The NBL23 championship series has arrived, with the Sydney Kings and New Zealand Breakers set for a five-game series to determine the title winners after what has been a wild campaign.
The league MVP, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and four All-NBL players will all be on hand for an absolutely stacked decider.
Kane Pitman and Olgun Uluc are here to take an early look at the series, with each looking from a different team's perspective.
Kane Pitman: Why New Zealand can win.
Across the balance of the season, the Breakers have the league's best defence on a per possession basis. New Zealand have restricted opponents to 105.1 points per 100 possessions (via spatialjam) to sit firmly on the shortlist of elite defensive squads for the entirety of NBL23.
Against Sydney, the defence has held up well through three regular season meetings, particularly when it comes to protecting the rim. The Kings have attempted 48% of their shots at the rim this season, finishing a very tidy 62% of those. Against New Zealand, that shot frequency at the rim dipped to 42%, while the efficiency was slightly lower at 59%.
The physical duo of Jarrell Brantley and Dererk Pardon present a strong paint presence, while William McDowell-White and young star Rayan Rupert are among a host of Breakers who play up and in on the perimeter in an attempt to limit the oppositions half-court damage.
The series will also pit the league's fastest pace team (Sydney) vs. the league's slowest pace team (New Zealand). Per SpatialJam, two of the three meetings between the two teams fell short of the Kings season average PACE (average possessions per game). In simple terms, the Breakers have had some success at slowing the game down and attempting to turn the contest into a more familiar environment.
At least on paper, the Breakers also have the most explosive scorer in the series, with Barry Brown Jr. fresh off a 32-point outburst to help put away the Tasmania JackJumpers in the previous series.
While the Kings have sat pretty at the top of the standings all season long, there is no reason why New Zealand fans shouldn't feel this team is in with a huge shot at the title.
Olgun Uluc: Why Sydney can win.
The easy answer is that the Kings are the defending champions, and have been the undisputed best team in the NBL all season long; they have an elite coach, an array of the best top-tier talent in the league, and the depth to match any other team.
They'll be up against a quality Breakers defence, but the Kings have multiple creation options to turn to. It starts with the MVP, Xavier Cooks, and he's shown to be able to get to his spots against the Breakers throughout their season series. He got injured early in one of the matchups but still managed 13 points in 13 minutes. The Breakers have a heap of capable bodies to throw at Cooks but he's the MVP for a reason; he's the best player in this series -- and arguably the league -- and so back-to-back Kings titles will likely go through him.
Derrick Walton Jr. also proved to be a handful in the previous matchups between these teams. The efficiency could've been better, but he drew 18 fouls over the three games; the crafty point guard is the ideal decision-maker to lean on against a half-court Breakers defence that plays up and in.
Justin Simon will be significant on both ends -- particularly defensively, where he may be tasked with disrupting the Breakers' point guard creators -- but Dejan Vasiljevic will likely be the key. During the regular season series, the sharpshooter wasn't as effective as we've been accustomed to seeing from him. He's also coming off a semifinals series against the Taipans where he struggled to get into rhythm, so there's a sense he's ready to explode; whether that comes against a team he's struggled to produce against may be what makes or breaks the Kings' title chances.
The size of the Kings will also play a major factor in this series. Chase Buford's team has the bodies to compete physically with a Breakers team whose identity leans on it, with the likes of Cooks, Simon, Tim Soares, Jordan Hunter, and even Kouat Noi making up a relatively robust frontcourt. That's obviously extremely important when matching up against names like Jarrell Brantley and Dererk Pardon, especially when it comes to rebounding.
Pardon's ability to create second shots for his team was elite this season, emerging as one of the best putback players in the NBL. The Kings are the best defensive rebounding team in the league, so are well placed to limit those second chance opportunities, while also giving themselves the ability to get the ball off the rim and push the pace.
Kane Pitman: What could be a concern for New Zealand?
Offense. As reliable as the Breakers have been on the defensive side, they have been middling when it comes to scoring the ball.
New Zealand rank fifth for offensive rating, scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions and they are below average in points per possession efficiency for spot up, hand off and off-screen actions (via spatialjam).
The longer the series, the more opportunity for season-long trends to emerge, which will present a challenge against a Sydney team that has been elite on that end of the floor during Chase Buford's tenure as head coach.
Shot selection will be critical for the Breakers, with a heavy importance in not taking the bait against a Sydney defence that attempts to coerce them into trying to score from the midrange. On the season, 19% of the Breakers field goal attempts came from the midrange or floater territory. In three games against the Kings that number spiked to 29%.
Brown, in particular struggled from this range, where he was 12-for-26 on two-point attempts as illustrated in the shot chart below; 41% of Brown's shot attempts came from that in between range against the Kings, up from 30% on the season.
Patience and shot selection will be of major importance for the New Zealand offence.
Olgun Uluc: What could be a concern for Sydney?
There was a lot of talk about how the Taipans were built to beat the Kings, but there's a very good argument that the Breakers tick even more boxes.
A big part of getting the best of the Kings is guarding Cooks, and Mody Maor has a heap of elite defensive options to throw at the league's MVP. In all three games between these two teams, Brantley was the primary matchup on Cooks; he possesses a good mix of strength and mobility to compete with the Australian. The Breakers did a lot of switching for that matchup, though, and it hardly hindered them, because Cooks would get a healthy serving of the likes of Rayan Rupert, Will McDowell-White, and Thomas Abercrombie, all of whom have good size for their position.
The Breakers had the No. 1 defence in the NBL so it's no surprise that's where the key to their success is. Maor's team also had the second-best transition defence -- ideal against a Kings unit that wants to push the pace at every available opportunity -- so there's a sense the Breakers have, with regard to guarding Cooks and stopping the break, the ability to take away from where their opponent is elite at creating their advantages.
The Kings haven't guarded McDowell-White particularly well in any of their matchups this season, so that may be an adjustment going into the Grand Final series. The point guard averaged 15.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game in his three games against the Kings this season, and on fairly respectable shooting splits.
The Kings haven't been a particularly good pick-and-roll defence this season, and McDowell-White was able to be really effective against their drops coverage, either finding his own scoring with his in-between game or using the penetration to create for others. Will Sydney live with McDowell-White's floater game and creation from those deeper spots, or do they follow the Tasmania JackJumpers' lead and get the ball out of his hands and force others to create?
Kane Pitman: Who will be the MVP if New Zealand win?
Brantley. If you ever needed a reminder of how deep the talent pool in the NBL is right now, Brantley missing an All-NBL selection might be one of the great examples.
If the Breakers win the title, you can expect a two-way masterclass from Brantley, who is slated to take the primary matchup on last year's Grand Final MVP, Cooks.
In the one game New Zealand beat the Kings this season, Brantley poured in 30 points on 9-for-16 shooting, while adding nine rebounds and five assists for good measure. On the other end, Cooks battled through foul trouble for the night, tallying 11 points, four rebounds and four assists before picking up his fifth foul in the final seconds to end a rare tough night.
This is clearly the box office matchup of the series with the two players who should be favourite for MVP if their respective teams lift the trophy.
Olgun Uluc: Who will be the MVP if Sydney win?
Cooks will get his fair share of defensive matchups, and a lot of what the Breakers do defensively will be limiting what he's able to do around the paint, but it's tough to bet against the NBL MVP who's shown all season that he's just a level above everyone else in the league.
Not only can Cooks be the MVP-level player that can get the Kings over the line -- because he did that exact thing in last season's Grand Final series -- but he's also the energy guy when things get a bit stale, and then he'll sometimes emerge as the connector for an offence that could get stagnant against an elite Breakers defensive unit. He's shown throughout the season that he can perform well against these Breakers, and he's coming off a semifinals series where his impact on both ends was profound.
If the Kings go back-to-back, the safest bet is for Cooks to follow suit and walk away with his second straight Grand Final MVP award.
Kane Pitman: Series prediction
Kings in 5.
Ultimately, the length of this series feels like it will come down to the Breakers ability to function offensively. While there have been some obvious reasons (health, covid disruptions) for the occasional consistency battle when it comes to putting the ball in the bucket, the defensive tenacity (and skill) of Mody Maor's squad just won't allow me to believe this series will end quickly. The brave pick would be the Breakers, but I picked the Kings in the preseason so I'm not going to flip at the final hurdle.
Olgun Uluc: Series prediction
Kings in 4.
We have two elite defensive teams who match up quite evenly from a physicality standpoint, but the Kings can get to that next level offensively and have the depth to keep the Breakers on high alert for a full 40 minutes. Of course, the Kings also have the best player in the series.
If not referenced, stats for this article were sourced from spatialjam.com, realgm.com and nbl.com.au