Basketball: Title contenders a matter of the usual suspects

Hawkes Bay Hawks forward Ben Hill stretches at pre-game practice before last year's NBL semifinal between the Hawks and the Wellington Saints. Photo by Hawkes Bay Today.
Hawkes Bay Hawks forward Ben Hill stretches at pre-game practice before last year's NBL semifinal between the Hawks and the Wellington Saints. Photo by Hawkes Bay Today.

The National Basketball League resumes tomorrow night. Basketball writer Adrian Seconi analyses the contenders.

You cannot take anything for granted these days.

Most thought Waikato would win the league in a canter last season, but the Pistons were upset 95-86 by the Hawkes Bay Hawks in the semifinal.

That disappointment paled in comparison to news the 2008 and 2009 champions would not contest the league this season.

The Harbour Heat returns after sitting out 2011 and will fill the spot made vacant by the Pistons.

The Otago Nuggets missed 2009 because of financial concerns. The Canterbury Rams folded in 2009 and were replaced by the Christchurch Cougars. The Cougars were forced out of the league last season because of the earthquake but were also struggling financially.

The Auckland Stars ran out of money and pulled out at the start of the 2010 season. They were eventually replaced by the Auckland Pirates in 2011.

Nine teams have made it to the starting blocks for the 2012 edition of the National Basketball League and it is the usual suspects - the Wellington Saints, the Hawkes Bay Hawks and the Nelson Giants - who shape as likely title contenders.

The Saints claimed the spoils last season with a nine-point win against the Hawks in the final. But they have lost a lot of personnel. Leon Henry has moved south to the Nuggets, and Dion Prewster further south to the Southland Sharks.

Lindsay Tait has joined the Pirates and Corey Webster is serving a one-year ban for testing positive to a prohibited substance.

The Saints still have plenty of talent with impressive centre Casey Frank and three-point specialist Troy McLean but might struggle to win a third consecutive title.

The Paul Henare-coached Hawks lean on experienced guard Paora Winitana and reliable imports Galen Young and Kareem Johnson.

The Giants have the incomparable Phill Jones and Mika Vukona, along with imports Pete Campbell and Mike Harrison, and will be tough, especially at home in Nelson.

The Manawatu Jets could be the big movers with classy import Josh Pace and forwards Nick Horvath and Jeremiah Trueman giving the Palmerston North-based team a solid look.

The Southland Sharks have picked up former Tall Black centre Craig Bradshaw and Breakers development player Prewster and will be useful.

Taranaki has a deadly guard line with imports Jack Leasure and Darryl Hudson, and the return of Damon Rampton will add some punch to the forward line.

The Pirates boast a formidable line-up with players such as Lindsay Tait, Alex Pledger, Dillon Boucher and Hayden Allen. Pledger and Boucher will miss the opening month while on duty for the Breakers.

The Harbour Heat is an unknown quantity but American guard Justin Bailey, formerly with the Nuggets, is a quality player and fellow import Zack Atkinson made a good impression in the preseason.

And the Nuggets?

Well, they have won just two games in the past two years but should be better this season led by Tall Black point guard Mark Dickel, Breakers pair BJ Anthony and Leon Henry and imports Antoine Tisby and Akeem Wright.