Can the Melbourne United do the unthinkable and upstage one of the best teams in the world, the Oklahoma City Thunder?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: there is a chance, but it’s so low that it’s just easier to say no.
That doesn’t mean that the game is not worth playing. In fact, there are some tangible reasons why Melbourne can make the game much closer than most people expect.
The Sydney Kings
Sydney was rattled by the Jazz at the start of the game. With the Jazz’s superior size and Rudy Gobert’s phenomenal length, it was hard to get going against one of the better NBA teams. The Kings were down by ten points to Utah in a matter of minutes and were losing by nineteen at quarter time.
After that, they relaxed.
So, when the NBL squad ran their own game, cut through the paint and hit good outside shots, they played well. After the disastrous start, the Kings were only outscored by six points and even won the second quarter 31-23.
If the United can withstand an early onslaught of Westbrook, George and Anthony, then it’s not hard to imagine that they have the talent to stay with the loaded Thunder team.
Experience and Talent
The 2017/18 Melbourne United squad is no mere NBL team. On paper, they are the clear favourites to take the championship. They have three Olympians in David Barlow, Chris Goulding and David Andersen. Combine that with two current All-NBL First Teamers in Casper Ware and Casey Prather and add one of the best big men in the league by the name of Josh Boone, this team is stacked.
Stacked in the sense of NBL teams. Compared to any NBA team, let alone one of the best in the business, it’s lacking. However, this is not a group of guys off the street. They know how to play, they have roster balance, and most importantly they have chemistry after playing together before.
Unlike the Thunder, who have had major roster changes and would be still working through teething problems. This game will be the first for OKC’s big three, and after an offseason of no official games, they may be a little rusty.
NBA indifference to Pre-Season
Just like NBL teams used the Blitz as a training run to get sets and new players up to speed, the NBA uses pre-season to iron out the wrinkles that may have accumulated during the offseason.
This means that the starters will only play a fraction of their usual minutes, letting bench and fringe guys eat up most of the time on the court. Consequently, the likes of MVP Russell Westbrook and All-Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, as well as quality big man Steven Adams will not be as dominant as they would be in a regular season game.
As said previously, if Melbourne can withstand the hurricane that is the Thunder starters, then competing against the bench will go a long way to keeping the game close.
Oklahoma City Bench Woes
The Thunder’s second unit was decidedly average in most statistical categories in the 2016/17 season, coming 14th in scoring, 16th in rebounding and third last in assists per game. They might be even worse this campaign as they traded away their best bench player: Enes Kanter.
Although his defensive woes have been well documented, Kanter is a fantastic offensive power. For all players who came off the bench in at least a quarter of the season, he was sixth in points and rebounds per game at 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest.
Without Kanter on the roster, the Thunder would have been dead last in bench points and rebounds. That means that Melbourne will have a better chance of staying with OKC when their big three hits the pine.
Taking the Opportunity
The NBAxNBL initiative is a massive opportunity not only for Melbourne United and the NBL but the players themselves. NBA teams are always on the lookout for new players to fill roster spots and there are plenty on Melbourne’s squad that would be excited to be in the big league. Boone, Andersen and Ware have experience in the NBA while Prather has participated in the Summer League and it would be a fair bet that they would be doing everything they can to get back there.
This game will also shine a light on other players looking to further their career. The NBL and the NBA aren’t the be all and end all of the basketball world, and a good showing in this game, coupled with a quality NBL season, could push some of these guys into higher paying leagues in Europe and around the world.
Will the Melbourne United beat the Oklahoma City Thunder?
Most likely not. But that isn’t what this game, and the Sydney and Brisbane games, are trying to achieve. It’s about showing that the NBL, and Australian basketball, is a growing community that deserves respect from the outside world.
A good performance here will go a long way to lay the foundations for the eventual NBA game played on Australian soil. Until then, it’s a great learning experience that will shine a spotlight on this league coming into its 40th anniversary.