When he arrived in the city alongside picturesque Lake Biwa , the well-traveled Josh Peppers gave the Shiga Lakestars an added component that every team covets: a professional scorer.

But now Shiga, which is in the thick of things in the Western Conference playoff race, faces a pivotal stretch without Peppers, who made his season debut on Feb. 5. Peppers, who sustained a foot injury last week (plantar fasciitis), said he’ll be sidelined for a month.

The Lakestars (26-18), winners of three straight, are currently in fourth place — but only three games behind the first-place Ryukyu Golden Kings — in the nine-team West. Six of those clubs will advance to postseason play.

Peppers is averaging 17.1 points in 15 games. He’s the team’s No. 2 scorer behind Mikey Marshall (17.8).

After Shiga won Peppers’ season debut, the Lakestars lost six straight games and it cost head coach Takatoshi Ishibashi his job. And now Ishibashi’s replacement, Hirokazu Nema, will need to tinker with the rotation to find the best combinations in Peppers’ absence.

Lamar Rice (15.0 points per game), Masashi Joho (13.3), Gary Hamilton (12.9), Yu Okada (8.0) and Ray Schafer (7.6) all have the ability to carry a team for long stretches, so Nema still has plenty of options.

In fact, with Peppers resting his ailing foot, Nema may have a chance to get Okada and Schafer more touches and keep fine-tuning the offense in the weeks before the playoffs commence.

When he’s healthy, Peppers’ mid-range game and drives to the baskets are tough to defend. He’s had seven 20-point scoring games this season and helped position the Lakestars for a run at the title.

The Central Florida product has also played for the Rizing Fukuoka, Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix and Sendai 89ers.

Steady season: Guard Naoto Kosuge is not Ryukyu’s first scoring option, but he’s a capable contributor and one of the league’s underrated offensive performers.

Averaging 10.5 points per game, Kosuge has knocked down 39.2 percent (76-for-194) of his 3-point attempts. He’s a 52.1 percent shooter (85-for-163) from inside the 3-point arc. But he’s had poor results at the foul line (59.5 percent, 66-for-111).

On a team with an abundance of talent — Jeff Newton, Anthony McHenry, Shigeyuki Kinjo, David Palmer, Carlos Dixon, among others — Kosuge flourishes as a role player. Clearly, the 2007-08 All-Star Game MVP appears comfortable playing with the championship-contending Okinawa squad.

“Playing with really good teammates in Okinawa, he doesn’t force anything but just makes the best play available,” a league insider said of Kosuge, “Surrounded by talented players is probably why he has thrived this year. Niigata players learn mental toughness, although they usually have to leave Niigata to show everyone what they can really do.”

Upcoming games: Five series are on tap this weekend: Kyoto vs. Oita, Miyazaki vs. Osaka, Shimane vs. Akita, Takamatsu vs. Ryukyu, Fukuoka vs. Shiga.

Taking a quick look at the matchups, here are a few story lines to follow this weekend:

• How will 42-year-old Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and the Hannaryz perform after a bye week?

• Will the HeatDevils (16-28) find a way to end their seven-game losing streak?

• How do the Evessa respond after an embarrassing 102-73 loss to the Golden Kings on Sunday and a series sweep that saw them stumble out of first place?

• Will Kenny Satterfield, who joined coach Ryan Blackwell’s club last week, and the Evessa have a repeat of Sunday’s 28-for-71 shooting effort?

• Can the Susanoo Magic devise a defense to slow down Akita’s Will Graves, who had 41 points, 20 rebounds and five assists last Sunday against the undermanned Albirex?

• Will the Five Arrows have the manpower to hold the Golden Kings, who have topped the century mark in four straight games, to less than 100 points?

Carving a niche: To those who are seeking to compare the bj-league with other established or emerging pro leagues around the world, Akita coach Bob Pierce offered a story that helps illustrates its potential.

“Will’s 41 and 20 are just a taste of what he can do,” Pierce said, reflecting on Sunday’s game. “I’ve had some inquiries from an NBA team, and hope they will give him a chance.

“The bj-league is a perfect venue for young players who need to prove themselves (see Jeremy Tyler, the potential first-round NBA Draft who played for the Tokyo Apache this season). That’s not a bad position for a league to be in. It would allow us to continue to recruit players with great potential. I hope some of these guys make it.”

Around the league: The bj-league website’s home page has kept a solemn look in recent weeks with a black border and white letters framing a short message about the March 11 earthquake, a stark contrast to the action photo that’s ordinarily placed at the top of the page.

Veteran shooting guard Kimitake Sato has been a bright spot for the struggling HeatDevils during the team’s recent slide, scoring 22 or more points, including 34 on March 26, in four of the past six games since play resumed on March 19. In those games, he canned 18 of 39 3-pointers. . . .

According to online chatter, there’s talk that the bj-league is considering moving this year’s Final Four to Kobe. In the past five seasons, the games have been held at Ariake Colosseum. . . . A Japanese website has been created to keep Hiroshima’s expansion team aspirations in the spotlight.

Here’s the link: bjhiroshima.blogspot.com/

Injury report: Kyoto forward Taizo Kawabe sustained ligament damage to his right leg last Friday during practice. The team announced he’ll be sidelined for a month.

Kawabe is averaging 7.9 points in 37 games.

Closing commentary: Here’s a question that hasn’t been addressed by major media outlets, so this reporter wants to ask it: If the Broncos and Apache were led by Japanese coaches right now, instead of Americans Bob Nash and Bob Hill, respectively, would either team still be playing games this season?

Would Japanese coaches on either team have gone out of their way, if they felt it was necessary, to fight with team and league officials to insist that their team plays the rest of the season?

Would Japan’s traditional values and sense of duty have factored more heavily into the teams’ decision if the head coaches were Masato Fukushima and Motofumi Aoki, who happened to patrol the sidelines for Saitama and Tokyo in 2009-10.

In any business, management, of course, makes difficult decisions every day — good decisions, bad decisions and decisions that can’t be conveniently placed in either category. It’s too early, though, to tell if either club will suffer a backlash from fans after pulling the plug on their seasons in the aftermath of the Great Tohoku Earthquake.

Fans, after all, are happy when games are played. It’s the notion here that Broncos and Apache boosters will enthusiastically support their teams in the future, but maintain a greater dose of skepticism about anything management says.

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Do you have a story idea about the bj-league?

Send e-mail to: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp

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