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The Big Questions

2017-18 Sydney Kings memberships now on sale! Click here - bit.ly/2r3t0Za - to become part of the revolution! #KingsRevolution   Sydney Kings Managing Director Jeff Van Groningen answers some burning questions from NBL writer Matt McQuade as he talks imports, Andrew Gaze's coaching performance and much more.   After being in the number one spot on the NBL table for a large portion of the season, the Sydney Kings fell short of their own expectations when the dust settled on the 2016/2017 campaign.   Chairman Harvey Lister stated at the team’s season launch that a playoff appearance was expected, and the pressure was immediately on new Managing Director Jeff Van Groningen and rookie head coach Andrew Gaze to make that a reality.   A 5-1 start was outstanding and had some proclaiming that the Kings were title favourites, as unrealistic as that might have been given the team was coming off a season where they finished with the worst record in franchise history and their second wooden spoon in the previous six seasons.   But due to injury, import issues and the constant need to shuffle players in and out of the squad, the team fell away down the stretch, with their final round loss to the Perth Wildcats keeping them from their first playoff appearance since 2013.   Ultimately, it’s a results-driven business. And a 13-15 finish – the team’s seventh consecutive losing season – is not what the organisation was looking for.   Still, there were some enormous positives. The move to Qudos Bank Arena – a genuine NBA-level facility – paid off handsomely, culminating in the team’s largest stand-alone home crowd in its history. The game night experience – anchored by a multi-million dollar state of the art video scoreboard – was without peer. And the community engagement was stronger than ever and remains a key pillar of the club’s organisational strategy.   But in the end, for all the quality off court work that has been and will continue to get done, it will be the results on court that will matter the most. To their credit, neither Jeff Van Groningen nor Andrew Gaze shy away from that.   In a candid and wide-ranging interview, Jeff sat down with Matt McQuade to give his thoughts on his first season in charge, the performance of Andrew Gaze, the squad he is building for 2017/2018 and where the club is headed.     Q: The 2016/2017 season featured new ownership, new management, new coaches, a new stadium and a significantly different roster for the Sydney Kings. What are your thoughts on the season, both on and off the court, and what are you most proud of? A: Starting on the court, because that’s our product and the content that underpins our business – the season really split into two parts. There was a very successful first half of the season, then from about midway through we had some more challenging times. There were many different contributing factors to that, and in combination it resulted in us not playing as well as we had to that point. We then got back in the mix for a playoff spot – we were in there if we'd won the last game. We finished just short of where we wanted to be.   Off court was successful. I think people that attended would now acknowledge that Qudos Bank Arena is a premier basketball venue. It’s a basketball-specific stadium so things like sightlines, the atmosphere within that stadium and so on simply can't be replicated at multi-purpose venues. I think the move to the QBA was a huge positive for us, especially once the crowds really started to come as the season went on. But off-court successes were not just about game night – even though the NBA-style presentation we put on was a highlight and really well received. We had a strong and growing community engagement that we were really happy to be part of. We worked closely with a number of schools, hospitals, charities and other groups, and we never moved away from that as part of our vision, which historically goes back a long way with the Kings. That's in the club's DNA. Then, from an awareness standpoint, all of the qualitative analysis we’ve done during and after the season shows us that the Sydney Kings brand presence grew strongly in the 2016/2017 season. When you’ve got a growing presence in a city that’s as competitive and vibrant as Sydney is, that’s a success. Another highlight was bringing a crowd of over 11,000 into the stadium, which is a great credit to the Sydney basketball community. We really appreciate their support and look forward to more of that.   So on court, we were extremely close but not quite there, and off court we had some significant wins.   Great game-day look   Q: How would you rate Andrew Gaze’s performance as a first-year head coach? A: The knowledge base and passion that Andrew brought as Head Coach of the Kings was strong and what I anticipated. Since his retirement from playing, Andrew had become so well-known as a media figure that perhaps pushed to the back of people's memories was the fact that he's a seven-time NBL MVP, five-time Olympian and without a doubt a strongly influential figure when it comes to the  international success being experienced by so many Australians now. Those attributes – his knowledge and his vast experience – in my mind made his appointment as a Head Coach incredibly logical. I’ve always been confident that he would make that transition to NBL coaching. I'm just happy and fortunate that it occurred at a club I run.   Andrew’s had more coaching experience than most people realise – through SEABL and some of the elite level teams he’s taken to China for many, many years as an example – but having the chance to get in the thick of it at NBL level was the next challenge for him and I think he did it very well. Like all good coaches, I know that his mind has been ticking over constantly as he looks ahead to what the Kings structure will continue to evolve into this season, how it will look, what we can do to improve. There are exciting times ahead.     Q: Dean Vickerman is highly respected and is a big loss to the program. What was the thinking around elevating Luke Kendall to a full-time assistant role? A: Dean was a championship-winning head coach and a high-level assistant coach for many years in the NBL and Andrew and I had always understood those skills could see him called upon to make a return to Head Coaching – and of course, we wish him well. Luke Kendall is a young man who, in coaching terms, is in the relatively early stages, but he's moving forward strongly. We felt Luke’s elevation was logical because he’s had a strong involvement at the Kings during a very successful era in the past; he’s a passionate Sydney basketball person, he has had strong involvement at state league level and he’s been involved with the development of good Sydney juniors for some time. We had him here last year in what was to be initially a part-time role, but he certainly went above and beyond – it showed us that he wanted to be an established member of the Kings’ coaching staff and to contribute strongly. Above all else he’s a quality individual; he’s extremely well respected by his peers and the players he works with. We were just lucky to have Luke available when a full-time role became vacant.     Q: Is there a risk in going with a relatively inexperienced coaching group this season? A: In technical terms, Andrew Gaze was a rookie NBL head coach and Lanard Copeland didn’t have NBL coaching experience prior to last season. But I think you look at the individuals and say those labels aren’t as applicable in this case as they otherwise might be. Andrew’s accomplishments are too many to name and Lanard is a Hall of Famer. Then you add Luke – a guy who has experienced great success and was that ‘coach on the floor’ type, and I think that between them, none of them feel anything like inexperienced coaches to me. They collectively possess a strong knowledge base borne out of significant experience. If there's any risk, I feel those factors mitigate that risk into insignificance.     Q: Turning to the playing group – Perry Ellis comes from an outstanding college program where he performed brilliantly. That said, what was the thinking behind pulling the trigger so quickly on one of your imports, considering that NBA Summer League doesn’t start for a month? A: There’s certainly different ways you can go about import selection in terms of timing, and I think you’ll find the second guy will take us some time. And when it came to Perry, I didn’t want to take a chance and wait, given I believe he will attract significant international attention when he goes through the summer. When Perry wasn't drafted to the NBA last year – which surprised many – he elected to play in the NBA D-League and advised his agents that he wasn’t interested in going down the international route at that point in time. He wanted to stay close to home and be ready in the event of an NBA call-up. But when I enquired with his agents a couple months ago as to his current thinking, they told me that he was now open to at least listening to an international scenario. So knowing that the decision-making process for leagues in Greece and Italy and so on often occurs later in the off-season, I thought that if we left it until August or September we’d be running a risk of losing him to those other territories. Ultimately, we were fortunate that Perry was open to an international move at the same time we were interested in signing him.     Q: What’s the strategy around the other two open import slots? A: We’re always open-minded about using all three import spots. However, our thinking at the moment is that we’ll have two imports coming into the season, unless something drastic happens like an injury or an NBA contract takes one of our key players away from us. Assuming that our key guys are all there, it’s likely we’ll just pull the trigger on one more import. In terms of what position that import will be, we are assessing our options at the 5/4 spot.     Q: There’s a school of thought that the team desperately needs a gun import point guard in the mould of a Bryce Cotton, a Casper Ware or Jerome Randle. Cotton in particular won Perth a championship last season and the Kings struggled to deal with import point guards as a rule. What are your thoughts on that and pivoting from that, what do you expect from Kevin Lisch next season? A: The point – pardon the pun – is well made. I do not shy away from the fact that we had a hard time handling guys like Bryce Cotton or Casper Ware. But the point I would make is that we weren’t on our own there. Seven other teams struggled to contain Jerome Randle – that’s why he was the league MVP. Bryce Cotton had 45 in a championship-deciding game against a grand final team! Who had any answers for him? So it’s 100% correct to say we had problems with those dynamic smaller guards, but we weren't alone. In our case, we had a few mitigating circumstances as well.   One of those, which really only came out in the last month of the season, was that Kevin was carrying an injury that he was very loathe to talk about, because that isn’t his way. He was substantially impeded by a knee complaint which was only cleaned up recently. Pleasingly, all indications are that the surgery went well and he’ll be 100% ready to go next season. So we were restricted in our ability to ball-contain those small, quick guards that the league had an unprecedented number of last season. I do think Steve Blake would have helped us in that area, and he did so when he was here, but when we lost him that left Kevin with his knee, and Jason Cadee to try and deal with those types of players on their own, with no relief guard in the rotation until the last few games. While their effort was valiant, there’s no doubt those smaller guys got off the chain against us.   In regards to getting an import point guard – I would argue that it’s easier to make that kind of a statement than it is to understand how that actually looks. I mean, are we suggesting that a two-time MVP isn’t the answer at the point? I don't think so. We do need to have another player available to rotate through the backcourt when required so we're not short-handed, which is what we had with Steve Blake. That’s why we brought him in. We remain open-minded about adding another guard to the rotation, but it’s more likely now that will be an Australian guard.     Q: It can be challenging getting an American big, the team has lost Julian Khazzouh and Aleks Maric’s status is uncertain. With that in mind, how important will it be to get a quality Australian in that 4/5 spot? A: I think it’s likely that we’ve got two bigs to bring in – an import and an Australian. It’s about securing the best possible talent we can get as an Australian and the best possible talent we can get as an American. The question will be who will play the bulk of the minutes? That will just depend on the person. I mean, if you get the second coming of Chris Anstey, then the American might play behind that guy. But you have to find that guy, and right now it’s more likely the import would start for us. Either way, you’re right – we have to get an Aussie big and we have to get an American big. We think young Dane Pineau is another big with great upside, but it's early days for him as a rookie.     Q: How important was it for the team to get another swingman in Todd Blanchfield who can shoot the ball well and defend multiple positions on the floor? A: Really, really important, because it will help in a number of areas. You mentioned the shooting – any team can always find room for an elite-level three point shooter, which Todd is. Secondly, we feel it will help Brad Newley a lot, because there were times last year when we looked at Brad and thought it would be nice to give him a short break, because he plays such a high-energy game, but we didn’t have the luxury to do that. So Todd will help out tremendously there, because he can swing between the two and three really easily. When Brad needs a rest, Todd can slide in there at the three. It gives us versatility – we see him as an elite-level two and an elite-level three who probably can play some minutes at the four if we go small. Todd’s a player very much in his prime and I think it was a really good get. In addition, he’s a terrific person and that's a real asset.     Q: Let’s talk about preseason. What has the club got planned so far in terms of preseason games? A: It’s still being planned but the exciting thing that we do know is that there a number of high-quality college teams that are coming to Australia in August. Texas Christian University is coming, Wisconsin is another good one on the way, as are Oklahoma and American University. Those games will give us an interesting variety of looks in our preseason. We’d also anticipate that we’d have a couple of games against our traditional rivals Illawarra, who we have tremendous respect for, and maybe Adelaide as well. There’s a possibility we will go to China again, but that’s still being worked on.     Q: Most – if not all – fans were very happy with the game night experience in 2016/2017. What, if anything, are you looking to improve in that regard for the upcoming season? A; We’ve got some things in mind that we’re keeping under wraps for now, but I think there were some big things done last season, such as our Sword in the Stone concept, that we are trying to build into a tradition. Because we made so many changes and additions coming into last season, part of the brief will be to build some consistency with those things and let them sink in. We don’t want to remove some of the things that worked well. We also have some cracking additions and some things planned that we think will get the crowd really excited.   Sydney is a highly competitive sporting market and we’re asking people to pay money to come and see our games. Even though we think a Sydney Kings ticket is a great value proposition, we’re still asking people to pay money. I believe that most people say "I’m happy to pay money for a ticket, provided I get value for it", so our singular focus should always be providing value on game nights. We want people leaving Qudos Bank Arena believing that their friends and family had a great night and looking forward to getting back to the next game. That's the goal.   What’s really exciting for me – and it’s going to form a large part of our new marketing campaign – is that there’s a basketball revolution happening right now in Australia. There’s a casual awareness of basketball now that hasn’t existed for a very long time in this country, maybe since the Michael Jordan era, when people who previously hadn’t cared about basketball suddenly had an interest. I believe that through the awareness of the NBA and international basketball, plus our successes in NBA, college and US high schools, elite international junior competitions and other overseas leagues, that there really is a revolution going on. So our messaging is come and be part of that 'basketball revolution' in Sydney and we want you to see what all the fuss is about.     Q: Finally, what’s your message to fans, both current and potential, about this club and where it’s heading? A: The message from me is that we are very appreciative of the support we received last season. People gave us a chance; they came into Qudos Bank Arena to see what it was like. Hopefully we gave them a reason to come back the next week, the next month, and build from there. I would like to say thanks for giving us a look, thanks for giving us a shot, let’s do it again. We didn’t deliver the ultimate aim, which was an NBL title, but we know with the support of our members and fans we can get there. So to every Sydney Kings’ fan and prospective fan – please come with us, stay with us...help us get that playoff spot and great things can happen from there!
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