The Shimane Susanoo Magic, who reached the playoffs in each of their first three seasons, have dropped nine of their first 10 games under new coach Vlasios Vlaikidis.
On Tuesday, leading scorer Thomas Kennedy was released despite averaging 17.1 points per game, which places him just outside the top 10 in the 21-team league. And they now have a major test ahead: The Susanoo Magic travel to play the perennial power Ryukyu Golden Kings (8-2, top record in the Western Conference) this weekend.
In an interview with The Japan Times, Kennedy insisted he’s been made the scapegoat for the team’s struggles. He also believes Vlaikidis, Zeljko Pavlicevic’s successor, who declined to comment on Kennedy’s departure when contacted by this newspaper, has failed to plant the seeds for success in Shimane.
“When I first arrived here, the team goal was to win a championship. That was great news for me after winning it all last season,” said Kennedy, a member of the Big Three last season for the title-winning Yokohama B-Corsairs.
So what went wrong?
“Things here never were focused on basketball strategy, no roles, unorganized practices, no game plan, unstructured,” Kennedy said.
“As I saw things getting worse, I would bring things up to coach like practice is not at a high level where it should be if we are going to be a championship team, but that went in one ear and out the other,” he went on.
“I told him there’s no way we can win on Saturday and Sunday after having bad weeks of practice. As my concern continued, I asked for a meeting with the president (Daisuke Akaike) to let him know that we can’t win like this and things must change.
“We met and I explained to him that I thought that coming here I would at least have a chance to compete for a championship and it doesn’t look like we will be near making the playoffs if not (making) changes. He said I know, I know and nothing else really.”
Losing compounded the frustration for Kennedy, a University of Detroit Mercy product.
“As weeks passed and poor preparation continued, it was only a matter of time before they had to blame somebody,” Kennedy told The Japan Times.
“From the first games of the season, coach would tell me that the GM and president don’t like my style of play and why don’t I do this like (ex-Shimane star) Mike Parker.
“Every weekend it was something new that they didn’t like that I did.”
Kennedy described his 10 games in a Shimane uniform as “the worst basketball experience of my life.”
What specifically led to Kennedy’s release, he stated, was the fact that he was a vocal critic of the team’s struggles.”
“This past Friday, the president pulled me aside and told me to stop asking coach so many questions. It’s a distraction to the team and nobody likes it. And if this continued that they would release me if things can’t improve,” Kennedy recalled.
“I said OK, no problem, I won’t ask any more questions to the person who is leading us in the wrong direction.
“I didn’t understand why everything was geared at me but I saw coach and the GM and president meeting for over an hour the day before and I’m sure they want better results than what they are getting. And coach must have made me out to be the bad guy because this conversation with me and the president doesn’t happen unless coach tells this because they pressure him.”
In a statement issued by the team, Akaike said releasing Kennedy was a “tough decision.”
“It was a situation on the go to carry out the team strategy. (We) must reform the team,” Akaike said.
The team goal, he said, remains the same: to reach the Final Four at Ariake Colosseum.
In the meantime, Kennedy is looking to join another club in the 21-team circuit if the opportunity arises.
“I have no bad feelings for anyone here, but I am happy to be moving on from here because they never really wanted me here,” Kennedy said. “I will miss my teammates and I wish them the best of luck with the rest of the season.”
Jeral Davis, Shimane’s 216-cm center, has led the league in blocked shots for three straight seasons and is also a cornerstone of the team’s offense.
The Susanoo Magic are averaging a league-worst 68.4 points per game.
“They cut (Kennedy) and put in the newspaper that because he didn’t average 20 points and didn’t play like Parker they had to make a change,” a Susanoo Magic player who requested anonymity told The Japan Times on Friday.
“I think it was a dumb decision to cut our leading scorer when already we have problems offensively. It’s a terrible situation.”
The 48-year-old Vlaikidis was an understudy to Pavlicevic at Greek club Panathinaikos Athens in the 1990s. His coaching career has included stints in the former Yugoslavia and Macedonia.
He was the first coach in Iwate Big Bulls history in the 2011-12 season and resigned in January to return to Greece, citing a family illness as the reason. The Big Bulls were 7-19 at the time.
In two coaching stints in Japan, Vlaikidis’ overall record is 8-28 entering this weekend.