It's no accident that most Western Conference teams are playing at a truly high level this season. Coaching stability and/or the hiring of experienced bench bosses have played a significant factor in where teams stand entering the first Tuesday of 2012.
*The first-place Ryukyu Golden Kings (18-5 through Monday) have let Dai Oketani run the show since 2008. He won a championship in his first season in charge and has guided the Kings to back-to-back Final Fours since then, including a championship runnerup last season. Jeff Newton and Anthony McHenry set the tone for team and a roster with skilled players at all positions stays hungry to compete night in and night out for Oketani.
*The Osaka Evessa and Kyoto Hannaryz are both 15-5. The Evessa advanced to the Final Four for a sixth straight season last May, getting there this time under first-year coach Ryan Blackwell, who had played under ex-boss Kensaku Tennichi. Blackwell is a capable mentor and pushes his players effectively. Two-time MVP Lynn Washington and six-time All-Star Cohey Aoki can make any coach look good, but Blackwell still does the grunt work of managing the team's playbook and game plan.
*Kyoto, which handed the reins to Honoo Hamaguchi, the longtime Sendai 89ers sideline supervisor, for its third season in the league, has been a superb team. Winners of 12 straight games, the Hannaryz play hard-nosed defense, crash the boards, make smart decisions with the basketball and take good shots. Hamaguchi, of course, has former NBA center Lance Allred and former NBA draft pick Rick Rickert in the frontcourt. But he's found a way to get all of his players to buy into his system and there's been an exceptionally quick learning curve for the squad.
*The 15-7 Shiga Lakestars are no slouch, either. New coach Alan Westover, who has been an assistant coach and head coach for National Basketball League-winning clubs in Australia, has kept his team in contention since the season began. Veteran scorers Josh Peppers and Yu Okada provide offensive punch as expected. Shinya Ogawa has raised his offensive game as well. Takamichi Fujiwara reminds a steady but unflashy presence at the point. Dionisio Gomez is a strong force at both ends of the floor. Ray Nixon adds a winning spirit and a underrated offensive spark (he's an excellent shooter) to the squad after helping the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix win a championship last spring. Kazuya "J." Hatano brings a rugged rebounder's workload off the bench and the energy to match. And, steady, well-rounded center Julius Ashby was a major offseason pickup, too. He knows how to play in this league and knows the league well
*The Rizing Fukuoka (15-8) have consistently been among the league's better scoring teams under coach Tadaharu Ogawa, now in his third season at the helm. Ogawa has done a good job of getting newcomers Gary Hamilton and Kevin Palmer to fill starring roles. That job used to belong to three-time scoring champion Michael Parker, who joined the Shimane Susanoo Magic in the offseason. Akitomo Takeno continues to grow as a dynamite scorer and veteran point guard Jun Nakanishi knows how to get his teammates involved on offense and make a few big plays a game on defense. Credit Ogawa for being the glue that holds this team together.
*The sixth-place Magic (12-10) have a balanced, well-rounded lineup. It all begins with perennial MVP candidate Parker. Zeljko Pavlicevic, the former Japan national team and two-time Euroleague-winning coach, has molded his team into a difficult matchup for anyone. Edward Yamamoto is becoming one of the league's elite passing guards. Jumpei Nakama is working to reprise his role as a perimeter scorer after six seasons with the Tokyo Apache; the long layoff after the Apache pulled the plug on the season in March was a big setback for Nakama, but he's put in the work to regain the form that saw him play at the highest level of his career last season (and it's worth repeating he received plenty of praise from ex-Tokyo coach Bob Hill, who coached NBA greats Reggie Miller and David Robinson in his long career, for the way he approached the game). Reggie Golson may be the best passing forward in the league and Jeral Davis is a shot-blocking menace in the low post. Pavlicevic is constantly pushing his players and working to find the right combinations, and this includes steady post player B.J. Puckett and guard Tatsuhiro Yokoo.
*The Miyazaki Shining Suns (10-13) have made big strides in their second season. Koto Toyama, the former Hamamatsu assistant under Kazuo Nakamura when the the Phoenix won their first championship, is growing into his role as a leader. Perhaps that's a lesson for other teams' front office executives, a reminder that patience is a virtue, even in pro sports. Sure, the team is far from perfect, but much improved since a slow start in October.
*The Oita HeatDevils (5-18) under rookie head coach Yukinori Suzuki need more depth. It's tough to make a fair evaluation of Suzuki's coaching based on a roster with several flaws.
*The Takamatsu Five Arrows (1-21) also brought in a new bench boss. Kenzo Maeda, last year's assistant under Atsushi Kanazawa, needs more players and the team needs to spend more money to overhaul its roster.