With 12 games in the books since Bill Cartwright took over as the Osaka Evessa’s new head coach, his message at the gym, wherever practices and games are held, has been simple and constant.
Cartwright preaches “defense, defense, defense,” Evessa big man Rick Rickert told Hoop Scoop in a recent telephone interview.
The Evessa are very much a work in progress, but at 6-6 (entering this weekend) since Cartwright became the second former NBA head coach to lead a bj-league team — ex-Tokyo Apache bench boss Bob Hill was the first — there are some positive signs to build off. After all, the Evessa were in complete disarray throughout most of their first 24 games (19 defeats).
Rickert, drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2002, has played the professional game for a decade all over the world, including in the NBA Development League, Slovenia, Greece, Spain and New Zealand. He suited up for the Kyoto Hannaryz last season before joining Evessa, so it’s fair to say that the 30-year-old has heard pretty much every speech in the coaches’ collection of motivational talks.
So what’s it like taking orders from a man with five NBA championship rings (three as the Chicago Bulls’ starting center in 1990-91, 1991-92 and 1992-93 and two more as an assistant under legendary coach Phil Jackson on the Bulls’ 1996-97 and 1997-98 squads)?
Rickert said Cartwright, who played in the NBA from 1979-1995, is very direct in his communication with players, speaking honestly and right to the point.
Take last weekend’s games against the visiting Saitama Broncos, for example. The Evessa rebounded from a 98-83 series-opening loss to beat the Broncos 103-96 in overtime. Cartwright told the players they gave up “too many points,” Rickert recalled. “He said we can’t be giving up 96 and 98 points.”
To become a better defensive team, Cartwright is pushing his players “to develop toughness, become stronger and grind it out,” Rickert said.
Cartwright, whose lone pro head coaching job with the Chicago Bulls ended in 2003, repeatedly tells the players “we need to have more of a defensive-first approach,” Rickert said, relaying his mentor’s message. “That’s how we are going to win games.”
Inconsistent defense has been one problem during the team’s rocky season. “Some games we play good defense, and some games we don’t,” admitted Rickert.
That inconsistency is totally unacceptable to Cartwright, who oversaw grueling 2½- to 3-hour practices for the first two weeks when he began working for the team on Jan. 21. It was like the team endured a second preseason training camp, though smack dab in the middle of it, in the same season.
But Cartwright’s mission to work his players hard from the get-go wasn’t just about showing who’s boss.
“When he got here, he changed a few things,” Rickert said.
In fact, he told the players, “You’re not in good enough shape right now,” Rickert recalled. Which led to “boot camp for about two weeks.”
Practices are generally shorter now, up to 2 hours, but that doesn’t mean the intensity level has dropped.
“He expects a lot from us,” Rickert said of Cartwright, including intense one-on-one, two-on-two and three-on-three practice drills. “He’s pushing us to put our best foot forward . . . anything to help the team win.”
The Evessa’s youngest player, guard Takuya Hashimoto, won’t turn 19 until Dec. 3. Satoshi Takeda is the team’s elder statesman at 32. In between, 30-year-old forward Mike Bell, 24-year-old All-Star forward Nathan Walkup, 25-year-old guard Shun Watanuki, among others, represent the team’s blend of veterans and youth.
Over the last 10 games Watanuki has become more of an impact maker as a scorer, having eight-, nine, 10-, 12-, 17-, 18-, and 22-point efforts with Cartwright in charge. Watanuki’s maturation exemplifies changes that are taking place within the organization.
Or as Rickert put it: “Everyone has a different learning curve. I’m not going to learn as much as 18-year-old Takuya.”
That said, Cartwright’s message is the same to each of his players, and it begins in practice.
“He’s got us really focused on fundamentals in practice,” said Rickert, who’s averaging 13.5 points per game, trailing only Bell’s 14.4. He’s (preparing) us to play aggressive and make smart decisions . . . and earning playing time. “He’s very knowledgeable, and yes we’re learning stuff — me, Mike and the younger players.”
Sixteen games remain for the Evessa to end the season on a positive note. One step at a time.
Osaka’s franchise has changed rapidly over the past 12 months, with a large cast of new players, but minus a quality trio in league legend Lynn Washington, seven-time All-Star Cohey Aoki and ex-coach Ryan Blackwell, who now serves as the Gunma Crane Thunders court mentor. But Rickert believes the fan base has embraced Cartwright.
“I feel the fans are really excited to be a part of this,” he said.
The Evessa aren’t contending for a championship this season. Instead, in a season with massive changes — head coach Zoran Kreckovic lasted four games, followed by his replacement, Takao Furuya, for 20 — getting better at executing the basics (boxing out, rebounding, cutting down on turnovers) is the approach Cartwright has taken in his new job.
Osaka has never had a losing season, never missed the playoffs. But this is a new era for the once-mighty Kansai team. And Cartwright is devising the path forward for the Evessa.
In small, often careful, but deliberate steps over the past several weeks, Cartwright has pushed the Evessa to adapt a winning mind-set in all facets of the game.
The evidence is there that they are making progress — that 6-6 record stated above, for instance.
“We’re playing smarter,” Rickert said, “and what feels better is when the whole team is on the same page. That makes my job easier.
“Basketball is a simple game if it’s played the right way.