Four teams have no realistic shot at finishing the season as winners. The bj-league’s other 15 teams are in contention for a playoff spot and, possibly, a title.
In fact, those 15 teams are within two games of .500 or better. Parity has been the name of the game so far this season.
The Takamatsu Five Arrows (1-23), Oita HeatDevils (5-19), Iwate Big Bulls (7-19, an expansion club) and Saitama Broncos (7-17) can make dramatic improvements in the season’s second half, and in varying forms, that will be each of these team’s primary objectives.
The rest of the league’s outfits, meanwhile, will fight for one of 12 playoff spots, meaning three teams will fall short of that goal. Six Eastern Conference teams and six Western Conference teams will advance to postseason play.
Furthermore, three of the East’s four expansion teams -Yokohama B-Corsairs (11-13), Shinshu Brave Warriors (11-13) and Chiba Jets (10-12) — are legitimate playoff contenders entering the All-Star break.
In a 52-game season, there will be major shifts in the standings, hot streaks and cold spells. Teams will find ways to improve their rosters by adding new players. Injuries could also play a major factor in a team’s success.
Chiba center George Leach, for example, is rehabbing in the United States and preparing for a possible return in March after an Achilles injury. His leadership and shot-blocking presence near the hoop have been missed, Jets coach Eric Gardow has said several times in recent weeks.
In the West, the Kyoto Hannaryz’s recent 12-game winning streak was a bold statement that the club is a genuine championship contender. But, of course, the sustained excellence of the Osaka Evessa (17-5, bolstered by the offseason addition of Cohey Aoki) and the Ryukyu Golden Kings (19-5, strengthened by newcomers Narito Namizato and Morihisa Yamauchi, among others) sets the standard by which all West teams are measured.
Kyoto’s tall front court — led by 211-cm veterans Rick Rickert and Lance Allred — poses tough matchups for all teams, but a good game plan and in-game adjustments, as noted by the Sendai 89ers’ streak-busting victory over the visiting Hannaryz on Saturday was a reminder of the unpredictable nature of any game.
Shifting our focus back to the 10-team East, only five wins separate first place (Akita Northern Happinets and Niigata Albirex BB, who have 15-9 records) and the Toyama Grouses and Jets (10-12).
The Broncos and Big Bulls could both play the role of spoiler after the All-Star break. Or both clubs could rattle off several wins in a row and build confidence and momentum for the 2012-13 season.
The Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (14-10) are a game out of first place and remain hungry to capture a third consecutive title. To do so under first-year coach Ryuji Kawai would be a remarkable achievement.
All-Star Game info: The 2011-12 All-Star Game will be held on Sunday at Saitama Super Arena. Tipoff is set for 5:10 p.m. BS Fuji will televise the game.
The East’s starters are guards Masashi Joho (Toyama) and Takehiko Shimura (Sendai) and frontcourt mainstays Kazuhiro Shoji (Akita), John Humphrey (Saitama) and Daiki Terashita (Saitama). The backups are guards Makoto Sawaguchi (Iwate), Maurice Hargrow (Chiba) and Takaki Ishida (Chiba) and forwards/centers Chris Holm (Niigata), Lee Roberts (Shimane), Justin Burrell (Yokohama) and Atsuya Ota (Hamamatsu).
Saitama sideline supervisor Natalie Nakase is the East’s head coach and Chiba coach Eric Gardow is her assistant.
The West’s starters are guards Cohey Aoki (Osaka, first six-timeAll-Star in league history) and Narito Namizato (Ryukyu) andfrontcourt standouts Lynn Washington (Osaka), Michael Parker (Shimane)and Jeff Newton (Ryukyu).
The backups are guards Yu Okada (Shiga), Taishiro Shimizu (Miyazaki), Jun Nakanishi (Fukuoka) and Hiroyuki Kikuchi (Takamatsu) and forwards Lance Allred (Kyoto), Wendell White (Oita) and Kevin Palmer (Fukuoka).
Shiga’s Alan Westover is the West’s head coach. His assistant is Miyazaki’s Koto Toyama.
The Slam Dunk Contest and 3-Point Shootout will be held before the game.
Upcoming schedule: After the All-Star festivities on Sunday, teams will begin preparations for the second half of the season, starting with the Chiba-Akita series that tips off on Jan. 20. Eight other weekend series are slated to begin on Jan. 21: Niigata vs. Yokohama, Toyama vs. Sendai, Hamamatsu vs. Iwate, Shiga vs. Ryukyu, Osaka vs. Oita, Shimane vs. Shinshu and Fukuoka vs. Miyazaki.
League leaders: Shimane’s Michael Parker is the top scorer at 23.5 points per game. Saitama’s Kenny Satterfield is No. 1 in assists (7.2). Niigata’s Chris Holm is tops in rebounding (14.5), Chiba’s Jamel Staten is No. 1 in steals (3.1) and Shimane’s Jeral Davis is first in blocked shots (3.6).