Every week, ESPN's Olgun Uluc runs through what's catching his eye across the NBL, and takes you inside the conversations trickling around the Australian basketball ecosystem. This week, he offers a defence of an NBL award format change, highlights Dyson Daniels NBA season to date, and digs a little deeper into Perth's winning streak.
Some of the discourse around the changes to the All-NBL team format has been unbelievably reactive
No, we're not about to see big-men thrown into the depths of obscurity. And no, there's not a world where five point guards will be named to the All-NBL First Team. There's been a lot of pearl-clutching over the past 24 hours over an outcome that is incredibly unlikely, and, as it stands, not even in the realm of likelihood right now.
So, here's what happened. On Tuesday, the NBL announced that its end-of-season All-NBL teams would now be position-less. No more 'inside' or 'outside' players; instead, it's now just the five most effective of that season. It's, in part, a response to what we dealt with last season, where the ambiguity around what an inside or outside player is was confusing - most players these days exist in both realms; D.J. Hogg, for example, basically split his minutes between the three and four - and that led to players potentially missing out for that obscure detail.
It's also following in the lead of the NBA, who, starting with the 2023-24 season, changed their All-NBA format to be position-less. Their reasoning seemed obvious: the top-two vote-getters for MVP were both 'centres', so only one could be on the All-NBA First Team, which is obviously absurd. There's also the case that Nikola Jokic, while officially a centre, is ostensibly the Denver Nuggets' point guard, so positions in basketball have become mere placeholders.
The ambiguous nature of positions in the NBA once cost Jayson Tatum $25 million because of how voters selected their All-NBA Teams in 2021. While that sort of money isn't on the line in the NBL, players do have bonuses when it comes to end-of-season awards, so an arbitrary designation of a position being the difference between earning that and not wouldn't really sit right.
The best example to look at here is the EuroLeague, who went to position-less teams in 2011-12. Every All-EuroLeague Team since then has included at least one 'big'. Sure, there are some instances like last season's All-EuroLeague Second Team, where we saw Mike James (point guard), Darius Thompson (point guard), Wade Baldwin IV (wing), Kevin Punter (wing), and Nikola Mirotic (forward) selected, but, and I hate to break it to those who don't like this format, that's what a functional basketball team looks like in 2023.
Vince Crivelli, the NBL's Chief Operating Officer, made that point clear: "Making the All-NBL Teams position-less ensures we are able to reward the best players in the competition, regardless of where they play, and be more aligned with the way modern basketball is played."
If we had to pick the All-NBL Teams right now, Jo-Lual Acuil Jr., Alan Williams, D.J. Hogg, and Jack McVeigh - all traditional frontcourt players - would be in the conversation. Last season, everyone was up in arms because Keanu Pinder, who was in the MVP conversation, was going to find it tough to be a First Teamer because Xavier Cooks and Mitch Creek were locking up those spots as 'inside' players.
Those concerns are now eliminated. Times change, and that's a good thing. Let's move with it.
A player texts in about it
If we take Crivelli's "...more aligned with the way modern basketball is played" to its logical conclusion, we could get some hilarious outcomes.
One NBL player texted in: "We should do... the best 3-4 stars and 1-2 role guys around them," he said. "That would be very accurate to modern basketball."
In theory, he's not wrong. Most great basketball teams do have those role-playing glue guys and connectors. Think of how the Perth Wildcats suddenly got way better because they focused on utilising connecting pieces next to their talent instead of just throwing stars out there and hoping it worked.
Now, building a functional basketball team is different to rewarding players for their performance over the course of a season, so, unfortunately, role players will generally remain unheralded for the foreseeable future.
Dyson Daniels: Defensive demon
There'll be time to talk about Dyson Daniels in a more extended setting down the line, but it's worth highlighting his defensive impact right now.
With CJ McCollum missing extended time with a lung injury, Daniels has gotten an extended run with the New Orleans Pelicans to start this season. He's shown glimpses of a really high ceiling, while, at 20, still going through some natural teething.
Where Daniels already seems advanced is on the defensive end, where he's looking like one of the best budding point-of-attack defenders in the NBA, while his size, length, athleticism, and timing makes him effective in multiple areas on that side of the floor.
Right now, Daniels is No. 1 in the NBA in deflections per game at 3.8, and No. 10 in steals per game with 1.6. He also leads the league in total deflections, at 64.
He leads all Australians in minutes per game, with 28.1; something that bodes well for his potential role for the Boomers as we approach the upcoming Paris Olympics.
Perth's 5-game winning streak: real or a mirage?
The Wildcats have figured a lot out.
A lot of it revolves around how Kristian Doolittle has settled into the NBL, while the maximisation of guys like Jesse Wagstaff and Hyrum Harris have also been game-changing shifts. All of a sudden, the Wildcats look like a functioning basketball team on both ends, have connectors who maximise their stars, and have pulled off five straight wins because of it.
During that stretch, the Wildcats have, by far, the best defence in the NBL (102.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, which is significantly better than the league average), and a top-four offence. They have the best net rating of any team during that span of games, and have done it without much shooting luck: just 53% True Shooting - third-worst in the league - over the winning streak. Their defensive rebound percentage has jumped from 67% before the streak, to 77% during the streak.
Looking at those metrics, there's reason to think this isn't a flash in the pan. The success here feels sustainable and repeatable, and has come from adjustments. This doesn't seem like luck.
On the other hand, let's look at who they played: a home win over Adelaide, a road win in Melbourne (United lost three rotation players to injuries early in that game), a home win over an undermanned New Zealand, a home win over Cairns, and a road win over an undermanned Brisbane.
How many wins during that five-game streak would be considered quality victories?
Now, the sign of a good team is winning the games you're supposed to win. The Wildcats did that. They're a much-improved defensive and rebounding team, and that raises their floor in a big way. John Rillie has consistently mentioned the idea of having success against championship-level teams being a useful barometer for where his Wildcats team currently sits in the NBL's pecking order, and this winning streak isn't too helpful in illuminating that.
It's why their first game post-FIBA break is so intriguing: a home contest against the Sydney Kings. It feels like this recent stretch of wins for the Wildcats has been leading up to this game. Winning games you're supposed to win makes you a good team, but defeating the sides who are legitimately in the championship hunt makes you a great one.