Nick Mills threatens to sell his Wellington Saints

BASKETBALL BOSS: Wellington Saints owner Nick Mills has distanced himself from a co-operative bid to join the Australian NBL.
BASKETBALL BOSS: Wellington Saints owner Nick Mills has distanced himself from a co-operative bid to join the Australian NBL.

Long-time owner Nick Mills says he will sell his beloved Wellington Saints if they fail to qualify for this year's NBL Final Four.

While he believes the Saints will snap out of their slump and make it a non-issue, Mills is serious about his ultimatum.

"If we don't make the playoffs this year I'll sell the team," Mills said this week, in the wake of another limp loss to the Taranaki Mountain Airs.

"I'm quite happy to say I'll sell the team because I will be letting the city down and it will be time for someone else to come in. The reason I do it is my love of basketball but also my love of my city and the fact I want to have a sports team that does do well out of my city. I want to win, not just participate."

With four regular season games left, starting at home tonight against the Canterbury Rams, the 8-6 Saints are sitting equal-third with the Waikato Pistons.

Despite the late arrival of coach Shane Heal, the star-studded Saints won their opening five games and appeared set to romp away from their rivals and claim their eighth championship.

But the road has become considerably rockier, with three imports sent packing this season and winning only three of their past nine games.

After last Friday's loss in New Plymouth, star guard Corey Webster tweeted that he had "never been so embarrassed".

There will be plenty more red faces at Saints HQ if they fail to qualify for the Final Four, with Wellington's TSB Bank Arena hosting the event next month.

Last year's playoffs in Napier were played in front of half-full stands after the Hawks missed out on the semifinals.

"When we lose two weeks in a row to teams like Manawatu and Taranaki, we know we've got a problem," Mills said.

"We did quite a bit of work on things this week and we've all looked in the mirror. I'm 100 per cent confident of Shane and the team, that between them they'll work it through."

Heal, an Australian great who played in the NBA and went to four Olympic Games during a decorated playing career, has remained calm as the losses piled up. The 43-year-old quite rightly points out that panicking is the job of media and fans, not a coach, and he is confident in his ability to right the ship.

With the Saints locked in a four-way battle for the three available semifinal spots, with Waikato, the Southland Sharks (9-4) and Nelson Giants (8-7), Heal believes three wins are required from the final four games.

"But I don't concentrate on the wins and losses," Heal said.

"It's all about the process. Our mindset has to change and we need a lot more urgency. Our defence hasn't been up to scratch and we haven't been setting screens for each other. The tape doesn't lie. But everyone now has clarity on what we need to be able to turn it around and we're confident we can."

The Saints roster is stacked, perhaps with even too much talent. With star-power all over the court, players have been guilty of drifting in and out, assuming the bloke next to him will step up and win the game.

"We've spoken about effort levels," Heal said.

"We're all in agreement that defensively the effort levels have to be far greater. I felt like in the first five games everybody really bought into that philosophy and played really hard. We have to get back to that. I get angry if we don't have effort. But it's no good me ranting and raving, it's about getting clarity to the guys about what I expect from them."

Kent Mori, a former Tall Blacks guard who played 320 NBL games for the Manawatu Jets, offers an independent view.

A former Jets assistant coach, Mori now commentates for the NBL's live streaming service, He called the Saints' meltdown in Palmerston North this month, when the Jets outscored the Saints 36-19 in the last quarter for a 100-89 win.

"It was noticeable that the Jets were playing more of a team-orientated offence, where it wasn't reliant on just one guy to score," Mori said.

"Whereas the Saints, for a three or four minute period, were getting the ball to Corey Webster and the Jets were pretty much double-teaming him. I would have expected Corey to pass it around and get it to an open Lindsay Tait or Brandon Bowman who was playing very well. But they didn't get the ball to those guys in that situation.

"But like any team I'm sure they'll learn from that and when they get put in a situation like that again, I'm sure they'll adjust. I wouldn't write off the Saints. Sometimes teams get stronger out of adversity."

The Dominion Post