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NBL20 season preview: Teams 4-1

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Boomers: in their own words (5:58)

ESPN sits down with the local Boomers for their take on Australia's FIBA World Cup experience. (5:58)

Basketball never sleeps.

There was the World Cup and the Boomers' gripping run to the final four, followed by the preseason Blitz in Tasmania, when we finally had the chance to see the teams play and start to project how they will fare in the upcoming season.

We witnessed Tasmania welcome NBL basketball with its warm embrace and we also had the opportunity to see some highly-touted prospects on the hardwood and ruminate about their NBA lottery futures, and how exactly they will perform in the NBL.

With all that in mind, welcome to NBL20.

It's time to once again preview each team and project their seasons ahead.

Before we get too carried away with the preseason, the usual note of caution: Take what you see at the Blitz, and in the rest of the preseason, with a grain of salt.

It's the warm-up before the real show starts. Teams experiment. Rotations and schematic understanding are in flux. The real thing starts now, and in this preview, we forecast how teams will finish this season.

Here are Nos. 4 to 1.

Brisbane Bullets

Major additions: Nathan Sobey, Taylor Braun, E.J. Singler

Major losses: Cam Bairstow, Adam Gibson

Losing Cam Bairstow has allowed the Bullets to recalibrate. The Bullets have been baffling in their rigid stance towards traditional big line-ups in recent seasons, but they have now veered onto a different course entirely.

Last season, Andrej Lemanis reflected with ESPN regarding the recruitment of players into what was a relatively new program at the time, and how the personnel that was available continued to shape their style of play. In that respect, we saw the Bullets continue their transformation, from NBL slowpokes to more middle-of-the-road in pace last season.

A year after nudging their shot profile more towards the arc (the recruitment of Cam Gliddon no doubt helped), they have now moved to the other extreme, diving headlong into a full-blown, pace-and-space, small-ball revolution.

As part of that shift, their wings will share duties jostling with bulkier opponents in the 4-spot. Taylor Braun, EJ Singler, Reuben Te Rangi and even Lamar Patterson can play power forward minutes. One of Braun or Singler will start. They are all stout, and on offence, they will all have licence to shoot from deep.

Having a number of players swap through that role is completely in line with the fluidity that will define this Lemanis team. Outside of Hodgson, they will play a switching style of defence that stalls out enemy actions. They will play up-tempo. When they secure a defensive rebound, they will hunt early looks from the perimeter, but if transition opportunities don't materialise, a higher pace also engineers mis-matches.

The sight of Nathan Sobey revving up his engine, and attacking a backpedalling defence after an outlet pass will be a wondrous sight. Gliddon will be a beneficiary spotting up on the break. That is of course a big if - the Bullets will haemorrhage defensive boards this season when Matt Hodgson is off the court, unless Will Magnay or Tyrell Harrison show something.

Hodgson, is their lone proven NBL-level rim-protector, and often finds himself in foul trouble, for Brisbane's sake, they will need him to stay vertical and not get stuck on the bench early.

Amongst players who logged at least 300 minutes last season, Hodgson ranked fifth in block rate, fifth in o-board rate, and sixth in defensive rebound rate. He is clearly a valuable player; he just needs to stay on the court.

There is a power to simplicity, when roles are clearly defined. The Bullets have shooters to spread the floor around Sobey and Patterson. Lemanis has also had the chance now to cultivate a culture, and to allow a core group to lead in his system.

That should be enough for a second successive playoff berth.

Prediction: 4th

Sydney Kings

Major additions: Casper Ware, Jae'Sean Tate, Didi Louzada, Craig Moller

Major losses: Jerome Randle, David Wear, Kyle Adnam

The Kings will be bookended by two All NBL First-teamers in Andrew Bogut and Casper Ware, and some familiar names who have stayed the course and emerge into a new era.

Ware is the major signing for the Kings, replacing Jerome Randle as the Kings' primary playmaker. And like his stint at United, he has much heavy lifting to do; Ware has a little less firepower to work with at the Kings.

Despite Jerome Randle's undoubted shot-making talent, the acquisition of Ware represents an upgrade for the Kings. Ware is a genuine two-way player who take threes - that alone stretches the boundaries in which an enemy defensive scheme operates. Randle was a midrange master, but opponents could largely live with that.

Outside of Bogut and Ware, there are some question marks to this roster that may prevent them from reaching the heights of the top two teams.

Kevin Lisch's numbers from last season improved over the previous two years, but it's clear that he is no longer an MVP candidate type of player - he's been at a confusing crossroads since his debut season with the Kings.

Whilst Brad Newley's minutes have slowly declined as he's aged, Lisch's surged back above the 30-minute mark last season. I'm not sure that is sustainable.

Lisch now operates as a defensive specialist who can create his own look late in the shot clock. He seemingly doesn't carry the same individual defensive impact he used to have, and he's no longer the ball hawk he once was; his steal and rebound rates dropped last season. Despite that, there is still something intangible that Lisch brings to the table; he's still a plus-minus darling. He will hit big shots when it matters - he is still a top 25 player in this league.

Newley will continue to outpace everyone down the court for transition buckets, but his outside shooting regressed to 30.3 percent last season. As he ages, it will be interesting to see how his game shifts. His defence is slightly underrated. He is still an elite defensive rebounding wing who can ignite transition by himself.

The Kings' bench, a real sore spot from last year, looks slightly improved.

Daniel Kickert will reprise his role as the scoring hub of the second unit. He can't move on defence, meaning he's a snug fit as a second unit centre.

They've lost the wild forays of Kyle Adnam, but Shaun Bruce is steady, and that may be all you need to buy Ware a breather. Craig Moller returns to the Harbour City a championship winner. Over 69 games he averaged 3.7 points, 2.8 rebounds per contest, and shot 27.3 percent from beyond the arc. Teams once again won't respect his jumper, meaning he will need to scrounge his points in transition, and off second chance opportunities.

Didi Louzada represents the most compelling piece for Will Weaver. His combination of hops, shooting and slashing ability is something that differentiates him from the rest of a relatively ground-bound roster. He's also shown himself to be a capable playmaker; he's far more polished than Brian Bowen.

That's probably because he's also not necessarily a Next Star, at least in the way it was originally conceived. How Weaver deploys him- whether he starts or remains a headliner off the bench - could shape the season.

Elsewhere, Jae'Sean Tate is a tiny 4-man in height, but he does have the girth to hold his ground, and he's nimble on this feet. But there will be games in which the opposition will simply just shoot over him.

His own shooting is a huge question mark, with his points likely coming through rip-throughs from fake dribble hand-offs, or just from crashing the offensive glass. Teams will lay off him until he proves he can shoot consistently.

Tate does provide something that the Kings have sorely lacked over the past few seasons: a dose of athleticism and grit. You need guys who have that instinctive activity and who will do the dirty work.

The addition of Lucas Walker solidifies that power forward position with a veteran presence, allowing Weaver another versatile defensive option.

Jordan Hunter will log some minutes, as the third-string big man. If nothing else, he's an active big body who keeps things simple and can hold down the fort on the defensive glass as Bogut rests, or if Kickert shifts to the 4-spot.

What happens when they face perimeter-oriented frontlines? The warning sign for the Kings is their inability to downsize without getting plastered on the defensive glass. They were horrendous on the glass when Bogut sat last season.

Line-up flexibility allows you insert personnel situationally to tilt matchups more favourably along the risk-reward continuum. Does Weaver have that valuable tool at his disposal when a three-point shooting big men drags Bogut from the paint, negating his rim-protecting ability? What if he needs to blitz a strong shooting guard?

The Kings seemingly don't quite have the line-up flexibility that is available for the two squads ahead of them here.

Prediction: 3rd

Perth Wildcats

Major additions: Dario Hunt, Majok Majok

Major losses: Angus Brandt, Tom Jervis, Sunday Dech, Greg Hire

The champs will essentially be running it all back again. The Wildcats have always seemingly operated to a higher standard when it came to expectations, but the frenzy and angst by January last season was...frothy.

There were rumblings of discontent with the lack a third import. There were questions about the quality of their offence. There were concerns regarding the load on Bryce Cotton.

And guess what? It never mattered. They did what they did best, reclaiming their mantle as the league's best defensive team, easily topping the league in defensive rating for the regular season, on their way to another title.

Red Army, despite the shiny new toys across the eastern seaboard, the Wildcats are firmly in the title mix yet again. And they're ready for a repeat.

"There's always pressure on Perth to perform," Nick Kay tells ESPN. "And that expectation is a good thing to have, because it keeps you accountable every day."

The loss of Angus Brandt hurts, only in the sense that he provided a beefy post-up option, should all else fail.

But Trevor Gleeson's use of Brandt has been largely erratic from game to game. It also didn't matter last season.

This team will always only go as far as Cotton takes them - it was built for him to drive. But Kay has emerged as their best two-way player, comfortably slotting in either the 4 or 5 spot to wreak his unusual havoc. Kay's versatility unlocks various alignments for Trevor Gleeson; the Wildcats can go smaller with Kay at centre without worrying about the defensive glass.

Kay's bread and butter will always be his rebounding and nimble feet on defence, but his shooting has steadily improved to the point where he now warrants a hasty closeout; he was at 41.7 percent from deep last season in 1.7 attempts per game for the regular season.

During the playoffs, he was 4-of-7 at 57.1 percent. Kay is a low volume gunner, and outside shooting will never define his game, but every little incremental improvement matters.

If teams go small themselves, he can muscle his way past smaller dudes for below the rim finishes.

Being a part of the Boomers program has only empowered Kay further, and he's set to reach another level this season.

"I guess it was reassuring that I can step up to that level, given the opportunity," Kay tells ESPN, regarding the residual effects from his World Cup campaign, and the lessons he absorbed. "The importance of each possession. Just some of those little things that are really going to help me develop my game even further."

During the World Cup campaign and lead-up, Kay would routinely work on his post moves alongside Jock Landale and Jonah Bolden (when he was still with the team), under the watchful eye of Luc Longley. Longley was full of praise for Kay and his skillset, believing he had nothing left to teach him. For Kay, he was able to absorb some of the "little things" that should help his game.

How he absorbs a higher scoring load this season will be interesting in itself.

"It's trying to be efficient down there on the block," says Kay. "try to find ways to get other people involved too off post action, because Perth's [a] very inside-out team. You need to be able to have some heat on the rim to get some of the other guys open, like your Clints [Steindl] and your Bryces [Cotton]."

One of those "guys" will be Terrico White, who returns for another season, this time as the reigning Grand Final MVP. White had a solid regular season, but he transformed himself in the playoffs.

Over 24 games in the regular season, White was meh from the three-point line, at 29.8 percent, in 6.7 attempts per game. In six playoff games, White raised his three-point diet, taking 8.2 three-point attempts per game, and canned them at a ludicrous 46.9 percent. Did anyone see that coming?

We wrote in our grand final series preview last season that the Wildcats' hopes could hinge on how White performed from deep. That shift in outside potency nudged the title odds, changing the calculus in terms of how United could defend the Wildcats (specifically Bryce Cotton). The question now: Was that six-game sample an outlier?

Dario Hunt replaces Brandt as the starting centre and reprises the rim-running/shot-blocking role last played by Jameel McKay and Derek Cooke Jr. Hunt might a different type altogether as he's flashed some individual scoring chops in the post.

Damian Martin is still Damian Freaking Martin. Martin looked like himself again last season, spry and clinging to any poor fool he was tasked with shutting down - he was the ultimate disruptor once again. It culminated in a superb defensive performance in the Grand Final series in which he could have easily been the Grand Final MVP. He looks fresh and healthy again.

After missing the latter part of the season, Mitch Norton returns and should feel more acclimated at the Wildcats, ensuring not much of a defensive drop-off when he checks in for Martin. Norton is one of the league's best at drawing fouls on the offensive end.

Clint Steindl will rain fire from deep once again. Jesse Wagstaff rediscovered his shooting vigour late last season.

The Wildcats are likely to lead the league in wins heading into the new year simply by virtue of running back pretty much the same squad (minus Brandt) that just won a title.

Prediction: 2nd

Melbourne United

Major additions: Melo Trimble, Shawn Long, Casey Prather

Major losses: Casper Ware, Josh Boone, D.J. Kennedy

The Casper Ware/Josh Boone era will be remembered fondly.

That is just what happens when two tent-poles for a franchise mesh so seamlessly together, forming a bedrock towards success. There is nothing but love from Dean Vickerman for his former charges. But for now, his focus will be upon forming a new, but equally deadly two-man game with their replacements.

Melo Trimble and Shawn Long are both younger than the stars they replaced. With that, comes another opportunity for Vickerman to teach.

"We had younger replacements," Vickerman tells ESPN. "A little bit different. We gained a bit more of a post presence that we felt that we missed last year."

United might be the most offensively-devastating team we have seen in recent years. In Trimble and Long, they boast arguably the most talented offensive players in their respective positions.

Trimble is a devastating off-the-bounce threat who carried the Taipans last season in Cotton-esque fashion. Trimble launched 183 three-pointers last year, canning them at 41.5 percent. He was automatic from the corners, hitting those outside looks at 66.7 percent, per jordanmcnbl.com (15 attempts in total). When teams forced him off the three-point line, he demonstrated a proficiency in aerial contortion in the paint, twisting and turning, spinning the ball in sweetly off the glass. He was the Taipans offence.

Long too showcased an incredible offensive arsenal for a big man. Applying the 300-minute threshold, per Spatialjam.com, Long was second in offensive rebound rate (his current teammate, Alex Pledger, topped the league), sixth in block rate, fourth in defensive rebound rate in the league.

Yet last season, there was a sense that both could have impacted the game more on the defensive end. Trimble was not as engaged as he should be. Long hunted blocks at every opportunity, either leaping out of position for defensive rebounds, or landing in foul trouble.

For both, it's a matter of wanting to lockdown their defensive assignments.

"You see in our practices [now] that sometimes you've got to teach a little bit more, and that's what happens when you just get younger guys. It's just going to be a growing process with these guys," says Vickerman. "But they've been so open. Both came in with a wrap that they needed to improve defensively. And both have committed to that so far, which has been great."

How they both mesh as the centrepiece of United's offence will also be crucial. Trimble owned an astronomical usage rate of 37.2 percent, partly because he had to with the Snakes. Long was also top 10 in the league - sometimes, he freelanced.

To further complicate the puzzle, Casey Prather is back, and he will need to be incorporated into the mix. In his last two seasons in the league, he had usage rates of 32.1 percent and 41.2 percent.

On defence, he and McCarron will wreak havoc in the passing lanes. Prather should feast in the open court.

McCarron will slot in seamlessly wherever he is needed. He does not have the raw numbers that scream star, but he is one. His utility value is perhaps unmatched in this league.

After all that, we haven't even mentioned that Chris Goulding and Dave Barlow return from World Cup duty. Goulding will likely head up United's bench, and be flanked by Shea Ili. Ili forgot how to play basketball last year, but he should return to his old form in a role that does not over-tax him.

Alex Pledger, like last season, will provide United with the best centre pairing in the league. If they need to downsize for all switching schemes, Barlow can jostle with centres.

Vickerman wants his team to play at a higher pace - they were 6th in pace last season. For him, this is a personnel-based decision, rather than any short-comings identified in their Grand Final series loss to the Wildcats.

"I think Chris [Goulding] gets open well in transition, when we space it well, and we screen for him," says Vickerman. "I think Melo's [Trimble] at his best when he's pushing the basketball. Shawn [Long] can play both ways equally as well, but he seems to get left open a little bit more if he's a trail big, if we're playing fast as well. Certainly, the element of Casey [Prather] being just that elite 3-man in the open court, if we can get him out there, he's extremely tough to stop."

United's depth should easily accommodate a rise in speed of play. Ili and McCarron should also thrive in a game when the focus is on pushing the ball ahead. In a novel way, higher possessions also replicates the feeling of involvement you would normally have, despite the potential for less playing time, something that comes with the territory when you have quality depth.

That depth will be needed with their early season schedule as daunting as it gets. United open the season against the Phoenix, and two nights later travel to Perth for a Grand Final rematch against the Wildcats. They then fly to America for a pair of games against NBA competition in the Los Angeles Clippers (October 14), followed by the Sacramento Kings (October 17). On October 20, they return for another clash with the Wildcats.

"It's busy, but we actually really need to be together for a while," says Vickerman. Apart from acclimating Trimble, Long and Prather, this team also had five players returning from World Cup duty.

After the Blitz, United headed into camp in Geelong, before a pair of preseason games (against Perth and Adelaide) that would be the first time that they would trot out their entire playing roster on the floor.

"They're all going to be tough," says Vickerman. "But if we can manage ourselves through that, making sure that we don't cook anyone, and use the depth of our talent, I think we come through that strong."

Ultimately, United are the deepest and most complete team in the league this season; they morph into any starry combination to suit any game plan. It is almost unfair. And that may be Vickerman's greatest challenge this season - how he makes all the pieces work to form a cogent unit.

Prediction: 1st