Wakayama can’t afford Pavlicevic

by Ed Odeven and Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writers

After an ultra-successful start in the National Basketball League, the cash-strapped Wakayama Trians are implementing big budget cuts for the upcoming season.

Major changes within the organization, which is coming off a 41-13 regular season in which it won the NBL’s Western Conference crown and finished as championship runnerup to the Toshiba Brave Thunders, were announced on Wednesday during a news conference in Wakayama.

The three biggest details the NBL franchise confirmed while speaking before an estimated three dozens media members are: 1. A change in ownership. 2. A coaching change. 3. An overhaul of the team’s roster.

Zeljko Pavlicevic, the Croatian bench boss and two-time Euroleague-winning mentor, is under contract for the 2014-15 campaign, but team officials said at the news conference that they cannot afford to pay his salary. Negotiations are planned to come to terms with the 63-year-old Pavlicevic to terminate his contract and give him compensation for breaching his two-year deal with the Trians.

The former Japan national team coach from 2003-06, Pavlicevic led the bj-league’s Shimane Susanoo Magic for three seasons, starting in 2010 and arrived in Wakayama last fall. Each of those four teams increased their victory total over the previous season, a reminder of Pavlicevic’s impressive coaching skills.

A lively presence on the sideline, Pavlicevic has shown no signs of wanting to retire, and one longtime Japan basketball observer suggested on Wednesday that the veteran mentor will explore coaching opportunities in China for next season.

Pavlicevic is currently traveling in Europe.

As part of the organizational shakeup, president Nobuaki Furukawa resigned to take responsibility for the team’s financial woes. Ken Okamoto, who was employed in the Trians sales division this season, takes over as the new president.

A lawyer, who’s name was not revealed, became the new owner.

The new owner is a president of a Tokyo law firm and Furukawa’s friend. Furukawa transferred ownership of his stock in the team to the lawyer.

Yosuke Kondo, who served a short stint as president/GM of the JBL’s Rera Kamuy during the team’s 2010-11 financial crisis (the franchise’s ownership group was booted out of JBL, run by a league-appointed holding company to end that season and then re-entered the league as the Levanga Hokkaido under new management), has been appointed acting owner.

Kondo also served as an assistant GM for the bj-league’s Ryukyu Golden Kings. He is president of a Tokyo-based company called Independence, whose primary business is basketball court rentals.

“I have a bigger passion than anybody else for basketball,” Kondo said at the news conference. “And I would like to convey the feeling to the Trians players and staff, and we would like to do our best to achieve a goal to be the best in Japan, which we weren’t able to achieve this year.”

Okamoto also spoke about the team’s new direction.

“I’ve been working for the Trians the last three months,” said Okamoto. “This time, as Mr. Furukawa, ex-president, came to resign, I was designated (to be the new president), and I humbly accepted it in order to help my hometown Wakayama and the game of basketball that I love.

“Now I would like to lead the team as the representative of the Trians, along with acting owner Kondo and other staff members, to create a team that’ll be beloved even more by the people in Wakayama, taking advantage of the base of the team that Mr. Furukawa established and making adjustments.”

While discussing team plans for the 2014-15 season, Trians officials told reporters they plan to field a 10-team roster and finalize the roster this month.

Ten players from the championship runnerup squad, which includes 36-year-old guard Makoto Nagayama, who is retiring — have been placed on the NBL’s free agent list, and the team doesn’t expect to re-sign any of them — that is, unless they are not picked up by other squads.

Veteran stars Takuya Kawamura, a decorated All-Star and former JBL scoring champ, and Michael Parker, one of the elite players in bj-league history who moved from Shimane to Wakayama with his coach, will remain with the team. Both stars and Ryo Kubota and Yu Abe have multi-year contracts that include the upcoming season.

The exact amount of the Trians debts for the NBL’s inaugural season was not revealed, but a few numbers do provide a glimpse into the team’s financial woes.

* Wakayama sold just 50 percent of available tickets for 2013-14 home games. The new target is 70 percent for the coming season. (The Trians also want to boost their company sponsors to 60 from 50 for 2014-15, it was announced.)

* The Trians had the fourth-highest payroll of the 12 NBL teams.

* Former owner Panasonic, which ended its ties with the team at the end of the JBL era last spring, agreed to provide funds for the Trians for three seasons. With Wakyama’s financial situation being described as very much in the red, the Trians were forced to already dip into Panasonic’s funding for the second season.

Reporters grilled the new Trians management about the direction the organization is now taking. After all, the Trians fell only three wins shy of a title in May, and in the final series Parker, who was among the league’s top five leaders in scoring, rebounds, blocks and steals, was sidelined with a knee injury in Game 1.

“Don’t you think this is a betrayal move to the fans?” one reporter allegedly asked at the news conference.

The steady wave of changes within Japan pro basketball — from the rival bj-league expanding from six teams in 2005 to 22 for the 2014-15 campaign, to the JBL re-branding itself as the NBL, to the planned launch of the so-called P League for 2016-17 — are constant. In a nutshell, former NBA draft pick Rick Rickert, a rock-solid contributor in the low post, exemplifies this reality.

Rickert starred for the Trians this past season after playing for the bj-league’s Osaka Evessa in the previous campaign and the Kyoto Hannaryz in 2011-12. He’s now joined his fourth Japan team, the NBL’s Chiba Jets, is as many seasons. The Jets announced Rickert’s acquisition on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, one Trians player, who requested anonymity, lamented the reality of the situation, noting the team’s success on the court did not guarantee long-term stability within the organization.

“It’s unfortunate when the business side of basketball interferes with basketball itself. Unfortunately I’ve seen this happen many times in my professional career,” the player told The Japan Times on Wednesday.