Don't count the Breakers out just yet - they might be better than you think

Across the Tasman Sea, the New Zealand Breakers have been quietly retooling.

Tucked away in Auckland, hidden from the prying eyes of Australia, the Breakers are at the beginning of a transition, one they hope will return them to earlier glory achieved this decade. After a turbulent six months from radical changes within the club, the Breakers are determined to put adversity behind and approach the upcoming season with renewed vigour. With a new and young coach in Kevin Braswell, and a fresh and versatile roster, the NBL’s preeminent dark horse have their eyes set on the prize.

Since winning their maiden title back in 2011, the Breakers have regularly been in the mix, when it comes to the NBL's top teams. In 2012 they successfully defended their title, and for good measure won their third title in a row in 2013, joining the Sydney Kings as the only teams in NBL history to three-peat as champions. In 2015 they won their fourth title and made it to the Grand Final in 2016, losing to the Perth Wildcats. The Breakers were always an experienced threat, poised to pounce on an unprepared opponent. At the end of last season however, events shook the club up in a way it had not experienced before.

After being swept by Melbourne United during last season’s playoff semi-finals, the Breakers went through significant changes, resulting in an enormous overhaul of the club. The catalyst of these changes? New management. Days before their Melbourne series, on March 1, the Breakers officially came under the control of a new majority-ownership consortium. What followed, once the season had concluded, was a mass exodus of prominent club figures.

Long-time Breakers and club legends, Mika Vukona and Alex Pledger, left to play for the Brisbane Bullets and Melbourne United respectively. 2009 MVP Kirk Penny, who had played for the Breakers during various periods, retired. Up and coming big man Robert Loe left for the Taipans on a two-year deal. Head coach Paul Henare quit his position, after failing to reach an agreement with the new ownership, a move that shocked many in the NBL basketball community.

It seemed like the Breakers' new management were losing control.

Enter new head coach Kevin Braswell. As a player with the Breakers at multiple points in his career, Braswell had gained intimate knowledge of the organisation’s culture and expectations. The Baltimore native was signed to the club on April 16 on a three-year deal. Having played with the club and been a part of the club’s first championship, the American was seen as the perfect fit.

“I understand all of the values that the club has. I understand the work ethic that people have here. I know the work that goes in to make the club perform week in and week out. It’s great to have the opportunity to coach the team,” Braswell said.

Now in his first NBL head coaching job, Braswell is cognisant of the need to gradually transition his players to his desired playing style. Given the club’s hard-fought playoff series against the future champions Melbourne United, the new Breakers coach has no intention of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “I thought the team did well last year. They lost in a decider against Melbourne, who ended up winning the title… they were right there to win it. Sometimes that’s the way the basketball gods work. So I’m just coming in trying to build on that. [I’m] not trying to change them too much, especially my first year being in the league. It’s just making sure we come in and compete.”

As the players become more comfortable, Braswell is hoping to introduce a high-octane form of basketball, akin to his own style. “Paul [Hanare] and I were different players. I’m a more uptempo player - get up and down the floor, shoot the quick shot, things like that. Some coaches don’t like that, whereas I accept it. I like to give players a lot of freedom.

“[Our offence is] going to be more of an uptempo style, a run-and-gun type of offence. Something that is exciting to watch,” Braswell said.

Braswell is confident he has the pieces to make his run and gun offence work. “The guys that we have assembled, what I can say is that every guy has a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. One of the things I think we have added here, along with the speed and the versatility of a lot of our players, is we have a lot of shooting.

“With the team that we have we will be able to get up and down [the court]. We will be able to hopefully knock down some shots; keep the floor spread out there,” Braswell said.

Among Braswell’s core roster, is Breakers loyalist Tom Abercrombie. Entering his eleventh year as both a Breaker and NBL pro, Abercrombie knows that preserving and maintaining the culture of the Breakers will be an important task, one he takes very seriously. “I’m kind of the elder statesman role on the team. I’ve been here for a long time. So it’s really important for me to make sure that everyone coming in understands what it means, what responsibilities you have when you’re a Breaker and what that means to our community, the club and everyone else. That’s a really important thing. As someone that has been [here] for a long time a lot of that responsibility does fall on me to make sure the guys understand the culture of the team.”

Abercrombie knows the process of bringing everyone together will take not only time, but patience too. “It’s no secret. There [are] obviously a lot of changes here with player personnel, coaching and management… but we are all going to work together and find out as the season begins. Preseason is going to be really important, in terms of gelling, learning each other and how we best play together and what our style is.”

Despite the upheaval the Breakers experienced, the club is preparing for a productive year ahead. As the only NBL team outside Australia, the Breakers have always embraced their outsider status. With the glare of the media spotlight on distant shores, the team is hoping to catch some people by surprise.

“I think as is the case all the time we’ve sort of flown under the radar this offseason. All the focus has been on the big Aussie teams,” Abercrombie said. “I’m confident in the group we have, to be able to compete with those guys and the changes they have made.

"I think the Breakers sometimes get forgotten about a little bit over the ditch here, but that’s the way we like it. Obviously we are going to be ready.”

A new era is about to begin. The Breakers open the season at home in a match against the Brisbane Bullets on October 11.