30/05/2024

It was a disastrous season for the Phoenix, finishing last after it was cruelled by injury. (Image: South East Melbourne / Facebook)

Mike Kelly’s first year in the Heartland didn’t go to plan after injuries derailed it. After a disappointing campaign, major change looks on the horizon.

Snapshot

Final ladder position: 10th (10 wins, 18 losses)

Coming off the back of NBL23 which ended in heartbreak in the seeding qualifier, the Phoenix had set their sights on being among the top teams in the league in NBL24.

South East Melbourne re-signed imports Alan Williams and Gary Browne while adding Gorjok Gak, Matt Kenyon, Ben Ayre, Rhys Vague, and Craig Moller as well as import point guard Will Cummings to try and complement marquee local Mitch Creek.

Head coach Mike Kelly and his team were never able to build any sort of rhythm, rarely having a full roster available with several players going in and out of the lineup throughout the season.

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Despite the disrupted start to the season, South East Melbourne was able to stay around the mark of the top six. However, it all started to go sideways after losing go-to defensive stopper Craig Moller due to a season-ending knee injury in the December 2 game against New Zealand.

The Phoenix decided to release Will Cummings in December after the guard failed to meet off-court requirements and brought in former NBA small forward Abdel Nader as his replacement.

In the second part of the season, injuries continued to mount as Nader, Mitch Creek (23 games), Gary Browne (20 games), and Alan Williams (15 games) spent plenty of time on the sideline and the losses started to mount.

What worked

In a season where a lot of things went wrong for South East Melbourne, in half of their wins they were able to control the glass, especially on the offensive end.

For the second straight season, the Phoenix ranked first for total (401) and average (14.3 per game) offensive rebounds which allowed them to create extra offensive opportunities.

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What didn’t

The Phoenix was decimated by injury, particularly to its stars and they couldn’t cope with it, especially with such a top-heavy talent roster.

Injuries to Mitch Creek, Gary Browne, and Alan Williams meant coach Mike Kelly had to rely on his bench to step up despite some of them being unproven at NBL level.

South East Melbourne finished the season as one of the worst teams on both ends of the floor. The Phoenix averaged 86.6 points per game while conceding 96.1 points per game.

Club’s MVP

Despite a forgettable season for the club, captain Mitch Creek was a class above and was deservedly named on the All-NBL Second Team at the Gaze Awards.

The 196cm forward finished as the Phoenix’s leading scorer in 12 of the 23 games he played, highlighting his importance to the team with the Phoenix struggling offensively in the games he missed.

In 23 games, the 31-year-old forward averaged 20.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.8 assists during a campaign that involved adversity.

Alan Williams was an early MVP candidate and would have been another contender for the club before injury struck him down, limiting him to 15 games. 

The 203cm fan favourite averaged 16.7 points and 10.7 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. The 31-year-old was always impactful on the court, but his inability to stay on the floor due to foul trouble often frustrated fans.

Looking ahead

South East Melbourne will be looking to put what happened in NBL24 quickly behind them and put all of its focus on rising back up the ladder next season with a club rebuild already underway.

The Phoenix reviewed all their performance processes on and off the court to ensure improvement next season, and the club has begun to make whole changes.

South East Melbourne first started by mutually agreeing to part ways with star import centre Alan Williams, terminating his contract for NBL25.

Big Sauce wasn’t the only player with the Phoenix also parting ways with forward Rhys Vague after the 28-year-old struggled throughout the season despite playing 27 of 28 games. Development player Anzac Risetto also won’t return after the club decided against exercising the option to extend his contract for a second year.

Mitch Creek, Ben Ayre, Owen Foxwell, and Matt Kenyon are the contracted players on the Phoenix’s roster for next season.

With free agency just around the corner, South East Melbourne is expected to be one the busiest clubs as it looks to turn its fortunes around.

The Phoenix has been linked to some of the big names in free agency – Will McDowell-White and Bul Kuol. However, it’s reported that Kuol is headed to the Sydney Kings, while they remain in contention alongside the JackJumpers, Wildcats, and Bullets for McDowell-White’s services.

One man who will make his way to the Heartland is Nathan Sobey after the 33-year-old guard agreed to a mutual release with the Brisbane Bullets, clearing the way to sign with South East Melbourne.

Former Sydney King Angus Glover is another set to sign with the Phoenix as he works toward a mutual release from the Kings. They have also been linked to Glover’s teammate Jordan Hunter.

Mike Kelly will go into his second season as head coach of the Phoenix in NBL25, hoping that the nightmare that was NBL24 won’t repeat itself.

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