Breakers MVP Kirk Penney sees positives in bittersweet finish to ANBL season
Kirk Penney doesn't read the tea leaves with the same accuracy he knocks down open jumpers, but he's pretty sure the omens are favourable for a Breakers outfit who finished an agonising one spot off a place in the ANBL playoffs.
In fact, Penney, anointed club MVP at Thursday night's annual awards dinner, couldn't help but be struck by a feeling of deja-vu as he signed off on his return season to New Zealand with rather bittersweet emotions.
"The first couple of days [after missing the playoffs] we were all a bit hungover with the result, just feeling awful about it," said the 36-year-old shooting guard who has played 138 games and scored a record 3000-plus points for the club.
"But the theme tonight is a good one: it is about growth and some great things happened this year, we had some great memories and some awesome wins in those last eight games.
"It is a little bittersweet, but I think we just want to focus on the sweet stuff.
"There's a lot of excitement for next year and the club is in a great spot in terms of personnel. There are some really good young Kiwis coming through and I'm excited for them. Hopefully my minutes get less and less because they're playing really well."
It's a long bow, but Penney admitted to feeling much as he did at the end of the 2009-10 season when the Breakers similarly missed a playoff spot by one game after Kevin Braswell came in as a late-season replacement and keyed a five-game win streak to finish the season.
The next year (2010-11) the Breakers won their first championship, and Penney draws a parallel with this group, keyed by Kevin Dillard's late arrival, who won six of their last eight and also came within a whisker of an unlikely playoff push.
"What was so bittersweet about that was I felt like we had the team to win it, and I also felt going into the playoffs this year we actually had a team that could win it," he reflected. "Adding [Kevin] Dillard helped a lot, and with Finn [Delany] coming on that last game you were 'oh man, what's going to happen in the playoffs if he can play like that?' And Shea [Ili] too.
"We went through so many speedbumps and at times we weren't a great team because we were all over the place. But by the end we were back to being a great team and I just hope we can take that into next year because unfortunately we can't take it into the playoffs."
The Breakers have six strong pieces already in place for next year, and Penney said it was an exciting prospect to think about what Delany and Ili could achieve alongside the veteran core of himself, Tom Abercrombie, Mika Vukona and Alex Pledger. Rob Loe is unsigned, but a probable returnee too.
"Finn is doing really special things," observed Penney of the athletic Nelson 21-year-old. "There are two things really important for young guys, and you look for it straight away: are they a sponge and listen to everything, and do they have a work ethic?
"He has both those things, and if you've got good genes and athleticism, which he does, my gosh you could go a long way. The sky is the limit for Finn.
"Shea has special talents too, different to Finn's, but he needs to keep those shining, and in the New Zealand league really work on his point guard skills, and being a floor general."
Penney shrugged off the heavy workload he took on, with his 17.4ppg coming from over 30 minutes an outing, and said his off-season break and careful attention to his body combined to have him in prime condition.
In terms of recruitment decisions, Penney was happy to leave those to his former team-mates Dillon Boucher and Paul Henare, but did make a key point around the importance of the point guard position.
"I don't agree you have to have a scoring point guard, but I do believe you have to have a great point guard ... that point guard position is such an important piece. Look at the NBA, the point guard position is really important right now and it's no different in this league. I'm sure when they pick their imports that will be the first piece they focus on."
Penney said it had been a "transition" year as he moved his young family back to New Zealand, but felt he'd be more settled for 2017-18, when he returns after another off-season back in the US.
That break, he says, is vital for a player at the tail end of his career. "I suppose there will be a time when I'll say, 'hey guys, I can't go', but right now I try to do the little things to always take care of the body and make sure every time I go on court I'm ready.
"The off-season [break] is huge ... the human body is incredible and it heals. I've been talking a lot to Mika and Rob about it. 'This off-season, guys, if you have niggles rest, and when those niggles go and you get the itch to play again, then lace 'em back up, because then you get in shape quickly because the fire is burning'."
With another MVP award tucked under his belt, it's hard to argue with the logic of the ageless Penney.
BREAKERS 2016-17 SEASON AWARDS
• Brian Pankhurst Club Person of the Year: Fiona Marmot
• Paul Henare Cup, Young Player of the Year: Sam Waardenburg
• Defensive Player of the Year: Tom Abercrombie
• MVP's MVP (fans choice): Kirk Penney
• Club MVP: Penney