It is a sport administrator’s dream. The two best teams across the season going head-to-head for the championship.
But there is more to this NBL grand final series than just two good teams battling for bragging rights — it is a clash between the best team in the league and the most successful club of the decade.
Melbourne United finished three games clear of the Perth Wildcats, galloping to the minor premiership with 28 wins and just eight losses.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats shrugged off suggestions they would not even make the finals by finishing second on the standings with games to spare.
United won its first 11 games of the season, while the Wildcats stumbled to three wins in their first six before finding some form.
In retrospect, it seems obvious the two sides would meet in the season-deciding series, which begins in Perth this evening, but the reality — especially for the Wildcats — is very different.
Wildcats go through cleanout
The Wildcats were in upheaval at the end of the 2019/20 NBL season after claiming the grand final series against the Sydney Kings amid the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
The players’ association and the NBL agreed to pay cuts and allowed players to waive their contracts if they wanted to explore their options, which two of the Wildcats’ best players did.
Bryce Cotton and Nick Kay opted out and looked overseas, leaving the Wildcats without one of the greatest players to ever grace the NBL and his serviceable deputy.
On top of that, club captain Damian Martin retired, Rhys Vague went to Japan, Terrico White left the club, and American Miles Plumlee was sidelined, as the Wildcats waited for Cotton to be naturalised as an Australian (which eventually did not happen).
It looked dire for a club that has boasted stability around its most loyal servants.
As it turned out, Cotton returned on a new three-year deal and went about his usual business, while US college star John Mooney arrived in Perth.
Still, pundits gave the Wildcats little chance of making the play-offs, let alone the grand final series.
Yet here we are.
United was not without player movement of its own, having released star Casey Prather, but they recruited well with American Scotty Hopson and former college player Jock Landale signing one-year deals.
Landale leads the club in points and rebounds per game, while Hopson is second for assists and third for scoring.
Coaches know success
At the helm of these clubs are two very successful coaches.
United’s Dean Vickerman has won two NBL championships, his first with the New Zealand Breakers in the 2014/15 season and then with United in 2017/18.
He has also experienced grand final heartbreak twice, losing the 2015/16 and 2018/19 series with the Breakers and United respectively.
On both occasions, it was the Wildcats under coach Trevor Gleeson who were triumphant.
Gleeson’s record speaks for itself. He is the winningest coach the Wildcats have ever had, surpassing Alan Black in both games coached and won.
And he has also delivered what the club really craves — championships.
Gleeson has comfortably shouldered the expectations of fans who have not seen their side miss the play-offs in more than 30 years. He has delivered five championships since joining the Wildcats ahead of the 2013/14 season.
In fact, he has never lost a grand final series with the Wildcats, an achievement that should not be overlooked.
The talent on the court appears to favour United, with Landale and Hopson supported by stalwarts Chris Goulding, David Barlow and captain Mitch McCarron.
The Wildcats are without league MVP Cotton, who had surgery on a haematoma late in the season, while Mitch Norton is struggling with a hip injury.
Yet success is in the DNA of the Wildcats. The franchise has 10 titles (twice as many as United, who sit second on the list) and is a relentless winning machine.
That was demonstrated by their ability to recover from a home loss in their first semi-final against Illawarra to win consecutive matches and progress to the big dance.
The brain says this is Melbourne’s grand final series to lose, but the heart says never write the Wildcats off as they gun for a record-equalling third straight title.