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 better.
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 attended 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 Cotton 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 Cotton 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 Cotton 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.
Attention 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.