New Zealand Breakers Season Preview
Last season: 16-12, fourth in regular season; lost to Perth in Grand Final
2015/16 Points For: 83.0ppg, sixth
2015/16 Points Against: 80.8ppg, second
2015/16 Field Goal Percentage: 43.8%, fourth
2015/16 Defensive Field Goal Percentage: 39.9%, first
2015/16 Three Point Field Goal Percentage: 32.6%, seventh
2015/16 Defensive Three Point Field Goal Percentage: 31.1%, first
2015/16 Free Throw Percentage: 61.6%, eighth
2015/16 Rebounds: 42.1rpg, first
2015/16 Rebound Differential per Game: +6.9, first
2015/16 Assists: 15.4apg, fourth
2015/16 Steals: 6.1spg, second
2015/16 Blocked Shots: 4.3bpg, second
2015/16 Turnovers: 13.7tpg, eighth
2015/16 Turnover Differential per Game: -1.9, eighth
NBL Titles: 4 (2011; 2012, 2013, 2015)
NBL Playoff Appearances: 7 (last time 2016)
Homecourt: North Shore Events Centre, capacity 4,500 / Vector Arena, capacity 8,500
Head Coach: Paul Henare (2nd season with New Zealand, NBL career record 1-0)
Incoming: Kirk Penney (Illawarra Hawks); Rob Loe (Belgium); Ben Woodside (import – Turkey); Akil Mitchell (import – France)
Outgoing: Duane Bailey; Cedric Jackson (import – Melbourne United); Charles Jackson (import); Shane McDonald; Reuben TeRangi (Brisbane Bullets); Tai Wesley (Melbourne United); Tai Wynyard (University of Kentucky)
Projected Starters: Ben Woodside (import); Corey Webster; Tom Abercrombie; Mika Vukona; Alex Pledger
Bench: Finn Delaney; Rob Loe; Akil Mitchell; Jordan Ngatai; Kirk Penney; Isaiah Tueta; Shea Ili (injured reserve)
Four titles in six years. Five grand final appearances in that span. Ladies and gentlemen, that is what you call a dynasty.
And while they may have fallen just short of going back to back for the second time in franchise history, the Breaker’ performance in getting to the Grand Final in 2015/16 was a pointer to their amazing culture and resilience.
There were reports of internal trouble most of the season, and there were times their chemistry was questionable. But despite their issues, they just leaned on their hyper-competitive core unit, gritted their teeth, and fought their way to the Big Dance.
One of that core group, the magnificent Cedric Jackson has departed for Melbourne, and his loss more than anything else is the one giant question mark hanging over this squad as they head into 2016/2017.
He’s been replaced by the well-travelled Ben Woodside, a guy who showed at the Australian Basketball Challenge that while he isn’t going to be as flashy or explosive as New Zealand’s former talisman he will be solid, make few errors and get everyone involved in the new offence installed by incoming coach and New Zealand basketball legend Paul Henare.
That offence, predicated on quick ball movement and players moving without the ball, is what Henare has used with the New Zealand national team for the past couple of years which is why it’s fortunate they’ve built what is essentially an augmented Tall Black roster.
They get to welcome super-scorer Kirk Penney home and another mainstay of the national program in Rob Loe; Akil Mitchell should be an upgrade on Charles Jackson up front; their outstanding core four of Corey Webster, Thomas Abercrombie, Mika Vukona and Alex Pledger remains intact and there’s some exciting youth coming through in the shape of Finn Delany, who was a revelation in Brisbane.
With that all said; they’ve been so successful and so dominant over an extended period of time that it would be folly to write them off, but there are more doubts surrounding this team than in a very long while.
How they respond without Jackson is one thing, but they also lost Richard Clarke, who has been such a brilliant leader for this franchise, and the likes of Vukona and Pledger are not getting any younger; as great as they are.
You have to throw out their performances in Brisbane given Webster and Penney didn’t play and those two will be their primary offensive weapons when the real battles are fought, but this may be one of those years – think 2014/15 – when the Breakers fall just slightly off the pace.
In such a competitive league, that may cost them in the end – but again, you wouldn’t want to bet against them.
One of the very few classic pivots in the league, seven footer Alex Pledger (6.4ppg, 5.7rpg, 1.4bpg, 56.8% FG) has battled manfully through a host of injuries the last few years but managed to play every game last season in a credit to his toughness. When he’s healthy and he gets to his favoured spots in the low block, he can be very difficult to deal with, and he will rebound and be a trusted rim protector.
It’s funny that there were a couple of raised eyebrows from some fans when I called Mika Vukona (6.2ppg, 7.5rpg) “a superstar’ at the Australian Basketball Challenge. Anyone that has been such a key contributor in five NBL championships, a stalwart of the New Zealand national team and is arguably the single most respected player in the National Basketball League is a superstar in my book. He’s as relentless a competitor as the league has ever seen, a ferocious rebounder and physical defender. Sure, he’s slowing down, but so what? The guy is still a flat-out winner, and that’s good enough for me.
6’6” small forward Tom Abercrombie (14.0ppg, 6.3rpg) is a stellar athlete with enormous hops who can take you outside and burn you from the perimeter. He’s still a guy who can hurt you in a variety of ways and he can change games at the defensive end of the floor with his tremendous length. Another multiple-time NBL champ, Tom remains a key cog in this New Zealand squad.
Out of any of the new imports in the National Basketball League, the most scrutiny may be placed on point guard Ben Woodside, which is of course patently unfair, but that’s what you get when you replace a legend. The 6’0” Woodside has had a wide-ranging career with stops in France, Slovenia, Georgia, and Italy and has played with Kirk Penney in Turkey and Spain. He’s a solid, no-nonsense leader who won’t make many mistakes and can hurt you from the perimeter.
The Breakers will be hoping that 6’2” combo guard Corey Webster (19.6ppg, 2.3apg, 2.1apg) can bounce back from what was a relatively down season for him in 15/16, despite his gaudy scoring numbers. Webster is a devastating scorer who can hurt you in a variety of ways, boasts an excellent midrange game, and can really fill it up when he gets going.
Import Akil Mitchell showcased his awesome athleticism at the ABC in Brisbane, winning the tournament’s slam dunk competition and he should provide his fair share of highlight reel plays. Kirk Penney will be a standout Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Rob Loe should be a quality backup big man. Jordan Ngatai is versatile in the backcourt, Izzy Tueta showed he could be a contributor and there’s no doubt explosive athlete Finn Delany is a coming attraction.
Will Ben Woodside have a similar impact to Cedric Jackson? In some ways, it’s an inherently unfair question, given what Jackson meant to this franchise versus a guy who’s never played in the league before. But you better believe the focus will be squarely on Woodside to run this team effectively. He doesn’t have to be Jackson 2.0 – he just has to make good decisions and play solid D.
You can never question the bona fides of a team that has been so amazingly successful and boasts five of the best players New Zealand has ever produced. But the Breakers may be in for an adjustment period this season given they have a new coach and new point guard running the show and on the whole the imports look to be more complementary pieces than real difference-makers. Of course, they’ll be highly competitive, but I suspect the Breakers might find a playoff spot beyond them this season.