The Ten Moments That Defined the NBL This Decade

By Liam Santamaria

As the decade rapidly draws to a close, we take a look at the biggest, most defining NBL moments of the 2010s.


There’s no other way to put it: the Wildcats and Breakers dominated the 2010s.

The two clubs combined to win all but one of the ten titles on offer this decade with Perth claiming five and New Zealand securing four. They also met in the Grand Final Series on three of those occasions as a genuine modern-day rivalry was built out of their combined excellence.

This era of West Aussie and Kiwi dominance has also given us a number of all-time legends of the league, including Wildcats Damian Martin, Matt Knight, Jesse Wagstaff and Bryce Cotton as well as Breaker champions like Cedric Jackson, Tom Abercrombie and Mika Vukona.


It really was the turning point for the NBL’s fortunes this decade when, in 2015, Larry Kestelman took a controlling stake in the league and became its Executive Director.

I mean, let’s not beat around the bush, this was the pivotal moment for the NBL for the 2010s.

Under the leadership of Kestelman and the league’s Commissioner Jeremy Loeliger, the NBL has achieved incredible growth; securing landmark broadcast deals and establishing innovative commercial partnerships as well as achieving record attendances and significantly increased media coverage.

Onwards and upwards from here.


Changes to the salary and contracting rules implemented this decade have also had a major influence on the growth of the competition.

The Marquee Player Rule, first introduced in 2014 and then amended in 2016, has helped bring top local players back from Europe and the NBA while also ensuring that others continue to exhibit their talents on home soil.

The rule changes went to another level in 2016 when the league abolished the controversial player points system, introduced the ‘soft’ salary cap and increased the number of imports each team is allowed from two to three.

The result has been a consistent rise in talent from year to year while maintaining a high level of competitiveness right across the league.

Take this season, for example. As the brilliant NBL Facts tweeted earlier this week, the ladder is the closest it has ever been at this point of an NBL season, with just one and a half wins currently separating third and eighth.


It was September 2015 when it was first announced that the NBL had struck a deal that would see every NBL game broadcast live on TV and that, right there, was a game-changer.

Since then the league has become available to view on a variety of new and innovative platforms, with fans and interested onlookers from across the globe being able to tune in and get involved.

Mainstream media coverage across the country has also increased and online engagement via the league’s social media platforms has skyrocketed over recent years.


In a short space of time, Bryce Cotton has had an almighty impact on the NBL and his two re-signings were, in my mind, key moments for the continued growth of the league.

The brilliant guard arrived in January 2017 and immediately exploded on the competition, firing the Wildcats to an unforgettable championship run. At that point, after he dropped 45 to close out a Grand Final Series, nobody expected Cotton to return the following year.

The general consensus at the time was that he was, plainly and simply, too good for this league.

Cotton then went to the NBA Summer League with the Atlanta Hawks and then, astonishingly, right there in Las Vegas, he re-upped with the ‘Cats. The grin on Trevor Gleeson’s face that night as he strolled the casino floor at The Wynn still burns in my memory bank.

And if that decision wasn’t a big enough statement about the standard and future of the NBL, Cotton went ahead and signed a three-year extension the following off-season. Bam! Signed, sealed and delivered until 2021.

Over the last few years we’ve also seen other top-end imports consistently returning to the league; guys like Casper Ware, Jerome Randle, Lamar Patterson, Shawn Long and Terrico White. This, to me, speaks volumes about the health of the competition and Cotton is the one whose signature spoke the loudest.


We’re used to it now, but it’s worth remembering that the concept of NBL teams playing actual games against NBA squads seemed rather absurd a few years ago.

It had happened once – twenty-odd years earlier in London when the Perth Wildcats lost to the Houston Rockets by 44 – but had not been a reality since.

Now it’s just what we do.

For the past three years NBL teams have competed against NBA teams in official pre-season games with fifteen contests in the books to this point.

We haven’t managed to yank a win yet, but three of those games have been decided by single-digit margins while more than half have been decided by twenty points or less.

Of course, Melbourne United are the ones who have come the closest to victory when they went down to Oklahoma City by a single point back in 2017. Who could ever forget that feeling when an NBL team was one point down and had possession with the shot clock turned off? Oh my lord, they nearly did it.


Speaking of United, after almost an entire decade of championship dominance from the Wildcats and Breakers, it was a welcome change to see somebody else hoist the trophy as Melbourne won the title in 2018.

United had not won a single playoff game since adopting the their new moniker back in 2014 but the appointment of championship-winning coach Dean Vickerman in 2017 paid immediate dividends as he guided the club to the ultimate prize.

It was a spectacular Grand Final Series that one too, with the Adelaide 36ers going toe-to-toe with United throughout a memorable five-game tug-of-war.



In March 2018 the NBL announced an innovative new player development program aimed at bringing top NBA prospects Down Under to compete in the NBL.

The ‘Next Stars’ initiative followed the drafting of former Adelaide 36ers prospect Terrance Ferguson by the Oklahoma City Thunder and, in its first year, resulted in Brian Bowen II progressing from the Sydney Kings to a two-way deal with the Indiana Pacers.

This year the whole thing has just exploded. The arrival of LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, in particular, has focused the basketball world on Aussie and Kiwi hoops enormously.

The development side of the program is working well – ESPN currently have LaMelo as the projected number one pick in the 2020 NBA Draft while Hampton is projected to go inside the top five – while the elite standard and professionalism of our league is being showcased across the globe. Mission accomplished.


The arrival of Andrew Bogut onto the NBL scene in April 2018 was one of biggest moments in the entire history of the league, let alone this decade.

Here was one of Australia’s best-known sporting stars, a former number one draft pick and NBA champ, bringing his significant star power – and world-class game – to the hardwoods of the Harbour City.

It was a big-time shot in the arm for Sydney – one of the NBL’s glamour clubs – especially considering Bogut’s desire to “get some skin in the game” at an ownership level.

The significance of Bogut’s arrival cannot be overstated. He is, after all, the kind of athlete that general sports fans in Australia know. They’ve followed his career in the NBA and are aware of what he’s achieved on the global stage. As a result, his decision to compete in the NBL turned a whole lot of heads and was a major boost for the Kings and the league in a multitude of ways.


The early parts of this decade involved a bit of fluctuation in terms of the make-up of the league, with the Kings re-joining the comp in 2010 and the Gold Coast Blaze and Townsville Crocs both closing their doors.

Since that time, however, the league has enjoyed a period of great stability and growth. In 2016 the Bullets were regenerated in Brisbane and the recent purchase of the club by a consortium led by former NBA player Kevin Martin speaks volumes about the success of that move.

With the league continuing to grow from strength to strength, a ninth team was introduced this season – the South East Melbourne Phoenix – which has made a highly successful start to its existence both on and off the floor.

What happens from here? Well, discussions continue to bubble away about the potential of further expansion in the near future.

So, as the clock winds down on a memorable decade of NBL hoops, may the next ten years bless our league with continued growth and prosperity. Happy New Year!


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