Since their return to the NBL in 2016, the Brisbane Bullets have struggled to find success. In their last two seasons, the Bullets have twice finished at the bottom of the table. Things have changed however. A carefully crafted new roster and a boost to team leadership could mean the Bullets are on their way back.
The fortunes of an NBL franchise can change rapidly. It’s essential to always reflect and be able to learn from past experiences. For Brisbane head coach Andrej Lemanis, the biggest takeaway from last year was the importance of a united team mentality.
“I think one of the things that continued to stand out from last year was the importance of team chemistry, and everyone pulling in the same direction.”
Lemanis, an extremely experienced coach, feels that crafting a group identity amongst the players is key to the Bullet’s resurrection. “That’s one of the challenges in any team sport, is to have [a group of] individuals that understand that ultimately, their individual games are based on the team doing well.”
For the Bullets, this offseason was all about building a roster composed of skilled and team-oriented individuals. The Bullets certainly didn’t waste time, swelling their ranks with some of the league’s most tried and tested names. In April, the Bullets signed Jason Cadee and Cameron Gliddon, both off whom had stellar performances in their latest season, hitting 43% of their respective 3-pointers.
In that same month, they also signed former 36er Matthew Hodgson, who’s lending his towering frame and post offence to the Bullet’s cause. However, arguably Brisbane’s most important pickup however, could be former New Zealand Breaker Mika Vukona.
To put it simply, the 36-year-old New Zealander knows how to win, and does what it takes to get there. In his past 15 seasons in the NBL, Vukona has won five NBL championships, including one with the now-defunct South Dragons. For veteran guard Adam Gibson, Vukona’s addition to the team is a blessing. “[Vukona] sets a tone and really helps our culture. There is a reason why he has won so many championships and been so successful in New Zealand, it’s because of the person that he is. He just demands so much respect.”
Gibson, who is heading into his 14th NBL season, is also welcoming Vukona’s assistance on team leadership, especially from someone on the team who has been a proven leader. “It’s great to have his voice in the locker room, in the huddles, in training. He not only talks the talk but he walks the walk. He’s someone that, if he’s demanding something of someone else, you can guarantee he is doing it himself.”
For Lemanis, who coached Vukona with the Breakers, the five-time champion is the glue that will make sure the team sticks together and maintains its discipline through the course of a season. “He just ensures that the intensity stays where it needs to be for everybody to continue to improve. He ensures we are practicing at the level that we will need to play at during games. There are no shortcuts… He delivers an absolute commitment to his teammates, ensuring their welfare, screening for them, sacrificing himself so those teammates can show up. It’s just invaluable.”
Another interesting addition for the Bullets is Japan’s reigning B.League MVP, Makoto Hiejima. The Japanese guard signed with the Bullets in early August, under the NBL’s Asian Player rule. The rule allows a team to use one of its roster spots reserved for local players on a player born in Asia or Oceania. After dominating in his home country, Hiejima came to NBL in the hope of challenging himself and further developing his skills, a desire that Lemanis admires immensely. “It’s an inspirational story. Why wouldn’t you want to work with somebody like that? [With] someone who is prepared to sacrifice and give up a lot of comfort [in order] to go and achieve a goal and test himself. The fact he’s coming with that mindset – for me, it is exciting.”
His addition gives the Bullets even greater flexibility and depth in the guard position. Lemanis, who is also the head coach of the Boomers, knows first hand how dangerous Hiejama can be, having recently faced him on the international stage this June. The Boomers lost the game to Japan 79-78, with Hiejima finishing with 6 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. “He was somebody that we spent time on from a scouting perspective because he’s someone that could hurt us. He is a really nice passer of pick and rolls and he can certainly stick a three ball when he’s open, and he gets into it defensively,” Lemanis said.
With a busy and productive offseason, that saw them accrue a variety of diversely talented players, the Bullets are confident they have crafted a winning team identity. The Bullets have strived to build a team centred on basketball intelligence, combining skill with guile. “We’ve got player that will share the basketball and have a great IQ. The ball moves. We’re able to manipulate situations, find our advantages,” Lemanis said. “Every game is different, so the ability to think your way through it and find a way to give yourself the best chance of success is an important trait. I really feel that we’ve got that, combined with [a] willingness to sacrifice for the good of the group. It puts us in a good position to be pretty special.”
For Gibson, who has been with the revamped Brisbane Bullets since the beginning, there is a feeling of confidence in the air within the new roster. “Already in the first couple of weeks we have been together, there is just a different vibe around the group. I think everyone is here for the right reasons; they’re locked in and committed.”
After two years of finishing at the bottom of the NBL ladder, the Brisbane Bullets can only go up. The team has got their crosshairs trained on the NBL championship trophy, and are aiming straight for the top. It’s the Bullets’ third year back in the competition, and Brisbane fans will be hoping that the third time really is the charm.
Brisbane will open the season against the New Zealand Breakers on October 11.