Last season perennial NBL contenders, the New Zealand Breakers, narrowly missed the finals. After finishing the 2016/17 season in second place as they positioned themselves (unsuccessfully) for back-to-back titles, fifth place was a stark reminder of just how even-- how competitive-- last season really was.
2017-18 brings new hope to the Breakers after an injury plagued season. Can they remain healthy and restore order by returning to the NBL finals?
(*All statistics noted below are courtesy of RealGM)
Key Additions: James Hunter (Southland, NZNBL), DJ Newbill (BC Oostende, Belgium), Edgar Sosa (JuveCasterta, Italy)
Key Losses: Kevin Dillard (PAOK Thessaloniki, Greece), Corey Webster (Nahariya, Israel), Akil Mitchell (Brooklyn Nets, NBA), Paul Carter (Chalon-Reims, France), David Stockton (free agent), Ben Woodside (free agent)
For the Breakers, it is not so much about who they are bringing in, but it is who they have lost since last season. The Breakers had a tough time with injuries to key players, none more so that Akil Mitchell who almost literally lost his eye (watch here - warning - not for the faint-hearted). While Mitchell has thankfully since fully recovered and managed to secure himself a place on the Brooklyn Nets roster, the normally stable and consistent Breakers roster endured a revolving door of imports.
Mitchell and his valuable 9.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game are not returning. Kevin Dillard who produced a team-best 18.1 points, 4 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, albeit across just 9 games, will also not be back. But the biggest name not able to be enticed back for 2017-18 is Corey Webster.
Webster who could have been regarded as the heir-apparent to Kirk Penney, instead will be playing in Europe and a massive loss for the Breakers. While he only played 15 games for 12.1 points per outing last season, his offensive spark and ability to lift the team will be sorely missed.
The Breakers have brought in James Hunter after the 6'10 power forward starred in the NZ NBL with Southland. However all eyes will be on incoming imports DJ Newbill and Edgar Sosa.
Newbill joins the Breakers after playing the 2015-16 season in France with ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne-- the same team as Melbourne United's David Andersen-- and last season in Belgium with BC Oostende. The 6'4 guard was good for 7.8 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, numbers that do not invoke any real excitement. After a standout career at Penn State, the 25-year-old has yet to live up to his potential as a pro, and he will be looking forward to elevating his game with the Breakers this season-- and they will need it!
A 6'2 point guard, the Breakers will be hoping Sosa will be their primary floor general this season and could quickly become a new fan favourite.
The Louisville graduate has played in the Spanish ACB, German Bundesliga and most recently in the Italian Serie A with JuveCaserta where he averaged 19.3 points and 5.9 assists per game. He also played a short stint with Al Riyadi Beirut in Lebanon last year, adding 13 points and 5.2 assists per game.
Sosa brings to the Breakers experience at running a team in some of the top leagues in Europe, and should be able to make an immediate impact and be an exciting player to watch.
WHAT TO EXPECT
At least half of the New Zealand Tall Blacks side make a genuine attempt at dragging their side back into the finals, with Sosa taking the lead.
Despite the Breakers changing imports and losing Webster, there is still an air of familiarity surrounding the side which remains loaded with home-grown talent that boasts plenty of experience.
The evergreen Kirk Penney is back, along with another stalwart of New Zealand basketball in Mika Vukona. However age is not on their side.
Penney turns 37 in November, and while he showed he still can score, he is however becoming an even greater liability defensively as he tries to guard quicker and more athletic younger opponents. Vukona turned 35 this year, and while he has been an absolute workhorse for the Breakers throughout his career, like Penney, time is no longer on his side. Penney and Vukona's leadership and experience will undoubtedly remain invaluable.
One feels more is needed from Tom Abercrombie this season if they are to return to finals action. While he is a genuine and exciting talent, he has never really been able to take the lead role with the Breakers and become the star many believed he was destined to be. Sure, he has had a great career, won NBL titles and earned some due recognition. Maybe I am being a bit harsh. But he could have-- and still could be-- much more that what we have seen to date. If ever there was such an opportunity, the time is now. He has recovered from his broken hand sustained last season, and has spent some quality time in the gym and bulked up after a first off-season away from the national team program in some time. If ever there was such an opportunity, the time is now.
Abercrombie has some quality front court partners returning too, with Alex Pledger once again anchoring the middle, and Rob Loe doing his best to space opposition defenses with his ability to hit from long-range. Throw in Vukona and new recruit Hunter, and the Breakers will again provide a solid, workmanlike rotation through the paint, with the class of Abercrombie shining through. They have a front line capable of matching it with any other NBL team, provided they stay healthy.
The addition of Sosa to the side is an exciting prospect, and while Newbill will get his minutes as an import, expect to see Shea Ili edge his way in front of the American in the rotation. With the talented and promising Finn Delaney also fighting for minutes in the back court, there is reason to think big for Breakers fans.
Shea Ili appears primed, almost destined, to be the breakout young star the Breakers need.
He averaged 16.1 points, 6.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals and was named Finals MVP for the Welllington Saints on the back of an impressive career-high 31-point outburst in the championship victory. What followed was even more impressive in the NBL off-season.
Ili took the lead for a young Tall Blacks side at the FIBA Asia Cup where he managed to work himself into an All Star Five selection. The 24-year-old 6'0 point guard was a revelation for the Tall Blacks before his tournament was ended prematurely when he split the webbing in his hand. He would conclude an outstanding tournament with averages of 15.4 points, 5.8 assists, 2.2 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game.
Last season Ili was hampered by his troublesome back, courtesy of an off-season with the Tall Blacks. Having shaken his back ailments and recovered from his hand injury, Ili is likely to relish the opportunity to play alongside the experienced Sosa. Together, they could form a formidable back-court pairing.
In face value, the Breakers do not appear as deep, talented or dangerous as some other NBL sides. However any Breakers opponent this season-- especially on Kiwi soil-- should be prepared for a battle.
Sosa and Ili, with Newbill and Penney, are a legitimately talented back-court grouping, while Delaney shows good promise. Abercrombie, Vukona, Pledger and Loe are also formidable as a front court quartet. If Sosa comes up with the goods as advertised, and Newbill can live up to his potential, this Breakers team could be VERY good and a finals berth is a realistic goal.
2016-17 may have been one of the closest NBL seasons on record and the Breakers just missed the finals cut. One feels that for New Zealand to return to the post season, they will need to stay healthy - they can't afford any injuries to their key players. Mind you, you could say that about most teams.
PREDICTED RECORD: 16-12
Like last season, the competition will once again be fierce and very close. New Zealand have the talent, experience and potential. Plus they have a home court advantage that is almost unrivaled in the NBL.
Paul Henare has fast become a great coach, and if he can keep his team healthy and focused, the top 4 and finals action beckons.