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New Zealand Breakers Season Preview
The Breakers machine now has some extra local flavour with what is the first all Kiwi roster ever assembled in their existence (minus the imports and an injury replacement) and it’s the return of the legendary Kirk Penney that headlines this. The team is coming off an up and down season where they eventually snuck into the playoffs, taught Melbourne a playoff basketball lesson in their semi-final series, and then produced just 52 points in the final game of the playoffs against Perth. The Breakers ability to rebound and guard both the perimeter and rim led their success as they produced a dominant season on the defensive end helping to mask an unconvincing offense. They finished as the number one rated defense but were 7th in offensive rating on the back of a league worst turnover rate, free throw percentage and three point percentage combination. The Breakers have made an upgrade on the offensive end and now will be hoping the defensive drop is minimal enough to keep them in the title window.
Ben Woodside signals the change in the roster as much as anybody with the new import replacing perennial winner Cedric Jackson. Both certainly share some similarities with their play-making ability and their pro experience, but the comparisons stop there. Woodside is a huge upgrade as both a three point and free throw shooter with Jackson’s struggles to hit anything away from the rim (including free throws) putting some real restrictions on the team’s offense last season with the roster they had. Woodside is a crafty pick and roll player who will use his change of speed and vision to find the roller or spot up guy with regularity, whilst he at least offers the option to play off the ball as a threat when Corey Webster is handling the ball. He lacks the physical profile to bother opposing players on the defensive end like Jackson in the past though which means there is certainly a trade-off there. Jackson’s overall level wasn’t actually enough to earn an All-NBL spot last season so maybe the gap to fill isn’t as big as some may think.
Defense is more the calling card of backup point guard Shea Ili who is a top athlete and a player who made encouraging strides playing for the Wellington Saints this past season (he posted a much improved 54.4 TS% and 2.1 AST/TOV per RealGM). Unfortunately, Ili has met a hurdle already with injury set to delay his start to the season, meaning that Corey Webster will take over the backup point guard duties if Isaih Tueta cannot quickly make the most of his short term injury replacement contract. Tueta had an outstanding season in the SEABL for the Brisbane Bullets and, to my knowledge, is the best available local point guard that the Breakers could have nabbed. He plays with excellent control, has a good balance to his offensive game (including a deadly floater), and is an engaged defender.
Another Webster breakout was predicted last year and he certainly delivered after a brief absence at the start of the season due to an NBA try out. He’s a bona fide scorer in this league now and it all starts with his deadly jump shot that he can hit either off the dribble or catch. Due to his size, his NBA position would be point guard and he can certainly contribute as a ball-handler, although he’s a natural scorer and more a threat to use the pick and roll to get an open shot for himself than others. Defensively, Webster isn’t a big shooting guard but he’s improved enough to play as part of a good defensive team and he needs to continue to compete on this end with the roster changes sure to test them out at times on the perimeter.
Kirk Penney defied his age last season to help power the best offense in the league in Illawarra. He still needs no time to get his shot off and is one of the best ever at shooting with a quick release without needing to bring the ball below his chin. He’s still also smart enough to pick his spots as a driver and attack a closeout and get to the rim. The Breakers relied heavily on Webster and Tom Abercrombie for shooting last season but with Penney arriving they’ve now nabbed the ultimate upgrade and extra option on the wing.
Tom Abercrombie gives them a third elite wing on the roster and he's a pivotal two-way star role player on this team. He needs to be a difference maker on defense this season with his length and athleticism allowing him to excel on the ball and also cover some mistakes off the ball. Offensively, he’s able to regularly use his athleticism to go baseline and catch the lob whilst his almost un-guardable mid-range pull up jump shot (along with Webster) allowed New Zealand to finish first in mid-range makes last season. Playing as the small-ball four is an option as is playing in a line-up with Mika Vukona and Akil Mitchell up front where they could easily run and switch with regularity.
Finn Delaney and Jordan Ngatai are the remaining two that you could classify as wings although they are more suited to playing as smaller power forwards at the moment. The playing time of each will be limited in their debut season given the options ahead of them and their inability to consistently hit the perimeter shot. Delany has shown to be an athletic power forward and strong finisher inside but he's young, hit only single figure threes and was turnover prone in his most recent NZNBL season. Ngatai is older, a better option to defend small forwards right now, and is at the next stage with his shooting (he at least attempted a decent amount with mixed success), but he too doesn’t appear ready to break into the regular rotation and be a net positive.
The great Mika Vukona is still the heart and soul of this squad and he proved he still had some petrol in the tank when he destroyed Melbourne in game one of the playoffs with his unique ability to move like a guard but still cause havoc with his physical and smart play inside. He’s still an awesome ball handler and passer for his position but his ability to score is becoming even more limited now that he’s in his mid-thirties. This could be the season where he dips below 20 minutes per game.
The free throw dilemma isn’t completely solved as new import Akil Mitchell has proven to be a raffle from the stripe. The thing that stands out with Mitchell is how he is athletically, with his ability to run the floor and move on both ends a positive for a power forward. He and Vukona give them two mobile defensive options up front and you’d expect them to see some time together when the pick and roll is giving their centers trouble or they want to pick the pace up on offense. Mitchell will rebound well, run, catch, and finish in the paint but isn’t likely to be much of a shot creator or floor spacer in the half court.
Alex Pledger slowly worked his way back into shape last season, as evidenced by just one dunk in his first nine games before finishing with 12, and they’ll need him to be at his best in 2016-17 with his legitimate size, rebounding and shot blocking unmatched on this roster. He obviously has some limitations with his movement, given his large frame, but he can definitely be a defensive presence at the hoop and deter plenty of shots, whilst he is an even bigger asset if he can get his free throw shooting back into the mid-seventies.
Rob Loe is a nice signing and should have his moments this season off the bench as a scorer. He’s certainly not Daniel Kickert spotting up, and he’s coming off a 27.3% long range shooting season, but he did hit in the low to mid-thirties from deep for five straight seasons prior to that. Whilst he brings some sort of versatility to the roster with his shooting, he won’t bring much versatility on the defensive end and is unlikely to log many (if any) minutes next to Pledger before that matchup gets exploited.
After finishing 2016 ranked 7th in True Shooting, the Breakers have secured the personnel needed to bump that up but it has come at a cost of some athleticism. The upside is certainly real for the offense though with a creative point guard and three of the best players in the league at coming off a screen or spotting up on the wing to shoot, as well as a floor spacing big added to the mix. Pledger’s health is always a concern (the spare import spot is nice insurance there) whilst how many minutes Loe can be on the floor will be worth tracking. The all Kiwi element adds something to the mystique of the team and the three development players getting upgraded to full time spots is both equally worth congratulating and somewhat concerning regarding depth. How well Mitchell goes as a roll guy with Woodside will be interesting, given Tai Wesley’s departure leaves some scoring and shot creation available (as well as Charles Jackson's countless dunks) in the frontcourt, but that may be just picked up by the likes of Penney who will need to defy age yet again. The title window is still open but the room for error is minimal with the most likely scenario having them finishing middle of the field.