Phoenix joined power-packed Western field


Staff Writer

There’s a new heavyweight in the West.

Two of the league’s three traditional powerhouse teams, the Osaka Evessa (three championships: 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08) and Ryukyu Golden Kings (2008-09 and 2011-12 title winners), are joined in the 10-team Western Conference this season by the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix.

The Phoenix, who won a pair of titles in between Ryukyu’s and represented the Eastern Conference in the past three finals, opened the season last weekend, splitting a pair of games against the visiting Sendai 89ers. The Golden Kings swept the host Kyoto Hannaryz in the other series involving the West’s teams.

Barring major injuries or an unforeseen crisis off the court, Hamamatsu and Ryukyu are expected to be in the hunt for a title once again this season.

Conversely, there are low expectations for the Evessa, who are in the midst of a major rebuilding job after the abrupt end to the Lynn Washington era. The former Indiana University power forward, two-time MVP and bj-league icon played his final game on March 11, and after his arrest on drug-related charges that were later dropped, the team cleaned house, showing the door to coach Ryan Blackwell, not bringing back six-time All-Star Cohey Aoki and making no attempts to keep the core of its team — including Kevin Tyner, Wayne Marshall, Mike Bell, Bobby St. Preux and Hirohisa Takada — intact.

Which makes this season, starting with Saturday’s opener against the Takamatsu Five Arrows, the first time since the league’s inception in 2005 that the Evessa are not considered a legitimate title contender. If new coach Zoran Kreckovic somehow manages to guide his team to the Final Four, he’ll be a likely lock to win Coach of the Year honors.

Of the West’s 10 head coaches, only two were not working in the league last season: 69-year-old Junichiro Hongo, the Miyazaki Shining Suns’ new bench boss, and Kreckovic. The former was a longtime high school coach but is now making his debut at the pro level; the latter has worked in Kuwait and Qatar as well as in European pro leagues. Shimane Susanoo Magic sideline supervisor Zeljko Pavlicevic, the former Japan national team coach (2003-06), is entering his third season at the helm and is the longest-tenured coach with his current team.

What’s more, this season marks the first time in league history that Dai Oketani, former Oita HeatDevils (2006-08) and Ryukyu (2008-12) coach is not employed by a Western Conference squad. After winning his second title with the Golden Kings, Oketani parted ways with the Okinawa-based team and moved north to become the Iwate Big Bulls coach.

Here’s a team-by-team rundown of the West:

Kyoto Hannaryz

They had a 34-18 record last season, fiery coach Honoo Hamaguchi’s first with the team, and reached the Final Four for the first time in franchise history. Now in the Kansai club’s fourth season, expectations will be just as great, but the makeup of the team is quite different.

Gone: Post players Rick Rickert and Lance Allred, the former an NBA draft pick and the latter a former Cleveland Cavaliers player and steady floor leader Lee Cummard, guards Naoto Nakamura (Iwate) and Haruyuki Ishibashi (Iwate) and forward Taizo Kawabe (Osaka).

Back: Underrated guard Jermaine Boyette, the team’s go-to scorer and veteran guard Kyosuke Setoyama are the notable names.

Newcomers: Shooting guard Yu Okada, a standout in this league since 2006 when he helped the Five Arrows reach the championship game in their inaugural season, sharpshooter David Palmer, a title-winner with both the Evessa and Golden Kings and big man Marcus Cousin, who had a short stint with the Utah Jazz. Gyno Pomare adds a big, athletic body to the frontline after productive stints with the Sendai 89ers and Hamamatsu.

Outlook: Hamaguchi’s teams play hard, disciplined, unselfish basketball, and the front office has shown a commitment to signing good players. A 35-win season and playoff appearance appear likely.

Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix

Ryuji Kawai guided the squad to a 37-15 record in his first season in charge after replacing inimitable bench boss Kazuo Nakamura and led the Phoenix to the finals again.

Gone: Point guard Jermaine Dixon, a Best Five selection in 2011-12, guard Wayne Arnold, guard Shingo Okada (Gunma Crane Thunders), guard Kenya Tomori (Gunma) and Pomare.

Back: Guard Masahiro Oguchi, the team’s scrappy defensive stopper and clutch shooter, Japan national team center Atsuya Ota, former MVP Jeffrey Parmer and veteran forward Shoji Nakanishi are the well-known names.

Newcomers: Gifted athlete Kevin Galloway, is a threat to notch a triple-double every game while playing the power-point position, and former Miyazaki guards Shinosuke Oishi and Tsubasa Yonezawa add depth to the backcourt. The team also has 211-cm Elbert Fuqua, an NBA Development League veteran, in the low post.

Outlook: No team will benefit more from the two-import rule in the first and third quarters than Hamamatsu, as it will create more space for 206-cm Ota to operate in the low post. Another Final Four is a distinct possibility.

Miyazaki Shining Suns

After two seasons in charge before his 30th birthday, Koto Toyama left a very difficult situation in Kyushu. Ownership has demonstrated that it’s making major cutbacks this season after a 22-30 campaign. The team was scrappy, quick and well balanced and a player or two short of reaching the postseason. Now, with Hongo brought in to lead the club one wonders if the team’s financial woes could force the team out of business.

Gone: Captain Taishiro Shimizu (Oita), swingman Dexter Lyons (Takamatsu) and the aforementioned Oishi and Yonezawa, as well as center Darryl Dora, forward Lewis Witcher (Gunma), forward Ivan Harris and guards Takuro Ito (Tokyo Cinq Reves) and Masato Tsukino (Iwate). In addition, forward O’Neal Mims left Miyazaki last spring after the team’s owner failed to make timely payments to him, he said.

Back: Forward Yuta Kojima has returned.

Newcomers: Forward Marshall Brown, a 199-cm D-League veteran, center Donald Little, forward Larriques Cunningham and forward Dominique Keller are all entering their first season in the league.

Outlook: The Shining Suns appear poised for a disastrous 45-loss season. Zero continuity and the mass exodus of several quality players are bad signs.

Oita HeatDevils

After retiring in 2011, popular guard Yukinori Suzuki was appointed head coach and the HeatDevils went 23-29 last season. They upgraded the roster and built a solid nucleus.

Gone: Forward T.J. Cummings has moved on to Akita.

Back: Talented guards Matt Lottich and Naoto Takushi have returned. Former MVP Wendell White adds championship experience to the frontcourt and Taj Finger has flourished in this system

Newcomers: Kazuya “J.” Hatano brings added muscle to the frontcourt and proven defensive and rebounding skills, while Shimizu shined as captain for his hometown Miyazaki team after leaving the basketball wasteland of Saitama.

Outlook: The franchise has endured five straight losing seasons, a stretch matched only by the Broncos’ seven below-.500 campaigns. This team could break that streak.

Osaka Evessa

As expected, the Evessa were one of the West’s top teams in 2011-12, going 35-17 to earn the No. 2 seed entering the playoffs. That seems like ancient history now. Essentially, this is an entirely new group.

Gone: Washington (forced to “retire” after being blackballed by the league), Aoki, Daisuke Tamura (Takamatsu), Hideki Katsumata, Marshall, Bell, St. Preux, among others.

Back: Guard Masashi Obuchi, a capable double-digit scorer and fellow backcourt players Shota Konno and Satoshi Takeda are tasked with bridging the gap from the old Evessa era to the new one.

Newcomers: Big man Larry Cox, forwards Nathan Walkup and Andre Coimbra, guard Temi Soyembo, who was last seen playing in Qatar, and Kawabe, a strong spot-up scorer. Also changing teams in the offseason were Yoshihiro Tachibana (Sendai) and Shuichi Takada (Takamatsu).

Outlook: Washington set the tone for the team for seven seasons, and the results were magnificent. The team’s demise appears unstoppable this season.

Rizing Fukuoka

After a respectable start last season, Tadaharu Ogawa was replaced by Atsushi Kanazawa, who took the team to the playoffs with a 33-19 record.

Gone: Best Five forward Kevin Palmer took his terrific all-around game to Greece, while Carlos Dixon joined the Big Bulls, they are key departures. Both guys are All-Star-caliber players.

Back: Veteran guards Jun Nakanishi and Akitomo Takeno are important pieces to the team’s high-paced offensive attack. Satoshi Ishitani and Masahiro Kano add depth to the backcourt.

Newcomers: Center Julius Ashby has played for four playoff teams in his productive bj-league career: Takamatsu, Tokyo and Niigata before a stint with Shiga last season. Macho forward Reggie Warren returns to the bj-league after playing elsewhere last season, and his inside strength and overall skills were valuable for Takamatsu, Saitama and Kyoto in previous seasons. University of Hawaii product Zane Johnson, a guard, becomes the second player after Bobby Nash from that American university to join a bj-league team. He averaged 14.0 ppg as a senior last season. Forward Josh Peppers, a proven 15-to-20-ppg player in this league, begins his second tour of duty with the team this weekend.

Outlook: The Rizing look like an above-average team on paper, but losing Palmer could turn out to be a major blow to the team’s success. A Final Four appearance is doubtful.

Ryukyu Golden Kings

Team president Tatsuro Kimura and departed coach Oketani had their differences. Source claim Kimura is a control freak who is never satisfied. But together, the aforementioned duo accomplished great things, including a league-best 39-13 record last season. Toyama worked under a championship coach, Kazuo Nakamura, in Hamamatsu, and now he has the unenviable task of replacing Oketani.

Gone: David Palmer (Kyoto), center Dillion Sneed (Iwate) and guard Yasufumi Takushi (retired).

Back: Jeff Newton, the team’s anchor in the middle, who is a natural power forward but plays at center as well. The team transformed into a championship contender when Newton and reigning playoff MVP Anthony McHenry arrived in Okinawa in 2008. The roster is stacked with veteran experience (British-born center Dzaflo Larkai, guards Naoto Kosuge, Tsubasa Yonamine and Shigeyuki Kinjo and forward Yoshiki Yamashiro) as well as risings stars (guards Narito Namizato and Morihisa Yamauchi).

Newcomers: Swingman Terrance Woodbury starred in the D-League last season. Swingman Yosuke Sugawara is back in a Ryukyu uniform after playing for the ABA’s Shizuoka Gymrats, a traveling squad, last season.

Outlook: Ryukyu has made four consecutive trips to the Final Four. A fifth straight visit would shock no one.

Shiga Lakestars

Al Westover directed the Lakestars to a 33-19 record, with seven wins in 10 games to close out the regular season, and a trip to the playoffs in his first season in charge.

Gone: Ashby (Fukuoka), Okada (Kyoto), Hatano (Oita) and Peppers (Fukuoka).

Back: Ray Nixon and Dionisio Gomez worked well in Westover’s system last season, producing solid numbers on offense and quality effort on defense. Guards Shinya Ogawa, Jumpei Honda and Takamichi Fujiwara are familiar with the Lakestars brand of ball.

Newcomers: Center Alfred Aboya, a UCLA product, and guard Jumpei Nakama, who had an up-and-down season for Shimane following the long layoff when the Tokyo Apache suspended operations in March 2011. Forward Daiki Terashita was Saitama’s best all-around Japanese player last season.

Outlook: The West is stacked with several strong teams. Shiga should be in the thick of things for a playoff berth once again.

Shimane Susanoo Magic

Pavlicevic, one of the most prominent coaches in European basketball history, has taken the Magic to back-to-back playoff appearance in the franchise’s first two seasons, including a 28-24 record in 2011-12.

Gone: Forward Reggie Golson (Luxembourg), Jumpei Nakama (Shiga).

Back: Four-time scoring champion Michael Parker, two-time blocked shots king Jeral Davis, pivotman B.J. Puckett, point guard Edward Yamamoto, guards Tatsuhiro Yokoo, Koki Yabuuchi, Yasuhisa Hikino and Shohei Nakama, Jumpei’s younger brother.

Newcomers: Guard Brandon Freeman, an Arkanas-Little Rock alum who averaged 12.6 ppg in the Belgian League last season.

Outlook: Continuity can breed success, and Shimane’s team is an example of that.

Takamatsu Five Arrows

The Five Arrows were so awful last season that they failed to have any winning streaks. Not one. They did, however, somehow manage to win two games. Fifty other games ended in defeat. And Kenzo Maeda is back as the bench boss.

Gone: Center Paul Butorac (Yokohama), guards Yuta Kurihara (Tokyo), Takada (Osaka) and Keishiro Tsutsumi (Gunma) and center Nyika Williams (Gunma)

Back: Guards Makoto Kita, who also doubled as Maeda’s assistant last season, Masaaki Suzuki and Hiroyuki Kikuchi.

Newcomers: Lyons (Miyazaki), Tamura (Osaka), forward Brandon Penn (Rider College product), center Paul Williams (St. Bonaventure, with pro stops in England, Spain and the Dominican Republic).

Outlook: The Five Arrows have seen their win total decrease from 13 to 10 to two in the past three seasons. That trend will be reversed this season, but a .500 season for the moribund franchise would be a miracle of epic proportions.