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NZ Breakers - 2016/17 Season Preview

New Zealand Breakers – Same but different Last season: 16-12; lost grand final to Perth 2-1 First game: Friday, 7 October v Melbourne United (Vector Arena, Auckland) Arrived: Kirk Penney, Rob Loe, Ben Woodside, Akil Mitchell, Shea Ili*, Finn Delany*, Jordan Ngatai*, Izzy Tueta (injury replacement) Departed: Cedric Jackson, Charles Jackson, Tai Wesley, Everard Bartlett, Reuben Te Rangi, Shane McDonald What happened last season? The Breakers put some early losses behind them as injuries cleared and Corey Webster returned from the NBA, turning a 1-3 start into 10-5 record and mid-season championship favouritism. The wheels fell off over the festive season, however, dropping seven of their next eight to almost fall out of playoff contention. A timely injury to Adelaide’s Jerome Randle opened the door slightly, and like champions the Breakers walked on through by winning their final five games to take fourth place. That roll continued with a sweep of ladder leaders Melbourne in the semi-finals, but ultimately their holiday season horror patch caught up with them, the Wildcats taking home-court advantage into the grand final and claiming the decider by a whopping 23 points at Perth Arena. What did the Breakers learn? That Cedric Jackson, Dean Vickerman and Richard Clarke were all departures. After their 2013 title New Zealand lost Jackson, Dillon Boucher and Andrej Lemanis and mightily missed that experience as they slipped to seventh the following season. The Breakers haven’t made the same mistake twice, key recruits Kirk Penney and Ben Woodside both veterans who will provide great leadership on and off the court. While new coach Paul Henare is a rookie on the NBL sidelines, he is coming off two standout years leading the New Zealand national team – where he has mentored seven of this Breakers roster – and was a revelation coaching the Southland Sharks to an NZ NBL championship. What do we already know? The Breaker machine will keep ticking. While there are just four returnees from the 2015/16 main roster, New Zealand have managed to maintain continuity by promoting three development players in Shea Ili, Finn Delany, Jordan Ngatai. Add to that club legend Penney and former Breakers Academy member Rob Loe – both mainstays of the Tall Blacks – and Woodside, a close friend and two-time teammate of Penney, and it leaves import power forward Akil Mitchell as the only new player without a previous connection to the club. Mika Vukona and Tom Abercrombie return as the heart and brains of the operation – having now started in four title winning teams and one fallen grand finalist – and they’ll make sure this new line-up carries the same ‘mana’ as their predecessors. The question mark? Tall Blacks or Breakers? There have always been similarities between club and national team in New Zealand, many of the same players, some of the same systems, but they have never been closer than now with the same coach for the first time and a record nine Kiwis on the Breaker roster. The absence of a dynamic penetrating point guard like Jackson also means this Breakers team will create their offence more through ball and player movement, a long tradition of the national team which has won them much acclaim on the world stage. This is a significant shift, but the addition of a quality passing and shooting big man in Loe, a perpetual motion machine in Penney and a point guard adept at setting up teammates within a system in Woodside should help make it a smooth transition. Reason for optimism? This team arguably has more weapons in the half-court than any Breakers team before it, with Penney, Abercrombie and Webster all deadly from the perimeter, and Woodside, Vukona, Loe and Mitchell all capable of facilitating inside Henare’s proven system. A key will be which Webster emerges in 2016/17, but his 65 points on France, Canada and the Philippines at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) suggests last year’s form slump has passed, while Abercrombie’s playoff campaign last season continued his emergence as a go-to man. In Mitchell, Vukona and Alex Pledger the Breakers have three outstanding defensive pieces in the frontcourt, and if Shea Ili can overcome his back injury and apply the heat that troubled Tony Parker at the OQT, New Zealand have the all-court game in place to challenge for title number five.   Written by Paulo Kennedy for NBL.com.au
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