The London Lions head coach and owner Vince Macaulay was in a positive mood on Thursday, when FocusHoops.com met with him to discuss the season ahead for the London Lions.
The titleholders have lofty ambitions for the coming season. Macaulay was quick to make clear that they aim to set another record-breaking season. That would mean retaining the BBL Cup and the BBL Championship as well as taking a run at the new three-game BBL Benecos Playoffs and going one step better in the BBL Trophy.
“We always expect to play in a particular way. We expect to win and entertain. We expect always to make the playoffs. We expect to always be in finals, and we’ve proven that we can win in finals. Setting out our stall for this season is to defend our league championship and see what else we can do alongside…and continue to build that [winning] culture.”
Macaulay was keen to stress the challenge from the 11 other BBL sides but also the change in competition structure. The BBL has restructured its Cup and Championship formats for the coming season. The Cup will take centre stage in October and November with some people seeing an opportunity to sandbag or experiment with their roster before the Championship commencing in December.
Not so for the Lions, Macaulay tells FocusHoops. He sees the Cup as a competition to be taken seriously and defended and that it is nearly impossible to make meaningful roster changes in the middle of a season. The Lions, of course, being an exception to this rule. The Lions had a partial rebuild during the 2017-18 season which catapulted the Lions to the top of the BBL Mountain.
“Obviously we’re defending the Cup… I’m not a believer that you can change gear midseason. I think when you hit the ground running you better be on that step in the direction you want to go. We have to make sure when we do get down there it’s the crew we want the dynamics we want and just start going from there.”
The Lions will be without one of their standout stars from last season, as Jordan Spencer has signed with German second-tier outfit Schalke 04. Spencer had an electrifying first season back in the BBL after an exceptional college career that saw him lift the NCAA Division 2 National Championship.
“It was important that Jordan completed his cycle with us…coming home to London…and winning the Championship here. It was his burning ambition to play in Europe…It is up to us to go out there and find a point guard with savvy and do all the things he did.”
In his first season as a professional Spencer’s ability shone as his game became more polished playing alongside back to back and reigning MVP, Justin Robinson. Not only his talent but his confidence grew with each passing game as did his leadership. The Lions should be capable of covering his 11.7 points per game and his 6.1 assists, but it will be his on-floor leadership that they may struggle to replace. Even in his first full season as a professional, Spencer was a leader by example and was never shy in instructing his teammates while on the floor.
“We’re very happy that he’s continuing his dreams and we wish him well.”
Securing the services of Justin Robinson will be crucial for the Lions, as their league-leading point guard is in hot demand. As the MVP shows no sign of slowing down, but it is something Macaulay is confident of achieving.
“When you win the league…[players] are performing well for the club, but also for their themselves and their families. We expected that people would come after our players.”
The Lions will welcome back, versatile forward Brandon Peel for a third season. Peel is entering the final year of his two-year contract as well as his last year studying for his masters at UEL. Peel has been one of the most reliable performers in the BBL over the past two seasons. Peel regularly posts double-doubles while playing hard on defence and working to improve his skill set.
“People continue to get better. I’ll doth my hat to Brandon Peel on our team. Each year he’s a new player, continues to get better this kid and we expect to see that at other sides too…He’s turning into a real stalwart for us…he’s someone we will build around going forward.”
Peel averaged 12.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game last season, which is slightly down on his past performance. Last season Peel shared the frontcourt with Ladarius Tabb, who is also in high demand. Despite potentially losing out on some scoring and rebounding opportunities, Peel was a constant and crucial contributor to the Lions and the UEL BUCS team that made the BUCS Final.
“I’m not sure where his ceiling is…but the minute I saw this player he just reminded me of Charles Smith, the ease with which he does whatever he does …I’m comparing to him to one of the players with the highest IQ in this country, that could be the area ceiling for him looking at his IQ and how he can make players around him better.”
When recruiting Macaulay uses the example of Spencer’s big European move as an example for players who join the Lions. The Lions organisation will not be entering into European competition this season. Macaulay sees the long term goal (of not only the franchise but the BBL as a whole) as preventing players seeing the league as a launchpad for bigger things. Instead, making it to the BBL be the greater thing, by regularly competing and succeeding in European competition.
“Whichever way it works, whether its a professional who’s finished college or a young kid, if they come to our club and go on to a bigger or better stage, I can show that to another kid…we will give you a stepping stone to wherever it is you want to go.”
“When we enter Europe on a consistent basis, there will be no need for these guys to go into Europe.”
Macaulay was tight-lipped on exactly what the roster will look like in the upcoming season but did make clear that fans should expect roster changes. The Lions coach implied that several core players would be returning for the title defence. Macaulay stated that fans should expect an upgrade London Lions team on the floor come September.
“We’re in negotiations with all the guys from last year. There will be a number of absentees that is fair to say, both from someone like Jordan going elsewhere; I know Tabb has a lot of interest. Also, from our perspective we have to get better so we’ll be making moves to get better in different positions…and we will be significantly improved in three or four positions.”
Lions fans won’t just have the returning players to cheer. The Lions hope to welcome the return of much-loved Lions fan and Basketball photographer Graham Hodges who makes his recovery from injury.
“To see him make that recovery after what was a shocking incident we were fearing the worst so it will be really good to have him here and we were really proud of having Linda [Hodges] involved in lifting the league trophy while he was unavailable.”
The Lions preseason tips-off on 6th September with a game against NCAA D1 outfit Cal Poly Mustangs and FocusHoops.com can officially reveal another preseason opponent of the London Lions.
The London Lions will take on one of the best teams in FIBA European basketball, Bakken Bears on the 9th September.
The Bears just completed a three-peat of Danish titles and were runners up in FIBA Europe Cup, having eliminated the Leicester Riders from the Champions League to kick off the season.
The venue for the Bears clash has yet to be confirmed but will be one of the Lions’ home venues either the Copper Box Arena or UEL Docklands.
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You can hear the full interview with Vince Macaulay here.