The NBL will begin its 2015-16 season this weekend with all 12 clubs looking to conclude the league’s final campaign on a high note before Japan’s new pro circuit, the B. League, tips off next fall.
The 2015-16 season will presumably be more competitive than the last few campaigns, as some teams made noteworthy upgrades during the offseason.
Thomas Wisman, the American head coach of the Link Tochigi Brex, said at Monday’s news conference in Tokyo that because the competition looks tougher, his team will simply shoot for the postseason before thinking about a championship run.
“Teams that will make the playoffs all have a chance to win the championship,” said Wisman, whose Utsunomiya-based squad boasts star point guard Yuta Tabuse. “If you don’t make the playoffs, you don’t have a chance to compete for the championship.”
The reigning champion Aisin SeaHorses will be the team to beat. Their bench boss, Kimikazu Suzuki, is staying humble, saying that his team was lucky to come through at the right time in the postseason last year.
“The gap between the teams in the NBL is smaller now,” Suzuki said. “Many teams have a chance to win the championship. We happened to be on a roll during the playoffs and ended up winning the championship last year. But we’ll have it tough this year.”
Suzuki added that because his team has veterans like center J.R. Sakuragi (38 years old) and Shinsuke Kashiwagi (33), they will have to utilize different strategies to survive the long 55-game season, though he also hopes to entertain the crowd.
“There are so many tough teams,” Suzuki said. “But we’d like to play in a way that will move the fans.”
Guard Ryoma Hashimoto, the SeaHorses’ emotional leader, had a message for his team, saying “We won’t play passively because we are the defending champions. All the teams will be gunning for us. It’ll be important for us to have a hungry attitude to win the championship one more time.”
Other elite teams, such as the Hitachi Sunrockers, Toshiba Brave Thunders and Toyota Alvark — all of whom came up short for the title last year — will have a chip on their shoulders and enter the new season with higher motivation.
Toyota, which finished as runnerup in the 2014-15 season, has promoted Takuma Ito from assistant to head coach, as predecessor Don Beck departed to become head coach of the WJBL’s Toyota Antelopes.
“I’m a first-year coach,” Ito said. “So I’d like to learn along with the entire team this year, things such as timing for timeouts and (other) strategies.”
Guard Ryusei Shinoyama, of the Brave Thunders, who were NBL champions two seasons ago but eliminated in the first round of last season’s playoffs after losing some of their core players including 2013-14 MVP Nick Fazekas, insisted that his team is in high spirits entering this year.
“We set our goal to win a second consecutive championship last year, but couldn’t make it happen,” Shinoyama said. “But in the final season of the NBL, we definitely want to win the championship.”
Meanwhile, the Chiba Jets and Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Dolphins reinforced their rosters by acquiring a few notable names and will try to be in the championship mix.
The Jets were particularly active during the offseason. They hired former Japan men’s national team head coach Zeljko Pavlicevic and added shooter Yusuke Okada, big man Clint Chapman, former Los Angeles Laker Brian Cook and speedster Yuki Togashi. With a completely new look, the team seems to have a chance to be more than just a dark horse.
“Depth is one of our strengths this year,” Jets captain Ryumo Ono said. “And no matter who’s on the floor, we can play competitively.”
Mitsubishi brought in ex-Jets coach Reggie Geary, and added scorer Takuya Kawamura and athletic American Justin Burrell.
Dolphins veteran guard Takumi Ishizaki said the team’s style has changed as Geary emphasizes a rock-solid defensive approach.
“Mitsubishi has had players with potential, and now with coach Geary at the helm, we play more like a team,” Ishizaki said. “Everybody tries to contribute to the team. There are other tough teams in this league and there will be few games that we can win easily, but I believe that we’ve become a team that can compete for the championship.”
Because there had been gaps in quality between teams in the east and west, the league eliminated the conference system this year.
The season will open Friday and the regular season will wrap up on May 8.
The eight-team playoffs will start on May 14 and the Finals will begin from May 28.
The All-Star Game will be held on Jan. 17 at Todoroki Arena, Toshiba’s main arena, in Kawasaki.
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