Basketball

NBL's second season tips off this weekend

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

In many ways, the National Basketball League’s first year was a trial-and-error period. And Year Two is geared to provide more diversion and success.

As the 2014-15 NBL campaign opens on Friday night with a game between the reigning champion Toshiba Brave Thunders and the Link Tochigi Brex at Kawasaki’s Todoroki Arena, expect more excitement than last season.

The No. 1 reason is that there were some significant player transfers over the summer.

For instance, the Toyota Alvark parted ways with two of their best Japanese players from last season’s squad in Kosuke Takeuchi and Yusuke Okada. Big man Takeuchi signed with the expansion Hiroshima Dragonflies and sharpshooter Okada moved to the Tsukuba Robots.

Both the Dragonflies and Robots aren’t championship contenders yet, but the two should provide valuable how-to-win experience and leadership for their young squads.

The Levanga Hokkaido, who just missed a playoff berth last season, strengthened their frontcourt by acquiring ex-Wakayama Trian Fumihiko Aono and Canadian Chad Posthumus. Hokkaido has yet to earn a single postseason berth, dating back to its Rera Kamuy Hokkaido years, but should have a legitimate shot this year.

The Chiba Jets arguably made the most notable upgrades by adding three quality players in former Japan national team guard Fumio Nishimura, former NBA draft pick Rick Rickert and former bj-league MVP Justin Burrell.

“Chiba played better in the second half of last season so we could expect good things for this season,” Jets captain Hiroki Sato said. “This year, we can play as a team at a higher level.”

But when it comes down to which team is the team to beat, it remains the Brave Thunders. Built around reigning MVP Nick Fazekas, the Kawasaki-based club is loaded with talent, and is expected to be the top championship contender again.

Toyota and the Aisin Seahorses will be the teams expected to equally battle with Toshiba.

Wakayama, last season’s championship runner-up squad, is enduring a difficult transition. After its 2013-14 success, it made an ownership change because of financial woes, and had to let the majority of its core members go, including head coach Zeljko Pavlicevic. Takuya Kawamura and Michael Parker stayed, but the team will have to go through a steep climb.

Meanwhile, six of the 13 teams, including the Dragonflies, enter the season with new head coaches (Wakayama’s Eric Gardow is officially listed as associate head coach).

The most intriguing name is perhaps Kenichi Sako, who took the helm for Hiroshima. The former star national team point guard doesn’t have prior coaching experience, and it will be interesting to see how he guides his young squad.

Trifon Poch Lopez replaced Antonio Lang as the bench supervisor for the Mitsubishi Diamond Dolphins, joining Hokkaido’s Juan Manuel Hurtado Perez as the league’s second Spaniard bench boss. Lopez had been a long-time coach in the Spanish League.

Thomas Wisman has returned to the sidelines for the Link Tochigi Brex. He led the pro team to the championship in the 2009-10 JBL season with point guard Yuta Tabuse as his main star.

“I enjoyed coaching here, enjoyed living here. I enjoyed my team,” said Wisman, who was the head coach for Qatar men’s national team in the last few years. “We have a good group that works hard. We only have Yuta left from the 2010 team, but it’s nice to have that piece. So we have a young team and our Americans are also young. We are trying to play with a lot of energy.”

Meanwhile, the league made some changes and adjustments to its rules.

The biggest one is probably the number of registered import players on the rosters of each club. The league increased the number from two to three for this year, though it’s unchanged that each team can use up to two foreign players on the floor.

In addition, the league switched the quarters that teams can use two imports as well. Last year, it was the first and third quarters, but the league altered it to the second and fourth quarters (plus overtime). Considering the fact that import players are a major force for the majority of the clubs, these are profound changes.

Toshiba head coach Takuya Kita insisted that as much as the import players would increase their significance, the win-loss numbers for the teams might differ depending on how well their Japanese players perform.

“The quarters that the (two) foreign players take the court will change,” Kita said. “And (the teams) will leave the ball in their hands more, but I think it will be a key how much the Japanese players will do.”

Also, this season’s playoff spots have been expanded from six to eight, with two wild-card spots. While the top three clubs from each conference will advance to the postseason, the remaining two spots are allocated for wild-card teams based on highest winning percentages among the worst seven clubs.

The 54-game regular season will continue until May 3, and the postseason, including the NBL Finals, will be held between May 9 and the end of May.

The All-Star Game will be played on Jan. 18 at Ota City Gymnasium.