A Quick Preview to the Winner League (Israel) Final Four

On Monday, June 12th, the 2017 Winner League (Israeli Basketball Super League) Final Four will tip off at Menorah Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv (home of Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv). What makes this field interesting is that the last four Winner League champions are represented: Maccabi Haifa (2013), Maccabi Tel Aviv (2014), Hapoel Jerusalem (2015) and Maccabi Rishon (2016). Considering the Final Four’s format is akin to the Euroleague and NCAA model, where it only takes two games to win the championship, any of the four clubs have a chance to add another title to their mantle.

Let’s break down each team and what their chances are to be hoisting that Winner League trophy at the end of the championship final.

(All stats from the quarterfinals and not regular season unless noted)

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Maccabi Rishon

Winner League regular season record:

17-16 (7th seed)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Hapoel Eliat (2nd seed) 3-2

Players to watch:

G/F Patrick Richard (14.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 13.0 PIR in QF), PG Cameron Long (10.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.6 apg, 11.6 PIR), PF Elishay Kadir (10.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.2 fouls drawn per game, 13.8 PIR).

What you should know about Maccabi Rishon:

Rishon are the defending champions, as they went from a 6 seed, 16-17 team entering the playoffs and went on a fairytale run to their first Winner League championship. Led by former Israel National Team (and now current Maccabi Tel Aviv) coach Arik Shivek, and regular season MVP Darryl Monroe (who averaged a league 25.0 PIR), the underdog club upset third-seed Maccabi Haifa in the quarterfinals 3-2, and then proceeded to upset second-seed Maccabi Tel Aviv 71-68 in the Semifinals, and then top-seeded Hapoel Jerusalem 83-77 in the final. Rishon’s Cinderella run displayed what can happen when a team comes in hot in the postseason, especially with the “one and done” Final Four format.

This season feels similar to last season in a variety of ways. Despite winning a Winner League title, the club wasn’t able to capitalize much on the success, as they went 17-16 in the regular season (only 1 game better than the previous year), fired Shivek mid-season, and finished as the 7th seed, seemingly heavy underdogs to the favored Hapoel Eilat. And yet, in a crazy, topsy turvy series, Hapoel Eilat, much like last season, punched their ticket to the Final Four once again by upsetting the two-seed in five games.

What are their chances to win the championship?

Unlike last season, Rishon doesn’t have that “star” player this year like they did last season with Monroe. Rishon struck out on imports Joe Jackson (who only played 2 games) and Maalik Wayns (who played 16). However, this playoff season, they have been led by the guard combo of Richard and Long, who averaged 14 ppg and 10.2 ppg, respectively in the series against Eilat. Additionally, power forward and Israeli national Kadir had a monster series as well, as he averaged 10.6 ppg on 74.2 percent shooting from the field.

Rishon is playing some of their best basketball this year under head coach Smulik Brenner, who has done a solid job after Shivek left the club during the year. That being said, the big question for Rishon is if they will be able to handle the athleticism and star power of Jerusalem. Jerusalem went 3-0 in the regular season against Rishon and won by margins of 20, 14, and 24 in those contests.

If Rishon wants to have a chance, they are going to have push the tempo, force turnovers (they averaged 6.6 in their quarterfinal series), control the glass (they averaged more rebounds than Jerusalem in the regular season; 38.1 to 34.9), and continue their hot shooting from beyond the arc (they shot 40 percent from 3 against Eilat). As much star power as Jerusalem, they have a tendency to coast or be unfocused at times, especially on the defensive end, an area that Rishon can exploit considering how well offensively they have been playing.

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Hapoel Jerusalem

Winner League regular season record:

19-14 (3rd seed)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Ironi Nahariya (6th seed) 3-2 (down 2-0 and won three straight games).

Players to watch:

SF Tarence Kinsey (14.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.0 spg, 16.6 PIR), Guard Curtis Jerrells (13.8 ppg, 1.4 spg, 4.4 apg, 14.4 PIR), Guard Jerome Dyson (10.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 10.2 PIR), PF Lior Eliyahu (8.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.4 apg).

What you should know about Hapoel Jerusalem:

Jerusalem gained a lot of popularity this off-season for signing Amare Stoudemire, who also owns a minority stake in the club. However, Stoudemire has somewhat limped to the finish, as he only played in three playoff games, and averaged 13.7 mpg in the playoff series against Ironi. That being said, this is an immensely talented squad beyond Stoudemire, led by Italian national and former Montepaschi Siena head coach Simone Pianigiani, who will be heading to Olimpia Milano at the conclusion of the season.

Tarence Kinsey, who played last year with Crvena Zvezda, has emerged as Jerusalem’s best all-around player this postseason. He average 14.4 ppg, and shot not only over 60 percent from 2-pt shots, but also on 3-pt shots as well. And if that wasn’t enough, he averaged 3.0 spg, a key reason why Jerusalem turned things around against Ironi despite facing a 2-0 deficit.

In addition to Kinsey (who averages 29.2 mpg), Pianigiani relies heavily on guards Jerrells (who averages a team high 34.8 mpg this postseason) and Dyson (who averages 23.8 mpg) and post players Eliyahu (27.4 mpg) and center Richard Howell (24.2 mpg). This is not a deep team by any means, and the fatigue certainly has certainly showed up on occasion not only in the regular season, but post-season as well (hence, why they went down 2-0, with both losses coming at home). Yet despite their lack of depth, Jerusalem’s top talent stacks up with any club in the Winner League.

What are their chances to win the championship?

Jerusalem is looking for revenge, as they were upset by Rishon in the championship a year ago, thus being denied a back-to-back title run. It will be hard for Rishon to handle the athletic and quick trio of Jerrells-Dyson-Kinsey, and Eliyahu has emerged as the team leader in the frontcourt as Stoudemire has struggled through injuries and fatigue. If Jerusalem can keep the pace slow, get in their pick and roll actions in the half court (Pianigiani is known to rely heavily on the pick and roll as a coach), and minimized the damage on the glass, then Jerusalem should be able to handle this contest easily.

One big issue for Jerusalem though, other than their rebounding disadvantage as explained earlier, is their porous free throw shooting this postseason. Jerusalem shot 54.4 percent from the charity stripe in their five-game season against Ironi, with awful performances coming from their post players: Eliyah shot 36.4 percent and Howell shot 36.8 on free throws. Even their perimeter players didn’t fare too hot in the series, as Dyson shot 53.3 percent on free throws in the series. This is key because it bit them in the butt in games 1 and 2, as they shot 51.7 and 42.9 percent from the line in their losses in games 1 and 2, respectively. They improved their percentages in games 3 and 4 (54.5 and 68.2 percent, respectively), which resulted in wins, but they regressed back in game 5 (50 percent). Luckily for them, the game was out of reach so it didn’t hurt them. But if Jerusalem wants to get their second title in three years, they have to be closer in free throw shooting to their season average (70.6 percent) and not their playoff one.

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Maccabi Haifa

Winner League regular season record:

16-17 (8th seed)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Hapoel Holon (1st seed) 3-1 (won three straight games)

Players to watch:

PG John Dibartolomeo (22.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 67.9 3-pt percentage, 22.7 PIR in QF), PF/C Kevinn Pinkney (10.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 18.3 PIR in QF), PG Gregory Vargas (10.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 6.3 apg in QF), PF Oz Blayzer (14.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 13.3 PIR in QF)

What you should know about Maccabi Haifa:

Haifa is a team who’s better than their record indicates. Yes, they were 16-17 during the regular season, but they had a +128 point differential, which was the second best mark behind Holon. Thus, this was probably a team that should have won 18-20 games, not one that only won 16 and had a losing record. (I talk about pythagorean W-L a bit in my previous post on Brose Bamberg who also had a differential between expected and actual record.)

Despite being the eight-seed, Haifa came out and utterly steamrolled the top-seeded Holon three-games to one. While the team got expected production from leading scorer Vargas, who averaged 10.3 ppg and 6.3 apg in the four-game series, it was the breakout of American point guard and University of Rochester product Dibartolomeo who ended up breaking the back of the top-seeded Holon. The young guard scored an incredible 22.5 ppg and shot nearly 68 percent from beyond the arc, all career numbers considering he only averaged 9.9 ppg during the regular season. Another breakout star was Pinkney, who averaged 13 ppg and 7.3 rpg in the four game series, while providing muscle and energy in the paint that neutralized the favored Holon.

What are their chances to win a championship?

Head coach Offer Rahimi coached under Mickey Gorka during their 2014 title run, so he understands the culture of this Haifa club and what it takes to win. Haifa plays an all-out style, as they don’t have the most size out of the clubs in the Winner League, but they can score buckets, push the pace, and get hot from beyond the arc. This has led to a high variance in their scores (hence the reason why they went 16-17), but it’s entertaining, and when they are feeling it, they can seem unbeatable.

Unfortunately, they will be facing a tough challenge in Tel Aviv, who also play a run and gun style and have a similar team composition, though Tel Aviv is slightly more talented and athletic on the perimeter. One of Tel Aviv’s weaknesses this year is on the glass, as they don’t rebound well, and don’t have the size to keep teams off the offensive glass either. Haifa thrives in this area, as they like to crash and get up second and third-chance attempts. Haifa will be giving away a lot of advantages to Tel Aviv, but if Haifa crashes the glasses, wins on 50-50 balls and can transition their hot shooting stroke, then they have a puncher’s chance to continue their Cinderella run to the Finals and perhaps into a championship.

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Maccabi Tel Aviv

Winner League regular season record:

19-14 (4th place)

Quarterfinals:

Beat Enei Herzliya 3-0

Players to watch:

Guard Andrew Goudelock (14 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.7 apg, 16 PIR in QF), Forward Victor Rudd (15.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 19 PIR in QF), Forward Quincy Miller (17.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 22.7 PIR in QF).

What you should know about Maccabi Tel Aviv:

I have already gone in length about Maccabi Tel Aviv’s playoff run in a previous post so I won’t go too much into this. But I will say that the combination of Arik Shivek’s arrival (though most likely temporary, as the courtship of David Blatt, whether they get him or not, is a sign that they are looking to upgrade with a big name hire) and Quincy Miller’s resurgence (after suffering through injury most of the year) has helped Maccabi turn a 180 after a season finish that included a 2-8 record in their last 10 games and the firing of Ainars Bagatskis (who was their third coach this year). That being said, this Maccabi team has been hot and cold all year and has gone through big ups and then tremendous downs with the various coaching changes this year (Rami Hadar and Bagatskis all had moments where it seemed like they would be the solution for the remainder of the season). So while this Maccabi team looks good now, that is no guarantee that they will continue such a performance in the Final Four.

What are their chances to win a championship?

Their matchup with Haifa is beneficial to the Winner League power. Haifa, as solid as they are, play a similar style to Tel Aviv, which doesn’t really exploit Tel Aviv’s weaknesses. In order to beat Tel Aviv, you need to be a solid rebounding team, you need to beat them in the post, and you got to make them play a half-court, slow it down game. Unfortunately, while Haifa is a slightly better rebounding team, but it’s not a considerable advantage, and it is debatable if Haifa can do those other two factors with any confidence. Tel Aviv won the season series 2-1, and when they did lose to Haifa, they were going through that horrid stretch where the club was embroiled with internal turmoil. Those days look to be gone (as of now).

If Tel Aviv does take care of business, it could result in a matchup with rival Jerusalem, who most likely will be looking for revenge after losing the Israeli Cup to Tel Aviv. While I have discussed about Miller before, one key to this series could be the offensive AND defensive performance of Andrew Goudelock. Goudelock missed considerable time to injury and was deemed less of a problem than Sonny Weems, who was released mid-season after a disappointing tenure in Israel. There is no question that Goudelock can put up buckets, as he has been known as one of the most dynamic one-on-one scorers in all of Europe. But he can be a black hole offensively at times, and can take plays off defensively as well, not necessarily a plus for a club that struggles with team defense in general.

And yet, this Final Four may be a “tryout” of sorts for Goudelock. Miller may have earned the second year of his contract with his quarterfinal performances, but Goudelock’s future seems less secure. Many have blamed him for the team’s inconsistencies, especially on defense. But, Goudelock, when motivated, can be a game-changing force, as he showed in past Euroleague stops as well as the NBA and D-League. If he can rekindle that force in the Final Four and lead the Blue and Gold to another title, it could result in him being back in Tel Aviv under the new coaching regime.

A disappointing Final Four performance though? Well, it’s safe to say his first season in Tel Aviv will be his last (much like Weems) if that should happen.

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Baskonia Returning to Final Four? Maccabi Fox in Trouble? (And Other Stories from Round 11)

In any other year, we would just have finished the opening slate of the Top 16 round stage of the Euroleague. This year, however, it’s just another week in the new, longer slog of the Euroleague campaign.

Let’s take a look at some things that happened in Round 11.

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Can Baskonia return to the Final Four?

Baskonia went from Euroleague dark horse to the Final Four a year ago in 2015-2016. However, it was safe to say most people weren’t expecting the same from the Basque club in 2016-2017. Of course, one could justify the thinking. They not only lost head coach Velimir Perasovic in the off-season to Anadolu Efes, but they also lost Euroleague MVP-runner up Ioannis Bourousis and Mike James to Euroleague competitor Panathinaikos; Darius Adams to China, and Davis Bertans to the San Antonio Spurs. Add that with uninspiring free agent signings such as Andrea Bargnani (coming off a miserable season with the Brooklyn Nets), Shane Larkin (a good, but not great NBA point guard), and Johannes Voigtmann (who played for the Fraport Skyliners; a FIBA Europe Cup participant a year ago), and it was expected to be a growing, perhaps rebuilding season in Vitoria-Gasteiz under new head coach Sito Alonso, who has only coached a total of 10 games in the Euroleague with DKV Joventut in 2008-2009.

Despite the modest projections, Baskonia has not only proven to be better than expected, but they may be even better than last year’s 4th place squad. Bargnani’s health going forward this season is a question, as he has only played 7 games this year, but he has been productive when on the floor, as evidenced by his 12.6 ppg, and 10.9 PIR. The biggest impact though has come from Larkin and their post players, where the Basque club has demonstrated considerable diversity in their depth chart. Larkin, a former Nets draft pick out of the University of Miami, has thrived in the Euroleague (not an easy feat considering the amount of Ameircan duds this season; more on that later). He’s averaging 13.5 ppg, 6.4 apg, and a PIR of 15.8, which is the second best mark on the squad. Though Adams and James certainly added a 1-2 punch from the point guard position, neither of them have the pick and roll passing ability and deftness in the half court offense that Larkin has demonstrated this year. What could make Larkin even more dangerous this year is the addition of Pablo Prigioni, a former Baskonia star returning to Europe from a stint in the NBA, who could provide excellent mentoring to Larkin, not to mention backup on nights when the first-year star is not on his A-game.

Of course, Larkin wouldn’t be as successful if he didn’t have quality posts to work with, and Larkin and head coach Alonso have been able to utilize their multiple talented block players to maximum effectiveness this off-season. Bargnani earned a lot of publicity in the pre-season due to his status as a former No. 1 NBA Draft pick, but it’s the other supporting bigs who have done most of the damage for Baskonia. Voigtmann has been a double-double efficiency machine, as evidenced by his 12.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg and team-leading 17.6 PIR. Tornike Shengalia, who was hobbled by injury a season ago, has been solid averaging 10.1 ppg and 4 rpg. And Kim Tillie has been a dependable big off the bench, as evidenced by his 4.4 ppg and 50 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Lastly, bring in Chase Budinger, who can bring some stretch-4 options into the mix, and it’s no surprise that the frontcourt has been the strongest aspect of Baskonia’s arsenal (along with Adam Hanga’s incredible defensive ability; he probably is the best perimeter defender in Europe).

One of the most interesting progressions this season though may be Ilimane Diop, who saw some time as a spot starter when Shengalia was injured a year ago. Diop doesn’t average much time (as he averages only 8.8 MPG), and he still is work in progress offensively, but he has appeared in every game this year, and has proven to be Baskonia’s most valuable post defender this season. According to Overbasket.com, teams are shooting only 34.6 percent from the floor when Diop is playing in comparison to 43.7 when he is off. That 9.1 percent difference is the largest positive difference for any post player on this Baskonia roster. It’ll be interesting to see if Alonso will utilize him more down the stretch, especially against teams that struggle to score in the half court.

If you compare the performance and shooting numbers of this year’s Baskonia squad to the one a year ago, it’s quite remarkable how similar the teams are statistically speaking. For the most part, they are the same efficiency-wise on both ends of the court with some minor differences: this year’s squad scores more in the post, and rebounds better; last year’s squad shot better from three and played at a bit faster pace. Considering the inconsistency we have seen from a majority of the Euroleague squads this year (especially in the 5-16 region), the fact that Baskonia looks to be as strong as last year’s squad on paper and in the record book (they’re 7-4 and tied for fourth) is definitely an encouraging sign for Baskonia fans that they will be able to make it back to the Final Four, only this time they will be purchasing a ticket to Istanbul rather than Berlin.

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Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s flaws starting to show…

After a big win in Piraeus over Olympiacos, things looked pretty bright for Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv. They were 5-4, in sound playoff shape, and looked to be really gelling under new head coach Rami Hadar (who took over for Erez Edelstein after an 0-2 start in Euroleague play). Furthermore, they were going into a three-game stretch which had 3-0 possibilities, with home contests against Efes and Brose and a road game against Crvena Zvezda, who had been fading as of late (though playing in Belgrade is always a difficult task due to their rabid fans).

However, it appears that Maccabi will be lucky to avoid an 0-3 stretch after Round 12. They were out-muscled and hustled against Efes in a 86-77 loss, as the Turkish club out-rebounded Maccabi 36-30 and had less turnovers (13 to Maccabi’s 21) as well. The following week, Maccabi came out flat and never recovered, as they put up an atrocious defensive performance in a 85-70 loss where Maccabi never led at any point in the game. Brose shot 54 percent from the field, including 48.1 percent from beyond the arc. Considering that 45.9 percent of Brose’s points came from beyond the arc, it makes sense that game was so lopsided, especially in the points per field goal mark (1.29 to Maccabi’s 0.86).

Now 5-6, and traveling to a tough venue in Belgrade, Maccabi is scrambling to find an identity and the right kind of leadership to help them get back on track. The talent is certainly there, and if Quincy Miller was healthy, you can understand why Maccabi fans were so excited about this team after such a disaster of a Euroleague and Winner League season a year ago. That being said, as kind of talked about by a lot of English-speaking Euroleague experts on Twitter, this team doesn’t seem to fit together with so many players possessing “similar” playing styles (i.e. “high-usage rate guards”).

New signings Andrew Goudelock and Sonny Weems need the ball to be successful and productive, and add that with a similar kind of player in Devin Smith, and it is no surprise that the offense stagnates into constant isolation and 1-on-1 plays. To make matters worse, Maccabi is thin in the post, with Colton Iverson and Maik Zirbes the only two giving any production around the rim, and they lack a true play maker who can create for others. Gal Mekel, expected to the be in the starting lineup, has been glued to the bench lately, and Yogev Ohayon, is a jolt of energy off the bench, but is not the kind of point guard to handle such a diversity of talents. And to make matters worse, though this team may be the fastest in Europe, especially with the combination DJ Seeley and Victor Rudd on the wings, they seem to take plays off, which was evident against a much more motivated and better prepared Brose team last week. They don’t fight through pick and rolls. They don’t contest shots consistently. And they don’t get on the boards like they need to at times, resulting in too many easy second-chance points.

Goudelock, Weems and Smith are talented scorers on their own, and on a squad bereft of talent, they shine as players. But on the same roster and sometimes on the same floor? Well, the offense stagnates, one of them ends up standing around totally disengaged from the offense and sometimes defense, and it has hurt Maccabi time and time again this year in terms of building chemistry and consistency. If Maccabi really wants to make the playoffs and be a serious contender for a Final Four spot, a change in the ROSTER and not the coaching needs to happen. It’s got to be Goudelock’s team. Or Weems’ team. Or Smith’s team. All three can’t co-exist. Yes they’ll have spurts like against Fenerbahce and Olympiacos, but more often than not, we’ll see duds like the ones against Efes and Brose due to the flaws of those three players working against each other and consequently, the team as a whole.

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Real Madrid or CSKA Moscow? Look to Luka…

CSKA Moscow was challenged early in Milan against Olimpia Milano, but their talent and depth took over as they won 79-64 to keep the top spot in the Euroleague standings at 10-1. However, with de Colo still out, and do-it-all guard Milos Teodosic citing fatigue issues, their top spot may be challenged real soon by Real Madrid.

Madrid won by a much slimmer margin against Zalgiris Kaunas 96-91. However, this is Zalgiris team that is gelling under head coach Sarunas Jasikevicius, and may be a move away from being a darkhorse playoff contender come March. The fact that Real took their best shot, and still came away with the victory is no easy feat, especially considering they also play in the Liga Endesa, the top domestic competition in Europe.

One of the big reasons to feel confident in “Los Blancos” is their depth, as they go 10-12 deep rotation wise, important considering the longer Euroleague campaign. New acquisition Anthony Randolph has been a two-way beast who complements established Madrid stars Felipe Reyes and Gustavo Ayon well. Furthermore, Dontaye Draper has been a nice backup guard who gives Madrid defensive stability when star Sergio Llull is on the bench.

However, the biggest revelation has been 17-year-old Luka Doncic, who scored 17 points, and had 4 rebounds and 4 assists and a PIR of 24 in their win over Zalgiris. Many expected Doncic to still be a year away from being a true impact player, but it’s already obvious that if Madrid wants to win the Euroleague, Doncic’s performance down the stretch will be crucial. He’s not eligible until the 2018 NBA Draft, but it’s safe to say that if he keeps this rapid progression, he should be a lock for the No. 1 spot.

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Starting planning for next year…

I hate to be saying teams should be thinking about 2017-2018 so early in the season, especially with limited licenses on the line. However, I think it’s safe to say we can eliminate the following teams from playoff contention:

  • Galatasaray Odeabank: the combination of injuries and lack of chemistry has killed this team. They looked absolutely outclassed on the road against Panathinaikos in a 83-58 loss. Yes, the game was in Athens and Pana was desperate for a win, but it was just a lackluster performance all-around for the reigning Eurocup champions. Other than Sinan Guler and Blake Schilb, there hasn’t been much to be positive about with this team. Their American acquisitions have not fit in (Russ Smith, Austin Daye and Justin Dentmon) and Tibor Pleiss just hasn’t given them anything lasting despite his NBA pedigree. Ergin Ataman is such a key figure in Turkish basketball, but another year of this will be tough to stomach for the Gala Ultras.
  • EA7 Amani Olimpia Milano: It’s bad enough that Olimpia is 4-7 after fading in the second half against CSKA at home. It’s bad enough that after a 2-0 start with wins against Maccabi and Darussafaka, they have lost seven out of their last nine games. It’s bad enough that they haven’t gotten much consistency from big-name signing Miroslav Raduljica. But now they have the whole Alessandro Gentile drama where they kicked the brash Italian star off the team and are now trying to find a team to transfer him to as soon as possible. Boy…this has been just a tough year for the Italian club, not to mention a tough stretch for Italian professional basketball  in general. No Italian club has made the Final Four since 2011 (Montepaschi Siena), and it looks like that streak will continue this season.
  • UNICS Kazan: UNICS has cool uniforms and Keith Langford, who I talked about last week. Other than that…well, it’s hard to justify a way that the Russian club gets in. They struggle on the road, especially against good teams, and last week’s 88-59 beatdown in Piraeus shows that this UNICS team is definitely outside the bubble of playoff contention.