The NBL regular season coming to an end means it's time for reflection.
Reminiscing about fond memories from the 2022-23 season, though, is, at the risk of sounding crass, pointless. Self-reflection is where real progress comes. The teams that are able to conduct objective, critical after-action reports are those that are mostly likely to rebound and eventually achieve success, so that's what we've done.
This exercise is, in effect, an autopsy. What went right, what went wrong, and what could and should come next for those teams no longer in contention to win that coveted NBL title.
This analysis will be updated as each team is eliminated from the postseason.
5. South East Melbourne Phoenix (5th seed; lost play-in qualifier)
#3 in ORtg | #6 in DRtg
What went right
Let's start at the top, and that was the play of Mitch Creek and Alan Williams.
Mitch Creek put in one of the best seasons of his career. The MVP finalist averaged a career-high 23.4 points per game -- good for second in the league -- leading from the front for a Phoenix team with high hopes. The team was riddled with injuries over the course of the season, but Creek's output remained among the best in the NBL.
The same can be said for Williams, who was as imposing on the offensive end as we've seen from an import big man in some time. The Phoenix were the most post-up heavy team in the league and scored at a really efficient rate in those play types; Williams, and Creek, were obviously a big reason for that. Williams finished the season averaging 16.6 points per game, while leading the league in rebound percentage (22%).
Ryan Broekhoff was the piece the Phoenix needed to be -- solid from a defence and rebounding perspective, while putting together his most efficient shooting season in the NBL -- but, once again, injuries held him back. Gary Browne also had injuries issues that kept him out of a meaningful amount of games, but was largely effective when he played, leading the league in assists at 6.5 a game, while finishing second in assist percentage and top-10 in assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Phoenix would be happy with what Reuben Te Rangi provided over the season, too, in the absence of some of the team's key guards and wings. The two-year extension Te Rangi signed at the end of last season was somewhat questionable, but his impact during the 2022-23 campaign was much improved - he's effective defensively, and improved as a cutter (1.43 PPP) - so he'd project to continue to be a useful piece going into 2023-24.
What went wrong
We can't talk about some of the Phoenix's struggles this season without mentioning injuries. Broekhoff missed time with multiple injuries, as did Browne and Kell II, and those absences began in the preseason so the team came into the regular season less prepared than most other teams. But, what that did was put a spotlight on a lot of the Phoenix's issues, which stem from what the team didn't want to admit halfway through the season: their sub-par defence, and lack of depth; especially shooting depth.
They finished the season 9th in half court defence, per jordanmcnbl.com, which is the fourth straight year they've done that, and were in the bottom-three in pick-and-roll defence. Opposing teams were well aware of the deficiencies and relentlessly attacked them in those areas. Injuries throughout the season naturally made it difficult to find an identity on the defensive end but the year-on-year trend indicates it's a deeper issue than that.
The lack of output from the Phoenix bench was also a huge issue, especially because there weren't adequate bodies to step in during extended absences from some starters. Kyle Adnam had his least productive and least efficient season in a Phoenix uniform, with Simon Mitchell stripping his minutes as the campaign progressed. Zhou Qi only played nine games because of a personal matter, and the Phoenix -- who had two rookies on their roster -- were in the bottom-three in three-point percentage, with no qualified role player shooting above 34 percent from downtown. Mitchell mentioned the lack of complementary shooting in his final press conference, and he wasn't wrong; a team that's so post-up heavy needs ancillary shooters to allow those inside guys space to operate.
The Phoenix already made their call on Williams, re-signing the centre to a new two-year deal. The next big decision: their head coach. Mitchell's contract has come to an end, and there'll be pressure to introduce a fresh face in that role; the Phoenix's decision-makers will be swift in making its decision, sources said. After that, it's all about filling the holes that were exposed this season: acquiring shooting depth, particularly on the perimeter, while also improving defensive personnel.
6. Perth Wildcats (6th seed; lost in the play-in game)
#1 in ORtg | #10 in DRtg
What went right
Simply put, the Wildcats were an unbelievably effective offensive team.
John Rillie had his team operating as the best halfcourt offence in the NBL -- 1.044 ppp, which was No. 1 league-wide -- shooting a ton of threes and making them at a good rate, while also leading the league in assist percentage.
It was largely led by another MVP-level season from Bryce Cotton, who averaged 23.4 points and 4.9 assists per game. As has been the case since he arrived in Perth, the offence went through Cotton -- impacting his team with the ball in his hands, as well as through his gravity -- so the Wildcats had a lot of success on that end.
Corey Webster was the other obvious offensive bright spot, averaging 14.2 points per game, while shooting an efficient 39.4 percent from downtown, on 4.6 attempts. Luke Travers' production wasn't at the level most thought it'd be, but he still showed some impressive flashes; most notably, shooting above 40 percent from behind the three-point line over the course of the regular season.
The Wildcats' two imports -- Brady Manek and TasShawn Thomas -- had some decent moments throughout the season, but consistency from game to game was a clear issue. Michael Harris, a development player, also showed some nice flashes, earning minutes as the season progressed.
What went wrong
But, simply put, the Wildcats were an unbelievably ineffective defensive team.
They were the worst halfcourt defence in the league -- 1.027 ppp -- and their deficiencies on that end came down to a mixture of personnel and effort. The personnel part was just about the team not having effective one-on-one defenders, so there was constantly pressure on the rim, where there was just no interior presence. The effort element comes down to their inability to rebound the ball; the Wildcats finished the season as the worst defensive rebounding team in the league -- 69.9 percent defensive rebound percentage -- which was a major factor in the team not being able to find an identity on that end of the floor.
Things got even tougher for Rillie when he didn't get the output from a number of players he would've banked on getting production from. Todd Blanchfield had his most unproductive and inefficient seasons in more than a decade -- averaging just 4.4 points per game, on 31.1 percent shooting from downtown -- which forced Rillie to bench the veteran. The same can be said for Mitch Norton, and that led to the same outcome for him. Getting such diminished output from two key locals -- who take up a significant portion of the team's salary -- really hampered the ceiling of these Wildcats.
The inconsistent production, from game to game, by Manek and Thomas also didn't help a Wildcats team already looking for guys to step up, while the late addition of Tai Webster barely moved the needle.
The Wildcats have a desire to re-sign Travers; he has interest from across the NBL so locking him in is a priority. The team's GM of Basketball, Danny Mills, then has to figure out the best way to proceed with the remaining two years on Blanchfield's deal; there's a sense both sides would be open to a buy-out, but executing that would be difficult. Both Websters have mutual options for the 2023-24 season, and the outcome of that will likely dictate what the Wildcats look like next season.
Outside of the pieces who would work well around Cotton, the team needs to focus on youth and demonstrated defensive capacity with regard to how it recruits its ancillary local talent this off-season.
7. Melbourne United
#7 in ORtg | #5 in DRtg
What went right
United were probably a top-two team over the second half of the season. Unfortunately it wasn't enough to sneak into the play-in, but it's a sign that, when healthy, the team was built relatively well and would've had success.
When Shea Ili got healthy and Marcus Lee was introduced to the team, United all of a sudden had an impressive flow on the offensive end and finally looked like a Dean Vickerman team defensively. There were some depth issues, which we go over in the next section, but there's good reason to believe the philosophy behind how the team was built would have worked if everyone was healthy.
Chris Goulding, at 34, had one of the best seasons of his career, putting up his best scoring output since 2015, with really impressive shooting splits. It's unfortunate that the stellar individual season was wasted on a losing team, but it's encouraging that Goulding hasn't started his decline just yet.
Vickerman's import recruitment wasn't perfect, but Rayon Tucker grew over the course of the season to turn into one of the NBL's elite Americans. He averaged 18.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game and, perhaps more importantly, finished the season shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc on just under five attempts. The mid-season signing of Lee also turned out to be extremely impressive. The athletic big-man's impact was undeniable. With Lee on the floor, United outscored opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions, which ranked second among the 68 players to play a minimum of 700 possessions on the season; only Xavier Cooks topped that mark, with Sydney outscoring opponents by 16.3 points per 100 with the league MVP on the floor.
What went wrong
Injuries. And, unfortunately, injuries to the worst type of players.
The value of having a Next Star like Ariel Hukporti is getting an extra player on your roster; unfortunately you can't replace that player if he suffers a season-ending injury, like the German did when he tore his Achilles in the preseason. Shea Ili's concussion issues throughout the season then became very problematic for United, and the pieces just weren't there to consistently and effectively step up to fill those spots.
The import recruitment didn't help in that regard. Jordan Caroline unfortunately didn't have the capacity to compete in the NBL, so the team had to be without a third import until the first FIBA window of the season. Xavier Rathan-Mayes put up good individual numbers during the first half of the season, but they seemed largely empty because it didn't translate to consistent wins.
A lot of United's season was players being forced to play out of their respective roles. Rathan-Mayes was brought in as a backup point guard because of the nature of his game, but had no choice but to play the bulk of the starting minutes at the one. That absence of Ili not only hurt a United team that already didn't have much shot creation across its roster -- local backcourt depth should be a focus this off-season -- but also affected the looks Goulding was able to get. It became a grind offensively; Brad Newley had to play some minutes at the four-spot, Tucker got minutes at the point, and there was just no flow for a good portion of the season.
First up in the off-season for United: filling the assistant coach position left by Justin Schueller, who landed the Brisbane Bullets' head coaching gig. Beyond locking in their top-end guys, there absolutely has to be a focus on perimeter creation and shooting depth; United would also be well suited to look to get younger over the off-season.
8. Adelaide 36ers
#4 in ORtg | #9 in DRtg
What went right
One clear positive from a tumultuous 36ers season was the individual play from Antonius Cleveland. The wing continued to be a menace defensively -- walking away with his second-straight Best Defensive Player award -- and made significant improvements on the other end. Once a non-shooter, Cleveland shot 36.1 percent from behind the three-point line, on 3.5 attempts a game; a significant development for both the team, and his individual prospects.
Robert Franks, for some of his defensive deficiencies, also put together a respectable offensive season. Though he sometimes looked out of place within the 36ers' offensive structure, he still managed to lead the 36ers in scoring, and do it relatively efficiently.
Out of all of the team's new local signings, Anthony Drmic may have been the most impactful. Drmic had one of the best seasons of his career -- 10.3 points per game, including an impressive 61.4 percent on twos -- but his value showed itself when the 36ers went through adversity; the wing played with a level of urgency, especially defensively, that often acted as the team's barometer. Kyrin Galloway also showed impressive flashes, in his limited minutes, as someone who perhaps should've played a more significant role on this team. He had the most defensive chops of any five-man on that roster, and shot it at an impressive 45 percent from downtown; he's back next season, and has worked his way into a larger role.
What went wrong
Talking about the Craig Randall II saga is easy, and we'll get to it, but what's haunted this team for the past few seasons is its lack of defensive identity. It's an issue that wasn't addressed, was the crux of their downfall this season, and capped the potential of a team that, on paper, looked really good.
It's why there were some in NBL circles who urged the 36ers to recruit a defensive-minded big-man when they had an import spot open up in the middle of the season. The reality is that a team with a frontcourt that consisted primarily of Daniel Johnson, Franks, and Kai Sotto had no real chance of competing at a high level, because of the defensive deficiencies that come with that personnel.
Of course, you can't talk about the 36ers' issues without mentioning Randall II. The team signed him knowing he had red flags that could affect the chemistry within the team, but they bet on his talent and CJ Bruton being able to contain any issues. There's a sense that the team knew during the NBL Blitz that Randall II had no real chance of lasting the season. What was puzzling was the delay in signing a replacement; Randall II was released on November 8 -- and keep in mind, the 36ers had known for months that they'd need a replacement -- and Ian Clark wasn't signed until December 30. In a season that came down to the last shot in the final game, there's no excuse for playing without a full strength team for so long.
Mitch McCarron averaged his lowest amount of field goal attempts and three-point attempts -- and shot just 18.2 percent from downtown -- so that needs to take a jump if he's to remain a starter-level point guard on this team. Franks was solid offensively but there was a sense that his production came out of the flow of the team, while Johnson's output decreased with his drop in minutes; it feels like the 36ers have begun to prepare for life without the franchise's stalwart.
So, where to next? The 36ers spent an immense amount of money on this roster -- and that was before bringing in Ian Clark on a significant deal -- for no real return. The win over the Phoenix Suns in the preseason was wildly impressive and fun in the moment, but really meant nothing in the long-term. CJ Bruton's job appears safe, sources said, and Cleveland will return next season. As for the second year of Robert Franks' deal, that seems up in the air.
9. Brisbane Bullets
#9 in ORtg | #7 in DRtg
What went right
The reality is, the Bullets will be looking to move on from this season and never look back, but there were positives to take away from some individual performances.
As much as Aron Baynes' output wasn't to the extent most people thought it'd be, the signing was still significant. It was a contributing factor to the team's commercial success this season, and the big-man showed flashes of being a quality starting centre in the NBL.
The team also appeared to nail the signing of Tyler Johnson. He was the Bullets' most consistent piece throughout a really volatile season, averaging 15.8 points per game on relatively good shooting splits. The fit next to Nathan Sobey will remain the big question with regard to whether he works on the Bullets moving forward, if the team has a desire to re-sign him.
DJ Mitchell and Gorjok Gak were also positives to take away from the season. Mitchell's shooting was very real -- 43.4 percent on 2.9 attempts a game -- and he looked like a quality rotational player in the NBL; it would be surprising if the Bullets didn't pick up his team option for the 2023-24 season. Gak also showed signs of being a solid backup big in the league, giving the Bullets an athletic presence at the five-spot on both ends that contrasted with Baynes' style of play.
What went wrong
It all started at the top. From the off-season, the decision-making processes were led by two owners -- Jason Levien and Jake Silverstein -- who weren't in the country and have no real experience within the NBL ecosystem, so the outcomes the team dealt with weren't a complete surprise.
The Bullets went through three head coaches -- one of whom was Sam Mackinnon, who's also the team's GM of Basketball -- so there was no opportunity to find continuity on or off the court. The team was preparing for life without James Duncan before the season even began, so it wasn't a surprise when they chose to fire him. The volatility with that head coaching position caused consternation both on and off the court, leading to them finishing second to last. As a team, the Bullets were 9th in offensive efficiency and among the worst three-point shooting teams in the NBL; outside of some singular performances toward the end of the season, it never seemed like they had a chance to discover their identity.
Nathan Sobey's down year also didn't help. The shooting guard averaged 15.3 points per game, his lowest output since 2017, and had his second straight season shooting below 30 percent from downtown. Going into last free agency, there was an expectation the team would sign a quality import point guard to put next to Sobey -- widely regarded as the type of move to get the most out of the Boomers guard -- but that never eventuated. The bulk of the Bullets' money was spent on Baynes and Sobey and, this season, their production unfortunately didn't match that value.
Justin Schueller has signed a two-year deal as the team's new head coach and, while he's had a lot of experience around a defence-heavy coach like Dean Vickerman, the Bullets need to establish an offensive identity if they're to have any success moving forward. Basketball decisions are now primarily being made by the Bullets' new 'Senior Basketball Advisor', Stu Lash, sources said, instead of Mackinnon.
10. Illawarra Hawks
#10 in ORtg | #8 in DRtg
What went right
Despite a franchise-worst season, there were some bright spots.
After what most would've considered an average second season in the NBL for Tyler Harvey, he looked a lot more comfortable in the 2022-23 campaign, even amid all the losing. The crafty off-guard shot 38 percent from downtown, on a whopping 8.6 attempts a game, and averaged just under 19 points a contest. There was a fear that the Hawks may be 'stuck' with his three-year deal, but getting that sort of output out of an import is completely reasonable.
Sam Froling taking another leap was also encouraging. The 22-year-old's minutes hovered around the same mark, but his production -- 14 points and eight rebounds per game -- took another leap, as he solidified himself as the primary local player in Wollongong. The most significant part of Froling's growth was his ability to string multiple high-level games together, after a couple of years of inconsistent performances game to game.
There were some other small victories along the way. Daniel Grida's return from multiple injuries was good to see and, while still not back to being the player he once was, he showed a few encouraging flashes. There was also the fact that the team didn't completely implode during what was a trying season; a moral win for first-year head coach, Jacob Jackomas. We saw some nice moments from Deng Deng throughout the season, while Lachlan Dent and Will Hickey had a few moments that showed why either could maybe be considered as the team's third string point guard moving forward.
What went wrong
So, so much.
The easiest thing to point to are the unprecedented injury issues their imports went through. They had their import point guard, Justin Robinson, for just one game before he bowed out with a meniscus tear in his right knee. Then, they lost King, who legitimately did have an ankle concern but that parting of ways was already in the works. Their replacement imports, Peyton Siva and Michael Frazier II, didn't last long either. The Hawks would practically always have one or two imports sidelined, and it's extremely tough to compete consistently in the NBL under those circumstances.
But, while those injuries obviously played a factor, the Hawks' issues stemmed from a more foundational standpoint: a poorly constructed local cohort, recruited based on hope as opposed to demonstrated outcomes.
Having no ancillary three-point shooting or a viable, reliable backup ball carrier was always going to limit what the Hawks were capable of, even if their imports remained healthy, and we saw proof of that time and time again over the season. The team chose not to bring back Emmett Near, Isaac White, and Harry Froling, and ultimately suffered because they entered the season lacking the respective skillsets those guys brought to the table. Wani Swaka Lo Buluk was the team's priority signing in the off-season, with the hope he'd become a productive three-and-D contributor after a title-winning season with the Sydney Kings as a defensive specialist, but he averaged just 4.9 points per game and had his third straight year shooting sub-30 percent from downtown. The Hawks would shoot a league-worst 32.2 percent from behind the three-point line on the season -- the only Hawks role player to shoot above 32 percent from three was Dent -- and struggled finishing games because they didn't have any effective complementary shot creation pieces to make up for the loss of imports.
As far as off-season moves go, the team will likely look to re-sign Deng, extend Grida, and look to keep Hickey and Dent around in some capacity. The Hawks have a desire to put an elite four-man next to Froling, sources said, and that recruitment process is expected to begin with what's available in the local market.