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NBL tiers: Where every team sits in the title race

There's a sense that this NBL season is as wide open as ever.

It's made grouping each team into tiers difficult; there doesn't seem to be one obvious frontrunner, and some rosters are still chopping and changing to the point where making judgments on early-season performances is practically redundant.

Still, we're deep enough into the 2022-23 campaign that some teams have been able to separate themselves from others -- or, at least, show positive indicators to that effect -- with regard to where they sit in the title race.

Here's where every team sits as we quickly approach the midway point of the season.


FAVOURITES

Sydney Kings

The defending champions are playing as well as you'd expect.

Xavier Cooks is probably the frontrunner for MVP, Derrick Walton Jr. is the most composed point guard in the NBL, and they're playing with a level of continuity you'd expect from a title-winning team that's brought back the majority of its local talent.

As expected, Chase Buford has his Kings playing with pace - they lead the NBL in transition frequency - but still have the personnel and chemistry to score in the halfcourt. The top-tier talent is proven, and they're deep in every position. What's interesting, and perhaps ominous, is that it doesn't feel like this team has even come close to its ceiling. Dejan Vasiljevic has yet to find consistent form, shooting below 31% from downtown - well below his career average - while Tim Soares is in the same boat; yet to find the sort of shooting efficiency the team's expected of him.

For the Kings, though, it all starts with Cooks. He's their anchor on both ends - the most versatile defender in Sydney, with a continually-improving playmaking element to his game on top of his ability to dominate at and around the rim - and has the ability to put the team on his back while they work out their kinks. It's how the Kings are 8-3 and still with room to grow, and why they're still the safest bet to win it all.

New Zealand Breakers

It's safe to say that the Breakers are the hottest team in the NBL right now.

"They're f---ing rolling," one rival general manager told ESPN; a sentiment that's shared across the league.

Going into Round 9, the Breakers are 10-3 and boast the best offence (115.2 offensive rating) and defence (101.2 defensive rating) in the league, and are coming off a 37-point demolition of the floundering Brisbane Bullets.

What makes the team so effective is the roster construction: all three imports fill their respective roles to perfection, the local depth is immense, and William McDowell-White is the head of a snake that has multiple high-level creators. The thing that gets them into the 'favourites' tier is how head coach Mody Maor has instilled a defensive identity to the team, and the well-drilled nature about how they go about shot selection on the other end.

McDowell-White, Barry Brown Jr., and Izayah Le'Afa are three of the league's top-four most prolific pick-and-roll players, and the former two are among the most productive in the NBL out of that action. Jarrell Brantley leads the league in post-ups and is extremely effective down low; it's worth noting that his all-round game has him entering the All-NBL conversation.

Throw in Dererk Pardon's activity on both ends, and the Breakers have an incredible balance to their roster that can match up with every team in the league.


CONTENDERS

South East Melbourne Phoenix

Mody Maor called the Phoenix "the most talented team in the league".

On paper, they probably are. And, based on the games we've seen them largely healthy, it's not unreasonable to think they could be among the obvious favourites to win it all.

Mitch Creek is playing at an MVP level - leading the NBL in scoring at 22.7 points per game - and he has a heap of help around him. Gary Browne leads the league in assists, averaging an impressive 8.5 dimes a contest, Alan Williams' offensive game translated to the NBL seamlessly, Ryan Broekhoff is doing a much better job finding his spots, and Trey Kell III has shown enough glimpses to think he can do some damage in this league.

The Phoenix are all of that, and can also throw out Zhou Qi and Kyle Adnam, giving opposing teams a wave of tough looks to confront.

In the games with mostly-full lineups, the Phoenix's defence has looked, at the very least, passable, and they've done an impressive job utilising all of the offensive talent across their roster.

Simon Mitchell's team is still putting things together, too, so there's an expectation they're not close to their ceiling. Kell III will get more on-ball looks, which provides yet another perimeter creation option for a team that already has so many, and we haven't come close to seeing the full potential of what Zhou could look like with this rangy group.

The sample size being relatively small keeps them in this tier, but the early returns indicate they wouldn't be out of place in the one above.

Adelaide 36ers

Here's another team that's gone through a transformation, and look nothing like their early-season selves.

The release of Craig Randall II is, so far, proving to be an extremely positive development across the board for the 36ers. Put aside whatever off-court issues that have been amended, the team is also closer to the league average in defensive efficiency - they were last going into the FIBA break - and, more importantly, Robert Franks is getting a lot more looks.

The 36ers still lead the league in isolation frequency, but that's naturally dropped since the release of Randall II; the Mitch McCarron-led offence is now whipping the ball around, and Franks is getting a heap of post touches, where he's most effective. That roster change also opened up off-guard minutes for Anthony Drmic and Sunday Dech, both of whom are more willing defenders with the ability to spot-up effectively from deep.

CJ Bruton's group appears a lot more sustainable on both ends, but still have things to work out before truly being considered a danger team come the playoffs. There's still a question of Daniel Johnson's fit on a team that's played a dynamic brand of basketball of its last three games - increased minutes for the likes of Kai Sotto, Kyrin Galloway, and Hyrum Harris are somewhat telling - and seemingly want to junk it up more defensively.

There's also an open import spot dangling in front of them; one they've been in no hurry to fill, but perhaps another perimeter creator would be helpful for the team to survive the non-McCarron minutes.


DARK HORSES

Cairns Taipans

Adam Forde's team came into the season projected to finish somewhere around the bottom of the ladder and, boy, most of us couldn't have been more wrong.

There just wasn't any way of knowing the extent of the leap Keanu Pinder would take - he's putting together an All-NBL type of season thus far - and that was coupled with a lack of an emphasis of just how good of a two-way talent DJ Hogg would be in the league.

The Taipans have a rotation that's draped in modernity. They run nearly as much as the Kings, and can effectively have five shooters on the floor at all times, leading the league in spot-up attempts. It's all about getting the ball to their advantage creators - whether that's Shannon Scott running the point, Hogg 's scoring gravity, or Pinder's new-found imposition inside the paint - and finding shooters on the perimeter.

Where Tahjere McCall fits within the group is still being worked out, so how they end up utilising him will be interesting to track moving forward. There's also a case of the relatively short rotation Forde has played all season, and where help may be if foul trouble or injury arises; it seems as though the head coach is slowly testing which bench guys he may be able to plug in off the bench.

The game will slow down in the postseason, but the Taipans' propensity to shoot the ball and switchy defence - third in the NBL in defensive efficiency - makes them a tough matchup in any environment.

Tasmania JackJumpers

Here's another team you wouldn't want to face in a postseason matchup.

As expected, the JackJumpers have been able to play a junky style of defence that keeps them in games, while having a poised presence in Josh Magette to settle things on the other end.

The offensive end has had some issues - that's partly due to the lack of shooting personnel on the roster, and the reliance on imports to carry the scoring load - but when their flow offence is, yes, flowing, Scott Roth's men know where their shots are going to come from and it puts them in position to win games. Milton Doyle, Jack McVeigh, and Rashard Kelly have done a good job carrying the scoring load for the JackJumpers, who'll go into Round 9 sitting on 0.500.

Doyle, in particular, had big shoes to fill, replacing Josh Adams, and he's done a really effective job as the scoring outlet for a JackJumpers team that can struggle in that area. The shooting guard averages 1.07 points per play as a pick-and-roll ball handler, which is the most for players in the league with 30 or more of those repetitions; when things break down or the game is on the line, he's been as reliable as anyone in the league.

The JackJumpers still have to re-incorporate Will Magnay and Clint Steindl, and do have the luxury of a relatively deep bevy of off-guards who can play both sides of the ball, so this team still has plenty of room to grow.


LOTS OF WORK TO DO

Perth Wildcats

A team with Bryce Cotton may well always be a dark horse, but we saw last season that just his production isn't enough to get a team in the postseason, so this tier feels more suitable for the Wildcats.

Going into the season, there was a sense that this team had a really impressive balance across their playing rotation, but they just haven't gotten a consistent output from some of the known quantities and their imports have been wildly inconsistent. Mitch Norton and Todd Blanchfield haven't shot it at the rate we usually expect from them, while Brady Manek and TaShawn Thomas haven't produced at the level you'd hope from those two spots.

There's no true centre on the roster, which has led to John Rillie's team losing every rebound battle this season, and contributes to the Wildcats having the tied-worst defence in the league (a defensive rating of 113.3).

The Wildcats have avoided the temptation of an early import change, even despite inconsistent production from their Americans and after last season's failed attempt to do so. The plus-side is that a change isn't necessarily essential, and that's the difference between the Wildcats and other teams in this tier: the pieces are there for Rillie's team; a lot is just about guys regaining their form, and leaning into lineups that can defend consistently.

Melbourne United

It's tough to see how United is going to climb out of the hole they're currently in.

There's no denying how many blows United has been hit with, from the somewhat unexpected departure of Matthew Dellavedova and Jack White, to injuries to two prominent rotation pieces, but they're also a victim to some pretty clear recruiting misses.

Perimeter creation was an issue last season, so the heavy reliance on only one pure point guard - Shea Ili, who's been dealing with a lingering concussion issue - is a risk that's come back to bite them. Xavier Rathan-Mayes is hitting shots but is being forced to play a lot more minutes than expected, and his style of play isn't conducive to how Dean Vickerman needs his team to operate for the majority of a game. The shooting and guard depth is also an obvious deficiency that wasn't addressed in free agency, and that's been a big factor in United having a bottom-three offence in the league.

That inconsistent offensive output is coupled with United not looking like your usual Vickerman type of imposing defensive unit, and it's not going to get any easier, considering they've already played nine home games, going a poor 3-6 in John Cain Arena thus far.

The plus-side is that Chris Goulding has been efficient and Isaac Humphries has been healthy and productive. United has also developed David Okwera to the point where he can provide solid minutes, while Rayjon Tucker is clearly taking strides toward being an effective two-way player under Vickerman. It's just a shame that it all feels somewhat wasted, because there hasn't been a consistent point guard presence to steer those pieces in the right direction.

Brisbane Bullets

There's a good argument that the Bullets could be in a tier below, but they get some benefit of the doubt because there's at least a glimpse of high-level talent on the roster with another import to come.

The question then becomes whether that import is good enough to make an impact, and if the best version of all of the team's individual talent can actually work together. It's yet another year where Nathan Sobey, coming off an injury, was never given the opportunity to operate next to an elite-level point guard, and, while a whole lot of money was spent on Aron Baynes, there wasn't much thought into putting a balanced team around him. These Bullets have players who can excel off the ball, and a bunch of centres, but not enough on-ball creators to trust that their offence could function consistently. It's why it's no surprise they have a bottom-two defence in the league, and felt enough pressure to make early moves.

The Bullets are 3-7 - and even that may be deceiving, because they picked up two wins over an undermanned, already-poorly Hawks team - and just fired their head coach in an inexplicably-timed manner. There's a sense the franchise is flailing, with no real direction, and their record reflects that.


NO REAL HOPE

Illawarra Hawks

The Hawks were unfortunately doomed before the season even began, and the entire NBL ecosystem knew it.

The team's front office was working with a diminished budget, but also really missed the mark from a recruitment standpoint; unable to retain the local and import talent they helped develop, while missing out on a number of their top priority free agents. That left their rookie head coach, Jacob Jackomas, with a skeleton of their previous season's team, and it shows.

The Hawks have, by far, the NBL's worst offence (95.5 offensive rating), and are bottom-three in defensive efficiency. Tyler Harvey has yet to regain the form he demonstrated during his first year with the team, while Justin Robinson's early injury was a giant blow that only made things difficult for the Hawks. It then doesn't help that the team doesn't have the scoring depth or secondary playmaking to string together competitive stretches in this league.

The addition of Michael Frazier II will naturally help, especially on the offensive end; the extent of that probably isn't enough to palpably change the fortunes of the team, though. The Hawks were the favourites to walk away with the wooden spoon, and that sentiment hasn't changed.

Stats for this article were sourced by RealGM.com and jordanmcnbl.com