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NBL Starting 5: The biggest talking points of opening week

Opening Day for National Basketball League teams, players, coaches and fans means almost everything is reset to zero; wins, losses, recriminations.

The only thing that's not at a low ebb? Expectations.

The most hotly-anticipated NBL season in recent memory tips off tonight and not only are hopes sky-high, but the title race is as wide open as it's been in a while.

Can Perth maintain its place atop the NBL mountain? And, just as importantly, can the Wildcats keep their incredible streak of not missing the playoffs since Ronald Reagan was in his second term in office as U.S. President?

Is a revamped Melbourne United the real deal? By adding former Cairns gun Melo Trimble and ex-Breakers behemoth Shawn Long, the 2018 title-holders have loaded up for another tilt at the chip. Queries remain about chemistry but any team with as much firepower as United is going to shoot first and answer questions later.

Are the kids as good as advertised? In LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, Illawarra and New Zealand have respectively added two of the brightest high school prospects the U.S. has to offer. By doing so, they've also added a healthy dose of hype. Watch this space.

Will South East Melbourne be the surprise packet? The expansion Phoenix, under general manager Tommy Greer and coach Simon Mitchell, have assembled a decent roster, headed by Australian Boomers swingman Mitch Creek and there's already whispers of a top-four finish.

Who will surprise? Who will disappoint? Among the Bullets, 36ers, Breakers, Hawks and Taipans, there's going to be squads who exceed pre-season predictions ... and there's going to be some mediocrity. Cairns has been the consensus pick to once again prop up the NBL standings but it only takes one injury or a lack of chemistry for a team to slide down the ladder.

With all that in mind, here's five things to keep an eye on, not only in Round 1, but throughout what promises to be an epic season.

1 - The Throwdown

For the first time since the days of the Melbourne Tigers and South Dragons, Australia's hoops hotbed is once again a two-team town. The NBL sorely needed a local derby to fan the rivalry flames and tonight's season-opening Throwdown between United and expansion team Phoenix is just the first chapter in what will hopefully be a long, enduring and intense rivalry that brings out the best (and worst) in everyone. Make no mistake, a team led from the front by Mitch Creek won't be taking a backwards step. Conversely, Melbourne United has been a perennial contender for some time and won't be conceding an inch of hard-won territory. Expect sparks to fly early and often.

2 - Sydney and the weight of expectations

Can Sydney finally break through? The Kings have a new and highly-regarded coach (Will Weaver) and an intriguing roster that should be at the pointy end of the standings by the time the playoffs roll around. After failing to meet already lofty expectations the past few seasons, the Andrew Bogut-led Kings need to capitalise on their abundance of talent. Sydney tips off their campaign with a trip to Cairns tomorrow night, and while the Snakes aren't expected to be title contenders, the Kings will need to be wary of underestimating their hosts.

3 - Still wild about Perth

Form is temporary, class is permanent. The reigning champs won't lie down without a serious fight. Tipping off their championship defence on Saturday against fellow contenders United, the Wildcats have the nucleus of their title-winning squad intact. In Bryce Cotton and Terrico White, Perth has an elite import duo that knows how to win. Throw in Nick Kay who is coming off a hugely impressive World Cup campaign with the Boomers and it's a three-headed monster that hits you from all angles. And while there's little doubt they'll continue their amazing playoff streak that began back in 1987, Perth will be keen to avoid the roller coaster form slump they endured mid-way through last season.

4 - Ball-ing in Illawarra

LaMelo Ball has already shown the steak has the potential to match the sizzle. In preseason games Ball showed off an array of offensive moves that will make him an exceedingly tough matchup for a lot of guards in the NBL. He also showed elite level court vision, hitting teammates both in transition and half-court sets for easy buckets. It's at the other end where the real challenges will reside for the wunderkind. Teams will have already noted how the Phoenix ran him through screen after screen after screen to get his man open. The off-ball physicality will be the biggest test of a frame that is still adapting to the professional game. But make no mistake, Ball is an NBA-calibre talent. Get out and see him while you can, starting on Sunday when the Hawks play host to the Brisbane Bullets.

5 - Bullets to fire ... or is Brisbane shooting blanks?

The Bullets head to Illawarra on Sunday with questions looming about their championship mettle. After two consecutive wooden spoon campaigns, Brisbane finally broke through for a playoff spot last season, easing some of the pressure on embattled coach Andrej Lemanis. And while Lemanis will be riding high from a successful World Cup campaign at the helm of the Boomers, a poor start from the Bullets has the potential to turn up the temperature on his coaching seat. By recruiting Cam Gliddon and Nathan Sobey over the past two seasons, Brisbane has added some elite Australian talent to go alongside a possible MVP candidate in Lamar Patterson. They have the cattle and the coaching to be a top-four team but will the reality match the anticipation? There's only one way to find out.