The Osaka Evessa made a big hire during the offseason, luring Dai Oketani, the winningest coach in bj-league history, to return to his Kansai roots.
A Kyoto native, Oketani had led the Oita HeatDevils and Ryukyu Golden Kings, taking the latter to a pair of championships before moving on the Iwate Big Bulls for the past three seasons. As expected, the Big Bulls became one of the league’s elite teams during Oketani’s tenure and reached their first Final Four in May.
Now, the Evessa have raised the stakes, seeking to return to their championship roots in the bj-league’s final season.
It all starts with Oketani and his mentor, advisory coach Bill Cartwright, who coached the club for the final 28 games of the 2012-13 campaign.
At that time, the Evessa were a shell of their former self, a former perennial title contender that had plummeted to 5-19 under Zoran Kreckovic and Takao Furuya in succession before Osaka reached out to Cartwright to run the show.
The Evessa’s impressive, improbable turnaround under Cartwright — 17 wins in 28 games — was a sight to behold. But then he left Japan and returned to his various business pursuits in the United States, citing a desire to be closer to his family.
With four weeks in the books, Osaka (5-3) is one of seven Western Conference teams with two or three defeats.
It’s a long season and the two sideline tacticians will take time to put their stamp on the Evessa.
Both men preach hard-nosed defense and a smart brand of offense, using the triangle offense for starters. It’s the offensive system that Cartwright is quite familiar with, having played under Phil Jackson on the Chicago Bulls’ first three-peat and serving on his coaching staff for the final two seasons of the team’s second back-to-back-to-back championship run of the 1990s. (All told, Cartwright worked as an NBA coach from 1996-2012, including from 2001-03 as the Bulls bench boss, and later stints as an assistant with the New Jersey Nets and Phoenix Suns.)
The Evessa dropped their first two games of the season to the Shiga Lakestars, then rattled off five straight wins, including the series opener last Saturday against the Golden Kings. Ryukyu bounced back in the series finale to earn a split and halt Osaka’s win streak.
While other coaches may be uncomfortable having an experienced mentor with a lifetime of basketball on his resume, Oketani said he embraces the advice that Cartwright, the No. 3 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, can give him.
“Coach Bill respects me and what I think and what I do,” Oketani said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “He just adds a few details (for me), but that’s huge for me.”
NBA teams often have a lead assistant with decades of experience on the bench these days to offer wisdom to a team’s head coach. But it’s unusual to have someone with Cartwright’s experience, in any capacity, in the bj-league.
Cartwright is not attending all Osaka practices and games. Instead, he is planning to make periodic visits to Japan throughout the season to catch a few games here and there, and to help fine tune the team’s strategies.
Indeed, the 58-year-old Cartwright’s interactions with Oketani are a key part of the team’s plans for this season as the Evessa seek to rise above their recent run-of-the-mill status. (They were 28-24 last season after a 24-28 campaign in 2013-14. Coach Shunsuke Todo departed after his second season at the helm, creating an opening for Oketani.)
Oketani gives credit to Cartwright for expanding his knowledge of the game.
“He is a master of the triangle and I am still a beginner,” Oketani, 37, said. “I like to coach with him. He can watch clearly every play and give me some advise. (He has a) great personality, too.”
He added: “To me, this is a great opportunity to learn basketball deeply.”
Cartwright engineered Osaka’s return to respectability nearly three years ago, and that resonated with team owner Koichi Sato, the ex-NBA center said.
“Mr. Sato was kind enough to bring me back in hopes of winning a championship,” Cartwright told this newspaper.
The Evessa, like the aforementioned Bulls, accomplished a three-peat from 2005-08 during the Kensauku Tennichi era at the helm. Now, they seek a return to their glory days.
The revamped Osaka lineup includes veteran floor leader Narito Namizato, a key performer on two Ryukyu title winners who leads the league in assists (6.4 per game); forward Lawrence Blackledge, a Marquette University alum who starred for Oketani at Iwate; power forward Olu Ashaolu, who helped Hamamatsu capture a title in May; guards Shota Konno and Shun Watanuki, who were with Cartwright in his last stint with the team; and rising standout Takuya Soma, who’s the team’s third-leading scorer (11.6 points a game).
Weekly accolade: Kanazawa Samuraiz guard Yuji Ide earned the Lawson/Ponta Weekly MVP award, the league announced on Tuesday.
Ide helped the Samuraiz sweep the Oita Ehime HeatDevils last weekend, scoring 13 points in the opener and 24 in the rematch, including 6 of 7 from beyond the arc. He canned 9 of 13 3-pointers in the two-game series.
For the season, Ide is averaging 11.5 points.
This week’s games: Hiroshima (1-7) plays host to Kanazawa (3-5) in a showdown of expansion teams in a series that was set to get under way on Thursday night.
The rest of the week’s action tips off on Saturday. Those matchups are as follows: Toyama vs. Sendai, Gunma vs. Iwate, Saitama vs. Niigata, Tokyo vs. Aomori, Yokohama vs. Shinshu, Shimane vs. Ryukyu, Takamatsu vs. Nara, Fukuoka vs. Osaka and Oita vs. Hamamatsu.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5