When Kevin Lisch drained a jump shot over the outstretched arms of Mitch McCarron with 0.3 seconds to go to beat the Taipans in early November, the Kings were flying. Sitting at 6-2 on the season and firmly entrenched at the top of the NBL ladder, experts and fans alike were proclaiming that the championship was already back in Sydney and this squad was one of the best assembled in the history of the league.
Fast forward to the middle of January, and the Kings are a shell of their former selves. Since Lisch’s game winner against Cairns, Sydney has won only five games in their last sixteen, and a miserable one in their last eight games. The team dropped out of the top four for the first time since the first round and are in serious trouble of missing the finals which were unthinkable two months ago.
What caused the team to completely lose their way and drop down the standings like a stone in the ocean? There has not been one single catalyst but multiple problems, which will need to be addressed if they want to shake the Violet Crumbles nickname.
Many years ago, coach Andrew Gaze and assistant coach Lanard Copeland tormented opposition teams with an offence called “the shuffle”. It made use of Gaze and Copeland’s excellent passing ability and constant ball movement for easy points. For those not familiar with the shuffle, here is an in-depth overview of the offence.
It was only natural for Gaze to bring the shuffle into his game plan and to start the season, it worked. Having big men like Aleks Maric and Tom Garlepp setting solid screens for their shooters in Kevin Lisch, Jason Cadee and Brad Newley worked a charm.
However, opposing teams worked out how to limited the offence, and the open shots were few and far between, and the team started to falter. Unfortunately, the coaching staff didn’t have a plan B or didn’t want to change the game plan. Seeing Gaze shouting, “run the shuffle” in fourth quarter timeouts seems to be an exercise in futility with the team, and the results are the evidence.
The shuffle is a complicated offence to introduce to a team and doesn’t seem to be working as well as it should. It desires many passes and players who can make the right decision. Like other legend players who enter the coaching ranks with no experience like James Hird and Michael Voss, Gaze is trying to replicate what he knew worked, but it seems the league has evolved in the last twenty years. Maybe he should as well.
With the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ tenure of Steve Blake that lasted all of nine games, the Kings needed another import to join Greg Whittington and Josh Powell. It was a surprise when they unveiled Garrett Jackson, who was best known for playing at St Mary’s with Matthew Dellavedova and playing six games for Melbourne United last season.
In his five games with Sydney, Jackson has been relatively invisible, playing only ten minutes a game and averaging four points and three rebounds a game and only shooting the ball at 41%. For a team so close to the salary cap and halfway through the season adding anyone of value would be good enough to bolster the team. Unfortunately, the imports that were signed by other teams after Jackson and it becomes even more erroneous.
Here is a comparison between Jackson’s NBL output compared to those signed after him:
It’s not Jackson’s fault for accepting the position and playing the way he is coming into a new team part way through the season. The King’s management should have looked further for guys like the ones above. Steve Blake would have been given a hefty contract to play this season so why couldn’t his pay go towards a Kevin Dillard or Bryce Cotton?
Kevin Lisch was a top five player for the first half of the season and was in most expert’s first half All-NBL first team. As captain, he led from the front with his play, and the team followed. It seems that something changed in Lisch’s mind because he is shooting as well as a Star Wars stormtrooper. Here are his statistics comparing his start of the season to the losing streak:
|First 15 games||9-6||18.5||45.9||37.5||3.9||3.4||2.2||0.1||1.1||13.5|
|Last 8 games||1-7||13.8||31.6||27.6||3.4||4.0||1.8||0.1||1.6||6.8|
What is plainly evident, Lisch’s numbers have taken a nosedive, with all stats decreasing except for his assists and turnovers, which is bad. The Floor Impact Counter (FIC) is a formula to encompass all aspects of the box score into a single statistic and shows a player’s all-around game. But in Lisch’s example, how poorly he has played in the Kings’ slump.
His production has fallen off a cliff, and it’s influencing the rest of the team. With Brad Newley out of action, Lisch has had more defensive pressure dropped on him and the open shots of the start of the season have become pressured chances that are not dropping.
His poor play late in the season may be due to his high workload, as Lisch is second in average minutes played per game, behind Perth’s Bryce Cotton who has only played a quarter of the games Lisch has played. It seems that the Sydney coaching staff are running their players into the ground, with four players in the top ten in minutes played per game. It appears that fatigue has caught up with the Kings.
His defence has still been top notch, but his output on the offensive end has everyone scratching their heads on how someone so talented can go through such a prolonged dry spell. As the leader of the team, he needs to break out of this funk and give the Kings their franchise player back.
Injuries and distractions
The season started poorly for the Kings injury-wise, as superstar centre Julian Khazzouh was still not available to play from last season’s torn quadricep tendon. Before the season, Khazzouh was quoted saying, “I’m looking like only missing the first three games of the season.” He will not play a single game this season.
The next major injury for Sydney was Brad Newley, who hurt his hamstring so badly, he has been classed as out indefinitely. As much as a player of Khazzouh’s calibre is a knock on a team’s performance, the Kings were leading the league without him so bringing him back this season would have just been a massive bonus instead of a team killer.
Newley, on the other hand, was in MVP form and was Aussie Hoopla’s pick for the mid-season Most Valuable Player award. Having a player that did everything was paramount for the Kings’ success. At the season’s halfway mark he was sitting fourth in the league in scoring (18.3), fifth in assists (4.0), second in rebounding for guards (4.9), first in shooting for guards (52.6%) and one of only two players to average at least fifteen points, four rebounds and four assists.
His injury puts more pressure on Kevin Lisch, and as shown above, Lisch has not risen to the occasion.
The biggest distraction to the Kings’ hype train was the 36 year, ex-NBA bombshell in Steve Blake. He came over with a massive amount of fanfare, saying that he’s going to make this great Sydney team into one of the best. Nine games later he was heading back to the USA with averages of six points, two assists and two rebounds on 31% shooting and 29% from outside the arc.
Blake also caused a stir in team chemistry, and even though he wasn’t directly responsible for Jason Cadee’s slump in form, it was likely he had a hand in it. Before Blake put on the purple and gold, Cadee averaged 17 points and five assists on 45% three-point shooting. While Blake was one the team, only nine points and three assists on 26% from deep.
Chemistry is a hugely important piece to any team’s success, and unfortunately, the Kings just haven’t got it now. At the start of the season, videos of the group singing and dancing were commonplace after a win. Now, it’s just a memory.
Adelaide has won fourteen of their last fifteen, and the main reason is their consistency and chemistry. After Terrance Ferguson moved into the starting line-up at the beginning of this streak, the Sixers have not changed their starting five since.
Luckily for the Kings, they can still turn it around. There are four more games left in their regular season: one against the injury-ravaged Bullets, two at home against the white-hot Breakers and United and then a final game in Perth against the Wildcats which could go down as the make or break match of their season. This team has talent, and after all the doom and gloom of their 1-7 slump, they are still equal on wins with fourth-placed Melbourne. This season is so even that even a team like Sydney who has had the wildest rollercoaster of a run can still make inroads in the playoffs. They just need to buckle down and make it there first.