Two seasons removed from their third consecutive championship, the Osaka Evessa are struggling to find a winning formula.
They’ve lost eight games by single-digit margins. They are 3-9 on the road. Overall, they enter their weekend series against the Sendai 89ers with an 8-10 record.
Osaka, the Western Conference’s fourth-place team, needs to stay committed to the basics as it fights for a playoff spot.
“I think we are now learning to play as a team, as a unit,” Evessa coach Kensaku Tennichi said in a Wednesday telephone conversation. “(Sometimes) . . . we play basketball like a pickup game. The guy with the ball just dribbles to the basket and nobody follows him; sometimes two or three guys don’t understand what we are going to do.
“I think that’s the main reason why we’re struggling a little bit right now.”
Talent-wise, the Evessa have a strong mix of skilled players. Power forward Lynn Washington (18.7 points per game), point guard Nile Murry (14.5 ppg) and forwards David Palmer (13.8) and Ryan Blackwell (11.3) are the primary scorers.
Consistency has been an issue, though, and it’s frustrated Tennichi that his team has strayed away from its game plan on numerous occasions.
“We have to play as a team,” the coach said. “We have to run our system. That’s the most important thing that we have to do.”
The Evessa have had success against the Western Conference’s top teams, handing the Ryukyu Golden Kings two of their three losses entering this week and going 2-0 against the second-place Rizing Fukuoka. And, yes, it’s a reminder of their potential to be more than a run-of-the-mill bj-league team.
But Tennichi’s club continues to search for additional production from other players. Veteran shooting guard Naoto Nakamura, for instance, was one of the league’s most dependable outside shooters (180 3-pointers combined over the past two seasons). He’s been a non-factor this season, with 18 total points in nine games.
From a mental standpoint, Nakamura has not played well in practice, Tennichi said, and hasn’t practiced as much as in previous seasons. Asked if Nakamura is coping with any injuries right now, the coach told me that’s not the case.
Clearly, though, the team misses Nakamura’s trademark impact.
“We always expect him to bury the 3-point shot,” Tennichi said, “and to be strong on the defensive end and active on the offensive end.”
Tennichi challenges his other non-American players to pick up the slack, too, specifically Shota Konno (3.6 ppg), Haimo Chen (3.5 ppg) and Jun Nakanishi (3.5 ppg).
“I need these guys to score a little bit more . . . so that we can have 20-25 points (a game) from Japanese guys,” he said. “That means we can reach 86-90 points as a team.”
Newcomer Waki Williams, a 206-cm post player, made a splash in his Evessa debut, scoring 30 points in a season-opening win against the Rizing on Oct. 17. His second-highest scoring game (16 points) came against the Oita HeatDevils a month later. He’s had four double-digit scoring games (7.9 ppg), while getting acclimated to the Osaka system and the bj-league.
Tennichi wants Williams to be a complementary scorer, not a guy to carry the offensive load.
“He’s not a guy like (Los Angeles Lakers star) Kobe Bryant, Lynn Washington or a guy like that,” Tennichi said. “But he’s a really good player. . . . We try to have him on the court a little bit more and expect him to do putbacks, play defense and get blocks.”
Despite the team’s mercurial season, one positive development has been the return of Palmer to the squad after a two-year absence. He played for the Dakota Wizards of the NBA Development League in 2007-08 after winning the bj-league MVP award in 2006-07. In his second stint in Kansai, Palmer has set a strong example for his teammates, with positive encouragement and hard work.
“He always comes to practice early and takes shots before and after practice on his own,” the coach noted before praising Palmer’s rebounding consistency.
“I really like how he grabs seven to 10 defensive rebounds if he has enough time on the court,” Tennichi added.
Tennichi spent most of our lengthy conversation speaking about his team in general terms, repeatedly emphasizing the importance of the team’s system, including in its midweek preparations for the 89ers (11-7).
“We have to know as a team what we are going to do ourselves rather than what our opponent is going to do,” he said, calling the team’s defense (78.0 ppg allowed) strong but the offense (78.0 ppg) as less than dominant.
“On defense, we are going to use our zone and man and sometimes press and it doesn’t matter who’s on the bench or on the court,” he continued. “We all have to know what we are going to do on the court for every possession for 40 minutes, not 39 minutes, so that’s what we are going to do.”
This meticulous preparation leaves Tennichi little time to enjoy watching NBA games and NCAA college hoop contests, but he’s always eager to watch.
“I try to see the NBA and I really try to see NCAA games,” he said. “I am always looking for a new play — to steal something or imitate it.”