Faded Star: Erez Edelstein and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv Looking to Bounce Back in 2016-2017

Gal Mekel (99) and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv are looking to rebound after a horrid 2015-2016 season

“I want to coach in the Euroleague. I think that is something that is missing in my career. Every coach wants to guide Maccabi. Every coach wants to coach in the Euroleague and so do I. I told the owners that I only want a contract for one year because I’m certain we’ll accomplish our goals.”

Erez Edelstein will be Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s 3rd head coach in less than a year. Even in European basketball, where coaching and player change is quite common, not to mention quick, this kind of turnover for the legendary club rings all kinds of alarms.

Just two years ago, in 2014, Maccabi was celebrating their 51st Winner League championship and their 6th Euroleague championship, despite entering the Final Four as heavy underdogs to CSKA Moscow (their semi-final opponent) and Real Madrid (their championship opponent). David Blatt was the hottest coach in the game, and Maccabi was the best story in European basketball, a classic case of how teamwork and determination could overcome tremendous money and talent. It was like the movie Hoosiers, only this time the story was taking place in Milan, Italy, not Indianapolis, Indiana.

Unfortunately, the luster of that 2014 Euroleague title for Maccabi has worn off quickly. Blatt left Maccabi to go to the United States to explore NBA opportunities (which eventually became the Cleveland Cavaliers head coaching position), and longtime assistant and former Maccabi player Guy Goodes took over the helm. There were some positives during Goodes first season: in the Winner League, Maccabi finished 27-6, won another Israeli Cup, and finished 16-11 in the Euroleague and qualified for the playoffs. Unfortunately, Goodes’ debut season was marred by some tremendous letdowns: Maccabi lost in the playoff semifinals to a 17-16 Hapoel Eliat team 3 games to 2, and they were convincingly swept in the Euroleague playoffs by Fenerbahce.

A disappointing end for Goodes and Maccabi in 2014-2015 only compounded to more frustration to start 2015-2016. Maccabi, playing in a difficult group with CSKA Moscow, Spanish club Unicaja Malaga, and German upstart Brose Baskets Bamberg, got off to a 1-3 start in Euroleague group play, the worst four-game start in Euroleague group play for the illustrious franchise in 17 years. And things only got worse domestically as well, as they started they year 3-2, which included an 88-83 loss to Maccabi Ashdod, a team that eventually went 9-13 in Winner League play.

The horrid start combined with the deflating finish the previous season was more than enough in Maccabi’s management’s eyes to part ways with Goodes.

After firing Guy Goodes, Maccabi hired Croatian Zan Tabak to right the ship…unfortunately, his performance wasn’t good enough.

After failing to lure Edelstein (more on this later) and Lithuanian legend Sarunas Jasikevicius (who eventually took over home club Zalgiris Kaunas after a mid-season coaching change), Maccabi settled with Croatian Zan Tabak, a former NBA and European player who had 20 years of playing experience professionally. However, while Tabak certainly had his merits as a player, his coaching experience was questionable, as his previous jobs included Sant Josep Girona and Trefl Sopot in Poland, Baskonia (Laboral Kutxa) in Spain, and Fuenlabrada of Spain, a mid-tier ACB squad. With the exception of his tenure in Baskonia, Tabak really didn’t have the kind of preparation or experience to handle the magnitude of a job like Maccabi, especially in mid-season.

There were some bright spots of course in Tabak’s campaign. They finished 3-3 in Euroleague play, and had some strong performances, especially in his first game as coach where they lost a heart-breaker to CSKA Moscow 88-82 (Maccabi led during most of the game). Maccabi also won another Israeli Cup, and finished the year 19-3 overall in Winner League play (they went 16-1 under Tabak).

Unfortunately, much like Goodes’ first year, Maccabi struggled at the end, as they were upset in the semifinals by Maccabi Rishon, a team that finished 11-11 in Winner League play. That finish was further compounded with a disappointing 2-4 performance in Eurocup play and not qualifying for the next round of the Eurocup, even though the competition was a far step down from what they had faced earlier in Euroleague play.

Hence, with these two major negatives glaring on his resume, Tabak had the chips stacked against him in terms of coming back the following year, and that was proven to be true after Maccabi decided to part ways with him in June.

With all this turmoil and overreaction, it seems crazy that anyone in their right mind would want to coach Maccabi. One mistake, and you’re looking for another coaching job the next day.

But, Edelstein seems to be more than up for the challenge.

Edelstein’s National Team coaching experience in the Eurobasket 2015 should bode well for Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2016-2017

Edelstein is a bit of an antithesis of the previous two coaches. Goodes was a Blue and Gold lifer, who had not only spent considerable time as an assistant coach, but also played for Maccabi for eight seasons in the 90’s. As for Tabak, he was a legendary European player of sorts, who had a NBA playing pedigree, which included stints with teams such as the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets. He also had performances like the video below, which shows the potential he could have had as a player in the NBA if a few more breaks went his way:

As for Edelstein, he doesn’t have extensive Maccabi ties, as he has never been in the organization as a player or even assistant coach. And unlike Tabak, he wasn’t a legendary player with an extensive resume that spans over multiple teams and continents.

But, Edelstein possesses something that neither of those previous Maccabi coaches had: success as an Israeli National Team coach.

In the Eurobasket 2015, Edelstein led the Israeli team to a 3-2 mark in group play, which was good for second in the group and qualified them for the round of 16. Though Israel was beat soundly by Italy in the elimination round 82-52, Edelstein and his squad finished 10th in the tournament overall, their best finish in European competition since 2005, when they finished 9th.

Furthermore, Israel also experienced some good wins in last summer’s Eurobasket, including a 75-73 nail-biter over Poland, a team with NBA player Marcin Gortat and college star Przemek Karnowski of Gonzaga. You can see in the video not only  how Israel was able to score and create offense despite Poland’s massive size advantage in the paint, but how big the Israeli win was in terms of helping their country get more recognition on the mass European stage.

Edelstein is definitely a coach who gets the most out of his talent, not to mention manage it quite well. Despite some considerable size disadvantages in comparison to some of their opponents, Israel was able to neutralize it by running a free-flowing offense that included a lot of outside shooting not to mention some good ball movement, as well as dribble drive action. What was impressive during the tournament was how Edelstein utilized talent on his squad like Gal Mekel and Omri Casspi. Edelstein ran a lot of plays to set up his two talented perimeter players, and it paid off on frequent occasion. Casspi scored 16.8 points per game and shot 47.1 percent from beyond the arc. As for Mekel, he averaged 15.8 points per game and a team-leading 4.6 assists per game, while also shooting 54.5 percent from the field. That should be comforting to know for Maccabi fans that Edelstein knows how to utilize his talent on his roster, and it is even more promising since Mekel will be back with Maccabi next year.

Edelstein preaches ball movement, as evidenced during the Eurobasket where eight Israeli players averaged two or more assists per game. That is something that will fit in well with this Maccabi team, as they ranked 6th in the Euroleague in assists-to-field goals made ratio. Thus, with that kind of mindset already in place, and a couple of key players already familiar with Edelstein’s system and philosophy from the Eurobasket (Yogev Ohayon also played with the Israeli team in the Eurobasket as well), Edelstein should be able to transition seamlessly with the team during off-season workouts.

Trevor Mbakwe (right) was one of those players who didn’t live up to the hype in his first year with Maccabi.

One of the reasons Edelstein did not want to join this Maccabi team mid-year last season was due to the fact that he didn’t think the talent on the roster could be successful. In many ways, he was right and he made the sound decision to wait until the end of the year to see if the job was available again.

In many ways, one could not fault Tabak for the job he did, as the roster was flawed in its composition from the beginning. Many of Maccabi’s off-season signings proved to be disappointments, including Jordan Farmar, whose second stint was hardly worth remembering. Farmar simply didn’t fit in this team, and he didn’t have the kind of “creation” and “penetration” abilities like previous points guards Jeremy Pargo (last season) and Tyrese Rice (the year before during their championship season). Not only did Farmar merely average 8.9 ppg on 20.3 mpg, but he also was second worst on the team when it came to plus/minus in Euroleague play, only above 17-year-old Dragan Bender, who barely played during the Euroleague competition.

However, Farmar was not the sole culprit of Maccabi’s failures in 2015-2016. Maccabi failed to really get anything substantive from their post acquisitions, including Trevor Mbakwe and Ike Ofoegbu, who proved to both be extremely limited offensively, and Arinze Onuaku, who was not only limited to put backs and layups around the paint, but struggled immensely in pick and roll defense (as evidenced by his negative-3.4 plus/minus mark, fourth worst on the team). And though Brian Randle posted some good offensive numbers, 8.9 ppg on 60 percent eFG%, his lack of strength on the rebounding end was evident night in and night out.

In fact, though Maccabi did a good job crashing the glass, as their 33.7 offensive rebounding rate was second-best in the Euroleague, they struggled to keep opponents off the glass themselves, as their 67.9 defensive rebounding rate was second-worst in the Euroleague. Maccabi actually defensively was not all that bad, as they were a Top-5 team when it came to opponent effective field goal percentage (51.7 percent). However, the fact that they couldn’t keep opponents off the glass and gave up numerous second chance opportunities did them in time in and time again, and that was usually due to their bigs not getting in good rebounding position or having the strength to keep opposing post players at bay.

While Edelstein was the big hire of the off-season, Maccabi has made tremendous strides in terms of upgrading the roster. They made an immediate splash this summer by acquiring center Maik Zirbes, a rebounding force, and forward Quincy Miller, an inside-outside threat, from Crvena Zvzeda. Add that with the acquisition of guards Sonny Weems of the 76ers (and formerly CSKA Moscow) and DJ Seeley of Gran Canaria, and Maccabi definitely made a commitment to become more athletic and stronger with their roster on the floor. Furthermore, with the acquisition of these three new faces, as well as full seasons of Mekel (who didn’t join the team until mid-season after Euroleague group play), combo wing Sylvan Landesberg, and forward Itay Segev (who came in strong as a starter toward the end of last year despite playing as a 20-year old), Maccabi should be primed to not only outperform last year’s results, but perhaps make a dark horse run to the Final Four. Maccabi was not that far off from making the Round of 16 last year, and they showed glimpses of being a good team in Euroleague, Eurocup and Winner League play, but they just seemed to run out of gas at the wrong times. The depth they have next year will not only prevent that, but should help them be the most successful Maccabi squad since 2014.

Now, how successful will that be? It is hard to determine, since there are a lot of players with futures in doubt. Will Mbakwe and Randle be back, not to mention Devin Smith, who has been a rock for this team for years? Will there be enough touches for new players such as Miller, Weems, and Seeley, who have tended to be high-usage players in their previous stops? Can Zirbes and Segev and whoever else is playing in the post, solve Maccabi’s rebounding woes from a year ago? And lastly, can Mekel, (who most likely will the starting point guard next season), an Israeli who is playing with his home country’s most popular and successful team, reinvigorate this proud franchise, not to mention his own professional career?

Quincy Miller (30) and Maik Zirbes (33) are new signees who will be key to Maccabi success next year.

There are a lot of questions for Edelstein to answer and unfortunately, he will have to do it in a quick amount of time. However, like he said in his opening interview after being hired, he knows the pressure that comes with this position and he expects to accomplish great results in a limited amount of time. It’s why he took the job, and why he only wanted a one-year contract: there is no “rebuilding” with Maccabi Tel Aviv. You either produce results or you get out and they find another person.

But to be fair, this is the strongest a Maccabi team has looked for a long time, even stronger perhaps on paper than the 2014 team that won a championship. If Taylor Rochestie and Smith are back, they will have considerable scoring on the perimeter to go along with their new signings, not to mention longtime reserves such as Ohayov and Guy Pnini. While there are some questions on the block, Zirbes will be one of the strongest post players that they have had since Big Sofos a couple of years ago, as Zirbes, though not the most finesse player, is the kind of banger that can keep other teams from pushing around Maccabi in the paint. Hopefully that kind of attitude will rub off on Segev and whoever else Maccabi brings back or acquires to solidify their post depth (whether it’s Randle, Mbakwe or someone else).

2016-2017 will be a critical year for Maccabi. A new coach and a new format with less teams in the Euroleague means it’s more critical than ever for Maccabi to perform. They have the kind of coach with excellent experience who has been saying the right things to demonstrate that he is “all in” in terms of making Maccabi a winner again. They also have added the right kind of pieces roster-wise, showing that management is willing to spend whatever it costs to make this team better. And they have the motivation, as this franchise is hungry to show that the last two years were a blip on the radar, and that they are ready to return to their rightful illustrious place in the European basketball scene.

Now, it’s just a matter of all those factors melding together. Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.

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BBall Breakdown Video and Why Smart Gilas Lost to China

Much to many’s surprise, China’s guards, such as Guo Ailun above (6, white) kept Smart Gilas’ star guard Jayson Castro (7, blue) under tight wraps

If you haven’t seen it, please watch the video below which is BBall Breakdown’s excellent take on the China-Philippines FIBA Asia Gold Medal Game last Saturday. As I live tweeted the game, it riled up all kinds of emotions from Smart Gilas fans, including this gem below:

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There we go. A woman who sounds like one of my aunts giving expert analysis to why China won. Anyways, take a look at BBall Breakdown’s excellent analysis of the FIBA Asia Gold Medal Game. If you haven’t already, check out their YouTube page, as they have excellent content from basketball fundamentals and strategy, to analysis of the NBA. For any basketball junkie, it’s required viewing for sure.

Here are few of my own thoughts about Smart Gilas’ play, though I won’t go into much depth, as Coach Nick did a good job of that already in the analysis above.

  • The one thing you have to remember is China was extremely favored this game. They were hardly challenged at all in this tournament, with the lone exception being their second game in the group stage against South Korea where they were losing by double digits as late as the 3rd quarter. In that game, China really came out sluggish, and didn’t shoot well either until the end, where their outside shooting came around and Zhou Qi took over in the paint. Other than that scare against Korea though, China had been on cruise control throughout the tournament. The same could not be said of Smart Gilas. We all know about their opening loss to Palestine, but they struggled with consistency throughout the tournament. They struggled at times and were down in contests against Lebanon and Japan, who they were much better than. They had to get a huge 4th quarter run to pull away from Iran. While China dominated, Smart Gilas seemed to be running on fairy dust, with lady luck seeming to help them time and time again. Eventually, the luck will run out, and unfortunately, for Smart Gilas it did against a much bigger and better and more athletic Chinese team. This is probably one of Smart Gilas’ best teams ever, but they still were a heavy underdog in this game and they needed a lot to go in their favor.
  • With that being said, while Smart Gilas’ execution at times was lacking, what wasn’t was their effort and heart for the most part. With the exception of Andray Blatche running out of gas seemingly in the 3rd and 4th quarters (especially on the defensive end, as chronicled in some lackluster help defense in the video above), Smart Gilas played with all out effort and reckless abandon throughout the game. The bench demonstrated this soundly, as I thought Abueva, who struggled with fouls and missed free throws, left it all out on the floor in admirable fashion. The heart and effort of Smart Gilas, especially the bench kept them in the game, even if their offensive and defensive execution certainly didn’t.
  • The biggest disappointment about this game was the lackluster performances from Jayson Castro and Terrence Romeo. I had been big fans of both of them in this tournament, as Castro was obviously the main piston to Smart Gilas’ dribble drive offense, and I felt Romeo was a young, heir apparent to Castron in many ways due to their ability to score and create offensively. Though Romeo is still green in terms of senior national team competition and still has to work in creating offense for others (he’s still too “ball dominant”), he has demonstrated a streaky and entertaining style of play that complements Smart Gilas’ team well. (On Twitter I likened him to those 90’s “shooting guards” in “point guard” bodies like Steve Francis, Allen Iverson and Gilbert Arenas). Unfortunately, they both struggled immensely both on the offensive and defensive end, as Coach Nick pointed out soundly above. I thought the main advantage Smart Gilas had in that game was at the guard position, as I thought Smart Gilas sported a much better arsenal at guard going into the final than China. However, that was far from the case, as not only did Castro and Romeo struggle, but Guo Ailun also broke out with a sterling performance that opened up the post for China, their main plan of attack. Castro was a big part of Smart Gilas’ win over Iran, as he dropped 42 points and seemed unwilling to be contained or stopped. Unfortunately, that performance didn’t repeat against China, and Smart Gilas struggled to stay in the game without his influence on the court.

Like I said on twitter earlier, Smart Gilas will still be playing in the Olympic Qualifying tournament next year, which is better than nothing and still gives them an outside shot at earning an at-large berth (and getting a silver in a FIBA area that is rising in terms of competition is nothing to slouch at; especially considering South Korea, which was one of the hottest teams in Asia the past couple of years failed to medal and will not be playing in the qualifying tournament). But, Smart Gilas will have their hands full, as they will play a difficult field which includes a multi-talented and young Canada team (which I think will be a dark horse in that tournament if they return everyone and get Tristan Thompson, who didn’t play in the FIBA Americas tournament) as well as European powers such as France and Greece. As stated before by Coach Nick in the video, Smart Gilas will always be outmatched in terms of size and athleticism, so it is important that they are sound in their fundamentals and gameplan if they want to earn a spot in the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.

It’ll be interesting to see if that can happen. Tab Baldwin will have a full year with the team, and he has pulled success stories before in New Zealand, Lebanon and Jordan. If Smart Gilas can make the Rio field, then without a doubt, that will be the magnus opus of Baldwin’s coaching career thus far.

Let’s see what can happen in a year for Smart Gilas. In the meantime, as I said before, congrats to China. They are a talented and young team, and could be a dark horse in the Olympics with the right draw. With talented posts like Yi and Zhou Qi, they will be a handful for anyone, let alone the basketball global powers.

The Veteran Squad and the New Coach: Can Smart Gilas’ Experienced Squad Mesh with New Head Coach Tab Baldwin?

The pressure is on new head coach Tab Baldwin (right) to help Smart Gilas Pilipinas show well in the FIBA Asia championship.

There are a lot of stories dominating the landscape at the FIBA Asia championship from September 23-October 3, especially with an Olympics berth on the line.

As the FIBA Asia enters the second round, I am writing a two-piece post examining two squads that I find the most interesting in this tournament: China and the Philippines. These two teams in my mind have the most at stake this tournament, especially considering they have gone through some ups and downs the past few years in terms of International success.

In this post, I am going to take a look at Smart Gilas Pilipinas (the team name for the Filipino Men’s National Team), their experienced roster, and how they will fare in new head coach Tab Baldwin’s first international competition as Gilas head coach.

You can also find the previous post on China, Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi here.

Jayson Castro (7, white) is one of the key veterans for this Gilas squad at the FIBA Asia.

Smart Gilas is coming off one of their best stretches in international team play history, and yet, there still are a lot of questions lingering with this squad. In 2013, in front of Filipino fans in Manila, Gilas finished 2nd in the FIBA Asia tournament, which qualified them for their first FIBA World Championship (now FIBA World Cup) since 1978. Though they failed to advance to the second round in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, they did win their first game in almost 40 years, as they beat Senegal 81-79 and put up sterling efforts in losses against established programs such as Croatia (81-78 in OT), Argentina (85-81) and Puerto Rico (77-73). Though the 1-4 record wasn’t ideal, it was obvious that Gilas had gained some necessary international experience on the big stage that would help the national team going forward.

Unfortunately, things fell apart for Gilas in the 2014 Asian Games, as the squad, without Andray Blatche (who didn’t qualify for the Asian Games due to naturalization issues, which were different for those games from normal FIBA ones), finished a disappointing 7th. The team went 1-2 in group play, with a disappointing 95-93 loss to Korea, and a huge 77-68 upset to Qatar, ranked 48th in the FIBA world rankings. The underwhelming performance, as well as issues with personality and player rotations resulted in long-time national team coach Chot Reyes being forced out and replaced with Tab Baldwin.

Baldwin is not totally unfamiliar with the national team, as he served as a consultant recently to Reyes and Gilas. However, he has a plethora of coaching experience at the international level, as he coached New Zealand (which is his national background, as well as American) from 2001-2006 and helped the “Tall Blacks” qualify for the FIBA World Championship in 2002. After his tenure as coach of New Zealand, he also had stints with Lebanon and Jordan, helping rebuild and raise the respectability of those programs to where they are today (Lebanon is ranked 34th and Jordan is ranked 29th).

But, while Baldwin did fantastic jobs with New Zealand, Lebanon and Jordan, his tenure with Gilas is unlike anything he’s ever coached. He hasn’t coached a national squad whose fans are as basketball-crazy as the Philippines. He hasn’t dealt with an organizational structure that has been its own worst enemy for decades (the Philippines have been suspended by FIBA from international play 3 separate times since the 1970’s). Baldwin certainly has the coaching acumen and chops to help Gilas become a power in Asia up there with China and Iran. But, the same could have been said of Reyes, who ended up being forced out after a successful stretch due to one shoddy performance in the Asian games.

Coming into the tournament as one of the favorites, Baldwin’s tenure started disastrously as Gilas was upset by Palestine 75-73, who just recently resurrected their national team basketball program, was unranked by FIBA and was playing in their first FIBA Asia tournament in history. Gilas played a sloppy game, marred by unforced turnovers, missed open shots (including a lot of missed bunnies, i.e. layups), and a lack of rhythm on the offensive and defensive end. Little known Jamal Abu Shamala scored 26 points, had 15 rebounds and an efficiency rating of 29, thus displaying Gilas’ lack of tenacity and urgency on the defensive end. If you look at the highlights below, it is obvious that Gilas at times coasted a bit too much, and that resulted in Palestine not only hanging around, but seizing enough opportunities for the upset victory.

While Gilas certainly could have packed it in after such a humiliating loss, Baldwin has rallied his veteran squad to win 3 straight games, as they beat Hong Kong (101-50) and Kuwait (110-64) by impressive margins, and beat Japan 73-66 in their first second round game late last night/early this morning. The team was led by Blatche who scored 18 points and nabbed 10 rebounds despite dealing with a nagging ankle injury he suffered early in the Japanese game. Also, youngster Terrence Romeo had a solid game with 12 points and two steals, giving Filipino fans hope in the future of their program, which is undoubtedly Romeo.

Gilas has not changed much playing style-wise under Baldwin, as they still utilize the Dribble Drive offense to great extent and rely on their speed and quickness on both the offensive and defensive end. Gilas is at their best in transition, especially off live ball turnovers, especially with quick guards and wings such as long-time national team members Jayson Castro and Gabriel Norwood, and newer members like Romeo and Matthew Ganuelas. Even in their loss against Palestine, when Gilas was in transition, they looked like one of the best teams in the tournament.  When things slowed down, and they were forced to create offense in the half court, they tended to struggle and be wildly inconsistent.

Unlike China, which is extremely young, this Gilas team is a more veteran squad, as they have an average age of 31 and have only two members of the team 25 and under (Ganuelas and Romeo). Thus, the emphasis with this squad is “win now”. That is especially evident with the inclusion of naturalized citizen Blatche, whose inclusion on the team has sparked a lot debate on the presence of naturalized citizens who have little to no apparent connections to the countries they represent. If you haven’t read it already, take a retrospective look at this piece by Grantland’s Rafe Bartholomew, the author of “Pacific Rims” and a leading authority on Filipino basketball. It definitely gives some perspective on why Blatche is not only on the Filipino team, but how he has adjusted to not just the team, but the culture of the Philippines as well. It may change your view on Blatche or other naturalized players playing in FIBA international competitions (Jerome Randle of Chicago did this with Ukraine in this recent Eurobasket). It may not. At the very least, it will give you more information and perspective on the process.

Gilas will need a strong, and refined, performance from Andray Blatche to win the FIBA Asia championship and qualify for their first Olympics since 1972.

But back to Blatche, he as well as other veterans such as Castro, Norwood and forward Jean Marc Pingris are essential to Gilas’ chances at this FIBA Asia championship. Blatche especially shoulders a majority of the burden, as Gilas has struggled against teams in the past with bigger, more natural post players before Blatche arrived. In the FIBA Asia championship game in 2013, Iran bullied Gilas thanks to former NBA player Hamed Haddadi. That being said, Gilas did not have Blatche then, and now, Gilas has that weapon in the post to go head to head with Iran’s best player. It definitely makes their game on Monday night one worth watching, just for that Blatche-Haddadi matchup alone.

If Baldwin can do anything to improve this Gilas squad, it may center on utilizing the talents of his players within Gilas’ system, and preventing them from playing out of control. This veteran squad has many players who have been playing professional ball for a long time, and playing international competition is a whole lot different due to so many different talents needing to mesh together in such a limited amount of time. Many of the players play together or against one another in the PBA (Philippines Basketball Association), so they are used to the Dribble Drive style that is primarily played in the PBA (though the Triangle is utilized a lot, thanks to successful PBA coach Tim Cone). However, for some, Blatche especially, since he plays professionally in China, this adjustment can be a process.

How Baldwin handles and manages this issue will be key, primarily with Blatche. Even early on this tournament, it seems like Blatche can be a “ball-killer” on offense, preferring to play at the top of the arc rather than down in the block (which is something he’s always had a problem with, especially in the NBA with Washington and Brooklyn) and go 1-on-1 with his head down and not seeing the open wings sitting in the corners for the 3-point shot. Blatche is multi-talented, and when he’s on, he is probably one of the best players in the FIBA Asia player pool. But when he’s off, he can be a high-usage rate killer that can easily sink teams and squander leads, as was the case time to time in their loss against Palestine.

Gilas needs Blatche to be successful. There is no downplaying that. But, Gilas as a whole is better when they’re penetrating to the rim, kicking out to open shooters for three’s or finishing for layups. Watching players like Castro is so enjoyable to watch because he fits in the Dribble Drive so seamlessly, as he is able to time and time again on the drive finish at the rime gracefully or easily find his teammates beyond the arc for open shots. If you watch these highlights against Kuwait, this is Filipino basketball in a nutshell: fast-paced, shooting three’s, and aggressive play on both ends.

Blatche can fit in this, and he has fit in it before. But when he tries to do too much, tries to dribble too much, tries to play 1 on 1 too much and settles for lackluster mid-range shots, he is limiting himself as a player and limiting Gilas’ chances at being consistently successful. That is Baldwin’s challenge as Gilas coach, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can figure out this challenge as Gilas progresses further and faces tougher competition deeper in the tournament (starting with Iran).

There is no doubt this Gilas team is arguably one of the best in the country’s history. And after playing in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, it would be a tremendous boost for the country to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, which the Philippines has not qualified for since the 1972 games in Munich. Gilas has the experienced horses in place, and Baldwin has done a tremendous job with this team after their early set-back against Palestine. However, playing their style of play against Hong Kong and Kuwait is one thing, doing it against Iran, China and Korea is another. If Baldwin can get Gilas to play their style and play it efficiently against Asia’s powers, then it is strongly possible that the Philippines will break their long-time Olympic drought much like they broke their FIBA World Championship drought in the last FIBA Asia in 2013.

The Superstar and the Phenom: How Yi Zianlian and Zhou Qi are Key to China’s Chances at the FIBA Asia

Yi Jianlian (red, left) and Zhou Qi (red, 15) are two players that the Chinese national team will rely on in their quest for a FIBA Asia title.

There are a lot of stories dominating the landscape at the FIBA Asia championship from September 23-October 3, especially with an Olympics berth on the line.

As the FIBA Asia enters the second round, I am writing a two-piece post examining two squads that I find the most interesting in this tournament: China and the Philippines. These two teams in my mind have the most at stake this tournament, especially considering they have gone through some ups and downs the past few years in terms of International success.

In this post, I am going to take a look at China and their two stars: Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi.

China is ranked no. 14 in the FIBA World Rankings and has a long-standing history as one of the more dominant nations in Asian basketball as they won 14 out 16 FIBA Asia championships from 1975 to 2005. However, they haven’t been on the Global radar the past few years, especially following the retirement of Yao Ming. After winning the 2011 FIBA Asia championship, the Chinese team finished a disappointing 12th in the 2012 Olympics, and then under-delivered in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship finishing 5th, their second worst finish in their history of participating in the tournament (they finished 10th in 2007). Because of their lackluster finish, China missed out in last year’s FIBA World Cup, only the 2nd time they did so since they started participating in the FIBA World Championship (now World Cup) with the other being 1998 in Greece.

China has struggled against other global powers in the past, as the highest they have ever finished in Olympic or FIBA World competition was 8th. That being said, their grasp over Asia has never been questioned until lately, especially with the rise of programs such as Iran (17), South Korea (28), Jordan (29) and the Philippines (31). To the Chinese’s benefit, they will be hosting this year’s FIBA Asia championship, and the home court advantage has seemed to benefit the home country teams, as the Philippines used the raucous crowds to earn a silver medal finish in 2013 (helping them qualify for their first FIBA World Championship since 1978), and the Chinese finished first in 2011 when the Asia Championship was in Wuhan, China. Iran may be a more accomplished team right now considering they are the reigning Asia Championship winners, and Korea may be one of the trendier teams to pick, as they did win the Asia Cup last year. However, one has to believe, with an Olympics berth on the line, that China will see this tournament as a “must-win” and thus, be considered the favorites.

If China is going to win this year’s Asia championship, they are going to need strong performances from their post players, specifically long-time, but controversial star Yi Jianlian and 19-year-old phenom Zhou Qi. The Chinese team has some athletes, speed and can surprise people with their shooting, especially thanks to young guards like Guo Ailun and Zhou Peng, who have demonstrated a strong ability to create offense and shoot beyond the arc early in this tournament. But China’s real strength is in their length, as they sport four 7-footers on their roster. If China wants to get back to the Olympics and reclaim their dominance in the Asian basketball scene, they will have to own the post and glass offensively and defensively.

The most crucial 7-footer of the bunch has to be Yi Jianlian. Now 27-years-old, Yi is the vet of this Chinese squad that’s average age is 24 years old. Considering Yi played with some of the best Chinese players in the past like Yao and Wang ZhiZhi, guys who played and succeeded in the NBA, it is time Yi exerts an Alpha Dog status on this Chinese team and carry them to success. Yi has a bit of a controversial status with mainstream fans, as he was the No. 6 pick overall in the NBA draft, but didn’t have much of an impact on the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards or Dallas Mavericks in his 5 year NBA career. Despite his disappointing American tenure, he has bounced back as a superstar-type player in the Chinese Basketball Association, as he averaged 27.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg on 57.5 percent shooting in 45 games in 2014-2015 for the Guangdong Tigers, and he averaged 23.5 ppg and 12.5 rpg during Guangdong’s championship season in 2012-2013. Yes, he may not have been the transcendent international superstar that Yao was, but Yi has proven that he can be a highly-productive talent, especially in China.

And that is most important right now to Chinese basketball fans. Sure, he doesn’t have the global attraction of Yao, but he certainly has the potential to be the leader this young Chinese team needs in this Asia Championship and hopefully, the Olympics in 2016. Yi’s game has blossomed a bit, as he has become more physical on the glass, something he struggled to do in the NBA (he was routinely pushed out by more physical posts). However, where he excels the most is in the mid-range. While it may not be the most “efficient” way to play, it is obvious that Yi proves to be an exception to that rule. Yi sports a great and accurate jumper that he uses with regularity, which makes him a dangerous offensive threat. Bigger posts who sag will be victim to his mid-range jumper, while smaller posts and switches will get posted up and dominated around the rack.

Yi does show a tendency to struggle and be inconsistent against bigger posts (his match up with Iran’s Hamed Haddadi and the Philippines’ Andray Blatche will be interesting to follow), and sometimes he can be taken out of games when he’s doubled (as was this case in the first-half of the China-Korea game where the Koreans put up an early lead and neutralized the Chinese by throwing frequent double teams at Yi and keeping him away from the block). That being said, not many Asian squads have been able to have much lasting impact defensively against Yi’s offensive arsenal so far in this tournament, as he is averaging 19.3 ppg, 11.0 rpg on 55% shooting in 25.8 MPG through China’s first three games (which they are 3-0). If China wants to continue to do well in this tournament, and make their run to a championship, Yi has to continue his dominance and efficiency (he’s the leader in efficiency rating for China at 23) throughout the second round and beyond.

If people are looking for the next great Chinese “superstar” in the Yao mold, then simply look at the clip above. While Yi certainly was critical to China’s 76-73 comeback win over Korea, it was 19-year-old Zhou Qi’s 21 point, 8 rebound performance that proved to be the X-factor in the comeback win, which the Chinese were down as much as 18 late in the 3rd quarter.

While Yi tends to focus more offensively on the mid-range, Qi is more active around the rim, as he is known for high energy on the offensive and defensive end. As a 19-year-old rookie in the CBA with the Xinjiang Tigers, Qi led the CBA in blocks, and in one under-16 game in 2011, he recorded a triple double that involved a stat line of 41 points, 28 rebounds and 13 blocks. If Yi’s game can be compared to LeMarcus Aldridge’s, then Qi’s can be compared to Rudy Gobert, in which Qi is a more traditional post player skills and impact-wise.

Qi is already bit of a global sensation, as he made his ways in the FIBA developmental division as a teenager, and participated in the Nike Hoop Summit last year, making him a well-known quantity in basketball circles beyond China and Asia. Andrew Crawford wrote a fantastic piece for Vice Sports (which is an underrated site for sports reporting, as well as general journalism) and talked about the pressure Qi faces in his homeland being China’s “next big thing,” as evidenced in this quote below:

But perhaps the biggest hurdle for Zhou will be how he copes with being China’s consensus Next Big Thing. Zhou’s countrymen passionately consume the NBA, and in the void that followed Yao Ming’s retirement, there remains a nationwide obsession with seeing a Chinese player back at the highest level of basketball. For the next couple of years, Zhou is going to have to live with every good performance being proof that he belongs in the NBA, and every off night becoming a cause for widespread concern. The pressure to be as good as a billion people want him to be will weigh on Zhou, as of course it would.

While this is certainly pointing to Qi’s progression in the CBA and perhaps making the NBA, it is also a microcosm of what is expected from Qi in this FIBA Asia championship: if he is supposed to be the star everyone expects him to be, this Asia championship needs to be his coming out party, especially in his home country and an Olympic-berth on the line.

So far, Qi is living up to the expectations despite the pressures from the media and his home country fans. Though he hasn’t had the kind of impact on the glass as one would want or expect from a critical post player (he is only averaging 4 rebounds per game), he is second on the team in efficiency rating (14.7) and scoring (13.3) and he does lead the team in blocks with 1.3 per game.

I don’t think anybody is saying that Qi is the center piece of this team (that falls on Yi). But, Qi cannot underwhelm if the Chinese want to win the Asia Championship. So far, he’s overwhelmed. Let’s see though if he can continue that in the second round.

Luka Doncic and Why Real Madrid Can Continue Its Dominance Over Europe

With (left-to-right) Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Llull and Sergio Rodriguez back, Real Madrid will be the heavy favorite in the Spanish ACB Liga as well as the Euroleague

The Golden State Warriors were widely known for their dominating 2014-2015 campaign. Not only did they beat a Lebron James-led Cavs team (or should I say just Lebron James…with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love out a good chunk of the playoffs, the Cavs were running on fumes by Game 4 of the Finals, James included), but the Warriors also finished first in terms of record (67-15), SRS (10.01), Pace (98.3 possessions per game) and Defensive Rating (101.4 points allowed per 100 possessions), and finished second in terms of offensive rating (111.6 points scored per 100 possessions). In terms of dominating from start-to-finish, the Warriors arguably had one of the most complete seasons in the history of the NBA. And, with a young core led by Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes, the Warriors are expected to dominate the NBA for years to come, barring injury.

As the Warriors were dominating here in the states, another team was dominating the basketball landscape in Europe: Real Madrid. The Spanish basketball club put up a historic season of monumental proportions as they not only won the Spanish Liga ACB title over rival Barcelona, but they also took the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de Espana de Baloncesto and finally a Euroleague championship over the Greek club Olympiacos, Madrid’s first Euroleague title in over 20 years. The historic run not only produced what was effectively known as a “quadruple crown” in Spanish basketball circles, but also a 35-8 record in Liga ACB play and 24-6 record in Euroleague play, good for a 59-14 record overall for the 2014-2015 season. Madrid proved to be a balanced and dominating juggernaut on the court for opponents, as they averaged 97.8 ppg and allowed only 87.4, good for a difference of positive-10.4 ppg.

Head Coach Pablo Laso, a former Madrid player, has done an incredible job shaping Madrid into a powerhouse after years of falling short and underachieving to their Barcelona rivals (much like in soccer ironically). Laso has won 2 ACB titles, 2 Copa Del Rey championships, 3 straight Supercopa titles, and just recently the Euroleague title last season since being hired in 2011. (Ironically, he could have two Euroleague title under his belt had his team not blown the championship to a scrappy, David Blatt-coached Maccabi Tel Aviv team in 2014.) Thanks to his tutelage, and some excellent, local Spanish basketball talent staying in country to play for the local club such as Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez, Felipe Reyes and Sergio Llull, Madrid is enjoying one of the best periods in the history of its basketball club, and looks to continue that trend in 2015-2016.

And if that’s not enough, the reigning “quadruple crown” champions could be even better in 2015-2016 and beyond. Why? Not only do they return a majority of their championship squad from a year ago who are in the prime of their careers, but they also have a young 16-year-old Slovenian phenom waiting in the wings named Luka Doncic.

Why Luka Doncic is such a big deal

Luka Doncic (17) a 16-year-old phenom from Slovenia could be the difference-maker for a Real Madrid “Quadruple Crown” repeat.

At 16 years old, no European player has garnered this much hype since Ricky Rubio debuted as a 14-year-old. A native of Slovenia, Doncic has made quick headway in the Real Madrid system, as he helped lead the U18 squad to a Spanish League championship, as well as an Adidas Next Generation Tournament championship. At six-feet, six-inches, Doncic has the skills of a point guard, with the scoring and rebounding ability of a small forward. In the final game of the Adidas Next Generation tournament against Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade, he dropped 14 points and 5 assists and nabbed 11 rebounds in the 73-70 championship win. With his impeccable frame, scouts and basketball blogs have been raving about Doncic’s potential not only in the Spanish and Euroleague, but perhaps in the NBA in the near future as well.

What makes Doncic so special is the completeness of his game. He has the size of a wing, but it is obvious that he enjoys making plays with the ball in the mold of a point guard. While at times scouts have noted that Doncic can be a bit reckless with the ball (in the championship game against Cverna Zvezda, he did have 7 turnovers, so that downs his assists totals a bit), he certainly has the potential to make the big highlight and game-changing play. Take a look at some of his highlights from the Spanish U18 Championship against Juventut, and it’s amazing how Doncic can break down defenses and make no-look passes on the fly.

As you can obviously see, there are a lot of flashes of Rubio in those highlights above. The only difference though is Doncic has a few inches on the former Spanish phenom and current Minnesota Timberwolf.

Of course, Doncic is still far from a polished product and he played mostly with the Real Madrid B team a year ago. While he performed admirably with the B-squad averaging 13.5 ppg and shooting almost 57 percent on 2-point shots, his 3-point shot is in need of work. He only shot 33 percent in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament, and in the B-League, he shot 29.5 percent from beyond the arc on 139 shots. Considering he only shot 116 2-point shots with the Real Madrid B-team, the frequency and lack of efficiency beyond the arc is worrisome. One of the big knocks against Rubio was he struggled and continues to struggle to produce any kind of range as a shooter, which has limited his ability to penetrate and create offense, his main value. Unless Doncic makes some strides with his shooting, the same fate could be awaiting the Slovenian as well, especially as Doncic will be starting the year with senior team and will be facing much better defenses and more physical and veteran players.

That being said, Doncic could be a key cog to this already deep Madrid team. Madrid is loaded at the point with incumbents Llull and Rodriguez (who I personally like and think has grown a lot since a bit of a disappointing campaign in the NBA; he was one of my favorite players to watch in the Eurobasket and in last year’s Euroleague Final Four), and yet Doncic is expected to make an impact on this Madrid squad, which is saying a lot about Doncic’s potential. Maybe Doncic thrives, or maybe he finds his way back to B-squad to develop as a primary starter a little bit more. Unfortunately, he is an 8th-10th player in the depth chart at this point, so minutes and opportunities won’t be plentiful for him, especially considering Madrid brings back so much of the core from last year’s squad.

Nonetheless, at 16-years-old, the future looks bright for Doncic and Madrid next season with his size, skill set and growth as a player from a year ago. Doncic has serious potential, and potential to contribute immediately despite his youth. I cannot see him not having any impact next year with the senior. He is simply too talented and too special a player. And how much impact he has could be a swinging factor in terms of whether Madrid successfully defends the title or suffers a post-championship hangover. Having two good point guards in Llull and Rodriguez is one thing, but a third makes them deeper and more dangerous on the perimeter than any team in Spain or Europe in general. It’ll be interesting to see how much Laso will depend on him and utilize him on a squad that has such high, championship-caliber expectations in 2015-2016.

The depth on this Madrid squad is incredible…and Laso knows how to use it

Madrid will return both their main post players (Gustavo Ayon, formerly of the Magic and Hornets; and Felipe Reyes), Fernandez, Llull (who spurned an offer to come to the Rockets this off-season), Rodriguez, former NBA player Andres Nocioni, and Lithuanian sharpshooter Jonas Maciulus, who is coming off a hot shooting performance in the Eurobasket that carried Lithuania to the championship game (where they lost 80-67 to Spain). Furthermore, in addition to Doncic, Madrid also signed former Georgia Bulldog and LA Clipper Trey Thompkins, who played last year for Nizhny Novgorod and averaged 14.5 ppg in Euroleague competition.

Without a doubt, Madrid is the deepest and most talented team in the league. No other team in the ACB Liga or Euroleague can sport the kind of 1-12 roster that Madrid sports, not by a long shot. Add in the valuable experience Spaniards such as Fernandez, Rodriguez, Llull, Reyes and Guillermo Hernangomez received in their Eurobasket championship run (as well as Maciulus breakthrough with Lithuania), and Madrid’s roster will be brimming with conference by October, where they will tip-off their season against Khimiki Moscow.

But all the talent in Europe can be self-destructive if not utilized properly. Egos and lack of team chemistry can sink even the most juggernaut of squads both in Europe and here in the United States. (Remember the Nash-Howard-Bryant Lakers from a few years ago?). Laso though has proven to be a master strategist and manager, as he not only has gotten the most from his talented roster, but he efficiently manages minutes throughout his squad. Last year, Sergio Llull averaged the most minutes at 27.5 mpg, but only two other players (Fernandez and Rodriguez) averaged more than MPG. The fact that Laso is able to distribute those kind of minutes while still being competitive is a testament to the kind of team he has built in Madrid. Yes, they are talented, but everyone on the roster has bought in to what Laso is preaching, and it has paid off. You cannot argue with four major European championships in one year.

It’s funny. Not only did the Warriors win by utilizing their depth in the NBA championship, but Madrid did too en route to dominating the European basketball scene in 2015-2016. Maybe playing more guys isn’t such a bad thing?

Final thoughts on Madrid in 2015-2016

This Madrid team has re-loaded and is the odds-on favorite in the ACB Liga as well as the Euroleague. Add that with excitement surrounding Doncic and him starting the year on the senior squad, and this Madrid should not only be followed closely in Spain, but throughout Europe and maybe worldwide as well. Winning the Euroleague back-to-back is no easy chore, especially with so many rich, European teams (like rival Barcelona, Olympiacos and CSKA Moscow) re-loading every year with the hope they can make a run to the Final Four, where it can be anyone’s championship (no seven game series here in the Euroleague). But that being said, it’s hard to think, with the depth of talent and experience Madrid sports again going into 2015-2016, that another team in Europe will be able to knock them off from the top mantle.

Madrid could be in the middle of a dynasty-making process, and that alone should generate some attention of hardcore basketball fans here in the states. There is a lot of special things going on in Spain with this Madrid squad from the players (Doncic especially) to the lofty challenge the team faces in dominating Europe again, but with a bigger target on their back.

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