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Wholesale changes continue slow decline of Evessa

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The Osaka Evessa were in dire straits at this time a season ago, losers of 19 of 24 games before the All-Star break. Then Bill Cartwright arrived and did a remarkable job leading the team’s reclamation project. The ex-Chicago Bulls bench boss went 17-11 in a short, memorable stint in charge.

This season, new head coach Shunsuke Todo’s club has had its share of ups and downs. The Evessa won their first six games, then dropped eight straight. They are 3-7 in their past 10 games.

At 11-17 overall (4-10 on the road), Osaka could certainly qualify for postseason play, especially considering the fact that only three Western Conference teams have winning records — Ryukyu (23-3), Kyoto (19-11) and Hamamatsu (17-11).

But the Evessa team that made major strides in the second half last season bares zero resemblance to the team’s current roster. In fact, none of the eight current players on the roster who have appeared in games this season — Takanori Goya, Naoto Takushi, Haruyuki Ishibashi, Yosuke Sugawara, Zach Andrews, Kevin Galloway, Naoto Nakamura and Hirotaka Sato — were a part of Cartwright’s club.

What’s more, after cutting Marcus Capers and Samuel Green (Sawaji) Jr. last week, the Evessa terminated big man Dillion Sneed’s contract on Monday. Sneed was the team’s second-leading scorer (13.3 points per game), but free-throw shooting has been a glaring weakness. Sneed shot 40 percent (64-for-160) at the line in 28 games.

The Evessa appear in complete shambles after a roller-coaster season in 2012-13, needing to acclimate new players to a system featuring all new players. Compounding the situation, the team signed rookie guards Takuya Soma, a Miyazaki Prefecture native, and Toshiki Hatakeyama, an Aoyama Gakuin product, it was announced last Friday. Both men are 22 years old and have never played in a bj-league game.

All of the above doesn’t translate into a championship-winning strategy, skeptics will say. Which leads to two key points:

■ What’s the strategy for the rest of the season for the once-mighty franchise?

■ What’s management’s step-by-step plan to return the team to respectability?

Those are big question marks, shining a spotlight on the league’s first dynasty team and the only three-time champion to date.

The Evessa did not respond to an e-mail inquiry for the just-cited questions.

New coach: The struggling Rizing Fukuoka have handed the coaching reins to Canadian James Duncan, making a change over the weekend. Promoted assistant Kimitoshi Sano, who took over when American coach Mack Tuck left the team in the preseason due to family issues overseas, guided the club to 11 wins in 28 games.

Sano returns to his previous role as assistant coach.

The Rizing finished as the championship runnerup last season under Atsushi Kanazawa, who departed after his first full season at the helm.

The 36-year-old Duncan takes over a veteran team that had lofty expectations entering the season and a nucleus featuring established guards Jun Nakanishi, Akitomo Takeno and Cohey Aoki and post players Julius Ashby and Reggie Warren, all of whom have played several years in the bj-league. The Rizing and Evessa are both one game behind the sixth-place Shiga Lakestars (12-16) in the hunt for the West’s final playoff spot.

Duncan, a native of Ontario, played pro ball for the Artland Dragons and Dusseldorf Magic in Germany before launching his coaching career in 2005 with the Dragons as an assistant. Since then, he’s primarily served as an assistant coach in Germany and Belgium. He was a bench boss for Brose Baskets Bamberg (Bundesliga Basketball League) in the 2011-12 campaign, then serving as a Brose assistant until stepping down to take the Rizing job.

His resume includes a 2010 stint as a Toyota Motors Alvark consultant.

As of press time, Brose is 15-3 this season, sitting in second place in the 18-team league.

Saying he’s looking forward to coaching Fukuoka, Duncan stated that “I feel that this is the next challenge of my career. I am very excited to become a part of the Rizing Fukuoka.”

One major task Duncan faces will be to challenge his team to successfully close out games. Fukuoka has lost nine games by single digits this season.

In a Tuesday interview with The Japan Times, Warren, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, said his initial impressions of the team’s new coach are positive.

“So far, so good,” Warren told this newspaper. “I like his attitude, he seems motivated to turn things around here. I like that he is preaching a lot on defense and holding players accountable on that end of the floor.

“(It’s) still early and I (must) wait to see his in-game adjustments and substitution patterns, but hopefully it will be a great fit and we can become a better team.”

Upcoming games: Iwate, riding a nine-game winning streak, plays host to Ryukyu to open the second half of the season. It will be a reunion for Big Bulls coach Dai Oketani against the club he led to a pair of championships.

Other weekend series are Niigata vs. Kyoto, Gunma vs. Hamamatsu, Tokyo vs. Nara, Saitama vs. Fukuoka, Yokohama vs. Osaka, Shiga vs. Aomori, Shimane vs. Sendai, Takamatsu vs. Akita and Oita vs. Shinshu.

On the move: Gunma released big man Darko Cohadarevic on Monday. The Crane Thunders (6-22) have been revamping their roster in recent weeks, signing forward Carlos Dixon and center Sylvester Morgan and swingman Jermaine Green.

Cohadarevic, a native of Serbia, averaged 13.9 points and 7.3 rebounds in 28 games.

Closing commentary: For a league that has a long way to go before it is recognized as a major player on Japan’s pro sporting landscape, it’s the notion here that Gunma is a poor choice to host the 2014-15 All-Star Game for three key reasons:

1. Since it joined the league in 2012, Gunma has been among the teams with the worst attendance in the league. The club is current 21st out of 21 teams in average home attendance.

2. Next season’s All-Star Game will mark the fourth straight time the host team hails from the East, following (Saitama in 2011-12, Tokyo in 2012-13 and Akita on Sunday). To further develop interconference rivalries, it makes sense to alternate between East and West every year.

3. The aforementioned Saitama and Tokyo games were held near the capital and Gunma also represents greater Kanto. Franchises scattered across the country also ought to have better representation as a host city

In short, spread the wealth. Give all teams a reasonable shot to host the game, doing so in a sensible manner. That doesn’t appear to be the process at play here.

If cutting costs is the No. 1 objective by having three of the past four games in or near Tokyo, the league is not making the necessary financial investments to grow the league in a sensible way and bring excitement to fans.

Western franchises Takamatsu, Hamamatsu, Fukuoka, Shimane, Kyoto, Shiga and Nara would all be worthy picks to host the game for next season. (None of those teams has hosted the game yet.)

Feedback: Got a story idea about the bj-league? Send an email to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp