Pressure to perform in NBL24 starts now for the Adelaide 36ers

The final performance encapsulated a season that never got going. Some nice moments, some poor moments, but overall, a level inconsistency that left another gettable win on the table.

As the Adelaide 36ers faded against an energised Melbourne United at John Cain Arena, a season that promised plenty came to a close with an eighth-placed finish the final landing spot.

After raiding rival clubs' import stocks to sign the star pairing of Antonius Cleveland and Robert Franks in the offseason, the expectation was a tilt at the title. Instead, head coach CJ Bruton and the club will have to watch this season's playoffs from home.

"It's disappointing. You look at the names but it's just names on paper," Bruton said. "Trying to get them to communicate and come together as a unit was a tough challenge. We had disruptions throughout the season, overall, I take responsibility.

"Last year I came in two weeks before the season, right now I was able to put seven guys in. Did I have enough time with them? Probably not, but I'm not making excuses, I take the brunt of it."

In the end, the 36ers finished with the fourth ranked offence and ninth ranked defence, with the latter proving costly across the balance of the season. Never appearing settled, the 36ers were a team constantly in flux, searching for the right lineup combinations and ultimately chasing from behind for the entirety of the campaign.

The 36ers made a delayed opening to NBL23 followed a historic preseason win over the Phoenix Suns, which only increased outside expectations on a club that made plenty of noise in the offseason.

"To go to the United States and did what we did, it was a blessing and it was also something that I'm pretty sure most teams will revisit," Bruton said.

"It was good for a lot of different reasons, for the league, for the country, while it put a target on our back. We had a lot to go through in the season, it's something you need to re-evaluate and assess but there are a lot of things for myself, for the club, to reassess."

Despite some caution, Bruton did express openness to NBA preseason games in the future.

"If I get enough time to get with the group and have enough time in the offseason. Guys were playing FIBA window and doing different things to get everything in place. We were in the United States and coming back and our season has started and it was like showtime. Everyone was in our face, the cameras are there, everyone wants to know what's going on, why isn't he playing, where's that star guy, you guys (the media) were all into that, it was a soap opera.

"While we're not the Chicago Bulls or the Golden State Warriors, it sort of felt like that coming back from what we accomplished in such a short period."

Cleveland, who is contracted for NBL24, shrugged off any suggestion the US tour was bad for the group, quickly putting his hand up for the upcoming season.

"I'm trying to go back. You never know, even if we didn't go, the same thing (might) have happened," he said.

"I don't know how to answer that. I feel like that didn't have anything to do with it, it's a long season so we can't pinpoint us going to the States for everything. We had more than enough time to regroup and get ourselves back together. I wouldn't put it on that."

With the import committed for another season, the star two-way threat and Defensive Player of the Year finalist chose to take a more optimistic approach to the upcoming offseason, believing continuity with the roster will have the club well placed to climb the standings.

"I think experience is good regardless. Part of Sydney getting off to a great start is that they got their main core guys back. Even though we didn't accomplish what we wanted, these games meant something.

"Coming back with the same core and same group, it will help, just being familiar with each other and also remembering this feeling. You win like a man but you got to lose like one too. That will be the mindset through the offseason, it's just motivation. It's a pretty tough league, but I think everyone knows what it takes to win in this league."

A legend of the league as a player, a visibly disappointed Bruton honourably took plenty of the blame. With two seasons as a head coach under his belt, the pressure and challenge of lifting the 36ers back to the postseason for the first time since 2018 will get no easier, as the league continues to strengthen.

"To understand how you perform and play, taking on the identity of myself, as a coach you want them to take on that identity. I don't think we did that, I didn't do a good job in that space and I need to make sure that next year the identity you see on this team is me. Right now, I got to put a team together (this season), that was good, now I've got to make sure we represent the club the right way and you see more of me."

"There's not much time to go sit in your feelings and be sad and feel sorry because I have to address you guys, I have to address the team. It's been a challenge. As a coach it's different to a player, but as a coach I've enjoyed the challenge. Clearly the challenge has got the better of us and at times it got the better of me."

For a proud club with a parochial and increasingly impatient fanbase, the pressure to perform in NBL24 starts now for the 36ers.