(Moncton, NB - Feb 7, 2018)
Last week in this space I analyzed the NBL Canada season so far from an individual player perspective and gave you my award picks. THIS week, since I'm a glutton for punishment and I haven't publicly looked foolish in awhile, I've decided to turn my attention to the teams and the prediction business. We'll go team by team starting with the Eastern Division by predicted finish. Then we'll get to the Central and finally….playoff predictions. Sharpen your nails people, here we go:
EASTERN DIVISION PREDICTED FINISH
- Moncton Magic (24-16)- Moncton and Windsor have played 26 games already, the most of anyone in the league. The additional rest this will naturally give the Magic down the stretch makes for the easiest remaining schedule in the league. For the purpose of our exercise here, I'm going to label some games on each team's schedule "little rest" (LR games for short). That's going to represent any back-to-back games or games on one day of rest. Moncton has five remaining LR games but three of those are against teams also playing on one day of rest. The second night of two of their three remaining back-to-backs are against St. John playing with a full week of rest, so I've given them losses there. I only see two additional remaining losses however, which would put their record at 10-4 to finish with 24 wins and on top of the East. They are playing the best defense in the league right now, along with the Riptide, but their offense is far more reliable than their neighbours down the highway. If Corey Allmond keeps shooting the lights out, Denzell Taylor continues his metoric rise, Anthony Anderson's shot rounds into form and Terry Thomas shakes his recent scoring slump, they're going to be awfully tough to stop. I wouldn't bet money on any of those things not coming to pass, but even so, Al Stewart, Brent Jennings, Jason Calliste etc, etc….are also waiting to pick up the slack.
- Halifax Hurricanes (24-16)- Halifax will lose the first place tie-breaker to Moncton 4-2 (don't ask me about why Moncton plays them 6 times, the Riptide 8 times, St. John's 3 times, etc, that's another column) after finishing 10-7 in their remaining games. Ten of their matchups are against Moncton, St. John or St. John's and of their four remaining games against much improved Cape Breton, three of them are "LR games" against a more rested Highlander team. They've won 8 of 11 during a favorable stretch but they've feasted on a struggling Island squad and the shorthanded River Lions, and the three losses were all to the Magic or the Riptide. The only single-digit loss in there was the one game recently that Ta'quan Zimmerman hasn't struggled, and that's the storyline to watch for the Hurricanes. As tough a team as they are in a one-game scenario, they can't expect to overcome St. John, Moncton and whoever comes out of the West in a series without Zimmerman providing some threat from long range. Mike Poole has been great lately, but he's only consistently effective from mid-range. It's essential that Zimmerman's three-point accuracy returns.
- Saint John Riptide (23-17)- Eleven of the Riptide's 19 remaining games are "LR games", with three more games on only two days rest, and their Ontario trip is followed up immediately by four games in six days upon their return. Yeah….lots of bad stuff there. It's a compliment that I'm predicting a 10-9 remaining record and a close third place finish. They've been doing things with smoke and mirrors lately with big performances from their stars and inconsistency from a tragically short bench. Their defense is what they've been falling back on over and over again but they're going to have to find at least one source of offense from those reserves if they hope to compete in the postseason. Darin Mency has a chance to be that guy as he continues to look for his shot after returning from injury issues and Mareik Isom has been very good this year, but they'll need more from Joel Ndondo, Aaron Redpath or someone they go and add before the playoffs if they want to bring home a championship.
- Cape Breton Highlanders (17-23)- Cape Breton got off to a very slow start, but has been much improved lately and just added Malik Story, an NBL Third-team All Star last year. However, they have a very odd schedule remaining, with seven "LR games", but also five games after at least five days rest. Still, those rest days may get them time to get Story acclimated. His shooting next to Bruce Massey and Duke Mondy could make them more explosive and make my predicted 8-9 record for them the rest of the way look foolish. That being said, they recently lost three in a row with those two looking overextended and the bench not providing quite enough help. They're going to have to prove that Story can provide enough assistance to their leading scorers and Shane Osayande up front before they can be taken seriously as a threat to the number one team in the division in round one.
- Island Storm (15-25)- The Storm have MVP candidate Franklin Sessions and have added a couple of new frontcourt weapons in Jerion Henry and Chris Anderson. Still, they've lost 8 of 10 and only have six remaining home games on their schedule. Of those, three are with St. John and Halifax, against whom they're 3-8 this year, and the other three are with Cape Breton, two of which are on short rest. When you add two separate Ontario trips in there, the calendar isn't doing them a lot of favours. The Storm have to hope that a recent big win over the Highlanders is more indicative of how things will go then the two subsequent losses to a Halifax team that is a tough matchup for them. It says here though that the tough times continue and the Storm are staying home at playoff time.
Round 1- Moncton 3-1 over Cape Breton---Halifax 3-2 over Saint John
Round 2- Moncton 4-3 over Halifax
WESTERN CONFERENCE PREDICTED FINISH
I had to rewrite my picks here after Windsor picked up Omar Strong following his being cut by Niagara and then proceeded to dismantle the Edge last night in Saint John's. You don't want to overreact to one game, but Strong really helps Windsor with depth, shooting they desperately needed and a willing defender. Not only that, but they've taken a London castoff, Sefton Barrett, and turned him into a weapon on both ends very quickly as well. He's a terror defensively with his hops and long arms and his athleticism on the wing offensively really takes some pressure off and will help them even out the minutes and not have to overplay guys like Shaq Keith and Logan Stutz.
- Saint John's Edge (24-16)- St. John's remaining schedule isn't exactly easy, but they have five home back-to-backs that are tougher on the team travelling to the Rock than the hosts. They are 8-2 at home this year and I would have expected more of the same in the second half. After their last 3 home games however, there is much to discuss. Only a titanic effort on the boards from Desmond Lee, Grandy Glaze and Charles Hinkle on Saturday salvaged a split with the visiting Magic as their reserves were exposed defensively. Last night, they looked like a team of pylons at that end, as the Express got whatever they wanted on offense. To make matters worse, they were without Coron Williams and the bench provided a grand total of 20 points on 6-19 shooting with 7 turnovers in his absence. It will also remain to be seen if their dependence on the three-point shot will come back to haunt them as Glaze and Ransford Brempong don't provide very much offensively down low. Also, English looked sluggish in the second half last night after a great start. They have 3 seven-day breaks in this second half to help keep him fresh for the playoffs and he's coming off an injury, so that may be an aberration. Still, there is lots to worry about here. That being said, there's a reason this team was sitting in first place going into last night's play. Charles Hinkle, Alex Johnson and English are a tough trio to defend and coach Jeff Dunlap has had them playing hard and smart for the most part. Tonight's second game with Windsor and a visit to the Lightning next week will tell us whether my predicted first place finish (after a tiebreaker with London) for the Edge is realistic.
- London Lightning (24-16)- I foresee troubles on the horizon for the defending champs….in the regular season at least. Going according to script and picking a 27 or 28-win season was tempting, but a win against a sloppy and cold-shooting Niagara team recently did little to erase the memory of three straight losses to Halifax and Windsor where they allowed their opponents to shoot over 50% from the field. With Royce White still absent and his return date uncertain, it's risky to maintain the status quo and rely on that roster to outscore everyone. Are they still talented enough? Sure. And the return of Julian Boyd, Junior Cadougan and Kyle Johnson help their depth. But all too often, their defense looks as if they're in a hurry to force a turnover or be scored upon so they can get back to playing offense. Coach Vassell has plenty of time to address these issues, and White may return anytime to bolster the lineup. If one or both those things happen, a long winning streak could easily come about, and the schedule isn't a killer, but as of now, I see an 9-8 record in the second half.
- Windsor Express (20-20)- The emergence of Sefton Barrett and the addition of Strong cannot be overstated. The Express have leaned too heavily on both Logan Stutz and Maurice Jones both from a shots perspective and a playing time one. There have been way too many games with one or both logging over 40 minutes. Jones is great, but his shooting has really come and gone and he's still at 39% on the year. Having a second All-Star point guard and sharpshooter in the fold who can also match Jones defensively has to take some pressure off. Shaq Keith, Chad Frazier, Demontre Harris and Braylon Rayson are all excellent players but their stats have come and gone game to game as well. With two additional strong options, Coach Jones can now spread those minutes out and go with the hot hands to close out games. On the other hand, Windsor is tasked with one of the league's toughest remaining schedules. They have 11 remaining "LR games" sandwiched around a random 12-day break, and some strangely unbalanced games with Niagara thrown in. In three of their four remaining matchups with the River Lions, the Express are playing the second of a back to back. Still, I foresee the new and improved Express holding them off for third in the West.
- Niagara River Lions (18-22)- The River Lions schedule is much easier than Windsor's, but they are dealing with injuries, the defection of Strong to their main division rival, and a very youthful lineup. On the bright side, Niagara can make use of a couple of week-long breaks to ease some bumps and bruises to Sam Muldrow and others, and incorporate new players with promise such as CJ Aiken. No one relies on youth more than Niagara with two rookies currently starting, so this could really go either way. I'm betting on further improvement from Guillaume Payen-Boucard, Connor Wood and Jaylon Tate, not regression, making their offense more explosive and strengthening a solid first unit defensively. They have a big enough lead on KW for fourth right now so as not to worry about making the playoffs, but they'll have to count on big contributions from Aiken and fellow newcomers Ronnie Johnson and Devonta Pollard if they hope to make noise come the postseason. As for the rest of the regular season, I see more of the same until they can prove that they have the roster depth to bunch wins together.
- KW Titans (11-29)- You have to think the breaks will even out a little bit for this team in their second half, but unfortunately it will be too little too late. Any more than a 7-12 record in their remaining games is asking a lot given where they're coming from and the fact that they have arguably the hardest remaining schedule in the league. With two trips out east and 13 of their 19 games on zero, one or two days rest, they'll need to lean heavily on Derek Hall and Kevin Rogers down low and grind things out defensively. If they get a little healthier and Darren Duncan continues his improved play of late, they will likely pop up and grab some late season wins from teams mistakenly looking past them. It was a formula that worked well the last time out in a win over the Storm. With more play like that, the franchise can at least go into the offseason with a little positive momentum.
So much is up in the air with new additions, teams trending in different directions and, as always, Royce White, that this is a complete guessing game. If he stays out and St. John's worst case scenario comes to pass, then a Moncton/Windsor final wouldn't be out of the question at all. I'm assuming the Edge right the ship somewhat and Royce returns before the playoffs…..sooooo:
Round 1- Saint John's 3-1 over Niagara---London 3-2 over Windsor
Round 2- Saint John's 4-3 over London
NBL CANADA FINALS
Moncton over Saint John's 4-2
Ok, ok, I'll be called a homer, but I call's 'em how's I see's 'em people. The Magic is the team with the fewest roster holes and the balance between defensive versatility and offensive explosiveness that is required to win three series in this league. That being said, both Halifax and St. John have the talent and a dominant unit (the Halifax frontcourt and the Riptide defense) to upend them. As I see it, whichever of those Eastern squads makes it through the Divisional rounds defeats a defensively vulnerable Western champ, but I'd put my money on my hometown squad right now. Feel free to find me on twitter @hoopstingley to tell me why I'm wrong.
Story by: David Tingley - Official Colour Comminator for the Moncton Magic