After a rollercoaster start to the season, the Sydney Kings embarked on a historic midseason revival, capping off an incredible comeback to go undefeated in the finals and claiming the franchise’s fourth NBL championship.
Final ladder position: Third (19 wins, 9 losses)
After narrowly missing the finals last season, the Kings reset the franchise with a new coach signing Chase Buford and new star players Jaylen Adams and R.J Hunter.
The Kings looked like a genuine title contender prior to the season beginning, with a good mixture of youth and experienced veterans, the sky was the limit for them.
Xavier Cooks and Jarell Martin were among the veterans confirmed to return and expected to play a massive role in the team’s offence.
With many experts predicting the Kings to at least finish in a finals spot, it’s safe to say they exceeded the expectations by taking out the NBL title.
The Kings started the season poor being without their imports. Many were questioning if Chase Buford’s fast-pace and perimeter-centric offence was going to work with this current roster.
Despite the early worries, the Kings managed to defeat the reigning champions, Melbourne United twice in the opening stages of the season.
With Jaylen Adams beginning to find his feet, Dejan Vasiljevic, and R.J Hunter under an injury cloud, the majority of the load on offence fell to Cooks and Martin, with the pair showing promising signs.
After losing three of the first five games, the Kings’ offensive struggles came to the forefront in an all-time embarrassing blowout at the hand of Melbourne United.
United came out of the blocks on fire on both ends of the floor, holding the Kings to five in the first quarter, whilst they shot the lights out scoring 34 points. Melbourne would go on to win the game by 42 points and gave Sydney a much-deserved wake-up call.
The Kings would continue to trade wins and losses but were thrown a massive spanner in the works when R.J Hunter was ruled out for the season with injury and both Hunter and the Kings decided to part ways mid-season.
With Adams continuing to struggle to adapt to the NBL and a lack of genuine threats outside of Martin and Cooks, the rest of the league quickly adapted and began to shut down the Kings’ primary scoring options with much success.
Sydney would become notorious for blowing fourth-quarter leads in the middle of the season, with another embarrassing loss coming at the hands of last-place New Zealand.
The Kings entered the final quarter with a five-point lead, only to allow the visitors to go on a 16-1 run and subsequently lose the game by seven.
Buford and the players seemed out of answers and looked destined to finish the season in the middle of the pack. The Kings’ season officially turned around after a 19-point victory over the Breakers, which would ignite an unprecedented 13-game win streak.
Jaylen Adams became a runaway favourite for the NBL MVP during this period, putting up astounding numbers whilst becoming arguably the best player in the league.
Buford’s system became nearly unbeatable and the Kings were no match for any opponent in the backend of the season.
The Kings finished the season with 18 wins and three losses from the last 21 games, with Adams being named MVP, Cooks named a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, and Buford a finalist for Coach of the Year.
Sydney took its explosive form into the finals series, sweeping both Illawarra and Tasmania to secure the NBL title.
Chase Buford’s offensive system didn’t seem to click into gear until the midway point in the season when it became the most productive offence in the league.
The Kings led the league in defensive rebounding and three-point percentage, whilst finishing in the top five for the majority of the other statistical team categories.
Sydney’s offence really started to cause trouble to other teams when Jaylen Adams returned from injury and began to show his true potential.
Without Adams, the Kings lacked a genuine playmaker that could also put the ball on the ground and get a basket.
The backup guard rotation along with Xavier Cooks did their best to manufacture some point guard play, which worked to some degree but was no match for the high basketball IQ of Adams.
With Adams controlling the offence, it allowed Cooks, Jarell Martin, and Dejan Vasiljevic to flourish and establish the Kings as an elite offensive team.
Cooks and Martin dominated teams in the paint, whilst Vasiljevic, Adams and the bench unit became lethal when given space on the perimeter.
Adam’s effect on offence translated to a much improved Kings defence, especially in fourth quarters where they struggled in the early stages of the season.
With less of an offensive load placed on the back of Cooks, he was able to establish himself as an elite defensive stopper in the paint and on the perimeter.
Cooks and Wani Swaka Lo Buluk’s work on defence gave the Kings plenty of stops early in games as they excelled going the other way with the fast breaks.
As Adams began to firm as a favourite for MVP, the majority of the Kings’ squad took their game to the next level and slowly allowed Adams to have a smaller load on offence as the season progressed.
Credit is due to coach Buford, who was persistent in drilling into his players the high-paced and perimeter-based offence, even when it looked like the season was done.
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Sydney could have had a much more successful season had it gotten off to a better start, with a wide variety of factors costing it some games.
The start of the season was tainted by three key players missing from the rotation and a new play style that took a while to learn.
However, looking aside from the injuries the main cause for concern for the fans of Sydney was some unbelievable fourth-quarter collapses.
Even with a healthy roster, the Kings were embarrassed by the Breakers and Bullets in back-to-back games where they thoroughly outplayed in the final quarter.
Buford and the playing roster’s confidence looked to be at an all-time low, with the majority of people wondering if Buford was the right man for the job.
The former G-League coach copped a lot of criticism for his game management and unwillingness to adapt to the style of the NBL.
At the midpoint of the season, the Kings sat in sixth place as a finals appearance seemed more and more unlikely as the games progressed.
During this point of the season, the Kings had a weak underbelly and were constantly targeted by other teams with much success.
Sydney’s main problem, once Adams returned to the lineup, was getting their role players involved offensively. Teams across the league quickly learnt if they were able to shut down one of Cooks, Adams or Martin they could ease off on the others as their shots weren’t falling.
This plagued Sydney for large portions of the season and it was only until the trio took its game to another level that the role players finally found their rhythm.
The Sydney Kings MVP has to go to the league MVP, Jaylen Adams.
Although an argument could be made that Xavier Cooks deserves it due to his incredible two-way performances throughout the season, Adams was the best and most important player in the league.
Adams finished the season, averaging 20.8 points, 5.8 assists, and 5.1 rebounds per game. The 26-year-old led the league in assists and finished fourth for scoring.
After returning from injury, Adams struggled to find his feet and shot poorly from the perimeter which highlighted the Kings’ struggles as a team.
When the Kings’ started to get going it was on the back of some all-time great performances from Adams, who ended every game nearing a triple-double.
Adams finished in the top tier of three-point shooters shooting 40 per cent on seven attempts per game.
The point guard found ways to impact the game on and off the ball and become a crucial leader for the Kings in the clutch.
During Sydney’s well-documented winning streak, Adams’ combination with fellow stars Cooks and Jarell Martin became one of the deadliest in the league.
Adams’ impact on and off the court saw him named the league MVP over Bryce Cotton and Jo Lual-Acuil and rightfully takes out the Sydney Kings MVP.
The Kings enter the off-season with nearly their entire roster heading into free agency but have crucially locked down some of their championship roster.
Angus Glover, Dejan Vasiljevic, and Xavier Cooks have all returned to the Kings on multi-year deals – with Cooks having an option to opt out in 2024 if an offer from the Euro League appears.
With all three imports out of contract, it’s hard to see a way in which all are brought back under the salary cap.
In a perfect world, the Kings would simply bring back the entire roster and run it back, but it does seem likely a few will move on as Wani Swaka Lo Buluk has. Sydney has signed Kouat Noi to be a solid contributor either starting or coming off the bench.
It is still too early to determine how they will go next season with the majority of the roster not signed yet.
Locking down Cooks and Vasiljevic will go a long way as the Kings look to go back to back. If Jaylen Adams returns, the Kings will arguably enter the season as favourites.
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