Fall from grace as the NZ Breakers break down
On the surface the changes all appeared so minimal. But the collective outcome has been cataclysmic for the Breakers who look to be stuck in the middle of one of the most dramatic tumbles from grace that New Zealand sport has seen.
From the penthouse to the outhouse, the sublime to the ridiculous, the previously rampant Breakers have struggled so badly through the first half of their quest for an historic four-peat of Australian National Basketball League titles, that they head into the two-week Christmas break not unlike some of the contestants in last night's Fight For Life - they're hanging on the ropes, hoping to avoid a knockout blow.
At 4-9 and occupying the next to last rung on the eight-team ladder, the Breakers are in a world of hurt. They have 15 games remaining to save their season, and may have to win as many as 10 of them. The way they're playing right now, that looks about as likely as Steven Adams riding in the eighth at Ellerslie.
So, where has it all gone wrong, and what are the solutions they need to find over the remaining three months?
The former first. Four key changes have been made from last year - three personnel, one to do with style of play - and it turns out they're more important than anybody figured.
Most importantly, the stellar Cedric Jackson is no longer there, and he's been replaced by a 23-year-old - just turned yesterday - who's in his first pro assignment and is simply not the overwhelming athletic force that his predecessor was.
It's hard on new point guard Kerron Johnson to point the finger directly at him, as he's still played pretty solidly, but the fact of the matter is the Breakers no longer have a dominant point guard keying their game at both ends of the floor. Johnson, by his own admission, is still figuring this thing out and that's hurt the threepeat champions.
Gone, too, is retired forward Dillon Boucher, and he's badly missed. His numbers never reflected his true value, and the Breakers are finding that out first hand as they've had to make do without the vision, instinct, playmaking ability and leadership of a guy who always made his teams better.
Thirdly, there is the change at coach. We shouldn't forget it took Andrej Lemanis several seasons to become the mentor he became, and his successor Dean Vickerman is finding out first hand that there's a huge leap from assistant to the man calling the shots.
Vickerman is a nice guy and an excellent basketball coach, but the two don't go hand in hand. He has to find his inner anger to make a difference from his seat on the bench, and that's a process he has to figure out too.
Last but not least has been the serious shift in refereeing emphasis, away from the rugged defensive style that had become the league's norm - and which the Breakers thrived on - to a more skill-based requirement that protects the offensive player.
Only in patches this year - notably in the second half of Friday's defeat to the Perth Wildcats - have the Breakers impacted games with their defence, rather than simply run up fouls and gifted momentum away. For seven minutes in the third quarter they held the best team in the league scoreless, but couldn't execute well enough offensively to cash in.
Vickerman lamented his team's patchy urgency on Friday night, when they suffered a third straight defeat to the team with a firm grip on this championship. "That was a series game on our home floor, and to not come out with absolute desperation to win is disappointing," he said. "We'll have a few days off now as a group, then we go reset it. We're on the road now, so our mindset, and our ability to be on the same page both offensively and defensively are where we've got to improve."
Friday night presented an abject lesson, said Vickerman, on where the Breakers have to get to. They were essentially bullied into submission by a Wildcats side who wanted it more.
"We went against a team that was just tough, and we've got to find an absolute toughness. It comes with your defence. If we play the defence we played in that second half, you create enough opportunities to score. It all comes back to the toughness in our defence." Vickerman admitted it was a tough time for him personally. He has key men such as CJ Bruton, Alex Pledger, Gary Wilkinson and Corey Webster all struggling either physically, mentally or for form. He has to speed up Johnson's development.
He has the worries of a (Breaker) nation on his shoulders. "You've got to have the ability to switch off when you're with your kids . . . you can't be grumpy around them, family life should still be fun." But it's hard for a man who's waited a long time to get this chance.
"I hate losing. We're all bad losers here, and any time you take a significant amount of losses it weighs on you." The Breakers lost four games in the entire 2012-13 season, playoffs included. This time round they've already more than doubled that tally. Hurt has to be a catalyst for change, or this baby will be over.
Sunday Star Times