cto­ber marks the start of NBL ’18 – a 40th birth­day cel­e­bra­tion of Aus­tralia’s na­tional bas­ket­ball com­pe­ti­tion. At times, it has not looked like reach­ing that mile­stone. But now, it can be claimed, life has never been better.

Yes the ’90s are re­garded as the NBL’s glory days, but con­sider this. Last year, eight vi­brant clubs con­tested the tight­est com­pe­ti­tion the league has ever had. More peo­ple attended games than ever be­fore – the av­er­age crowd fig­ure of 5,939 sur­passed the pre­vi­ous best of 5,692 of 1994. Tele­vi­sion rat­ings on Fox Sports shot up 19 per­cent on the pre­vi­ous sea­son. Page views of the NBL web­site were up 38,000 per week on the pre­vi­ous year.

One of the first ques­tions asked about NBL ’18 will be: can Perth do it again? The Wild­cats are reign­ing cham­pi­ons. They’ve al­ready gone back to back. Ac­tu­ally, they’ve won three of the last four ti­tles. They have eight cham­pi­onships in to­tal – twice as many as any other club. Hell, they’ve played in 31 con­sec­u­tive fi­nals se­ries.

Can Perth do it again? Of course, es­pe­cially as Bryce Cotton is back. The point guard had short NBA stints with Utah, Phoenix and Mem­phis and showed why when he dropped 26 points on Syd­ney in his NBL de­but. Be­fore Cotton ar­rived, the Wild­cats were last through 12 rounds. When he fin­ished, as grand fi­nal MVP, they had swept Cairns and Illawarra in the play­offs. Watch him go dur­ing a full sea­son.

Glass half-empty: can Perth do it again? Maybe not. Casey Prather is gone.The ath­letic swing­man had two years as a Wild­cat for two ti­tles and two club MVP awards. Not bad. You don’t lose a mem­ber of the All-NBL first team and take it lightly. Prather will in­stead be part of a daunt­ing Mel­bourne United start­ing five: Ware, Gould­ing, Prather, An­der­sen, Boone. Wow!

Join­ing Cotton and Prather as im­ports around the league are names drip­ping with bas­ket­ball qual­ity. New­com­ers such as Scoochie Smith in Cairns, Travis Les­lie at the Kings and Edgar Sosa over in New Zealand. But don’t for a mo­ment think the NBL lives or dies on the qual­ity of the im­ports alone. That would be an in­jus­tice to the de­fen­sive de­ter­mi­na­tion of Damian Martin; the poise and pre­ci­sion of Kevin Lisch; the shoot­ing per­cent­age of Daniel Kick­ert; the swag­ger of Chris Gould­ing; the speed and spring of Nathan Sobey; the size and strength of Ba­m­aga big boy Nate Jawai; the rapid rise of re­cent Rookie of the Year Nick Kay; and the vast ex­pe­ri­ence of Kirk Pen­ney and Mika Vukona.

Since Mel­bourne busi­ness­man Larry Kestel­man bought the league and launched the so-called new NBL in 2015-16, his team has hardly put a foot out of bounds. Sure, the refs cop it. They do in ev­ery sport. Yes, the Townsville Crocs dropped out. Their place went to the re­turn­ing Bris­bane Bul­lets and pres­ence in an­other Queens­land city.

Atten­tion has quickly shifted from shoring up the NBL to build­ing on it. One small plank is greater year-round ac­tiv­ity, ex­po­sure and rev­enue. The stan­dard of Aus­tralia’s in­creas­ing NBA pres­ence plays a part, but Kestel­man wants much more than that.

This off-sea­son has seen an NBL All-Aus­tralian Team tour China again. Ade­laide 36er Ter­rance Fer­gu­son went pick 21 in the NBA Dra¨, and 16 NBL play­ers or coaches played a part in the US Sum­mer Leagues.The Boomers dunked all com­ers to win the FIBA Asia Cup in Le­banon.The league took its pre-sea­son NBL Blitz to Trar­al­gon in coun­try Vic­to­ria. Big­gest of all, a deal was done to play NBA pre-sea­son games in the US against the Utah Jazz, Ok­la­homa City Thun­der and Phoenix Suns re­spec­tively. Among many match-ups, that’s Rus­sell West­brook against Kyle Ad­nam!

The awk­ward tim­ing meant Perth opted to in­stead con­cen­trate on their cham­pi­onship de­fence. Can they do it again? Who knows? But, gee, it’s going to be fun find­ing out.

Don’t for a mo­ment think the NBL lives or dies on the qual­ity of the im­ports alone.

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