The Breakers made their first major signing for the upcoming NBL season early this week and it wasn’t a massively crazy one. Rob Loe is returning after playing a year for Cairns, the big fella already rumoured to want to return to Aotearoa for family reasons so it only made sense that he’d end up back with the Breakers sooner or later.
Loe averaged 7.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game with Cairns, slight improvements on his numbers during his two years with the Breaks before that, although he only shot 31.0% from deep and his foul counts were still pretty high. If he can get those triples up to around the 35% mark and then sharpen up his defence a tad then for sure he can be a valuable piece off the bench for Kevin Braswell’s team. He’s got size and shooting, always a lethal combination. A Tall Blacks international. Looking at things from that specific perspective there’s nothing much wrong with this pickup at all.
But it does shine a weird light on the wider picture with the Breakers. Loe was cut loose before last season along with several other familiar faces – Alex Pledger and Mika Vukona most notably – as new management took over and a new coach put his stamp on the squad. Kevin Braswell wanted to get this team playing faster and with more fluidity hence he axed both his kiwi big fella centres. You already know how that one went though. Corey Webster came back and was pretty average. Import five Shawn Long was excellent, with Tai Wesley playing really well especially at the start of the season, but still this team struggled to rebound, they played poor defence, they were prone to complete offensive meltdowns thanks to inconsistent shooting across the board, and the decision to start Shea Ili instead of an import point guard soon felt like a mistake.
They honestly just weren’t very good and despite showing flashes of what they were trying to achieve the whole way through the campaign they never picked up any decent momentum, never winning more than two games in a row, and a 12-16 finish had them out of the playoffs in sixth place. They made drastic changes and it didn’t really stick.
Obviously with a new coach and that much player turnover it was going to be a bit of a transitional year regardless. That would have been a lot more comfortable to accept if it weren’t for what was going on with the new ownership. Changes to the gameday experience were met with indifference as Matt Walsh and his crew tried to spark a more energetic NBA-style of function. Then there was the head coaching change and we still don’t really have any answers for why Paul Henare left, whether it was purely down to contract negotiations or if he preferred to focus on the Tall Blacks ahead of the World Cup or maybe it was a difference in opinions about the future direction of the club. Dunno, though Henare has hinted at options two and three both playing a role.
Thankfully they didn’t keep up with the lame publicity stunts of the early days of their ownership, largely fuelled by the Barstool crew, but now we’ve got a situation where a poor season and a weird disconnect between the ownership and the fans has been combined with re-signing a player they cut just a year ago for stylistic reasons and that coming swiftly after arguably their two best players from last season, Tai Wesley and Shawn Long, both left for rival NBL clubs. Wesley has joined expansion side South West Melbourne while Long has joined Melbourne United.
A player they didn’t want is back and their two best dudes didn’t wanna stay. Not exactly inspiring confidence, that one. It’s all vibes and feels at this point but those things can have a real effect on a team. Fan optimism is a part of the journey, otherwise why bother with media and PR factors? Rob Loe is the seventh player contracted for next season and the sixth New Zealander (along with Jarrad Weeks). That leaves three import spots and a local one still to fill and if Patrick Richard doesn’t return, and it’s kinda doubtful that he would at this point, then there go the three top scorers from last season to replace.
There are two major worries here. One is the shadow of this ownership and the other is the roster recruitment. They’re both intertwined. Of the players the Breakers have under contract, only Finn Delaney and Jarrad Weeks overachieved last season. Corey Webster and Tom Abercrombie were shadows of their former selves, Shea Ili simply couldn’t handle the step up to being a starter, and Jordan Ngatai was criminally underused all season. That could be a positive in disguise as Webster and Abercrombie could easily have resurgent seasons, especially Webster, that change the entire outlook of all this. And Ili ought to settle into a nice role off the bench again where his lack of shooting won’t be exploited the same. But for now the Breakers have retained the worse performing dudes from last season and lost the best ones when they were already chilling in sixth out of eight teams (and that SE Melly team looks quality).
The other help there is that for once there are quite a few really decent kiwi players that might be on the market. Tai Webster has had chats in the past before heading to Europe, if he wants to come back and play with his brother then there’s your starting point guard which frees up an import spot elsewhere. Alternatively Isaac Fotu or Jack Salt, maybe even Tai Wynyard, could be available and with any one of those three you’d have a defensively sound starting centre capable of scoring around the rim and bringing back the rebounding this team sacrificed last season. Jack Salt is probably the best bet of that trio and after leaving the Uni of Virginia a national champion and a cult hero there’d be plenty to get excited about there. Frankly he’s exactly the type of player the Breakers should be targeting.
As to the ownership thing, people grow and learn all the time. Matt Walsh told the NBL media team at the end of last season that he didn’t quite realise how much reverberation there’d be from a foreign ownership group coming in and switching everything up all at once. For some reason he thought he’d be embraced from the start and that’s pretty silly, to be honest.
Matt Walsh: “One thing that I probably underestimated was that coming in I’ll be accepted, they’ll treat me as a kiwi… but I think that I needed to earn my stripes and show that I really care about the organisation. We made a lot of changes and I think I underestimated the impact that those changes would have on the larger fanbase.”
Walshy’s acknowledged all that so it’s not like he’s delusional about it. In fact it’d be pretty harsh to say he doesn’t seem fully invested in this whole project, of course he is. Dude’s uprooted his life for this club and he has nothing but the best intentions for it. But those subconscious things can be hard to overcome sometimes and what we had here was the American basketball version of colonisation. The NBA is the peak, the NBA is American, the USA is far and away the strongest basketball nation on the planet which makes sense given they invented the game. But this isn’t an American club so that American exceptionalism ain’t gonna be met with anything but scepticism from a kiwi audience. Look at the gameday focus, what works for the rowdy NBA fans in the States isn’t necessarily gonna work for the laidback kiwi crowds who filter in five minutes before tipoff (to be fair that’s often because there’s no parking).
Growth and learning, mate. Although that little interview also has Walshy all but guaranteeing that if Shawn Long is back in the NBL then it’ll be with the Breakers while being non-committal about Kevin Braswell’s future with the team so zero outta two on that front. Sorta like the Breakers at the free throw line (nah jokes, for once they were actually decent from the stripe last season).
That’s kinda where we’re at with this club. Get a few of those kiwi vet going, strike gold on the imports, and a lot could change. But at the moment it all feels pretty downbuzz with the Breakers and it isn’t just the way they performed last season. There’s a weird vibe going on from the top down here. Here’s hoping it’s just an illusion.
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