Jeffrey Parmer realizes the two-time defending champion Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix are a work in progress.
At 5-5 under first-year head coach Ryuji Kawai, the Phoenix are not playing like an elite team, but like a dozen or so other squads in the 19-team league.
That reality, he admitted, doesn’t frustrate the bj-league’s 2010-11 regular-season and playoff MVP. It motivates him to stay focused and push his teammates to achieve better results on the court.
“We expect so much from each other and being .500 right now isn’t sitting well with us as a team,” Parmer told The Japan Times as his team gears up for a Saturday-Sunday road series against the expansion Iwate Big Bulls (1-9).
“Yes, we’re currently 5-5 and could easily be 7-3 or 8-2, but sometimes the ball doesn’t go your way when you need it to. In my view, it’s underachieving even with Ryuji being a first-year coach.”
The Phoenix went 40-6 last season en route to a second title under inimitable bench boss Kazuo Nakamura, who now leads the Akita Northern Happinets, who at 8-2 have the best record in the 10-team Eastern Conference.
This season, Hamamatsu features a veteran roster with guards Jermaine Dixon, Shingo Okada, Masahiro Oguchi and Kenya Tomori, frontcourt mainstays Atsuya Ota and Parmer, as well as returning standout Wayne Arnold, the league’s Sixth Man Award winner a year ago, and newcomer Shoji Nakanishi, a role player with the Tokyo Apache for several seasons, among others.
Gone from last year’s championship squad are center Dzaflo Larkai, who’s now playing for the Ryukyu Golden Kings, and guard Kazutoshi Ota, who retired. Arnold is the team’s top scorer (15.8 points per game). Parmer leads the squad in rebounding (9.5 per game) and Dixon is averaging a team-best 4.1 assists.
Hamamatsu has played seven games decided by 10 points or less. In those games, the Phoenix are 2-5.
“That’s where the lack of chemistry within our team comes in play,” Parmer said of Hamamatsu’s struggles in close games. “Another one of our biggest problems has been the inability to put away opponents this season. There’s been numerous times where we’ve had a comfortable lead going into halftime and just couldn’t capitalize and play smart in the second half.
“The biggest difference between last November’s team and this season’s November team is chemistry. With a new coach, new players and injuries, we just haven’t been able to get our chemistry where it needs to be. It’s a long season and we’re on the verge of getting there. Patience is a virtue.
“The team misses Toshi (Kazutoshi Ota) and Flo (Dzaflo Larkai) a lot,” he added. “Toshi was our 3-point shooter and defensive stopper. Flo was a beast on the block and his post game was huge for us. When other guys were having off days, we had the luxury of throwing the ball in the low post to Flo and letting him go to work.”
In a 52-game season, each team will experience several highs and lows. But what made the Phoenix such a powerful team in their first three seasons in the league was their overall consistency, as evidenced by their 117-33 record in the regular season under Nakamura.
To put it mildly, most people will say the 36-year-old Kawai has impossible shoes to fill. That doesn’t mean, however, that he can’t be a successful sideline supervisor in this league.
“I feel Ryuji has been doing a good job with us,” said Parmer, a Florida Atlantic University product. “Of course he’s still learning to be a head coach with this being his first season coaching in the bj-league. Replacing a guy like Kazuo Nakamura is a challenge in itself.
“To be honest, Ryuji has surprised me at times during the season with his knowledge of the game and what not. I guess that comes from studying and taking notes from a basketball genius like Kazuo for so many years.”
Dixon was not on the Phoenix’s opening day roster. But as a talented floor leader who spent most of last season with the squad, his return to Japan — he made his season debut in Hamamatsu’s third game — was an added boost for Kawai’s club.
“Bringing Jermaine back was huge for us,” Parmer said of the University of Pittsburgh player. “He knows the offensive system we ran from last season and he’s just a very good player for us and the type of basketball we like to play is suited for him.”
“He’s the engine that makes us go.”
Last season, the general consensus was that three Eastern Conference teams had a legitimate shot at winning the title: the Phoenix, the Sendai 89ers (under ex-coach Honoo Hamaguchi) and the now-departed Tokyo Apache (led by former NBA bench boss Bob Hill).
This season, the Northern Happinets and 89ers (7-3 under new coach Bob Pierce) are first and second, respectively, in the standings. But it’s early and several East teams could be in contention for a Final Four spot.
Or as Parmer said, “This team is basically like everyone else, starting all over again with many new players and a new head coach. We’re not going to use that as an excuse. We’re going to get it done, just watch and see.”
Does that mean the Phoenix believe they can defend their championship in May?
Absolutely, Parmer said.
“There’s no doubt about that. We’re very confident that we can three-peat this season,” he said. “We’re very determined as a team and organization that we can stay at the top of the bj-league.”
Player of the week: Rizing Fukuoka swingman Kevin Palmer is the Lawson/Ponta Player of the Week, the league has announced. The Texas A&M Corpus Christi product had 36- and 21-point games against the Takamatsu Five Arrows last weekend as the Rizing earned a sweep and improved to 6-4.
Parmer is the league’s second-leading scorer (22.9 points per game) and is first in steals (3.1). He had seven steals in the series finale last Saturday, an 89-63 Fukuoka win.
Weekend schedule: The Chiba-Sendai series began on Thursday in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture. Also Friday, Shinshu plays host to Miyazaki. The Saturday-Sunday series are as follows: Niigata vs. Akita, Saitama vs. Toyama, Shimane vs. Fukuoka, Takamatsu vs. Kyoto, Oita vs. Osaka and Ryukyu vs. Shiga. Yokohama plays host to Shinshu next Tuesday and Wednesday.
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