playing at a high level. Travers has had a much better second half of the year, much like Manek, but when I look back on what turned the Wildcats season around, it was Corey Webster and Brady Manek.
Can a team win the title from outside the top three?
Kane Pitman: South East Melbourne Phoenix.
With all five starters in the lineup, the Phoenix are 12-4 this season. As a collective, Mitch Creek, Ryan Broekhoff, Alan Williams, Gary Browne and Trey Kell III have outscored the opposition by 18.3 points per 100 possessions (via spatialjam.com), a dominant number. Ryan Broekhoff's return to the lineup is not certain and the Phoenix will have to take the long route via the Play-In Tournament but IF they regain and maintain health ...they have a chance.
Olgun Uluc: The South East Melbourne Phoenix.
Of course, everything with this team comes with the assumption that they get, then remain healthy. if that's the case, then they're absolutely a legitimate contender to win it all. The defensive issues we've seen at times haven't been a huge concern when the Phoenix's full lineup plays, and the starting group is as good as any in the league.
Peter Hooley: Never say never, but no.
If there was ever to be a season that a team who finished 3-6 were to go all the way and win a title, it would be this one. However, I just struggle to believe that any of those teams will beat the top three in a series. Sydney is still the benchmark and even then, I don't know who can beat them three times in a grand final series.
Cairns hold a 2-1 record over them on the regular season, with that one loss coming from a Kouat Noi buzzer beater, so you'd have to think they could possibly do it. Without Pinder though, that task would be made much harder. New Zealand look like they have got back to their old ways and playing tough physical basketball and with a lot of emotion on their side in finals, maybe they could trouble the Kings? Other than that, I struggle to think anyone poses a real threat to them.