Parity was a defining trait of the B.League during the 2022-23 season. But several outstanding teams set a standard of excellence that elevated the league throughout.
Ryukyu had finished the previous season as the championship runner-up, falling to the Utsunomiya Brex in the title series. That experience fueled the Golden Kings' singular focus during its march to the title in the 2022-23 campaign, with coach Dai Oketani's club winning 48 of 60 games before the playoffs.
At the same time, the Jets, who had a league-record 53-7 in the regular season, fell short of bringing a title to John Patrick in his first season at the helm.
To this observer, there's zero evidence that the Golden Kings and the Jets shouldn't be considered the B.League's powerhouse teams in the 2023-24 season. Both franchises are models of stability, with an active presence in signing veteran players to improve their rosters each offseason.
That said, the Alvark Tokyo (42-18), Kawasaki Brave Thunders (40-20), Shimane Susanoo Magic (48-12), Nagoya Diamond Dolphins (43-17) and Hiroshima Dragonflies (41-18) are poised to be in the mix for playoff berths once again. (Eight of 24 B.League first-division teams qualify for postseason play.)
When analyzing the makeup of the B.League, which features three divisions (aka B1, B2 and B3), a big focus must be on the strength of the West's top-four clubs. Consider the following: Of the seven B1 teams that won 40 or more games in 2022-23, four reside in the Western Conference ― Ryukyu, Shimane, Nagoya and Hiroshima.
Prediction: Yokohama B-Corsairs Continue Ascension
As for the aforementioned parity, 12 of 24 clubs finished in the 22-to-33-win range.
At the top of that list: the Yokohama B-Corsairs (33-27).
My prediction: The B-Corsairs will make a run at 40 wins this season. Rising star Yuki Kawamura flourished in the FIBA Basketball World Cup for Japan, gaining valuable international experience and bolstering his on-court confidence as a player. He'll be the biggest difference-maker for Yokohama.
Kawamura, the reigning B.League MVP, is only 22 years old. But his dynamic playmaking skills, bold forays to the basket along with a solid shooting touch are impactful. Competing for Akatsuki Japan in Okinawa gave Kawamura important one-on-one tests and opportunities to gain greater understanding of how to thrive against any opponent.
In 2021-22, the B-Corsairs went 22-35. Now, a winning foundation has been established.
Scott Has Big Ambitions for the B-Corsairs
Expect Yokohama to be one of the B.League's most compelling squads to follow this season. The addition of big man Josh Scott, a title winner with the Brex, gives the club a key inside anchor. A former University of Colorado player, Scott averaged 11.7 points and 10.0 rebounds for Utsunomiya last season.
"I am excited to be joining the Yokohama B-Corsairs organization," Scott said in a statement in June. "Together we have a chance to do great things. Looking forward to working with the organization, the staff and my teammates."
Plenty of Room for Improvement
In the 2022-23 campaign, the following teams also won between 22 and 33 games: Kyoto Hannaryz and Fighting Eagles Nagoya (identical 22-38 records), San-en NeoPhoenix and Ibaraki Robots (23-37), SeaHorses Mikawa and Osaka Evessa (27-33), Sunrockers Shibuya (28-32), Shinshu Brave Warriors (29-30), Gunma Crane Thunders and Akita Northern Happinets (29-31) and Utsunomiya Brex (32-28).
NeoPhoenix Target Better Results This Season
Marking Atsushi Ono's first season as head coach, the NeoPhoenix made a 13-win improvement in 2022-23 from their disappointing 2021-22 (10-48). Veteran American big man David Dudzinski, who played the past two seasons for the Turkish League's Bursaspor Basketbol, joined the NeoPhoenix in the summer. He averaged 10.0 points per game in 2022-23.
Popular Filipino guard Thirdy Ravena is back for his fourth season with San-en.
Ravena and Dudzinsnki provided a glimpse of the NeoPhoenix's offense potential in the upcoming season in the team's 90-81 victory in an Emperor's Cup game against B2's Rizing Zephyr Fukuoka on September 23. Ravena paced San-en with 25 points and Dudzinski had 23 points and 11 rebounds to augment frontcourt mate Coty Clarke's 18 points and nine boards. San-en newcomer Clarke suited up for the Diamond Dolphins the past two seasons.
"We got a little banged up at the end," Ono told reporters after the game. "But I think the players raised their intensity level and performed well on the court, which led to the victory."
The Spotlight Shines on Hawkinson and Tanaka
Like Kawamura, Josh Hawkinson also played a prominent role for Japan during the Basketball World Cup. The naturalized Japanese big man, who was born in Seattle, delivered an eye-opening performance on the global stage, showcasing his all-around skills. He averaged 21.0 points and 10.8 rebounds, team-high totals in both categories, in five games.
Hawkinson joined the rebuilding Sunrockers in the offseason after suiting up for the Brave Warriors from 2020-23. The Washington State alum now gives Shibuya bench boss Pavicevic a high-energy cornerstone for the team's frontcourt.
Teaming up with Hawkinson and getting a fresh start of his own is veteran shooting guard Daiki Tanaka, one of the pillars of the Alvark's back-to-back titles in 2017-18 and 2018-19 under Pavicevic. After an injury-plagued final season with Tokyo, Tanaka looks to revitalize his career with the Sunrockers, who also signed veteran floor leader Anthony Clemmons to bolster the backcourt rotation. Clemmons contributed 11.0 points, 3.0 assists and 1.1 steals playing for Turkish club Bursaspor in 2022-23.
Tanaka's former Alvark teammate Genki Kojima, another capable offensive conductor, returns for his second season with Shibuya, which also relies on longtime floor leader Leo Vendrame to run the offense.
Tanaka Outlines Goals for the Sunrockers
Looking ahead to the 2023-24 season, Tanaka said in late June that he has confidence the team's vision for success has been clearly outlined.
"I believe there is a lot we can do as a new team is being built by a coach who knows the team well himself," Tanaka said at the time. "It is not an easy road, but we have a solid vision for this team. We are willing to do whatever we can to achieve our goal of winning the championship."
A Key Storyline to Follow from Gunma
Can Koh Flippin help take the Crane Thunders to the next level?
In Game 2 of the B.League Finals in May 2023, Flippin was exceptional for the Golden Kings, scoring 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. He also handed out eight assists in Ryukyu's title-clinching victory at Yokohama Arena.
After averaging 13.8 minutes per game last season for a team with a deep bench, Flippin's move to Gunma should provide opportunities for greater playing time.
Another Crane Thunders newcomer to keep an eye on is Ben Bentil, the 51st pick in the 2016 NBA Draft (Boston Celtics).
Bentil, a 204-cm forward/center born in Ghana, had a three-game stint with the Dallas Mavericks in the 2016-17 season. He's spent the majority of his pro career in Europe.
The Crane Thunders will need to stay healthy to make a spirited run for the playoffs. Key playmakers Michael Parker and Trey McKinney-Jones are 41 and 33, respectively. Jones paced the squad with 20.3 points per game in 2022-23.
Playoff-Contending Clubs in the B.League
For each team, the first 30 games of the B.League season will give us a clearer picture of its strengths and weaknesses.
That said, I expect the following 12 teams to be in the hunt for the B.League's coveted eight playoff berths over the final 10 games of the 60-game season.
Top title contenders: Ryukyu, Chiba, Tokyo and Shimane.
Playoff contenders: Kawasaki, Utsunomiya, Gunma, Yokohama, Shibuya, Hiroshima, Nagoya and Kyoto.
And six more teams that might sneak into playoff contention: Akita, Ibaraki, Mikawa, Shinshu, San-en and Osaka.
Noteworthy: Keep an eye on former NBA center and head coach Bill Cartwright's role with the Evessa as a special ambassador. Cartwright coached Osaka in the 2012-13 bj-league season.
A Few Insights on Kyoto
The offseason addition of center Charles Jackson, formerly with the B-Corsairs and one of the hardest-working players in B.League history, will have a positive impact on the Hannaryz.
He'll fill an important role on second-year coach Roy Rana's squad as the top rebounder and a tone-setting force (energy) at both ends of the floor.
In addition, the infusion of new talent on the roster, including forwards Stacy Davis and Kevin Jones, both of whom are high-level scorers, and guard Reon Shibuta, will be catalysts for the revamped offense.
An Overarching Storyline
As noted above, Kawamura and Hawkinson were players whose contributions at the Basketball World Cup were significant. And the carry-over effect into the 2023-24 season looks to be one of the defining storylines of their careers ― before and after playing in the tourney.
But the start of the season shifts the focus to what lies ahead.
And that includes seeing if the Jets can come close to matching their 53-7 record from the past season. Also, it involves observing how do-it-all forward Vic Law fits in with his new Golden Kings teammates after starring for Chiba in 2022-23 and averaging 17.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.0 steals in 54 games.
Author: Ed Odeven