The Niigata Albirex BB don’t have a player in the league’s top 10 in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals or blocks.
But the Albirex, one of the league’s two flagship franchises along with the perennial struggling Saitama Broncos, have quality roster depth and a high basketball IQ. And they play with veteran poise.
Second-year bench boss Fujitaka Hiraoka’s squad has won seven straight games and 12 of its past 13 to improve to 33-15, tied with the Sendai 89ers for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
Two statistics jump out at you when analyzing Niigata’s overall body of work this season:
■ Nine players with 50 or more assists, including four with at least 100.
■ 269. That’s how many more assists (879) the team has than turnovers (610).
The East-leading Iwate Big Bulls (39-9) and second-place Akita Northern Happinets (38-10) are the sentimental conference favorites to book spots for the Final Four, which will be held May 23-24 at Ariake Colosseum.
Niigata, though, has made steady strides as the season progressed, especially after a six-game slide against the Osaka Evessa, Shiga Lakestars and Kyoto Hannaryz in November. At that point, the Albirex were 8-8; since then, they are 25-7.
What’s the biggest key to Niigata’s success?
“(They are a) tough-minded physical team and they play hard for 40 minutes,” Akita forward Richard Roby told The Japan Times on Wednesday.
Leading scorer Thomas Kennedy sets the tone on offense with 18.3 points per game. His hard-nosed, aggressive play poses challenges for foes. He commands respect after playing a starring role on the Yokohama B-Corsairs 2012-13 championship team.
Three of Kennedy’s teammates are averaging 10 or more points per contest: Ex-Southeastern Louisiana big man Patrick Sullivan (13.6), swingman and Notre Dame alum Russell Carter (11.8 in 35 games; good early season pickup) and veteran shooting guard Kimitake Sato (10.2). Forward Yuichi Ikeda is next at 9.3 ppg.
What sets the Albirex apart from several clubs in the 22-team circuit is the number of players on their roster who have competed here for several years. Guards Takamichi Fujiwara and Kimitake Sato played their first bj-league games in the inaugural 2005-06 campaign. Ikeda has been with Niigata since 2006-07.
Backcourt mainstay Shuhei Komatsu joined the Hokuriku-based squad in 2008, while fellow guard Hirotaka Kondo played his first game for the orange-clad club two years later.
These players set the foundation for consistency and high standards on offense and defense.
Carter credits the organization’s leadership for planting the seeds for success.
“Our coach has been vital in our development throughout the season,” Carter told The Japan Times on Thursday. “He’s kept us focused during this stretch of 12 wins out of 13 games.
“Our team is more like a family. We all have the same goal and I’m happy to be a part of this organization from our veteran point guards, Fujiwara and Kondo, to our GM (Manabu Kosuge), who keeps us motivated.
“If I could sum up our team in one word it would be ‘purpose.’ ”
Gunma Crane Thunders coach Charlie Parker said organizational stability is a key factor in Niigata’s success.
“When I learned of their history and their tradition, I think the thing they are doing better than anything else is they are playing their brand of basketball,” Parker said by phone from Gunma Prefecture on Thursday evening. “They’ve maintained their core players, bringing in a (new) player here or there, and they’ve maintained their focus and determination.”
Parker said the Albirex’s slow start was not indicative of the team’s potential this season.
“I think it was just a matter of time before they got kicking and putting all their pieces together,” he stated.
Continuity, he went on, “is a big part of it. Teams like San Antonio, and Dallas and Miami when they had their run (of four straight NBA Finals appearances) maintain that consistency.”
“You just can’t say enough about teams that maintain coaches and players. It’s huge.”
Which has translated into strong performances on the court.
Or as Parker put it: “They are playing solid defense, their offense is clocking, they pass the ball well. They have shooters. They have inside and outside (players), they have pretty much a complete team. I don’t really see any weaknesses as they got rolling, any area that you can exploit. Teams have a hard time exposing weaknesses that they have.”
Recalling his team’s series against Niigata on Nov. 29-30, Shimane Susanoo Magic guard Joe Chapman said that Kennedy was a force to be reckoned with.
“Thomas Kennedy was the focal (point) on offense and (Russell) was just coming back from injury,” Chapman said on Wednesday of the teams’ two-game split. “Their Japanese players really shot the ball well.”
Potential new home: The Oita HeatDevils may be on the move, with the franchise’s management discussing the transfer ownership to an Ehime Prefecture-based company for next season, according to a report in the Oita Press.
The bj-league office on Thursday issued a news release stating that Oita’s management submitted a form to withdraw from the league, and that Matsuyama-based Kebishi Total Service Co., Ltd is negotiating with the HeatDevils’ current management.
The article cited poor attendance and the team’s well-documented financial problems over several seasons as factors in the possible leadership changes.
If the ownership change is finalized, the HeatDevils are expected to play games in both Oita and Ehime prefectures next season, the newspaper reported.
Oita ranks last in the 22-team league in attendance, averaging 619 fans for its 24 home games.
League accolade: Yokohama post player Carl Hall is the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP for April 3-12, it was announced on Wednesday.
The former Wichita State standout helped the B-Corsairs win three of four games in that period.
Against the Tokyo Cinq Reves on April 4 and 5, Hall had a 31-point, 29-rebound effort followed by a 13-point, 15-board, four-block game. Last weekend against the Gunma Crane Thunders, he had 18 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks in the opener (a Yokohama loss), then responded with 16 points and nine boards in the series finale.
Hall’s 29-rebound game included 13 offensive boards. It was one shy of the league’s single-game record.
Weekly schedule: Tokyo (5-43) brings a 14-game losing streak into its two-game series, starting Friday, against visiting Kyoto (40-8).
The other 10 weekend series tip off on Saturday. They are: Akita vs. Iwate, Sendai vs. Shinshu (19-29), Niigata vs. Aomori (23-25), Toyama (32-16) vs. Fukushima (19-29), Saitama (5-43) vs. Yokohama (15-33), Shiga (32-16) vs. Hamamatsu (38-10), Osaka (27-21) vs. Oita (17-31), Nara (12-36) vs. Ryukyu (39-9), Shimane (18-30) vs. Fukuoka (12-36) and Takamatsu (14-34) vs. Gunma (18-30).
Feedback: Send an email to: email@example.com
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.