Reflections From The Opening Weekend of the NZ Breakers Season

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If the Wellington Phoenix get to be a work in progress, accepting their two opening defeats with encouragement because of the unique rebuilding situation they find themselves in, then the NZ Breakers get to have the same treatment too because... I mean, just look at it all. They have a new head coach (Director of Basketball, I know I know) with two new assistants and none of that trio have ever coached in the NBL before, with Mody Maor literally having only just been appointed. They have three new imports plus a Next Star and a Lebanese international big man. And with Finn Delany out injured there are really only two players in the main rotation who were in the same situation a year ago – Corey Webster and Tom Abercrombie (although Rob Loe was at the club previously and Tom Vodanovich has been a development player)... and both of them spent a large chunk of preseason away with the Tall Blacks at the World Cup.

To make matters even tougher they had a double header – home and away – against the best team in the comp to start their season. The Sydney Kings who had already played two and won two. Meanwhile the Breakers had just got back from a trip to the United States. Add all that together and there were a lot of reasons... not so much to excuse the Breakers but to at least put this first weekend into more context. They lost both games. There were positives and negatives. But these were only the first few steps of a much longer journey. Although like the Wellington Phoenix they will have to start winning soon because otherwise that season will quickly get away.

Righto, so the first thing most people will be asking is: how did RJ Hampton look? Mate, he looked pretty decent. At times he even looked unbelievable, like in those situations where he’s able to create things off the dribble and flex what an athlete he is. His first few minutes of the opener were really, really impressive. But then he also had that typically rough initiation to the pro ranks and Sydney really targetted his defence. Hampton only played five minutes of the fourth quarter in the first game and then was sat on the bench watching the last six minutes of the second game despite the Breakers collapsing into a black hole of offence-less basketball. He scored 7 points in each game, playing around 20 minutes each time. Shooting a combined 6/16. You expect inconsistencies from a young player no matter how hyped up they might be so it’s nothing to worry about... but yeah Sek Henry does seem to be the preferred crunch-time option.

Part of being a work in progress means it’s hard to glean from the outside what the team is building towards. And for all the talk about Dan Shamir’s intelligence and ability (everybody who talks about him talks about how smart he is, from the current team to media folks to Steven Adams and Kirk Penney) he’s got a bit of work cut out on the team-building side to mould this lot together before that’ll all get to fly. The Breakers struggled to create offence in both games. The clash in Sydney they hung around because of the brilliant shot making of Scotty Hopson (27pts, 11/20fg) and Corey Webster (21pts, 9/20fg) but when those two cooled down to combine for 27 points on 11/41 shooting on Sunday in Auckland it looked ugly. Sek Henry hasn’t really been an offensive weapon yet and they no longer have a player like Tai Wesley to put to work in the post when they need to manufacture something. In fact big fella Ater Majok only played four minutes in Sydney and didn’t play at all in Auckland.

That culminated in that disastrous fourth quarter in a winnable game on Sunday night. The Breakers were leading 61-59 with 8:55 on the clock and they proceeded to score just five more points in all that time and lost by ten. They were 2/17 from the field including 0/7 from deep, missing two of three free throw attempts and giving up five turnovers in those 8:55 minutes. They’d only given up seven turnovers in the entire first game! But then of course they weren’t turning the ball over there considering they weren’t hardly even passing. 11 assists and then 15 assists in these two games. There are some quality shooters in this team but we saw the adjustments that Sydney made in the second game in pretty well smothering Hopson and Webster so gotta get those assists numbers up somehow if the Breakers are to create more decent looks (Sydney also lost their way with the ball movement in Auckland, only logging ten assists as that game descended into gruelling territory in the second half).

Although it doesn’t bloody help things when you only shoot 14 free throws in a weekend and your opponents get to attempt 52 of them. People who moan about foul numbers get annoying because it’s not like games are supposed to have even counts... but that’s still a glaring disparity. Granted a large part of that was having players adjusting to how the league is officiated and lord knows Brandon Ashley wasn’t the first import player to struggle with that in his first NBL game. What was great about him is that after being a non-factor because of those fouls in Sydney he then came out and played some serious basketball in Auckland, with 8pts 8reb 3blk although he did still foul out in the fourth quarter. Ashley’s addition is risky if Ater Majok is going to be a minimal presence because this is a Breakers team that just got bullied by Andrew Bogut. The Breakies simply don’t have a body big enough to match up with him. But Ashley has some positional flexibility, at times playing alongside both Vodanovich and Lowe, and if he’s bringing it at both ends like he did in AK then suddenly this team looks a lot deeper. Foul trouble permitting.

By the way, here are Bogut’s stat lines from the two games...

G1 in Sydney:

26 MIN | 11 PTS (5/6 FG) | 16 REB (1 OFF) | 5 AST | 5 BLK | 4 TO | 3 PF

G2 in Auckland:

26 MIN | 13 PTS (5/8 FG) | 16 REB (5 OFF) | 1 AST | 2 STL | 1 BLK | 1 TO | 1 PF

That’s a little bit unstoppable. On the other hand the Breakers did quite well at minimising Casper Ware, who shot 3/18 from deep over the weekend with more turnovers than assists. But that Sydney team is just so stacked and were getting contributions off the bench from guys like Dan Kickert, Craig Moller, and Shaun Bruce whereas our lot are still trying to figure out their starting rotations. It’s a process that’ll need to take some time.

One other biggie was Rob Loe though. Basically he’s going to be able to get that three-point look at the top of the key whenever he wants so if he’s knocking them down at 3/5 like he did in Auckland (as opposed to 2/7 in Sydney) then the Breakers are in a decent spot. Also shout out to Tom Vodanovich, who graduated from being a development player to make this roster but didn’t make the final cut for the Tall Blacks at the World Cup. He played 26 seconds in game one but then got almost nine minutes in game two. He’s listed at about 6'8" so nothing excessive in height but he’s super strong so could be the best alternative for the Breakers to do something about those rebounding issues. Interesting to see how he and Ater Majok are used by Dan Shamir.

The lack of fluidity on offence is a bit of a worry, to be honest. This team has the dudes out there to play quick and energetic, really bringing an exciting style of basketball which we only saw glimpses of in these two games when turnovers allowed them to play in transition. But we have to accept that it’s going to take some time. We’ve got an Israeli coach trying to mould a team of kiwis, two Aussies (one via Sudan/Lebanon) a quartet of African-Americans and a Chinese development player into a functioning offence and that’s not something that happens overnight. And obviously the process has not been helped by the utter turmoil of that offseason (sorry but turmoil it kinda was).

The big boost is that they got a fantastic crowd in there for that home opener. 7494 people crammed into Spark Arena, a new opening game record for the club and they’re expecting a similar sized effort on Thursday night against the Illawarra Hawks. There’s a fair bit more I could say about that situation but I might just keep it in my pocket for now. The Breakers have prioritised a certain way of doing things these days which isn’t in line with the old days but whatever. The important thing, when your business model is all about selling the hype, is to be able to see vindications like these crowd numbers. As long as these numbers are maintained then you don’t have to like the priorities but you have to respect the results.

And that’s where all the volatility lies. Will the crowds still turn up when it’s not a home opener or if LaMelo Ball’s not in town? Yeah, probably. Will they still turn up deep into the season when the novelty of RJ Hampton has become a mere formality? I reckon they might just. But will the laidback kiwi sports-going public of Auckland City still rock up if the team keeps on losing? Nah and that’s where the line is drawn. A lot has been sacrificed to put this team in the place they’re in and so much depends on them being successful. Success and off-court instability don’t tend to go hand in hand but they’re not always mutually exclusive either. We’ve now seen the first proper glimpses of where they’re at. The next few games should teach us a whole lot more.

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