With an incredible NBL21 regular season concluding, The Inner Sanctum has taken a look at the year that was for clubs that didn’t make the four-team finals series, with a season review of the Cairns Taipans next up.
It was meant to be a big season for the Taipans, who bounced back up into the finals in 2019/20, only to be eliminated by the eventual champions in Perth. With a similar core group returning after a breakout season, Cairns looked to be one of the emerging contenders.
With reigning Coach of the Year Mike Kelly ruling over a growing crop of players, Cairns’ season couldn’t have gone any worse. Before play started they lost the reigning Defensive player of the Year in DJ Newbill to Japan’s Osaka Evessa, and a slow start was punctuated by key injuries to Majok Deng and Kouat Noi.
From there, the Taipans never truly recovered despite posting some stirring mid-season wins. By season’s end, Kelly was axed as coach and Cairns had slumped to an embarrassing ninth-placed finish on the table with eight wins and 28 losses.
It may have been a far-from the ideal season for the Taipans, but some silver linings emerged in the second half of the season.
Despite finishing at the bottom of the table, Cairns was marginally better in points scored per game than the next-closest New Zealand Breakers, averaging just under 82 points per game.
On the offensive end, their three-point shooting percentage (.348) was fourth-best in the league and their three-point shots made (10.2 per game) was only bettered by the ladder-leading Melbourne United.
Cairns may have fallen down on the defensive end, but their big men still did the job with shot-blocking. The likes of Nate Jawai and Cameron Oliver ensured the Taipans averaged 3.2 blocks per game, sitting them fifth in the league.
Injuries often restricted Cairns’ ability to stack up against the league’s best teams, but they will go into 2021/2022 confident that the opportunity gifted to younger players in the back half of the season will hold them in good stead going forward.
There were many areas where the Taipans dropped, but the main part came on the defensive end. Without DJ Newbill harassing opponents on defence, Cairns lacked the spirit to stop strong offensive units from dropping triple-figure scores regularly.
With Oliver finishing second in the league for rebounds per game, it’s a shock to see how little the rest of the roster contributed on the boards. Cairns averaged the least amount of rebounds per game – showing a clear deficiency in rebounding besides Oliver.
The rebounding hurt them defensively, as they were the worst team at preventing second chance looks due to leaking offensive rebounds.
Offensively, despite faring quite well beyond the arc, Cairns couldn’t keep the score ticking over when they went near the paint. Their field goal percentage was the second-worst in the league, and their average field goals made per game (30.2) had them down towards the bottom too.
This cost them dearly in most games, as they bled scores quickly and could never quite stop teams from building momentum and shooting out to game-ending leads.
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It can always be difficult to pick an MVP in such a tough year, but Cairns’ best player award can be easily limited down to two players for 2020/21.
Scott Machado was often linked to every good thing the Taipans did this NBL season. Signing his first two-year deal for the club, he proved his worth constantly on the offensive end, averaging nearly 16 points and 7 assists per game. Machado was brilliant when often leading an inexperienced side, and deserves praise for his persistence throughout a tough campaign.
With Machado is forward Cameron Oliver, who shone and carried a massive load during 2020/21. Oliver finished second in the league for rebounds per game with 10, while also posting just over 17 points per game in a well-rounded season. He also averaged just over a block per game to prove his worth defensively, as Nate Jawai’s inconsistencies meant Oliver’s performances became even more vital for the struggling Taipans.
When looking at the statistics, Oliver looms as the likely winner of the MVP for the Taipans. But it’s not just a numbers-driven race – Machado’s impact in their limited wins throughout the season means he is the favourite to win the award, but either are worthy recipients.
It’s incredibly difficult to predict how Cairns will go in the next 12 months, as they face a lot of upheaval. Oliver left the season early to return to America for family reasons but is expected back to fulfill his two-year deal. Same with Machado, as the Taipans are expected to also lock away Jawai and Deng to keep their core strong.
But a lot looms on their next coaching appointment after Mike Kelly was shown the door following their second last game. It’s a quick fall from grace for the 2020 NBL Coach of the Year, but if Cairns can locate an ideal replacement who will nurture the emerging youth to partner with their experienced heads, then Cairns may continue their trend of bouncing back up the ladder in 2021/22.