Canterbury Rams and rivals face stern challenge to get to Saints' level
The Wellington Saints have redefined the benchmark, now everyone else needs to aspire to get to their level.
While some might consider the Saints' record-breaking 20-0 season unhealthy for the National Basketball League, former Tall Blacks great Mark Dickel, the Canterbury Rams coach, held a very different view.
Wellington knocked over the Rams 94-73 in Friday's semi-final on their way to a second straight title, but Dickel could only commend the Saints organisation on what they had created.
He labelled them "the best team to play in our New Zealand NBL" and "the most complete" side he had seen in the league.
Much like the Golden State Warriors have raised the bar in the NBA with their sheer dominance on court and starpower, Dickel said the Saints had created a new level of excellence in this country.
Canterbury and the five other sides in the league had to lift their game and strive to be better.
Wellington had one of the most committed owners in Kiwi sport in Nick Mills, who has poured his heart, soul and cash into the team over the past 30 years. The Saints' success wasn't just built around their bank balance, Dickel said.
"Money isn't the reason, in my eyes, that Wellington have a good team.
"They do have elite players and yeah they compensate them well, but they play well together and they play both ends of the court. For us, it's a matter of trying to emulate that."
The Rams made the top four semi-finals for the second straight season, but the challenge for Dickel and director Andrew Harrison is to somehow get them over the hump.
Canterbury hasn't won the NBL title since 1992 and have repeatedly said they won't break the budget to get into a spending war with wealthier teams, like Wellington and the Southland Sharks.
Dickel, who is in charge of the successful Mainland Eagles basketball academy would desperately love to see the Rams break that drought.
Just as important for him is helping young basketball talent grow their skills, so they can gain college scholarships to the United States and go on to make a career in the sport.
Dickel "really liked" the squad the Rams assembled this season, but they never found their rhythm, finishing fourth after round play with a 10-8 record. Copping the talent-laden Saints in a semi-final, Canterbury were always going to have to play close to a perfect game to cause a monumental upset.
Canterbury struggled against their top four rivals, going 2-8 over the season and weren't flash defensively.
They gave up 92 points per game, the worst in the NBL, conceding 90 or more in a game on 10 occasions. In five of their 19 games, they allowed 100 points, which will make it tough to win in a 40-minute contest.
"We need to look at [our defence]. We want to be known for that and that's something in the future we'll try and shore up."
After winning the regular season title last year, Canterbury disappointed in 2017, battling to find consistency.
It was a sub-par season for a side featuring standout performers Marcel Jones, American guard Jeremy Kendle, and a solid support cast in Ethan Rusbatch, Michael Karena, Marcus Alipate, Marques Whippy, Tohi Smith-Milner and Gareth Dawson.
"Everybody tried their hardest to make it work. Sometimes, you get that chemistry and other times you don't. Going forward, we need to try and find that chemistry."
Reigning NBL MVP, American guard McKenzie Moore, was a mid-season addition, replacing misfiring English big man Will Neighbour.
There was hope Moore's signing might allow the Rams to leapfrog Southland and Super City, while pushing the Saints close, but he was restricted to six games and wasn't at his best due to a foot sprain.
Dickel believed they had the foundation of a successful team and disagreed with buying in a stack of Tall Blacks.
"There's only so many players that can do what Wellington's players can do. For us to find a cohesiveness that can allow us to play well against that talent, really that's it."
Finding two outstanding imports in the same season would help. Kendle was a valuable signing on and off the court, but the Rams have got it wrong in recent seasons with overseas players like Neighbour, Justin Graham, Kyle Coston, Nick Wiggins and Desharick Guidry not being up to scratch.
"Next year, I'm hoping we can get lucky with those spots. Then we don't have to make any changes."
Dickel has done what few Rams coaches have done before him and guided the side to back-to-back finals berths, assembling a 32 win-24 loss record over the past three seasons (57 per cent).
There were plenty of learnings from this year and as coach he took responsibility for the Rams' shortcomings on court.
Dickel is expected to return for a fourth season next year, which shapes as a make or break campaign for him.
If he can't steer the team through to an elusive final and bridge the gap on the Saints, the drums will start beating for a fresh voice.