It’s Only One Game, but Should We Worry About Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv?

Devin Smith and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv struggled to score as well as stop CSKA Moscow in their opening day 100-69 loss.

One of the premiere and most anticipated games heading in week 1 had to be between CSKA Moscow and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv in Moscow. A rematch of the Final Four semifinal two years ago, where Maccabi pulled a stunning 23-12 4th quarter rally to upset the favored CSKA 68-67, CSKA killed the excitement early and also returned the favor and then some by beating Maccabi by 31 points (100-69) in what was the biggest blowout of week 1 in the Euroleague. While in some cases, the CSKA win is an indicator of how good this CSKA team may be this year, and how they are the early odds-on favorite to win the Euroleague title, it also demonstrated the issues this Maccabi squad will face this season. After a big off-season where they acquired big names such as former Los Angeles Laker and Clipper Jordan Farmar and VTB league stud Taylor Rochestie, as well as promoted top Croatian prospect Dragan Bender from the developmental league, many expected Maccabi to continue their annual string and run of competitiveness in the Euroleague, despite playing in a difficult Group D that also includes Darussafaka Dogus of Istanbul, Brose Baskets of Bamberg, and Unicaja Malaga in addition to CSKA. However, the lackluster performance on opening day exposed some major holes and issues that may present some difficult challenges for Maccabi when it comes to advancing beyond the second round.

The Cinderella Euroleague Run in 2013-2014

2013-2014 was a dream season as Maccabi went from underdog to winning their 6th Euroleague title in club history.

The 2013-2014 Maccabi squad was to European basketball what the “Hickory Huskers” were to Indiana high school basketball lore. After an 8-6 and 3rd place finish in their group in the second round, Maccabi pulled off a 3-1 upset over EA7 Emoporio Armani Milan in the quarterfinal to earn a surprise berth in the Final Four. After upsetting CSKA thanks to their miraculous 4th quarter of play, Maccabi carried on the momentum in the championship game, defeating the heavily favored, and star-studded Real Madrid 98-86 to earn their 6th Euroleague Championship in club history as well as finish the year 21-9.

The club relied on a hefty mix of wily veterans and hungry role players. Maccabi mainstays such as wings Yogev Ohayon and Guy Pnini were key as ever, but they also got solid years from fellow perimeter players such as David Blu (who retired shortly after winning the title), Joe Ingles (who parlayed his strong, multi-skilled performance that year into a contract with the Utah Jazz), Tyrese Rice (who left for more money and a bigger role in Moscow with Khimki the following year) and Devin Smith. Add that with the massive, but productive post presence of Sofoklis Schortsanitis and the strong post flexibility of Alex Tyus, and it makes sense that head coach David Blatt was able to lead Maccabi to a surprise Euroleague championship.

Blatt, a Princeton graduate and established as well as heavily respected European coach (he had coached Maccabi for years and also earned rave reviews in helping Russia to a bronze medal in the last Olympics), had built a solid, and battle-tested team that showed a strong resilience throughout the 2013-2014 campaign (they certainly took their lumps in the second round, and that may have helped them not just be overlooked going into the quarterfinals, but learn and improve upon their flaws). They averaged 79.5 ppg, and relied heavily on the 3-point shot, as evidenced by 36 percent of their total field goal attempts being from beyond the arc. However, they were efficient in their style of play, shooting 39.9 percent from beyond the arc and 54.4 percent on their 2 point attempts. Sure, his roster didn’t have the mainstream or higher-paid names of bigger clubs such as Real, CSKA or even Olympiacos, but they were still extremely productive, and better yet, they fit Blatt’s, perimeter-oriented, Princeton-influenced system perfectly, which sometimes can go a lot longer way than just pure talent (as demonstrated by Maccabi winning the Euroleague championship).

Guy Goodes and the honeymoon wears off for Maccabi in 2014-2015

Though they went 16-11 in his first year, analytics showed that Maccabi regressed significantly under new Head Coach Guy Goodes last season from their Euroleague championship campaign in 2013-2014

After winning the 2013-2014 title, Blatt sought greener pastures and a higher pay day in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers. As his replacement, Maccabi hired Guy Goodes, a former Maccabi player (as well as general Israeli basketball player, as he played from 1985-2004 with various Israeli League teams) and assistant under Blatt from 2010-2014. Goodes’ familiarity with the Maccabi roster seemed to be a promising sign and major reason why they hired him, and with most of the talent back, and some key additions in dynamic point guard Jeremy Pargo and versatile forward Brian Randle, many expected Maccabi to make a serious run in their defense of their 2013-2014 Euroleague championship.

Unfortunately, the team never quite meshed under Goodes. Though they did finish 16-11 and made it to the quarterfinals, their Expected W-L (check basketball reference.com for what Expected W-L is, which is basically a Pythagorean W-L taking into consideration point scored and points allowed) was one of a sub. 500 team (specifically 13-14) and they were utterly dominated in getting swept by Fenerbahce Istanbul in the Euroleague quarterfinals. The team struggled with consistency from their roster, as they got solid seasons from Pargo and guard Devin Smith, as well as post players Randle and Alex Tyus, but they got an underwhelming campaign from Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who averaged only 14.2 mpg and 6.5 ppg and 2.3 rpg in 26 Euroleague contests. Considering he was such a big factor in their 2013-2014 title run, the lack of production from the longtime Greek standout did not help their cause much in the defense of the title.

Additionally, it never seemed like anyone really stood out for Maccabi other than perhaps Smith, who was not just the team’s leading scorer in Euroleague play at 15 ppg, but also leading rebounder at 6.1 rpg. For a forward, that is not a bad statline to have, but Smith was a guard, which proved to be a Catch-22 for Maccabi. Yes, he was an incredible player who played hard on both ends of the floor and had tremendous impact for Maccabi in 2013-2014 (and it was recognized, as he earned 2nd team All-Euroleague honors and made the All-Imports team along with Pargo). That being said, when your guard is your leading rebounder, that screams all kinds of alarms with the weakness and lack of physicality from your post players, and that is not a recipe for success. Goodes and Maccabi tried all different kind of combinations, and brought in some late additions such as Joe Alexander to boost their depth and versatility and size, but it just wasn’t enough. Maccabi chemistry-wise just seemed to be a shell of the Blatt-coached 2013-2014 team that never really felt like a serious contender, even though they made it to the playoffs.

Rebuilding again with big-name players and youth for 2015-2016

17-year-old Croatian Power Forward Dragan Bender will be key to Maccabi’s Success and Whether they Bounce Back from the CSKA loss.

After the team’s disappointing sweep in the playoffs and the lack of production in 2014-2015, Maccabi let Schortsanitis go and replaced him in the post with 17-year-old Croatian super-prospect Dragan Bender and super-athlete Trevor Mbakwe. Bender has been a hot topic in all kinds of draft circles, as many scouts like his inside-outside ability, as well as his athleticism and maturity for a teenager playing at such high level with many long-time veterans. As for Mbakwe, he has been categorized as one of the strongest “athletic” talents in European circles, and has the potential for a breakout, as his offensive game, which has been slow to develop ever since his college days, has come a long way since he was at Minnesota.

The biggest veteran addition had to be Jordan Farmar, a former Los Angeles Laker and Clipper who was picked up to solidify the guard position along with Maccabi mainstays Smith and Ohayon as well as fellow newcomer and budding European player Taylor Rochestie (a former Washington State product under Tony Bennett), who was the leading Euroleague play scorer on Nizhny Novgorod last season at 18.3 ppg (Nizhny Novgorod was regulated to the Eurocup this season). Though Farmar has played the point guard position mostly in his career, he mostly likely will contribute as a wing/shooting guard in Goodes’ perimeter-based offense, especially with Ohayon seeming to have firm control over the point guard position and the heralded Smith on the other wing. That shouldn’t be too out of bounds for Farmar, as he played the point in Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense, where he ceded ball control to superstars like Kobe Bryant (as typical in Jackson’s version of the triangle). Farmar may not have the explosiveness of Pargo or Rice, two of Maccabi’s high-profile imports from the past two years, but he presents a long-range threat and veteran floor sense that should impact the offense for Maccabi, something that didn’t always happen on the offensive end of things for Maccabi in 2014-2015.

Either way, with a strong backcourt, a stronger emphasis on athleticism in the front court, and some improved depth, Maccabi on paper looks better than they did a year ago, and they are set up well for the future with their acquisitions of young talent like Mbakwe and Bender (however long Bender should stay). That being said, predictions and the preseason aren’t necessarily crystal balls, and despite some strong performances against EA7 in the NBA Global Games exhibitions, it all came crashing down for Goodes and the Maccabi squad in week 1 of the Euroleague season.

The perfect storm of offensive and defensive issues against CSKA Moscow

To say CSKA Moscow beat Maccabi is probably the understatement of the Euroleague season so far. The Russian power’s 100-69 dispatch of Maccabi not only proved how good CSKA could be this season, but the glaring issues that Maccabi needs to solve offensively and defensively in a Group that is no slouch with competitive teams like Unicaja Malaga and Brose Baskets also competing for the four spots to get into the next round of play. If Goodes’ team plays this week against Unicaja like they did against CSKA Moscow, they could easily be 0-2 and looking at a very large deficit in terms of point differential for the remainder of the regular season.

Let’s start out with the defense for Maccabi which really struggled, especially in their pick and roll communication. While Bender looked like a 17-year-old playing his first game in the Euroleague, he did some good things, especially on the offensive end. If Maccabi wants to be successful, Bender will be a big reason why. He gives them the kind of offensive versatility they simply can’t get from Mbakwe or Arinze Onuaku, a reserve center. (Though he is on a limited contract, and with the signing of Ike Ofoegbu just this week, I think Onuaku’s days could be numbered, especially since Randle will be coming back after sitting out game 1.) That being said, his defense (as well as the Maccabi perimeter defense) is a work in process, especially when defending the pick and roll. There were times where he was in no man’s land on the pick and roll and sagging way too off the kind of players you cannot sag off of, which opened up easy, lately contested shots beyond the arc. On the pick and roll, a lack of communication from the perimeter players, and Bender’s tendency to be non-committal in the lane before the pick and roll play developed either led to a lot of open jump shots, or easy drives to the lane for layups and dunks. When you play that kind of hesitant defense, as Bender showed, good teams like CSKA are going to shoot over 60 percent from the field, like they did last week.

However, I am not putting this all on Bender. He is still young and a project and still 17 years old. Playing in the Euroleague is tough for the wiliest of vets, and for Bender to be showing some production in game 1 is a promising sign. Furthermore, I think a lot of his defensive issues stemmed from hesitation and the mismatches CSKA threw at Maccabi rather than Bender’s natural defensive ability, which I think is  good to at least above-average due to his size, length and athleticism.

Even though this possession doesn’t feature Bender, this progression is a prime example of Maccabi’s issues with guarding the pick and roll. (In this possession is Onuaku and Mbakwe, who performed pretty terribly together on the court; they probably had the lowest plus-minus of any Maccabi post combo.)

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.47.13 PM

As you can see, this pick and roll starts pretty typical. CSKA’s post sets the high ball screen, Onuaku sages a bit, Mbakwe slides to play some help defense and the guard (in this case Rochestie) plays the point initially tight. But if you look at the play before, you can see that the miscommunication is already starting.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.46.53 PM

The play started with a Teodosic dribble hand off, and Rochestie and Farmar (who initially guarded Teodosic) were supposed to switch. But as you can see from the picture above, it doesn’t seem that Farmar knows there is a switch so they are both chasing the CSKA player who has just received the handoff. This leaves an overplay on the left wing side, which forces Onuaku to sag because there are already two defenders on the ball handler (the defender who is staying on his man after the hand off is going over the screen).

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.47.35 PM

After the screen, Farmar who initially stayed realizes he needs to switch, especially considering how much of a sniper Teodosic is from beyond the arc. So he changes directions and sprints out to try and recover. Rochestie and Onuaku are forced to play the pick and roll, but, because Onauku played the pick and roll so soft initially, he really didn’t get a good “feel” on the screener and you can see him up top (Hines) having a lot of space to make his way to the basket. Mbakwe should help and be closing the lane here, but because Farmar, who didn’t switch initially, changed his mind, Mbakwe isn’t in prime help position. If the defender had kept his responsibility originally, Mbakwe probably would have closed this pick and roll lane sooner. But, because there was such last-minute communication, he leaves the lane open because he thought Farmar would have it.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.48.25 PM

And CSKA takes advantage. Onuaku and Rochestie are sucked in the pick and roll, and Mbakwe is way too late on the help. Hines gets the open pass and is able to throw it down for easy points. There has to be better communication than that when defending the pick and roll. You cannot do last-second toggling between staying and switching on a player in the pick and roll. That leads to easy possessions and points for the offense, as evidenced above.

On offense, Goodes still prefers a perimeter-oriented lineup like his predecessor Blatt. But, understandably, he wants to utilize the depth and talent of his post players. However, the problem is that his post players are a bit raw and unrefined on the offensive end, and because of this, they have a tendency to freelance in bad ways and kill Maccabi’s spacing, which causes shots to be more difficult than they should be. Take a look at possession where Farmar passes to Pnini coming off an Onuaku baseline screen.

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-1

The screen is not the best, but the play idea is sound. The baseline screen with the pass to the corner can free up the easy shot for the high percentage corner 3 pointer, a post pass to take advantage of a 1 on 1 mismatch in the block, or open up lanes for dribble penetration. That is…as long as the spacing is sound on both ends. But look at Mbakwe in the opposite post. He is drifting toward the low block instead of getting to the short corner or better yet, arc. And it only gets worse from there.

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-2

Pnini decides to drive, which is not a bad idea since they don’t switch off the screen. But look what Mbakwe does: he drifts down the low block. This is bad for all kinds of reasons. First off it shrinks any spacing and basically leads the defender right into the play. You can see there are 3 defenders around the rim now, taking away any easy shot possibility Pnini may have. And second, not only are there 3 defenders in the post, but 2 players are being fronted in the post as well, taking away any kind of pass for Pnini on the drive. So, Mbakwe’s decision not only took away Pnini’s driving lane, but also any passing bailout options, since all the Maccabi players are effectively covered on this drive.

And this is what happens:

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-3

A tough fade-away, easily-contested jumper. That is not good offense and the spacing was a key contributor to that. While Goodes may want to utilize his deep front court, he needs to put in the right combinations so they’re not shrinking the lanes like Onuaku and Mbakwe did on frequent occasion last week.

Do Maccabi Fans need to worry?

Goodes is a fan favorite because of his history as a player, but he hasn’t really satisfied the masses on the court after taking over for Blatt. Unlike Blatt, Goodes seems a little overwhelmed strategically, and that was on full display against CSKA. Instead of focusing on spacing the floor with his talented perimeter players, he frequently used 3-out, 2-in lineups that seemed to do more harm than good (especially with Onuaku and Mbakwe). The silver lining in all of this is that Randle was out last week and is expected to be back for Unicaja, and Ofoegbu will be a better fit for what Goodes wants to do than Onuaku, who just seems like a square peg in Maccabi’s round hole offense. Add that with Bender more likely to be comfortable with a game under his belt and against a less high profile opponent, and Maccabi certainly can bounce back after such an embarrassing defeat.

If there is anything to keep an eye on against Unicaja, it will be their defensive communication, especially against the pick and roll. CSKA is a team loaded with talent, so its not surprising that they made them pay for their errors on the defensive end. I will not be surprised to see CSKA beat more teams by 30 this year at home. But, Unicaja is not CSKA talent-wise, and in interviews, improving the defense seemed to be a priority for Goodes and his team in practice. It’ll be interesting to see if Goodes and Maccabi make the proper adjustments, and will be more sound in their communication and defensive responsibilities. If they do, then this CSKA game might a blip on the radar. If they continue to struggle, and let Unicaja do easy work around the rim like CSKA (and it’s possible with post players like Richard Hendrix and Fran Vasquez who can do serious damage for Unicaja), then maybe opening week is a sign of a long season to come for Maccabi and their fans.

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