Teams have shown strengths and weaknesses. New stars have emerged as well, too. Here's a quick rundown on some things we've seen from the Eastern Conference's 10 clubs in the first two-plus months of season No. 7.
Akita Northern Happinets (12-6; overall grade A) -- As polished as ever at age 37, Kazuhiro Shoji is playing terrific basketball, shooting 3-pointers as well as anyone in the world. Michael Gardener is comfortable running coach Kazuo Nakamura's high-octane offense. Stanley Ocitti fits in well with Shoji, superb all-around player Ricky Woods and Gardener. It remains to be seen if NBA champion guard Jason Terry's half-brother, Curtis Terry, will make a big-time impact on the team; but he has a chance to do so simply by being here. The team's rowdy fans, as supportive as any in the league, provide a big boost for every game. Nakamura, as feisty as ever at age 71, entered the seaon with a 117-33 record as a head coach in three previous bj-leauge seasons (and two championships) with the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix. There's every reason to believe Nakamura has a great shot at making a run at a rare three-peat with two teams in May.
Sendai 89ers (11-7; overall grade B+) -- Bob Pierce took over the team after the devastation of the March 11 earthquake put an end to the team's 2010-11 season. In every respect, it was as challenging a venture as stepping in as the head coach of an expansion team (he had previously led the Shiga Lakestars and Akita during their inagural campaigns). For starters, the 89ers were starting over from scratch but with returning Japanese players, including Takehiko Shimura, Hikaru Kusaka, Kenichi Takahashi and Yoshihiro Tachibana. Newcomers Johnn Dukes, O'Neal Mims and Dan Fitzgerald have filled their roles well and Rashaad Singleton has begun to assert himself as a physical, tough presence in the paint at both ends of the court. Shimura's leadership has flourished under Pierce's tutelage and the team is a feisty, hard-nosed exciting club to watch.
Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (10-8; overall grade B) -- Rookie head coach Ryuji Kawai has positioned the Phoenix as a force to be reckoned with once again. Jermaine Dixon at the point, Wayne Arnold and Jeffrey Parmer on the wings and a rotation that also features Atsuya Ota, the national team center, Masahiro Oguchi, the ex-Final Four MVP, and Shingo Okada and Kenya Tomori is disciplined, hard-working and proud. Nothing less than another championship is their rallying cry. The Phoenix are above average, which isn't to say the squad won't or can't be called remarkable by season's end. It's too early to make that declaration, though.
Niigata Albirex BB (8-8; overall grade C+) - Matt Garrison was working as an assistant high school coach in California last season and now is back in Niigata, where he was a fan favorite during his playing days. Like their high-energy coach, the Albirex have high expectations for themselves. Center Chris Holm is the league's top rebounder, guard Nile Murry can skillfully score in bunches and direct the offense and play lock-down defense. Yuichi Ikeda and Kimitake Sato are proven scorers, though not as consistent sometimes as rival standouts Akitomo Takeno, Yu Okada, Cohey Aoki or Masashi Joho. As the season progresses, Niigata will need more production from Dwight Gordon, Erron Maxey and James Keefe.
Shinshu Brave Warriors (9-9; overall grade C+) - Motofumi Aoki's club is tough, balanced and talented. Power forward Lee Roberts scored 75 points last weekend against the Broncos. Sure, the big fellow had lots of room to operate in the low post, but he took advantage of mismatches, surely getting some direction from Aoki along the way. Edward Morris and Derek Raivio work well in the half-court offense and crash the boards with regularity. Takanori Goya brings a competitive hunger to the mix and a knowledge of the league's returning players, having suited up for the Toyama Grouses, Osaka Evessa, Rizing Fukuoka and Tokyo Apache. Takato Saito and Tyler Hughes will be expected to provide more scoring and play-making to push the team to greater things as the season marches on.
Chiba Jets (9-9; overall grade C+) - Jamel Staten is a big, strong, versatile force at macho forward. Maurice Hargrow is a smooth operator at the point. Reina Itakura is a respected, lead-by-example veteran. Takaki Ishida and Hiroki Sato can drain key baskets to give the team a spark. Tomoya Nakamura, Kensuke Tanaka and others are looking to find a way to make larger contributions in coach Eric Gardow's system. The team took a big hit when it lost center George Leach to an Achilles injury a few weeks ago. Offensively, there are times when it appears as though Gardow's players couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with a jump shot or perhaps convert a layup into a hoop as wide as the Pacific Ocean. But there's talent here and defensive skills that are better than the team's record indicicates. Greatness, though, is hardly easy to accomplish as a first-year team. The Jets have looked very, very good at times and just the opposite at other times. Maintaining a consistent level of play will be a key challenge for Chiba.
Toyoma Grouses (7-9; overall grade C-) - Haakim Johnson, Brian Harper, Masashi Joho, Takeshi Mito, Devin Searcy and Ira Brown are quietly keeping the Grouses in playoff contention. Coach Kazuaki Shimoji can expect Joho to be a catalyst: points, steals, assists. He also has a versatile cast of characters to push the pace on offense and fight hard to keep foe's from putting more points on the board. It's hard to figure out where this team will be when the regular season ends in late April. It's the notion here that Toyama could snatch one of the six playoff berths or just miss the cut. It doesn't appear, though, that this team's history of placing last will have a repeated occurence in 2011-12.
Yokohama B-Corsairs (7-9; overall grade C) - Like their coach Reggie Geary, whose defensive abilities took him to the NBA, the B-Corsairs are at their best when they are playing team-first D. Which means Chas McFarland is getting blocks, Marcus Simmons and Justin Burrell are challenging shooters and closing passing lanes and Kenji Yamada, Minoru Kimura and Masayuki Kabaya are picking up steals. Those are a few things that happen. Geary also has been a good adjustment-making coach, leading his team to a bounce-back win on several occasions after the team dropped the series opener. Yokohama still must play 36 more regular-season contests. Lots of time to achieve greatness, mediocrity or anything in between. McFarland may be recognized as a rebounder/shot-blocker on par with any of the league's elite players in those categories by the time the season is done. Time will tell if Simmons and Burrell can rise in popularity the way Lynn Washington, Jeff Newton, Matt Lottich and David Palmer did as member of the Osaka Evessa during the team's championship dynasty.
Saitama Broncos (6-10; overall grade D) -- The season began with Dean Murray running the show and on Nov. 23 he was handed his walking papers in a move that was expected for a few weeks. The team's in disarray, injuries were mounting and players and the coaching staff did not see eye to eye. Now, with 16 games in the books, the Broncos have worse records than six of the seven teams to join the league since the start of last season: Miyazaki, Akita, Shimane, Chiba, Shinshu and Yokohama. Iwate (5-13), in fact, has won four straight and sits a game behind the Broncos in the Eastern Conference standings. New coach Natalie Nakase will push her players, utilize the talents of Kenny Satterfield, ex-NBA point guard, and John Humphrey, two-time bj-league scoring champ, to puts points on the board, but the team's lack of depth and size will be a huge problem until injuries to John Flowers and Jayme Miller are finished and the team brings in additional size. For a franchise that has never had a winning season in its chaotic bj-league history, this team remains a curiosity and leave one wondering, How will things play out? Is there a dramatic chapter that still to be written? Will the first female coach in league history have better fate than all of the other head coaches to come and go in Saitama? Did the franchise make the right move in appointing Nakase as head coach? Will this be a launching point for her into a special future as a coach. That said, the truth is this: Humphrey's hunger to win is contagious; he can score 40 points in his sleep when his shot is falling and/or the refs are rewarding him with trips to the charity stripe. Furthermore, Satterfield's forays through traffic, his passing skills and his court vision are a true pleasure to watch, especially when the team is playing at a high level. Yuki Kitamuki and Yasuaki Arai are good role players, both of whom can take -- and make -- big shots when asked to do so. Veteran forward Daiki Terashita is a more complete player, and on a winning team his talents would get greater recognition.
Iwate Big Bulls (5-13; overall grade D+) - Coach Vlasios Vlaikidis' team has won four straight games, so there are signs of improvement, even if those wins came against the West's worst two clubs, the Takamatsu Five Arrows and Oita HeatDevils. For one thing, no coach wants to talk about his one-win team. Now, Vlaikidis has more of a list of accomplishments to remind his players about as they work to reach double digits in victories as soon as possible. The Big Bulls began the season with only one player who'd been in the bj-league previously -- guard Makoto Sawaguchi, who turned 20 a few days ago. So, not only is Vlaikidis putting together a brand new team, he's also shaping a team with no collective knowledge or experience in this ever-growing, ever-changing league. Sawaguchi is a consistent double-digit scorer, a fun player with a flair for the game that reminds one of a young Masashi Joho; he plays with that unbridled joy, too. Yoshiaki Yamamoto and Tasuku Namizato are gaining confidence and learning to play within Vlaikidis' system; both have increased their scoring and assist totals in recent games, with Yamamoto emerging as a key scorer. Thomas Kennedy and Shawn Malloy have been solid inside scorers and rebounders, but the team still needs more balance and other options to step up. It'd be a huge benefit if Iwate added another veteran to the roster who's had notable years in the bj-league, someone like Billy Knight, Mikey Marshall or Gordon James.