Defense rules in basketball, a stale cliche that rings as true in the bj-league as it does elsewhere in the hoops world.
The bj-league has injected new life into Japan’s hoops scene in its inaugural season, but the elements of the game itself are not completely different: Defense still wins championships.
And as teams head into the stretch run of the 40-game season, it should be no surprise that the strongest defensive teams are the same squads that preside atop the standings.
The Niigata Albirex (15-3) have the bj-league’s best record, looking good after a transfer from the JBL Super League.
Niigata dropped its first game, falling to the Tokyo Apache in overtime on Opening Day, but undaunted Niigata quickly reversed its fortunes because of systematic team defense.
Niigata has allowed only 71.6 points per game, which is almost eight points better than Osaka Evessa, the second best defensive squad.
Pacing the Albirex defensive dynamo is slender center Nick Davis, a 29-year-old former University of Arkansas player.
Davis leads the league in rebounds with 13.7 per game, and he is second in blocked shots at 2.6 per night.
Niigata’s tough defense owes much to Davis’ all-around defensive ability.
Despite steak of injuries, Niigata’s stingy and consistent defense makes it the favorite to finish the regular season in first.
The second-place Evessa (14-4), however, are not far behind Niigata and statistically are the most capable and balanced team in the league, fully utilizing a lineup heavy with powerful Americans: forwards Lynn Washington and Jeff Newton, and guard Matt Lottich.
While posting the second-best defense, Osaka can overwhelm opponents with its offensive attack as well. The Evessa score more than any team in the bj-league, averaging 89.9 points.
While Newton is first in blocked shots per game (2.7) and second in rebounds (12.4), Lottich leads in assists (4.7).
Being able to win at away games (9-1) keeps Osaka near the top of the standings.
The third-place Sendai 89ers (10-8) are struggling a bit.
They started out the season with five consecutive wins, then began to fade.
Sendai still has the third-best defense (81.2), but to ascend in the standings in the later half of the season, it will need to regain its early season form.
The Apache are arguably the fastest team in the league.
Head coach Joe Bryant applies running and gunning type of offense centering on John “Helicopter” Humphrey and William Pippen, the league’s top two scorers, averaging 24.9 and 23.7 points per game, respectively.
For all their offensive firepower, the Apache struggle at the other end of the court, leading to inconsistent play.
The Oita Heat Devils and Saitama Broncos are stuck in the mud.
The Broncos do not have the depth like some other teams, and the lack of fresh legs shows up later in games. They imported former Utah Jazz player David Benoit before the season, but he is done for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon.
Benoit is now an assistant coach.
After Benoit’s injury, the Broncos acquired Marcus Toney-El, a former Seton Hall player. He has excelled, living up to the expectations of the fans and averaging 23.4 points per game.
Yet it might be a too heavy task for Toney-El to single-handedly change the team to a winning side.
Like the Albirex, the Broncos moved from the JBL, but they will end up with having more patience than Niigata in the second half of the season.
The Heat Devils had issues outside the sidelines, which caused more trouble inside them.
Oita hired Jawann Oldham, a former teammate of Michael Jordan’s with the Chicago Bulls in the 1980s, to coach the Heat Devils and drum up some fan interest.
But the lack of his previous coaching experience caused communication problems with the players, and the team decided to let him go in mid-January.
The Heat Devils will continue to have difficulties winning games. But they have now been relieved from all the coaching and front office fuss, and the players’ concentration is higher.