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Opinions split on moving powerhouse Phoenix to Western Conference

by Ed Odeven

There’s a very real possibility that the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix will play in the bj-league’s Western Conference next season, as the league’s preliminary scheduling blueprint for 2012-13 has shown. It’s not official yet, but the expectation here is that it’s a done deal.

The two-time reigning champions, an Eastern Conference powerhouse and winners of 138 of 182 regular-games since entering the league in the fall of 2009, would add another big-time challenger to the West.

Through Sunday, four West teams had 20 or more wins: Ryukyu Golden Kings (25-7), Osaka Evessa (22-8), Kyoto Hannaryz (21-9) and Rizing Fukuoka (20-12).

The Phoenix (21-11), who earned a weekend split against the visiting Golden Kings, are the lone Eastern squad with 20 or more victories. But that number is a bit skewed by four expansion squads (Chiba Jets, Iwate Big Bulls, Shinshu Brave Warriors and Yokohama B-Corsairs) and nine of 10 current head coaches in place that weren’t leading their respective teams at the start of the 2010-11 season.

The West is the better conference. The fifth-place Shiga Lakestars (19-13) and Shimane Susanoo Magic (17-15, featuring 216-cm center Jeral Davis and three-time defending scoring champion Michael Parker) are tough matchups for every club. What’s more, the seventh-place Miyazaki Shining Suns (14-18) and Oita HeatDevils (10-22, but much improved in the past few weeks and featuring former league MVP Wendell White, three-time title winner Matt Lottich, two-time Best Five guard Naoto Takushi, among others) are no walkovers, either.

Naturally, some players, coaches and league insiders think this would be a good thing, making the West even more competitive. Others say the East needs its instantly recognizable squad to be a target for all teams to emulate.

Kyoto center Lance Allred, an All-Star this season and a former NBA player, agreed with Blackwell’s basic opinion, but hammered home the point that the bj-league would be better served by having the NFL as its model.

“About Hamamatsu coming to the West, it would be a detriment to the league,” said Allred. “If you want fan attendance, the fans have to know their team has a shot to win it. And if all the contending teams are in the West, then the Eastern Conference teams, or at least their fans, would be discouraged at the imbalance, especially when Western Conference teams came in and embarrassed the home team at home. You at least want a team in your conference to carry on and win the championship, allowing you as a player, a coach or a fan, to tell yourself that you were able to ‘compete’ with them and they had to get through you first, in order to get a title.

“Balance and parity are important in sporting leagues. Imagine how much more excited the fans would be every year, if there was a hard salary cap, and the Charlotte Bobcats had just as much a chance to win it as Dallas, L.A. (Lakers), or New York?”

In the NFL, he said, “small-market Green Bay can compete because of parity and equal salary for all teams, and that makes NFL fans loyal and rabid. Whereas, NBA fans can get pretty fair weather and disheartened over time, knowing that at the end of the day, money talks, and their team has no shot of winning. You want every fan in the bj-league to feel their team has a shot.”

Regardless of the salary-cap system that exists, owners willing to spend to build a winner will ultimately be part of a winning formula.

One player, who requested anonymity, said the league, now in its seventh season, will see changes among the top ranks in the years to come.

“I think that balance of power shifts as far as conferences,” he opined. “Look at the NBA and how tough the West has been the last six years or so, whereas the East (especially the Chicago Bulls) dominated the 1990s. Things will always trend out and even out eventually.”

Instead of lamenting any changes to the bj-league’s balance of power, the player issued the following challenge: “If an organization is unhappy, they shouldn’t be operating or they need to get smart and figure out how to compete. Money is not always the answer and many of these teams spend their money very unwisely on players they have never seen, scouted or are really familiar with. Teams with low budgets can still compete, but have to spend wiser…”

Others think the move should give the East’s teams an instant chance to elevate their game.

Said Osaka Evessa forward Mike Bell: “I think that it will just leave a great opportunity for a few teams in the East to step up and become an elite team/organization. Basically, the same way that Kyoto and Shiga did this season.”

Reigning regular-season and Final Four MVP Jeffrey Parmer of the Phoenix said, “I think if the Phoenix shifted to the West, it would make the West even stronger than it already is.”

Hamamatsu point guard Jermaine Dixon is willing to support the move, if it happens.

“It’s cool,” Dixon said, “but with all the (expansion) teams coming to the East, I could see Phoenix moving to the West. We are one of the best teams in the league and most of the top teams are in the West. I think it would be best to leave the Phoenix in the East, so you can keep a powerhouse in the East, but I understand if they move us to the West.”

It’s a good time to point out that the expansion Tokyo club and newcomers in Gunma and Aomori prefectures will give the East a greater number of teams.

Phoenix star Wayne Arnold thinks moving Hamamatsu would be a mistake.

“As a competitor, I love the idea of playing in the West,” he said. “It’s known to be the more competitive (conference) of the two. But as a fan of the bj-league, I don’t think it would be a good move to take the perennial Eastern Conference power out of the East. … As a fan, you would think whoever wins the West would automatically win the championship. That’s not a very attractive Final Four, in my opinion.”

One basketball insider, who’s followed the bj-league since its inception in 2005, said complaining about any conference realignment is a waste of time.

“I do not think anyone should be complaining,” the insider said. “It happens in professional sports. You saw how the (NBA’s) balance of power shifted wherever Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) went. Those teams in the same conference had to sign a lot of bigs to compete. I think it makes those teams better because they are forced to load up.

“It also forces every GM to actually do their job and get the right parts or be left at the bottom. Budget is not an excuse. There are very good players and coaches you can get at reasonable prices; it’s the GMs’ job to do their homework and find them.”

The bj-league, facing growing pains in terms of marketing the sport and developing the next generation of front office personnel, coaches, players, game officials, etc., is not getting the job done at the most basic level, according to the insider.

He said, “It’s astonishing to me how many of these GMs even get their jobs and how rarely they get fired. I have spoken to all of them and 99 percent know nothing about professional basketball.”

One coach took a slightly different position.

“It’s hard to comment without actually seeing the proposed conference alignments,” he said. “Especially when it seems that some new teams may be questionable for the 2012-13 season, while current teams like Oita and Takamatsu always seem to be just one step away from folding. But if all the proposed teams are able to go in 2012-13, it does make geographical sense to move Hamamatsu out of the East. Of course that would put all of the teams with championship experience in the West. But while that would probably create an unbalance at first, with the Western Conference title game being the real championship game, in time it would probably balance out.

“Strong teams force other teams to get better, and Niigata and Akita have already shown they are willing to compete. Sendai just needs time to recover from the earthquake. Coaches and players also move, and when they see more opportunity to compete in the East, that’s where they’ll go.

“If the league really wants to grow and improve, I think they really need to eliminate teams that have poor financial backing and fail to attract fans to the games. The playoffs need to change to a best two-out of-three (format), or three-out-of-five, and eliminate the 10-minute mini-game because there are too many teams now to rely on gimmicks, especially when you consider how many good teams might be in the West if this new alignment takes place in 2012-13.”

There are surprises every year; some teams decline while others improve significantly. That should be the case next season, too.

“I think it’ll take time for teams like Chiba, Yokohama, Nagano (Shinshu) and Sendai — after March 11, of course — to gain power,” one former player said. “Expansion teams’ goal is not to win the championship in the first year. Last year, I played for a first-year team and I certainly didn’t get the vibe that the team company was really looking to win it all. They just want to put their feet on the ground and figure out the business and try to create a fan base more than anything.

“So I would give it a couple more years for the new expansion teams in the East to grow. Especially with Tokyo rejoining the league, I think the league will have more balance in the next five, 10 years.”

Whatever happens, it will be fascinating to follow as this tale unfolds.