Written for nbl.com.au by Liam Santamaria
In the lead up to this month’s Blitz, we’re taking a close look at all eight NBL teams and highlighting some of the key questions surrounding them this preseason.
Today we turn our attention to the defending champs, Melbourne United.
Do the pieces fit?
This is the key question about Melbourne’s roster.
How do Casper Ware, Chris Goulding, Mitch McCarron and DJ Kennedy all fit together? Do they all start? Surely one of those guys doesn’t come off the bench, does he?
NBL writer Roy Ward and I asked head coach Dean Vickerman this question just a few days ago.
“The way I’m approaching this season is that with the tight schedule we’ve got, it’s not going to be the same starting group that you see every night,” Vickerman explained.
“On back-to-back games… that’s where I really believe it might be your night tonight then the next night the other guy might match up better. That’s what I love about the versatility of our group.
“Everybody has to buy into that, of course, and be willing not to start some games because it’s good for the team, so that will be a challenge in itself.”
Melbourne are likely to play Kennedy at the three to begin with and then slowly graduate him to the four as he learns the intricacies of their system. Once that happens, though, I think Ware, Goulding, McCarron, Kennedy and Josh Boone (who is currently healing an injured hamstring) will be their default starting crew.
They’ll then alter that line-up depending on match-ups so that, for example, they have a bigger body starting on Tai Wesley what they come up against New Zealand.
Casey Prather at the three and Wesley at the four made perfect sense last season. This squad will be different. Will it be as good? Will it be better? We’ll see.
How good is DJ Kennedy?
He’s really, really good.
In fact, there’s a legit chance that Melbourne’s new import will be the best player in the league this season.
I mean this guy is a stud.
One international scout I chatted to this week told me: “If he’s focused, he’ll kill the league.” So yeah, he can go.
Kennedy has danced with the NBA throughout his career, but has also put together an impressive body of work in a number of the top European leagues.
A couple of years ago he was the leading scorer of the German Bundesliga. He then put up big numbers in the Russian VTB, was All-League in the FIBA Europe Cup and last season was the leading scorer of the Basketball Champion’s League.
He’s also a two-time MVP of The Basketball Tournament. A couple of months ago he led his Overseas Elite squad to a fourth straight TBT title, claiming the top individual honour and a place in the All-Tournament Team alongside Sydney star Jerome Randle.
“He helps out in many areas… he’s really well regarded as an all-round player,” United CEO Vince Crivelli told SEN Radio recently.
“He’s very, very good at creating for others and obviously can score the ball… for us he was a really important piece, simply because he was so versatile.”
For a team that already had Goulding, Ware, Boone and McCarron to add DJ Kennedy is pretty insane.
And you know what the craziest part is? Kennedy is 28 years old. He’s in his prime right now!
— Melbourne United (@MelbUnitedHQ) September 9, 2018
To break it down, here’s what Kennedy will do for Melbourne: he’ll be a disruptive defender, he’ll rebound, make plays off the dribble, get buckets, get to the free throw line (at a very high rate) and set teammates up for open looks.
He’ll play the two, the three and, despite being only 6’6”, will spend plenty of time at the four. Let me tell you: power forwards around the league – guys like Daniel Kickert, Nick Kay and Alex Loughton – are going to be in a world of hurt trying to guard this guy and, outside of Tai Wesley, I don’t really see any of them bullying him in the block.
All in all, the addition of Kennedy gives United a very good opportunity to defend their title.
Will they miss the Grown Man?
Yes and no.
Don’t get me wrong, Wesley was outstanding for Melbourne last season and is a big reason why they’ll be raising a banner early this season.
The power forward in Vickerman’s system carries a variety of responsibilities and Wesley played that role to perfection. He was unstoppable in the block, facilitated the offence, was a threat from outside and teamed well with Boone at both ends of the floor.
The ‘Grown Man’ was a stat-sheet stuffing supreme throughout the year, recording regular season averages of 12 points, 5 boards, 3 assists and almost a steal and a block.
Melbourne’s signing of Dan Trist will go some way to filling that void, as will the re-emergence of Dave Barlow if he can stay healthy.
But the main way Melbourne will cover for Wesley’s loss is by tweaking their style. This team will be quicker and more athletic than last year’s squad so expect to see United get up the floor more regularly on D, especially when Kennedy or Barlow are playing the four.
There will also be greater spacing at the offensive end, with less focus on dropping the ball into the block and more on spreading teams out and giving Boone the entire lane to roll into.
We’ll see some small-ball units with Trist at the five and a whole bunch of line-ups with four ball-handlers and a big.
So yeah, they’ll miss Tai Wesley. But like any emotional break-up, they’ll move on.
Who will step up?
Dave Barlow and Craig Moller.
Watching these two operate during the pre-season, both look likely to, in the words of ‘Homicide’ Williams, ‘level up’ this year.
It’s been much-discussed already but Barlow looks better right now than we’ve seen him in years. His explosive attack on the rim has been a feature of Melbourne’s pre-season, as have his full-court D and ability to break pressure by advancing the ball.
Barlow’s about to turn 35 but, right now, he looks ten years younger than that.
Moller, meanwhile, is coming off an outstanding season in the SEABL in which he led Hobart to an impressive championship win.
The third-year pro has improved even further defensively and looks far more confident at the offensive end. Sixth Man of the Year? Most Improved? Moller could be in the running for both of those awards by the end of this season.
What’s the (championship) hangover cure?
It’s never easy to repeat so it will be interesting to watch how Melbourne approach this season, especially during the early going.
That being said, the opportunity to defend a title should be enough motivation for most.
There are also plenty of new faces on this squad and Kennedy, McCarron and Trist will all be gunning for their first NBL rings.
Oh, and if that’s not enough, there’s also that team located north of the border to think about.
“I heard that there were pre-season favourites around and it wasn’t our name,” Casper Ware commented this week.
“I didn’t take that too kindly so that’s the motivation for this year.”
When pressed further by the playful Cam Luke, Ware seemed genuinely irritated that the champs were being overlooked.
“It annoys me a lot,” he said.
“They just forget what we did last year and how hard we worked. So we’re going to work even harder this year.”