With just five rounds remaining in the 2016-17 regular season, the NBL ladder is absurdly tight.
In fact, with only 25 percent separating the top and bottom teams in terms of winning percentage, we are currently on track to complete the closest season in league history.
We are also on track to produce the lowest ever winning percentage for a minor premier as well as the highest ever winning percentage for a wooden-spooner. The records are everywhere.
So with every team playing each other four times throughout the regular season – and head-to-head series serving as the tie-breaker on the ladder – every single possession counts in the race to the finals.
— NBL (@NBL) January 10, 2017
Make no mistake, head-to-head tie-breakers have cost teams finals spots before. In 2013, Melbourne conceded fourth place to Sydney with their season series tied at 2-2 but a 2-point differential favouring the Kings. Yep, one single basket.
And with the current ladder historically close, most coaches around the league are expecting something similar to take place this season.
So, where does each team stand? Grab a calculator and a Panadol and settle in.
ADELAIDE 36ERS (13-7)
Adelaide head coach Joey Wright is keeping it real.
“We might be in first place right now, but we’re definitely not guaranteed playoffs by any means,” Wright told The Advertiser this week.
He’s right, but with ten wins from their past eleven games, the Sixers HAVE managed to pull away. At least a little bit.
On the back of their recent hot form, Adelaide have either won or are leading five of their seven head-to-head series.
But the two series in which they trail – versus Illawarra (1-2, -13 points) and versus Melbourne (1-2, -34) – are against legitimate challengers for the minor premiership.
Gotta keep things rolling.
PERTH WILDCATS (10-9)
Speaking of the Wildcats, they’re back, baby!
Since Christmas, Perth have enjoyed the return of Damian Martin, added the impressive Bryce Cotton and won three games in succession … Happy holidays!
With five of their remaining nine games at home, the ‘Cats suddenly look likely to continue their 30-year streak of postseason action. This club is unbelievable.
Interestingly, while many of Perth’s head-to-heads are looking a little shaky, they’re fairly well placed against the current top four. They’ve clinched their series against Illawarra and have a healthy lead over Melbourne (2-0, +6).
Also, an 8-point win over Adelaide this Saturday would steal that series for the Wildcats. Can you say ‘blockbuster’?
ILLAWARRA HAWKS (11-10)
Remember when the Hawks were 2-5 and on the bottom of the ladder? When Rotnei Clarke was tweeting about his slump, AJ Ogilvy was questioning the team’s pride and head coach Rob Beveridge was using words like “spineless”?
Well, those struggles are well and truly behind them now, the Hawks having won 9 of 14 since the start of November to rise into the thick of the playoff picture.
Illawarra have lost their season series against both Perth and Sydney and are in a deep hole against Cairns (0-2, -32), but wins or ‘respectable losses’ will see them take the tie-breakers over Adelaide (2-1, +13) and Melbourne (2-1, +15).
A home win over Brisbane (2-0, +16) this Friday night will lock that one up too.
MELBOURNE UNITED (10-10)
Melbourne United were 3-7 when Casper Ware showed up. They’re now 10-10. #DifferenceMaker
Recent blowouts over Adelaide (2-1, +34) and Brisbane (2-1, +36) have helped to essentially clinch those series, while a win over Cairns (2-1, -2) this weekend will hand them that one too.
But that’s where it gets interesting.
Firstly, there’s Chris Goulding’s sore ankle – an ankle that has already cost United numerous games this season.
Secondly, Melbourne have a poor road record (3-6) and five of their remaining eight games will be away from home.
And in terms of their head-to-heads, last week’s big loss to Illawarra (1-2, -15) makes that series unlikely and they would need to go 2-0 against Perth (0-2, -6) to secure the series against the ‘Cats.
A win against Sydney (2-1, -6) on February 4 will give them the edge over the Kings – a series that could be very important down the stretch.
One thing’s for sure, if Melbourne are gunnin’ for that #1 spot – which you know they are – then a victory in Adelaide on Thursday night is essentially a must.
SYDNEY KINGS (11-11)
It’s fair to say, things are not going very well in Sydney at the moment.
The darlings of the season’s opening month have lost seven of their past ten with five of those losses coming on their home floor.
As a result, the Kings are suddenly on the outside looking in. And to make matters worse, Brad Newley has been ruled out indefinitely with a hamstring injury.
You know what they say: when it rains on Sydney Harbour, it pours.
On the bright side, the Kings have already clinched tie-breakers over both Cairns and Illawarra and have the chance to close it out against New Zealand (2-0, +19) this Friday night across the ditch.
If they can turn their form around, they could potentially claim head-to-heads over Brisbane (1-2, -8), Melbourne (1-2, +6) and Perth (1-2, -8) during the final three rounds of the regular season. But that’s a big ‘IF’. Plenty of work to do.
BRISBANE BULLETS (9-11)
Brisbane are another team currently in a bit of a funk.
This team was rolling a month ago but injuries to key personnel and an inability to consistently look after the ball have seen them struggle for mid-season wins.
At 9-11, with five of their remaining eight games on the road, the Bullets are quickly running out of ammo.
“This is still in our hands, we have control of our own destiny,” head coach Andrej Lemanis half told himself after last round’s loss to Perth.
“We’re going to have to go on the road and win some games, but this is in our own hands – we can determine the outcome of the way the rest of this season goes.”
Technically he’s right and that begins this week against Illawarra and New Zealand.
The Bullets are a good chance to win their head-to-heads against both Cairns (2-1, +20) and Perth (2-1, +18), but are essentially done against Melbourne (1-2, -36) after losing by 38 on Boxing Day. They need a four-point win next week to claim the series against Adelaide (1-2, -3) and a win or a narrow loss at home to hold on against the Kings (2-1, +8).
According to Lemanis, they also need to “keep working on some fundamental passing and catching drills.” Ouch.
CAIRNS TAIPANS (8-10)
After their New Year’s Eve loss to Brisbane, Taipans head coach Aaron Fearne laid out the road ahead for his team to make the finals.
“We’ve dug ourselves a bit of a hole here,” Fearne said.
“We’re going to have to play some pretty good ball, win some series and do it the hard way.
“Everybody’s beating everybody still, so that’s an advantage … but, yeah, we’re going to have to do some special stuff.”
Cairns have the most games remaining out of everybody, but eight of their final ten are against the current top four (Melbourne x 1, Adelaide x 2, Illawarra x 2 and Perth x 3). Brutal.
They’re looking good against the Hawks (2-0, +32), need a win against United (1-2, +2) and are a long way behind the 36ers (0-2, -29). Their only game against Perth thus far was that heartbreaking 10-point overtime loss back in Round 1. Lucky Cairns, they get three games against Bryce Cotton and Damian Martin in the run home.
The Taipans have wrapped up two series – a win over New Zealand (3-0, +20) and a loss to the Kings (1-3, -17) – and are in a hole against Brisbane (1-2, -20).
What all that means is that it’s mathematically still possible – very much so – but as Fearne said, it’s going to take some pretty “special stuff” from here.
Of course, a 2-0 result against Melbourne and Perth this week would be a pretty special start.
NEW ZEALAND (8-12)
According to head coach Paul Henare, as long as it’s still mathematically possible for his team to make the top four, they’ll keep on fighting.
“We probably need (to win) at least six of our last eight games,” Henare deduced.
“We need all our fans and all our supporters to stick with us because I look in the eyes of each and every one of the guys and I now that they’re still in it; they’re still fighting, they’re still battling.”
They’re also still getting to know each other, with point guard Kevin Dillard stepping straight off the plane and onto the court.
Injuries and an ever-changing roster have derailed the Breakers’ campaign, one that looked so promising two months ago when they were 6-4.
Forget about the tiebreakers, it’s all about Ws for the Kiwis right now and this week against Sydney and Brisbane is essentially do-or-die.
Written for NBL.com.au by Liam Santamaria