Photo credit: Gameface NZ
All 11 Sal’s NBL teams are coming closer to the final stages of building their respective roster for the upcoming season, and much like a chef in a restaurant we can start seeing what the kitchens have been cooking and are beginning to get an idea what the final meal is going to look like. Not every meal is ready to be put into the oven just yet, but at the very least we can imagine what chef’s are going for.
With 11 teams in the competition there will be five that miss out on the Final 6 so not every meal is going to be considered gourmet, so lets take a look at what’s been pulled together at this stage to see who has the inside track on a Michelin star and who will be heading back to culinary school in the offseason.
What’s the one ingredient that each team must get right to make the Final 6 this season? Sky Sport commentators Casey Frank and Justin Nelson share their views.
Casey Frank: Find the Right Import PG
The Tuatara have done an excellent job to maintain the core of their squad from last season’s team that was dominant during the regular season before coming up just short of the championship goal. Bringing back a Tall Black level kiwi core of Rob Loe and most recent signing Reuben Te Rangi while adding Tom Vodanovich puts them in great stead to continue their recent run of Grand Final appearances. Cam Gliddon will be on the short list of top shooters in the league and gives returning Coach of the Year Aaron Young the squad to hit the ground running from game one. The bench will be mostly familiar faces as well with recruit Tu Kaha Cooper, the lone new face that can be expected to play a role. But with all the knowns, the unknown at the point guard position will be the determining factor of the clubs ceiling. Will they go with a dynamic athlete that can push the pace and lift the level of play in transition or a traditional PG type to work the half-court offence and make sure all that talent gets fed? Either way I see this team as a Final 6 lock but the right floor general could make them a hot favourite.
Justin Nelson: Find a Team First PG
The Tuatara have been a proven force the past two seasons, and strong recruitment for 2024 has them looking like a frontrunner again. Pairing Tom Vodanovich with Rob Loe is a master move, but there is one thing the Aucklanders must get right if they are going to be a Final 6 lock. After missing out on a few other options, the Tuatara are thought to be scouring the world for an import point guard that can lead this highly experienced roster. Getting the right team-orientated PG is a must.
CF: Stay Healthy
Following the first postseason appearance in franchise history the Bulls have shuffled the deck and look to have minimal carry over from a season ago with just Isaac Davidson and Dom Kelman-Poto returning players to have significantly contributed last season. With Jordan Hunt set to miss a good portion of the season (due to a broken leg suffered in England) the depth has already taken a considerable hit. With multiple players on the roster having missed varying degrees of time in 2023 and what looks like just import spots left to round out an eight-man rotation the spotlight will be on their strength and conditioning programme to keep the Bulls rampaging at the Stockyard all season long. The Bulls will need to stay healthy and monitor minutes loads to ensure a talented squad can stay health and live up to expectations to book a spot in the postseason.
JN: Find Synergy
The one thing the Bulls must get right if they hope to return to the Final 6 is synergy. This is a team that will need to click quickly, which won’t be easy given it is an almost completely overhauled roster being led by a new coach. A successful game plan will be crucial, which it is for all teams, but so many new faces mean it will take time to gel and some patience will be needed. If this team can find synergy and players can find, and play, their role in a new system, then this stacked roster can certainly make the post-season.
CF: Protect Home Court
Having been on multiple expansion teams during my career I’ve seen firsthand that starting from scratch is more difficult than it often looks from afar. There are many things that come into play to a successful season and a lot of those can be unknowns when there is a lack of familiarity and experience from working through it together in previous seasons, especially for teams on the road. That makes protecting the home court of the utmost importance as your home base is the easiest place to build the routines that can make success a habit and not happenstance. The Whai will need to lean on each and the emotions of a home crowd to get off to a great start with 3 of their first 4 games on the home court. If they can build that foundation early they will give themselves a bit of wiggle room should they experience some turbulence during the season.
JN: Roll Off Early Season Wins
The Whai must win early games before opposition coaches have done too much scouting and homework on them. For some reason, new teams usually have a golden run early, it’s something we see often in sports, and we can usually put this down to the fact new teams come with plenty of unknowns. As a season progresses, the scouting kicks in, and the new kids on the block aren’t quite so new anymore. Early wins, that’s the one thing the Whai must get if they hope to make the Final 6.
CF: Protect the Nest
While I was tempted to go with sign some players (as that roster is looking a lil slim at the moment) I have confidence that GM Jarrod Kenny and the Hawks front office will be able to round out the roster with the talent needed to make a run. But what simply must change is the run of form at Pettigrew Green Arena where they lost the first six of the 2023 season before finding a run of form to secure a Final 6 spot. With a number of fresh faces coming in wins at home will be key to forming that confidence and chemistry needed to make a run at the postseason.
JN: Win at Home
The Hawks must win at home. Last season saw the Hawks come up short far too often on their home floor, where Pettigrew Green Arena was anything but a fortress. That must change this season, there must be fight. While three quality imports are a must after what has been a free agency ransacking, for me the one thing the Hawks must get right is wins on their home deck.
CF: Juggle the Talent
At this stage of the recruitment process the Airs look to be in the conversation for most talented team in the league and that is with a restricted player (import) still to be added. And while I’ve never been a believer that a team can have too much talent there are a lot of mouths to feed. Kiwi’s Carlin Davison, Flynn and Tobias Cameron are at the inception of their careers and will be looking to prove themselves while Sam Froling has the talent to be an MVP candidate and a desire to prove his form coming into an Olympic year with a spot on the Boomers on the horizon. With that many mouths to feed at the table Mitch McCarron and newly minted coach Sam Mackinnon will need to do their best to keep the full squad involved and engaged throughout the year.
JN: Get the Ball to Sam!
Get Sam Froling the ball. That’s it, simple hey. Incoming coach Sam Mackinnon must deliver a game plan that has star import Froling getting a very healthy supply of the ball. The Airs have recruited what looks to be a cracking line-up and they are set to chalk up plenty of wins, but Froling will be the key to a Final 6 berth and the one thing that must go right is the athletic Aussie big must see the rock with regularity.
CF: Avoid Losing Streaks
Since their readmission to the Sal’s NBL in the 2018 season the Jets have focused on creating a sustainable environment for professional basketball to thrive in and these efforts have proven successful. They have nurtured young talent and welcomed raucous crowds with regularity but outside a finals run during the Covid affected 2020 Showdown they have been unable to parlay that focus into a postseason appearance. To take that next step they have to avoid stringing losses together, such as last season where they followed up a 3-2 start with five straight losses before finishing with a 4-loss streak to end the year. Everybody loses but if the Jets want to taste the postseason pie, they must keep the losing streaks at bay.
JN: Be Consistent
The Jets must find consistency if they are to make the Final 6, that’s the one thing they must get right. Over the last two seasons, which the Jets have publicly pushed have been ‘rebuilding’ years, the team-in-green have shown lots of great signs – but in fits and spurts – so if the jump into playoffs is going to happen, it will only happen with consistent form and wins. That’s what they need to get right, consistency.
CF: Listen to Zico
The Saints a perennial post season attendee and have always been an attractive destination for talent, both kiwis and imports, so a Final 6 run won’t be surprising. The return of Zico Coronel is a coup for the team as he is a basketball mind that must be listened too. From detailed scouts to melding the playbook to fit the talent available his career on the sideline has been successful regardless of the contributing factors. He brought a title to the capital in 2021 and if the Saints want to reach the Final 6 (and add to their record 12 Sal’s NBL titles) the squad needs to soak in the copious amount of info and instructions Coach Zico is sure to give. Now if we could just get the same amount of info out of him during in game interviews…
JN: Get Off to a Good Start
The 12-time champs, in their 40th season, must deliver the goods early in the season. In both 2022 and 2023 the Saints spent the whole second half of each season playing catch-up, and that must stop in 2024. Since winning the title in 2021, it has felt like the Saints were tired going into the playoffs the past two seasons after giving up way too many games over the opening weeks. If the Saints are going to be a playoffs team this year, they must be amongst the heavyweights from the start and not ride their luck down the stretch of the season.
CF: Get Consistent Production From the Bigs
The Giants have found good production from their guards over the past few years, both imports and locals, but haven’t had the same level of consistency from the big fellas down on the block. In 2022 torrid production from Trey Mourning slowed as the season went along and 2023 found success from Callum McRae to finish the year after joining late after injuries affected Matur Maker’s consistent impact (not to mention Kavion Pippen and his production roller coaster, up and down with a loop to loop or two). To make the Final 6 in 2024, Dan Fotu (and whomever his front court running mates turn out to be) need to find a high level of form game in game out.
JN: Nail the Imports
The one thing the Giants must get right is the recruitment of their three imports, it must be spot on. After making the playoffs in 2022, the Giants suffered a turbulent pre-season heading into 2023 with a raft of troubles and unforeseen issues plaguing the recruitment of imports. The result was a final position just outside the Final 6. If the Giants can nail the imports this year, then there is no reason why they can’t be back in the mix for playoffs.
CF: If It Ain't Broke, Don’t Fix It
After finding the championship podium for the first time since 1992 (have you heard it was the first title in 31 years?) the Rams don’t need to stray too far from last years plan. Judd Flavell was a championship coach before he came to Christchurch and had the knowhow to institute a blueprint that helped the club reach their ultimate goal. A developing local core was joined by key imports that knew when to take the reigns to lead the squad to victory but were also able to let go when needed. That young local core is back and should be entrusted with more responsibility in the title defence, and while the imports are still to come the team has proven they know the types of players they are looking for. All the pieces should be in place to give a stout title defence (but a late season signing of Corey Webster might be of use as well).
JN: Find a Rim Protector
The signing of a big rim protector is, for me, the one thing the Rams must get right from here. The local talent is immense for the Rams, and there is fantastic continuality with proven players returning, but a rim protector is the ingredient that will help push the Rams into a genuine back-to-back threat. Tai Wynyard is likely headed back overseas for more 3X3, and the Kiwi big-man options are drying up, so look for an import to fill this important role.
CF: Focus on the Defence
Following their 2022 title run the Nuggets looked the business as they rolled off seven consecutive wins to tip-off the season but then a 4-game slide brought them back to the pack. An immensely talented squad was able to mostly right the ship before falling to eventual champions Canterbury in the semi-final. When looking at the season one factor that strung through the losses was an inability to keep the opposition from finding a higher level offensively, with all but one loss during the season coming in a game in which the opponent scored at least 93 points (the lone exception a 75-82 loss to the Rams). If the Nugs want to reach championship heights once again they should focus on keeping foes from finding top gear and freedom of movement offensively.
JN: Re-sign Todd Withers (Or His Equal)
I was going to talk about the need to fill the shoes of Sam Timmins, which by the look of it will be a task for Jack Andrew. However, given ‘Big Jack’ knows Coach Matehaere’s system inside-out, so I’m not as worried as I am about the one thing they must get right. If Todd Withers doesn’t return, the Nuggets must get his replacement right. Better still, get Withers back!
CF: Get to the Free Throw Line
Consecutive disappointing seasons is not the level of success that the Sharks faithful have become accustomed to. The Shark Tank has lost a bit of its lustre as a stronghold but one season can turn that around. To spark that turnaround, I’d like to see the Sharks focus more on attacking the paint and forcing their way to the free throw line, especially after a season in which they made and attempted the second least free throws (156 makes on 219 attempts) in the league while focusing on filling it up from deep. While the three-point efficiency was solid (a league best 39% on 495 attempts) a lack of ability to tick the scoreboard over proved difficult when they couldn’t find the space on the perimeter. A mindset shift to attacking the rim could put the defence on it’s heels and help the Sharks regain that fear factor.
JN: Rediscover their Toughness
I’ve previously touched on the need for a gun point guard as being a big need for the Sharks, but more generally, to be a playoffs team, the Sharks must rediscover their mongrel. At times over the last two seasons the fight just hasn’t been there, and that’s very un-Sharks-like. There’s been no playoffs for the orange army since 2021 and that can all change if we see a return of the fight, determination and fierce competitiveness we know this franchise was built on.