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Major coaching changes defined 2013

by Ed Odeven

Taking a (recent) trip down memory lane. . . .

It’s no big surprise that 2013 has been another year of big twists and turns in the bj-league, which one can never accuse of being totally predictable, especially within the coaching ranks. The year’s first month brought major attention to the upstart circuit: Bill Cartwright’s arrival as the Osaka Evessa’s new head coach.

The first powerhouse squad in league history, the Evessa, who’d never finished below .500 in their first seven seasons, were a shockingly bad 5-19 at the time.

Cartwright performed nothing short of a miracle in transforming Osaka into a playoff-caliber team that fell short of its goal.

The former Chicago Bulls bench boss guided Osaka to 17 victories in 28 games to close out the season, including a 10-game winning streak from early March to early April.

“I’m proud of the fact that we could become a team other teams are talking about,” Cartwright told Hoop Scoop in May.

As the second ex-NBA head coach in league history (Bob Hill of the Tokyo Apache was the first), Cartwright added instant intrigue, gravitas and publicity to the Kansai franchise and league. The fact that he won three NBA championships as Michael Jordan’s Bulls teammate in the 1990s and was an assistant coach for two more Bulls titles during the team’s second three-peat brought more credibility to the Evessa.

It was fun while it lasted — for Cartwright, for his players, for fans and for league observers (NBA.com, The Associated Press, and, even the late, legendary Bill Sharman via Twitter) in Japan and across the globe. But the 56-year-old former NBA center decided that life in Asia was an adventure, not a permanent destination. He cited a desire to be closer to his family as a reason to not return for the 2013-14 season as Evessa coach.

The year saw other profound coaching changes within the bj-league. Niigata Albirex BB mentor Matt Garrison, the 2012-13 Coach of the Year, was not brought back for a third season in charge despite leading the team to the Final Four. (He’s now selling luxury automobiles in Montana. Which almost sounds like a premise for a sitcom.)

Reggie Geary led the title-winning Yokohama B-Corsairs to a place in the history books, directing the team to a triumph over the Rizing Fukuoka in the championship game in its second season. And then he left the cash-strapped franchise, which has undergone major cost-cutting moves this season.

Through Dec. 15, Geary’s new club, the Chiba Jets, had lost 20 straight games in its first season in the NBL. The Jets (4-20) defected from the bj-league after just their second season wrapped up in May.

The glory of a title will be a lasting memory of Geary’s time in Japan, but so, too, will the opposite emotions that come from major struggles. . . .

Croatian Zeljko Pavlicevic, the affable veteran coach who led the Japan national team at the 2006 FIBA World Championship, completed a successful three-season run, including three playoff appearances, as the first coach in Shimane Susanoo Magic history. Now, he’s providing a major impact for the NBL’s Wakayama Trians. The team is 16-6 through last Sunday, making a smooth transition to Pavlicevic’s coaching largesse.

Having excelled at the highest levels of European hoops, winning two Euroleague titles and coaching the likes of stars Toni Kukoc and Drazen Petrovic, among others, Pavlicevic’s departure from Shimane ended an era. Instead of being a formidable threat to beat anybody in any game or series, the Susanoo Magic (5-15 entering this weekend) are one of several below-average clubs now.

Elsewhere, after two winning seasons in charge of the Shiga Lakestars, Al Westover returned to Australia, where he now works at the Australian College of Basketball. The Lakestars’ loss is the ACB’s gain. Before his arrival in Shiga, Westover amassed the second-highest winning percentage in Australian NBL coaching history.

What’s more, Fukuoka ascended to title contention in Atsushi Kanazawa’s only full season at the helm. And he, too, is now out of the bj-league; he’s now the sideline supervisor for the TGI D-Rise of the NBDL (formerly known as the JBL2).

The struggling Rizing (8-10) are nowhere near as consistent as they were a season ago, but have the veteran talent, including the addition of seven-time All-Star guard Cohey Aoki, to qualify for the playoffs. However, current coach Kimitoshi Sano may be replaced in the coming days, a league source told me on Thursday.

And the Ryukyu Golden Kings axed Koto Toyama after the team’s 42-10, non-Final Four season. But Ryukyu president Tatsuro Kimura’s decision to promote longtime assistant Tsutomu Isa to replace Toyama doesn’t look crazy now. The Golden Kings (16-2) took a 12-game winning streak into this weekend, riding a wave of marvelous performances and the addition of superstar sixth man Draelon Burns.

So remember this: Nothing ever stays the same, philosophers warned us centuries before the age of instant information. They were right, of course, and didn’t have to memorize complicated alphanumeric passwords.