Dean Vickerman, head coach of the New Zealand Breakers, is about as level-headed a guy as you’re ever likely to meet. It’s surprising. After all, through all the ups, downs, frustrations and jubilations of coaching pro hoops, staying level-headed ain’t an easy thing to do. What is easy, is getting caught up in the ebb and flow of emotion - overreacting to a loss or becoming complacent when things are going well.
As Chuck D says in He Got Game, “Don’t let a win get to your head or a loss to your heart.”
In his first season at the helm of the Breakers last year, Vickerman led the three-time defending champs to a disappointing 11-17 record. It was the club’s first losing season since 2006-07 and a tough way for Vickerman to begin his NBL head coaching career.
Nonetheless, throughout that challenging season Vickerman kept his cool. He believed in his knowledge and experience and knew that he had the skills to succeed. The team needed some slight adjusting, sure - as did the coaching - but things were going to be better next time around.
Well, after 15 rounds of the ’14/15 season, the Breakers lead the league with an impressive 17-5 record. They’re 9-1 at home, have won 5 games in a row and have become the favoured pick to win this year’s NBL title - the club’s fourth in five years.
Vickerman sat down with Downtown for a one-on-one after the Breakers’ Round 15 win over Melbourne United.
You guys are sitting on top of the standings with a 17-5 record – at the same point last season you were 9-13 – what have been the main keys to turning things around this season?
A lot of things but the important one was that in our review from last year, which was a pretty comprehensive review, one of the questions the owner and the CEO asked me was “Dean, what does your team look like?” It was a question we didn’t ask in my first year, it was kind of like ‘we’ve got a lot of people under contract, just kind of carry on.’ This year it was about putting the vision together. I just felt like we needed to be better defensively; we needed to be better athletically. I think those two things have shone through this year. We’ve got rim protectors, we’ve got Ibekwe, and just a bit of toughness about our team. Obviously recruiting Cedric Jackson is massive.
You guys lead the league in assists per game while Wollongong, the league’s last placed team, have thrown the least dimes. How important is ball movement and making the extra pass to winning ball games?
In the past, Andre had a stat that you didn’t lose games if you got over the twenty assist mark and it is something that has been built into this team and into the ball movement over the years. We’ve got a lot of players that can score the basketball and we look much better when we’ve got five or six guys in double figures. The team’s willing to buy into that and share the basketball.
I find it interesting that on the other end of the floor you guys have kept opponents to a league-lowest thirteen assists per game after giving up the third most last season. What does this say about your defense?
We changed our strategy in the off-season, really trying to keep the ball out of the middle more than we did last year and really trying to down things on the side and then we have those shot blockers at the end of it. More our disruption this year has been in the half court, we haven’t extended probably as much as we have in the past, it’s been more about how we want to pressure things in the half court and what we want to take away and who we can turn into one on one plays, which at times takes the system away from other teams.
You seem to pick and choose your spots in terms of getting up the floor defensively. I noticed vs Melbourne you were really trying to get up the floor on Dennis and keep the ball out of his hands. Is that something that you do with some teams more than others and some players more than others?
Yeah, definitely. At times it’s caused a couple of our players some foul issues so we’re picking and choosing our moments. You know, someone like Wortho who advances the ball so well himself, if you’re going to go and double in the back court I think you play into his hands and allow him to get straight line penetrations and allow him to be a playmaker. We’re definitely picking and choosing.
You worked under some outstanding coaches over the years before taking on the head coaching role at the breakers, guys like Al Westover, Gordie McLeod, Andrej Lemanis and Nenad Vucinic. What did you pick up from those guys that’s influenced your coaching?
Yeah and even Brett Brown back with the Giants and as far back as Ian Stacker with the Geelong Supercats so there’s been a lot of great coaches and they all give you something. As you’re doing a drill on different days, sometimes guys come back into mind. Nenad was unbelievably detailed on the way the Tall Blacks had to execute to compete. You have some of that European toughness that you remember with him. And then with Brett Brown on the forty-five, you catch it there he used to tape the floor with a little bit of a red zone about how we want that area pressured. You know, at times last night we got into that a little bit just pressuring their feeders. They all bring you something and they’re all pretty unique. All those coaches had pretty good winning records.
You mentioned Ced Jackson before – he put on a master class vs Melbourne United and he’s a chance to win another league MVP this year – what are the most important things he brings to your ball club?
I think he’s improved throughout the year. He had some injuries coming off last season and he’s just continued to get better and better throughout the year. When he came back he really wanted to improve his three point shot and in the first half of the year he really did that. He had some little patches with the bad elbow where it’s gone down a little bit but it’s going to be important for us that he can make a couple of triples down the stretch. His competitiveness on the day to day and just not wanting to lose a drill, he’s just the ultimate competitor and then he has really turned into a great leader for us. He’s grabbed the guys together at different times throughout the season in practice and games and really stamped his authority on the team and talked about acceptable behaviours and the standard that we demand. Combining him with Mika and Tom, we have a great leadership group.
What’s your in-game relationship with him like? Does he have the keys to the car?
Yeah he’s pretty good. He’ll ask me ‘what plays do you think we should run with this group right now?’ and there’s times when we just want to spread the floor and let him go and put it in as much of a spread set as we can get. We’ve started to use him in the post a little bit more as well and have him effective in those areas as well. Yes, offensively, he does have the keys to the car and we’ll keep putting him in disruptive situations defensively. At times we’ve given him really good assignments for him to lock in to and at times we’ve let him roam and shoot lanes and I think he likes the mixture of those two assignments.
I want to ask you about Tai Wesley. He was obviously a bit quiet yesterday but he’s been huge for you guys recently, how important is he as a piece to your championship puzzle?
Yes, we’ve got an outstanding bench and one of the best scoring benches in the league. We went through that period where we shot the ball really well early in the season and when we didn’t we needed a plan B and part of our plan B has really been our post game which has been pretty effective over the last ten games or so. When we got Tai Wesley we knew he was an outstanding post player. It took him a quarter of a season to work out the different people in the league and the scouting of different people and how he could get his shot off. He’s a good decision maker as well, at times we’ve closed out games with him and Mika; they’re both very good passing bigs and both have been able to switch on to guards at the other end as well. And then last night we went with Ekene so it’s going to be one of the challenges for me later in the year as to the options we’ve got and how we’re going to close out games with our bigs.
When Tai rips it off the defensive glass and puts it on the floor and charges down the court, where’s your heart rate at?
[Laughs.] It’s up there! With all our bigs I believe a bust-out dribble is one of the most effective ways to start the break if you’ve got people who can do that. You know, Mika, Tai, Ekene and we even pushed Pledger to go ahead and challenged him to take one or two dribbles and make that little bust-out. It’s something I’ve really encouraged in all our bigs. If you can do it, it really helps us. Obviously there’s a bit of a scary element to it but it’s something I like to see the advancement of.
This is Tom Abercrombie’s seventh season in the league and he’s out of contract at the end of the year, do you think we’ll see him in the NBL next season?
I don’t know. He obviously got a little taste of Europe last year with the short stint in France and it’s going to be one of those one’s at the end of the year he’ll weigh up our option versus what he’s able to get in Europe. We would obviously love him to play out his career here and with the shortened season we have here now he’ll have the opportunity to create a really good combination of NBL and European seasons. Obviously Cory [Webster]’s another one that’s going to look at those options as well and we’re hopeful that the experience of combining both those jobs is enough for them. But at some stage if they do that and do well there’s going to be some offers coming that are bigger than we can match.
You’ve got some history with Rhys Carter, having coached him in the Victorian state league many years ago. What’s the percentage chance he has some big moments for you guys in the playoffs this year?
When we recruited him some people questioned his shot selection at different times. But coaching him over a season you know that he just takes shots that when he’s rolling have blown our lead out to fifteen or twenty points at different times. Then he can come up with a key defensive steal. There’s just so much x-factor with him coming off the bench, something that we love. He’s going to give us a lot of things and sometimes things are going to go the other way. For the most part this season he has really helped us to blow out some margins and win some games.
I feel like he’s the Jamal Crawford of the NBL. You throw him out there and he might just blow it open in five minutes.
Yeah, it’s certainly a luxury to have.
Lastly, what are the main areas you’ll be looking to improve with the squad between now and the start of the playoffs late next month?
Our rebounding was pretty dominant in the first half of the year and it’s kind of dropped down a little bit recently. Every day, if we give up an offensive rebound at practice there’s a punishment for it. It’s something we need to stay constant with and something we truly believe in. We’re one of the better teams in the league off a rebound and advancing the basketball – it’s where Cedric Jacksons at his best, it’s where Corey can find some open threes, it’s where Ekene can run and get on the rim. So if we’re doing a good job in taking care of the defensive glass we have a good opportunity to get our running game going. Plus, just this season we’ve started forcing the on-ball down on the forty five and, of course, the middle on ball becomes a massive issue in the play offs when it becomes more isolation and two-man games. Those two things, our defensive rebounding and our on-ball defense are the two things I want to advance.
Mate congrats on the success you’ve had in the season so far and good luck for the rest of the season and the playoffs.
Appreciate it mate – thank you very much.