As far as NBL off-seasons go, it’s hard to think of any realistic way that this particular edition could’ve been any more impactful. Unlike the NBA version of free agency, the NBL usually sees 7 months of on-and-off chatter that only truly picks up for a couple of weeks around Summer League. It’s now been over three months since the Perth Wildcats hoisted their ninth NBL championship and new, exciting rumours seem to hit the Twitterverse every day. I mean, LaVar freaking Ball will be roaming the sidelines in Wollongong in 2020. Let that sink in for a bit.
While interest in the league’s off-season dealings has never been higher, one name, in particular, seems to have fallen off the radar all together — Robert ‘Bob’ Loe. Loe’s switch from the Taipans to the Breakers was a foregone conclusion after the big man asked for a release from his contract to move back to New Zealand for family reasons. The lack of speculation around his free agent decision could be one reason why his move wasn’t talked about and didn’t resonate with the collective NBL fandom. The other, more obvious (and more likely) reason, is that most fans simply don’t think Loe is a real difference-maker. On the most recent episode of NBL Overtime, Liam Santamaria and Mark Worthington both said as such when they referred to Loe as a “backup”.
Sure, Loe is far from a superstar. He’ll never be able to create his own shot, he’s not a defensive stalwart, and he is less likely to dunk than he is to get dunked on. He averaged just 7.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season in Cairns and made a mere 30% of his three-point attempts. Those raw counting stats, however, don’t give a fair reflection of Loe’s true worth. His value to a team doesn’t stem from being able to grab double-doubles every weekend, nor does it arise from an ability to score 20 on any given night.
Almost all NBL analysts seem to believe that the most important thing when constructing a roster is pure talent. This is a deeply flawed understanding of what wins games in the NBL — getting extremely talented, expensive, and experienced basketball players certainly helps, but guarantees absolutely nothing. How the puzzle pieces ultimately fit together matters more, especially considering that the NBL season is just 28 games long and it often takes ages for unacquainted players to gel.
This is where Loe’s value to a team shines through — his unique skill-set allows him to mesh well with basically anyone in the league. In this sense, he’s a basketball chameleon who’ll blend seamlessly into whatever lineup his coach wants to play. This is invaluable for any coach and is a quality that is so incredibly rare to find in the NBL. Just because Loe isn’t super-talented or uber-athletic, doesn’t make him a “backup”. In fact, with his unique abilities, he is probably more valuable than most ‘superstars’ around the league today.
For a team with already established ball-dominant players — which a lot of NBL rosters are mostly comprised of — Loe is a perfect complementary piece at the 5. In 2018–19, Loe led all centres in three-point attempts per 36 at 4.9 (per Spatial Jam) and, as a result, provided ideal spacing for Melo Trimble to dominate in during his debut season. Trimble recorded a whopping 177 attempts at the rim (for reference, the behemoth known colloquially as Nate Jawai, GROWN MAN Tai Wesley, and Brian Conklin all didn’t attempt more than 160 shots at the rim in 18/19) and produced the second highest free throw rate in the league among guards, in large part because teams were so afraid of Loe bombing away from downtown. Teams opted to stay attached to him rather than giving help defence on any of Trimble’s drives.
Loe connected on less than a third of his attempts from deep, yet his reputation as a long-range bomber and his willingness to launch from deep at such a high rate forced teams to alter their normal defensive schemes. When defending pick-and-rolls, most NBL teams drop their big back to the paint and have their guard chase opposition ball handlers over screens into the mid-range. When teams did that against Cairns, this happened:
Here, Ili goes over the screen, leaving Loe unguarded on the perimeter. Because of Loe’s ever-present threat, Patrick Richard helps off of DJ Newbill to attach himself to the big Kiwi. This, of course, leaves the aforementioned Newbill wiiiiddddeeee open.
Because of Loe’s threat, coaches began to switch Trimble-Loe pick-and-rolls. This wound up being just as bad an idea. Trimble cooked every big man that challenged him on the perimeter:
(Poor Majok Majok never stood a chance.)
Loe’s step-up screens in transition had the same effect for Cairns’ ball-handlers. No team wanted to leave Loe open from deep which left the likes of Newbill and Trimble on an island with ground-bound bigs at their mercy:
Trimble is obviously one of the most talented players in the league and thoroughly deserved all of the praise he received last season (as detailed in my last piece). However, he also benefited from having a big man with extreme gravitational pull that made life much easier for him. In fact, ever since Loe entered the league in 2016 he has been allowing ball-dominant guards to thrive. Edgar Sosa and DJ Newbill were dynamite in 2018; Shea Ili had his best season in the league that same year and dropped off significantly when he played with two supposedly superior players in Tai Wesley and Shawn Long; who remembers how good Kevin Dillard was down the stretch of the 2016-17 season? Giving a point guard Rob Loe is essentially equivalent to giving a rookie quarterback an elite wide receiver in the NFL.
Loe’s offensive rebounding and post scoring both wreak even more havoc for switch-heavy defences. While Loe is far from elite at both of those aspects of the game, he is perfectly serviceable when going to work against a guard after a switch. Over the course of his three seasons in the league, Loe ranks 11th in two-point percentage at 57% (among players attempting more than two shots per game). His touch around the basket, while not Olajuwon-esque by any means, is more than good enough to punish guards down low.
In terms of his rebounding, Loe’s reputation is far from great, but he is again underrated. Last season, he posted a better defensive rebounding percentage than Mika Vukona and Nick Kay, whilst also nabbing the 9th best offensive rebounding percentage in the league. A bunch of those offensive boards came off (say it with me) switches, where guards didn’t even bother competing with Loe:
These opportunities presented themselves almost purely because of Loe’s gravity and the decisions he forced defences to make. Despite not having all of the talent and production of some of his contemporaries, Loe is still an incredibly influential offensive player.
It should also be noted that Loe is an adequate defensive big, too. He struggles to keep his foul count down and isn’t amazing at defending in space, but he knows his limitations and plays to them accordingly. Loe’s best defensive asset is that he is a large human being and he knows it. He utilises his length well at the rim and stays vertical, while also being deceptively strong. With this in mind, unlike Shawn Long, he is actually able to absorb contact while protecting the rim:
Loe will never be an elite defensive big, but he knows his strengths and is smart enough to play to them on that end of the court and be somewhat useful as a rim deterrent.
Loe has weak points in his overall game, but on the whole, is still a remarkably effective and malleable weapon for any team. This is exemplified by his consistently outstanding plus/minus numbers. In his debut 2016–17 season, Loe led the entire league in plus/minus at a frankly ridiculous +16.4 points per 36 minutes (per Crunch Time Shots), as the Breakers outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 36 minutes with him on the court. During the 2017–18 season, Loe recorded another positive plus/minus, as the Breakers were +2.1 points per 36 better off with him on the hardwood (it should be noted that Loe played a lot of minutes at power forward during the 17–18 season, where his effectiveness as a floor spacer was less pronounced). Meanwhile, last season on a dastardly Cairns team that posted an overall net rating of -7.9 points per 100 possessions (Spatial Jam), in Loe’s minutes, Cairns somehow managed to outscore their opponents. Loe once again posted an outrageous plus/minus of +11.2 per 36.
Plus/minus numbers are often misleading and should not be taken at face value. There are a number of mitigating factors that contribute to net ratings, including team context, player role, who you play with, whether you are a starter or not, and the list goes on and on. Plus/minus famously attempted to lead us to believe that Kawhi Leonard was a bad defender just a couple of seasons ago. But this is now three consecutive seasons where Loe has shone through in plus/minus. Something has to give.
Through extensive research, only three players have managed to post both a positive net rating as well as a positive plus/minus in each of the last three seasons. (For stat-averse readers, a positive net rating means your team outscored the opponent whilst you were on the floor, while a positive plus/minus means that the team’s net rating with you on the court was better than the team’s net rating with you off the court.)
Those three players are:
- Casper Ware (who played on three very good teams in all three seasons)
- Damian Martin (who played for the dynastic Perth Wildcats in all three seasons)
- Rob Loe (who played for one good Breakers team, one average Breakers team, and a historically bad Cairns team in those three seasons)
We know that Damian Martin and Casper Ware are incredibly valuable players in the NBL — why would it be a stretch to say that Loe is as well?
Rob Loe is not a superstar and will never be one, but to say that he is merely a “backup” and to completely forget about him in the free agency frenzy is assuredly a few steps too far. His unique skill-set for a big guy unlocks so many new avenues for any offence and his defensive limitations aren’t nearly as pronounced as many seem to point out. As a purely complementary player, it’s hard to find anyone around the league who does more to benefit his team. Rather than comparing him to big men who stack up points and rebounds, we should be looking at him as the NBL’s own budget version of Brook Lopez.
Heading into the 2019–20 season, just as Brook Lopez’s floor spacing and unselfish play helped to unlock Giannis Antetokounmpo’s true MVP potential, look for Rob Loe to do the same for the highly regarded RJ Hampton. Provided the Breakers don’t chase an import big man, Hampton will be in an ideal situation to show off his athletic drive-and-kick game. Rather than playing with Tai Wesley and Shawn Long, who robbed their guards of possessions regularly and were unwilling to utilise the gravity they had by spotting up along the arc, Hampton and the rest of the Breakers will be sharing the floor with Loe, who will once again be out to prove that he simply makes teams better.