The defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix’s two best players last season, bj-league MVP Wendell White and Billy Knight, are now playing for the Kyoto Hannaryz and Osaka Evessa, respectively.

These players could lead their new teams to the Final Four.

New players will fill those roles for the Phoenix this season. But it’ll be difficult for them to replicate the all-around brilliance and leadership both players provided for coach Kazuo Nakamura’s club last season.

“It’s a completely brand new start,” said the sprightly 69-year-old Nakamura, the league’s oldest coach.

The Eastern Conference adds a seventh team, the Akita Northern Happinets, to the mix this season, while two other clubs, the Toyama Grouses and Saitama Broncos, are still aiming for their first playoff berth.

The Tokyo Apache, two seasons removed from their second straight trip to the finals, are under new ownership and expectations are high for Bob Hill, a veteran coach who has been in charge of four NBA teams (Knicks, Pacers, Spurs and SuperSonics), and his deep, talented roster.

Here’s a rundown on each of the East’s teams:

Akita Northern Happinets

(expansion club)

Coach Bob Pierce worked the past two seasons in the Western Conference, leading the Shiga Lakestars for their first two seasons, including to a playoff berth in 2009-10. He’s now looking to turn the Happinets into an instant contender.

Makoto Hasegawa, the team’s oldest player, was born in 1971. Makoto Sawaguchi, the league’s youngest player, was born in 1991. Both guards could play important roles for the club, energizing the team in different ways during different stages of the season.

Veterans Paul Butorac, Anthony Coleman, Antonio Burks and Kazuhiro Shoji will likely see major minutes in the frontcourt rotation. Yuki Nobuhira and Yuki Kikuchi will also be in the mix.

In the backcourt, Hasegawa is the clear leader, while newcomer Sek Henry, 23, already appears to be an emerging star in this league. Ryosuke Mizumachi, a former Niigata and Oita player, adds depth to the backcourt.

Quotable: “We want to play as a team and also want to enjoy the ride with the people of the prefecture. We are going to aim to reach the championships since none of the previous first-year clubs have done that feat. We want to do that.” — Makoto Hasegawa

Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix

(41-11 in 2009-10; reigning champion)

Coach Kazuo Nakamura is one of the most respected basketball minds in the nation. An innovative tactician and a gifted teacher, players speak highly of his commitment to excellence.

He turns 70 in December but he’s as passionate about the game as rookie bench bosses more than 40 years his junior. The Phoenix will rely on last season’s playoff MVP, underrated guard Masahiro Oguchi, to set the proper example of how to get the job done at both ends of the floor.

Guard Wayne Arnold, who led the league in 3-point shooting accuracy last season, returns to the club, as does center Dzaflo Larkai, another key midseason pickup in 2009-10.

Foreign newcomers include guard Darryl Hudson, a Howard University product, and forward Ray Nixon, who played college ball at the University of Wisconsin, neither of whom has played in the bj-league in the past.

Guard Kenya Tomori, who previously played for Ryukyu and Toyama, is in his first season on Nakamura’s squad.

Shingo Okada and Kazutoshi Ota add scoring spark on the perimeter. Seiichiro Kage and Atsuya Ota give the team other options at the interior positions.

The Phoenix have gone 77-27 in the past two regular seasons and they haven’t been afraid to make moves to improve their roster. And that’s why the team should be a legitimate threat to return to the Final Four.

Quotable: “One thing I can say is that I want Japanese players to step up because we’ll give them more chances to perform. Until last year, foreign players that had ability were the main guys and they dominated the ball.” — Kazuo Nakamura

Niigata Albirex BB

(25-27 in 2009-10; Final Four appearance)

Coach Masaya Hirose’s club enjoyed a trip to the Final Four last season, but underwent a major roster overhaul in the offseason.

Gone are center Paul Butorac, forward Antonio Burks and guards Makoto Hasegawa, Ryosuke Mizumachi and Akitomo Takeno — all but Takeno moved on to the expansion Happinets. Takeno is now playing for the Rizing Fukuoka.

The team’s major offseason pickup was two-time All-Star Julius Ashby, the league’s Best Five center last season. He has played in two championship games, for the Takamatsu Five Arrows in the 2006-07 season and for the Tokyo Apache in 2008-09.

The Albirex have also signed point guard Naoto Takushi, a two-time Best Five player who helped the Ryukyu Golden Kings win the title two seasons ago against Ashby’s Apache. He played for the Kyoto Hannaryz last season.

Both players will be expected to make major contributions this season, as will three-time All-Star Yuichi Ikeda, a steady presence at small forward.

Guards Shuhei Komatsu and Takato Saito both earned larger roles on the team as the 2009-10 season progressed. Ryo Narumi, 23, and Hirotaka Kondo will also vie for minutes in the backcourt.

Zach Andrews and Issa Konare, who attended college at Bradley and High Point, respectively, are newcomers in the frontcourt.

Swingman Wilie Veasley, a key player for rising power Butler in NCAA Division I basketball over the past four seasons, including in the 2010 title game, brings rookie enthusiasm and experience from playing against a number of elite college programs in recent years.

Quotable: “We acquired Takushi earlier and like to play a fast-tempo game. We are going to unite as a team to make the final, which we missed last season.” — Masaya Hirose

Saitama Broncos

(17-35 in 2009-10)

Coach Bob Nash brings two-plus decades of experience as a college assistant coach at Hawaii and the past three seasons there as the head coach. He’s had to recruit, break down film and prepare teams for the rigors of conference play.

This is his first head coaching job in the pros. It won’t be an easy task leading a team that has never tasted success in five previous bj-league seasons.

But Nash has a proven leader in NBA veteran point guard Kenny Satterfield, a high school All-American from New York, who played two seasons at Cincinnati. Satterfield led Albany to the IBL title over the summer.

Nash’s son, Bobby, adds a veteran shooting guard presence to the club after spending a pair of seasons with Shiga.

Daiki Terashita and Haruhito Shishito return as capable role players. Guards Yuki Kitamuki, Yoshitomo Shiina and Yasuaki Arai will also be challenged to make contributions.

Kazuya “J” Hatano is the best rebounding forward among the league’s Japanese players and gives the team added intangibles — well-executed picks, the extra pass, diving for loose balls, i.e. hustle plays — and should boost the frontcourt rotation alongside 213-cm center Bruce Brown and 206-cm forward Gordon Klaiber.

Depth remains a question mark for this team, especially if one of its three foreigners becomes injured or struggles to play at a high level. Rebounding could also be a weakness, coach Nash said.

Quotable: “He’s (Satterfield’s) been a leader in practice in everything we’ve done. He’s been very vocal in getting guys to do certain things. As a point guard, you want him to be vocal and be a leader, and so he’s done everything we’ve hoped as an NBA guy coming in and showing the way. Our guys respect him because he works harder than most guys in the gym. He doesn’t just come in and go through the motions.” — Bob Nash, analyzing Satterfield’s impact.

Sendai 89ers

(35-17 in 2009-10; playoff qualifier)

Coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s club has become known for its spread-the-wealth offense as every player gets involved in creating scoring opportunities.

This approach has led to success, with Sendai finishing 14, 10 and 18 games over .500 in the past three seasons.

Anchoring the middle, center Chris Holm remains the cornerstone of the team’s success. With a pair of rebounding titles on his resume, he could become the league’s first player to accomplish the feat three times. (Gordon James of Saitama was the top rebounder in 2006-07 and 2007-08.)

Forward Mike Bell, who made a tremendous impact for the HeatDevils last season (21.3 points and 12.4 rebounds) brings the complete package of frontcourt skills to the Tohoku club.

In the backcourt, newcomer Mac Hopson, a University of Idaho product, averaged 14.4 ppg as a senior in 2009-10 and is now in his first season overseas.

Steady performers Kenichi Takahashi, Takehiko Shimura and Hikaru Kusaka know Hamaguchi’s system and should continue to make solid contributions.

Lesser-known players Takuya Komoda, Hyecheon Lee, Yoshihiro Tachibana and Daisuke Takaoka will also compete for minutes.

Tokyo Apache

(22-30 in 2009-10; playoff qualifier)

With Bob Hill at the helm and a deep, talented cast of players, the Apache have the potential for greatness.

NBA veteran center Robert Swift, who’s only 25, has struggled with injuries throughout his career. But he’s also played for Hill in Seattle, so he knows what to expect.

NBA prospect Jeremy Tyler, another frontcourt standout, is making preparations to enter the draft next summer. He is 19.

Neither guy played college ball, so their growth as individuals and their maturation as players is on a slightly different scale than others in this league.

Hill also brought in Kendall Dartez, an NBA Development League vet, to add stability to the frontcourt. Michael Chappell returns to bring additional scoring punch on the perimeter. Byron Eaton, another D-League vet, is penciled in to run the point.

Takanori Goya, who’s on his fifth bj-league team since joining the league in 2006, is in the backcourt rotation, along with Minoru Kimura, Kensuke Tanaka, Jumpei Nakama and swingman Reina Itakura. Tomoya Nakamura will see playing time in the frontcourt.

One of the Apache’s original players, guard Darin Satoshi Maki, returns after spending time with Oita last season. And Cohey Aoki, a fan favorite and one of the league’s best players since 2005, is rejuvenated and eager to play for an ex-NBA coach.

Tokyo plays 12 straight games away from home to begin the season before its first game at Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2 in January. The schedule is compressed — with four games in four days at one point and five in nine days at another point — in 2011.

This may be a problem for the team, especially if fatigue or injuries set in. However, if the Apache start playing really well, they can gain greater momentum as the playoffs approach.

Quotable: “We’ve made good preparations so far. Preparation is the most important thing of all. We have all assembled and understood our direction, where we are going to go. — Cohey Aoki

Toyama Grouses

(17-35 in 2009-10)

First-year coach Kohei Eto, who turns 28 in December, steps into the fray facing an uphill battle to face.

Since the team joined the league in 2006, there’s been a revolving door of players and coaches in Toyama. And there’s no indication things will improve this season.

The Grouses are 48-140 since joining the league. They’ve never finished better than 14 games under. 500, and that happened in 2006-07, when the league had eight teams and the teams played a 40-game schedule.

Takeshi Mito, the league’s Most Improved Player in 2009-10, is one of the quickest, most entertaining Japanese players in the league. He plays with confidence and he has a determined panache to his game that reminds one of Shiga star Masashi Joho.

Mito scored 11.7 ppg last season, the leading total among Toyama’s returnees. Makoto Kato is second with 9.1 ppg.

Essentially, this team is an entirely new cast of players and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Forward Brian Harper, a D-League veteran, headlines the crop of newcomers. Center Matthew Kyle, a 211-cm Yale product, mans the middle, while swingman Haakim Johnson and forward John Davis, who both attended little-known colleges, are also first-year players in the bj-league.

Power forward Jerrell Smith, a backup for the Apache last season, adds a strong body in the trenches.

* * * * *

Q&A with Cohey Aoki

How was training camp in Dallas?

Aoki said, “Oh, it was great. The best. (But) what we did was something I couldn’t have imagined we would do. I mean, it was so detailed and disciplined. I didn’t know what was expected of us because I didn’t know what they do in the NBA. But from Day One, we worked out so detailed and hard.”

How is Bob Hill’s coaching and how is Tokyo going to play this season?

“We are asked to find the open man and if there is a chance, take a shot. It’s not that we pass the ball to an ace player, but we focus on playing as a team.

“(Hill)’s instructions are firm and easy to understand. You don’t have many opportunities to learn from an NBA coach, so this is a big chance for us.”

What is your goal and the team’s goal for this season?

“I’ve stayed in Tokyo to win a championship with this team. So we just play as hard as we can. My style was to attack the basket and get as many free throws as possible. But I no longer do that. But we’ll find out how we are supposed to play once the season starts and it wears on.”

* * * * *

Predicted order of finish:

1. Hamamatsu

2. Tokyo

3. Sendai

4. Niigata

5. Saitama

6. Akita

7. Toyama

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.

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