Friday, December 17, 2004

04-05 SBL: Wide open race after a successful inaugural season

SBL (Super Basketball League) will tip-off its 2004-05 season tomorrow on December 18th. With a surprisingly successful debut season now in a rearview mirror, the league is looking forward to expand its fan base and re-establish the identity of Taiwanese basketball.

It seems everything is looking good on the court, although the league has so many changes. Two teams (Videoland and ETSN) change owners and team names. Three teams (ETSN, Taiwan Beer and Sina) have new head coaches. And there will be more than a dozen players wearing different uniforms in the upcoming season.

Most of all, there is not a clear-cut favorite among seven SBL teams. Except for the short-handed Bank of Taiwan and rebuilding Sina, the other five teams are capable of making it to the finals. But judging from the pre-season games, BOT and Sina can do some damage too. In other words, winning any game will not be easy this season.

Defending champion Yulon is still loaded with experienced players. The biggest problem for them is the absence of Chen Hsin-an, who is in the US minor league ABA and will not be back until April. Without Chen, Yulon is left without its No.1 scorer and go-to guy. Based on what happened in the past when they play without Chen, Yulon will have problem when things are not going well for them on the court.

Still, Yulon can not be overlooked with its top-notch defense and balanced offense. Lee Yun-kwang will handle the main coaching job while legendary head coach Chien Yi-fei will step aside and work as a consultant.

Sina, who lost two Yulon 3-0 in last year’s finals, is undergoing a big face-lift. Three veteran starters – Chou Jun-san, Huang Chun-hsiung and Hsiung Jen-jen – changed teams after Sina decided not to re-sign them. Sina will rely on Lo Shin-liang and Liu Yi-shian to lead an awfully young roster under new head coach Liu Jun-ching. Consistency will be the main issue for Sina this season.

Videoland Hunters, former BCC Mars, added Huang Chun-hsiung to an already strong frontline. Starting point guard Yen Shin-shu decided to focus on his entertainment business which makes more money for him. Chen Huei will be asked to take the starting role, which he is not unfamiliar with.

The bruising frontlines of Huang, Lai Kuo-hong and Lin Shin-hwa will keep VL every opponent’s nightmare. However the perimeter shooting will be the key for them this season. If they can be consistent from the outside, Videoland will be hard to be stopped.

There will be a lot of expectation on the ETSN Antelopes, formerly in the name of Jutai Technology. With the addition of former Sina lead guard Chou Jun-san plus the inside-outside combination of forward/center Wu Dai-hao and shooting guard Yang Yu-min, ETSN approaches the new season with strong core players. It is also the deepest team in the league with almost twenty players on the roster before the season starts.

Led by last season’s MVP Tien Lei and hard-working head coach Liu Jia-fa, Dacin will definitely try to challenge the title this season. Tien Lei is capable of putting up 20 and 10 in any given game. And Dacin will still use their stamina to wear down opponents. The key for this high-powered offensive team will be consistency and defense. Also, somebody has to step up to take burden off Tien Lei, who will be the focal point of the defensive scheme for every opponent.

Lin Chi-jay, last season’s SBL leading scorer who turned his career around in one year, will be highly-motivated to lead Taiwan Beer, which missed the playoffs last year, into the postseason, even the finals. Lin doesn’t have to do it alone, which was mostly the case last year, anymore. TB signed Bank of Taiwan point guard Hsu Hao-cheng, who was known for distribution and has been one of the most underrated players in Taiwan. Small forward Ho Sho-jen, who used to be the leading scorer of A-League a couple years ago, is finally back healthy after a miserable year when he had both wrist and knee injuries. Former ETSN center Ha Hsiao-yuan will be also looking for redemption in his first year with the club.

Taiwan Beer won the Million-Dollar Challenge in the summer and proves it is a different team from last year.

Bank of Taiwan, who finished dead last in the previous season, will once again try to come from nowhere and surprise people. Losing PG Hsu Hao-cheng and SF Lo Da-wei to Taiwan Beer definitely hurt the team which is already thin and weak. But head coach Wei Chen-ming refuses to back down. BOT will have to rely on blue-collar power forward Ju Yong-hong and the improvement of promising wing player Yang Chin-ming to make something happen.