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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Adios a la Euroliga: a farewell to 2017 for the non-playoff teams

After the long, inaugural 30-round season, the Euroleague playoffs will begin on April 18th. Each of the eight postseason teams will be battling for a spot in the Euroleague Final Four, which takes place in Istanbul May 19-21st. For many squads, a Euroleague Final Four is expected and anything less would be considered a failure. For a few, a Euroleague final four might be the momentum the club may need to be a Euroleague mainstay for years to come.

However, this post is not about the playoffs, or the chances of a Final Four appearance for those eight teams in the postseason bracket. Rather, this is an ode, a eulogy for the remaining eight teams who did not make the postseason, and may or may not be back in the Euroleague in 2017-2018.

So grab your bottles, and let’s start pouring it out for those who missed the playoff cut in 2016-2017.

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Olimpia Milano (8-22, 16th place)

It hasn’t been your year Milano (or past couple of years, as you bowed out in the regular season last year as well). Many Euroleague and Italian fans thought you would perform better this year. You had the 6th highest payroll in the Euroleague this season. You signed Euroleague vets like Ricky Hickman and Miroslav Raduljica to boost your pick and roll combo. Alessandro Gentile was ready to have a breakout year before he eventually went to the Houston Rockets. Head Coach Jasmin Repesa was ready to make his mark after a disappointing Euroleague campaign in 2015-2016.

Oh how we were wrong. Gentile just imploded and was gone in a minute, playing in PAO green for a brief (unsuccessful) time before now making his way in Jerusalem. The wins came few and far between. It’s hard to say if this year was indeed worse than 2015-2016. A 30-game sample is a lot different from a 10-game one. But there wasn’t much to look on the bright side about. Yes, the win in Kaunas was nice. The coaches’ black on black with a red tie suit ensemble was always on point. (What else could you expect when your main sponsor is Armani?) But the future looks bleak for one of the most prestigious clubs in Europe today.

You still got that A-License though…for now at least. (Update: I imagine you can thank your EXTREMELY loyal fans for this.)

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Unics Kazan (8-22, 15th place)

You should have just changed your name to “Keith Langford” Kazan (KLK) for short. Sure, Quino Colom was fun, when he was healthy of course. Latavious Williams was a big body who could bruise around and throw it down. Artisom Parakhoski always put up good lines on a nightly basis, and Evgeny Voronov was that nice, local talent. And you could always depend on head coach Eugeny Pashutin for a hyped-up, crazy, “I only understood 65 percent of what he said” pre-game speech. And those uniforms were dope…loved the Kazan skyline and the white and green. But…yeah, it was a good run UNICS. You did about as well as we all expected in your return to the Euroleague, and that’s all we as fans could ask.

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Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv (10-20, 14th place)

What is going on Maccabi? That’s two years. Two straight years of disappointment, just like Milano. Last year, you went through three different head coaches, and were bounced out of the regular season and in the early rounds of the Eurocup. This year, you went through four head coaches, and were out of the playoff race by the 3/4 mark of the season. You have six Euroleague championships, the third-most in Euroleague history (behind Real Madrid and CSKA). You have a unique basketball legacy as one of the more well-known clubs outside of Europe. You are really the epicenter of Israeli club basketball, perhaps sports in general. When you think of Israeli professional sports, you think of Maccabi. You think of Nate Huffman, and David Blu. You think of Tyrese Rice, and David Blatt. You think of Big Sofos, and Jeremy Pargo.

10-20. Constant turmoil. Sonny Weems and Andrew Goudelock hogging the ball, unable to mesh with one another or the team in general. You have no post help beyond Colton Iverson. You depended on guys like Gal Mekel, Victor Rudd and Sylven Landesberg way too late. You are building up bad losses in the Winner League that could jeopardize your A-License status. If things keep going like they are, Euroleague basketball fans will have to live with a season, a full-30 game season without one of Europe’s legendary clubs.

This can’t happen Maccabi. Keep Ainars Bagatskis. Make some smart moves. Use your surprisingly limited budget wisely. We need Maccabi back in the playoff and perhaps Final Four picture soon.

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Brose Bamberg (10-20; 13th place)

Man, Bamberg. You were on the cusp. If you look at your pythagorean W-L total (points scored vs. points allowed), you really had the profile of a 13-to-15 win team. Instead, you only won 10, and you were out of the playoff race sooner than you should have. There were so many good things to witness from you, Bamberg, the lone German representative in this year’s revised Euroleague. Nicolo Melli put up a renaissance year in the post. Andrea Trinchieri continues to prove that he is one of the brightest and most entertaining coaches in Europe today. Darius Miller did “Darius Miller” things (some good, some bad). Fabien Caseur had a career boost after an injury-riddled year last season with Baskonia. Daniel Theis may be the next Tibor Pleiss: big German center with a “ice”-sounding name.

But the losses…so heartbreaking, and in such frequent fashion. Whether it was on the road, or in front of the loyal and rabid home fans in Bamberg, they just came and came…and came. For a while, I thought you could be a playoff team. I though we could see an Itoudis-Trinchieri playoff matchup. I thought we could see the Melli-renaissance continue in the postseason.

But so many close losses. So unlucky. Just wait until next October, Bamberg. You have lost enough chips at the Euroleague poker table already.

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Galatasaray Odeabank Istanbul (11-19, 12th place)

Out of all the Turkish teams, I may like you, Gala the best. Your ultras are loyal, even though you had the lowest budget of the four Turkish Euroleague teams this year. There’s an authenticity to your squad. An authenticity to the playmaking seance of Sinan Guler. An authenticity to Blake Schlib’s physicality at the 3, or Austin Daye’s stretch-4 shooting prowess. An authenticity to fans either immense hate or immense love for head coach Ergin Ataman. An authenticity to the team’s general “lax” attitude to defense and keeping opponents off the offensive glass. You could make the argument that Gala made a lot of poor roster decisions early in the year (cough…Russ Smith…cough). You could say that they probably underachieved, though in reality, they were a fringe-playoff team at best. You could say that this team isn’t taking the next step with Ataman as coach, especially considering how polarizing this team was at the end of the year.

But don’t say you lacked “authenticity.” I enjoyed watching your  “one-year show” in the Euroleague. You scored buckets. You ran the floor. You beat good teams when we least expected it, and lost to bad teams when we expected wins. You looked like a playoff contender down the stretch on the road, and perhaps a bottom-end Eurocup team at home in the same time span. And yet, there was a genuine-feeling to yo guys, your club, inside and out. Something that Dacka or even Efes didn’t have. That authenticity that makes a Euroleague club really special, makes it different from the typical professional basketball club in the NBA, Europe or anywhere else in the world.

You weren’t great by any means, but you will be missed next year. I hope, much like the case for Valencia, we’ll see more televised Eurocup games on Euroleague TV next season so we can see more of you and your ultras.

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FC Barcelona Lassa (12-18; 11th place)

We probably should have seen this down season coming, Barca. You seemed to live in a world where you had one foot in the “rebuild” door and the other in the “stay the course” one. You were like a casanova trying to pick two lovers, but eventually disappointing both of them. The hiring of Georgios Bartzokas, signified a rebuild or a change in direction as a club, as he had no Spanish coaching or playing experience. But then again, you kept a lot of the same talent from the Pascual era. Back was Justin Doellman. Back was Joey Dorsey (who didn’t last long). Back was Brad Oleson. Back was Ante Tomic and the corpse of Juan Carlos Navarro. It looked like a Xavi Pascual squad, only it was a Greek, not a Catalan, who was coaching the red and blue.

And when you try to live in both worlds, generally speaking, those worlds collide in bad ways.  And that was the case time and time again in 2016-2017. Barca, you just never really seemed cohesive on the offensive end, and just struggled to put the ball in the bucket. Peterri Koponen from Finland showed glimpses, as did youthful star Aleksander Vezenkov, but for the most part, your style was akin to those Detroit Pistons teams of the late 2000’s, after they won their title in 2004: old, stiff, and boring to watch, and worst of all, not a threat in the postseason race.

It’s sad to see you like this. You were so close to making a Final Four a year ago, and now it seems like the club has been put years behind in terms of rebuilding. Bartzokas is good as gone, as may anybody else with ties to the Pascual-era. You should’ve just cut off the head and started from scratch a year ago with a clean roster when you hired Bartzokas. Instead, we had to witness you guys endure a long, slow death with a dead-man walking in Bartzokas leading the futile Euroleague charge.

Thanks for making Barcelona fans, and us general European basketball fans, nearly masochists in the process.

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Zalgiris Kaunas (14-16; 10th place)

Last season, Zalgiris, you had a Euroleague season to forget. You fired your coach in the middle of the Top 16 round and hired Lithuanian point “god” legend Sarunas Jasikevicius to finish the year. Well…while you did win a LKL title, you didn’t do much better in the Euroleague, as you finished last in Top 16 play. And to make matters worse, at the start of the summer, it seemed almost certain that Saras was going to coach his former club, Barcelona in 2016-2017. It looked like it was going to be a rough stretch for you, Lithuania’s lone Euroleague representative.

But then, ACB rules prohibited Saras from coaching Barcelona and they hired Bartzokas instead. I said how this was going to be a good thing, and how Saras would develop as a coach while mentoring your younger players and roster. You signed Kevin Pangos, a former Zag whom I love. And you kept your core intact, made up mostly of Lithuanians with prestige youth playing experience.

It wasn’t exactly easy street. You struggle to find a go-to guy in crunch time. Your loss at home against Efes which effectively eliminated you from the playoffs was heart-wrenching, as many general Euroleague fans were pulling for you to make the field of eight. Maybe Saras just was a little “too tense” in big moments, and big games. But you guys did it your way: with a young roster, with fellow countrymen, utilizing the home crowd fans to your advantage time and time again. Kaunas wasn’t quite Belgrade, but it certainly was a solid candidate for number 2 for the best crowds in the Euroleague this season.

You should be commended Saras for what you did, for winning 14 games with a roster that was probably pegged to finish in the bottom half in the preseason. It was a joy to see Paulius Jankunas develop as an inside-outside threat, Lukas Lekavicius go balls out off the bench, and Leo Westermann demonstrate basketball IQ and a shooting stroke on a nightly basis. I never felt Zalgiris was a serious playoff contender at any point in the year, even in their crucial game against Efes in Kaunas. They just didn’t have that athleticism or that “star”. But Zalgiris was like that wonderful, scrappy, Mid-Major basketball team with the charismatic coach who got the most out of his players.

Man, I feel sorry for whoever is going to take over for Saras in Kaunas next year. This was a very special Zalgiris team not just for Lithuanian fans, but European basketball fans in general.

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Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade (16-14, 9th place)

What can I say that hasn’t been said already about Red Star? You had the lowest payroll in the Euroleague. And yet, you were one game away from making the playoffs despite a paltry budget of five million euros (that’s right…five…freaking…million…euros). You lost Quincy Miller and Maik Zirbes to Maccabi, two key guys who led you to the playoffs a season ago. And who did you replace them with? Charles Jenkins, a combo guard who’s not really quick enough to be a true point, or tall enough to be a shooter; and Ognjen Kuzmic, who was coming off a lackluster year with PAO in 2015-2016. It was just those two, South Dakotan legend Nate Wolters, and a whole bunch of young players who came from your developmental system. Much like Zalgiris, this was expected to be a developmental year.

But I should have known better than to doubt the Red Star ultras. I should have known better than to downplay the coaching Dejan Redonjic. I should have known better and realized that Serbia produces some of the best young basketball talent in the world. I should have known better…Red Star is no slouch. Red Star plays with pride, they play with toughness, and the play to win…each and every night in the Euroleague.

Kuzmic surprised us, displaying the post skills that made him once a NBA draft pick. Marko Simonovic was the leader of the bench mob thanks to his streaky outside shooting. Stefan Jovic was becoming a point guard savant up there with the best of the Euroleague until he got injured. Nemanja Dangubic started to display the two-way, multiple position skills that makes him one of the more debated prospects in Europe. And Mjelko Bjelica? He proved to be the ultimate “dad-ball” player (i.e. an older guy who plays pickup and looks like he should suck, but is actually pretty good).

We all wish it was you, and not Dacka in the playoffs Red Star. We will miss your fans. We will miss your young roster. We will miss the Marko Guduric heat check step backs. We will miss Branko Lazic’s intensity on the defensive end.

We will just miss Serbian basketball in the postseason…it just goes underappreciated way too fucking much.

Euroleague First Trimester Awards

With 10 rounds down, the Euroleague regular season is officially 1/3 completed. While there are still 20 rounds to go until the playoffs, and teams still have pending roster/coaching moves to make to either maintain, improve, or turn-around their postseason hopes, the landscape in European professional basketball’s premier league is starting to get clearer.

So, to recap these first 10 games of the “new and improved” (and it really is improved; I dig this 30-round, 16-team format way more than the old “24-team Regular Season” and “Top 16” split season format), I will be handing out awards and honors from the first 10 games of this season. Yes, I know it’s early, and I imagine that many of these awards/honors will change over the course of the next 20 games. That being said, it is still important to recognize the Euroleague teams and individual players and coaches who have succeeded (and disappointed) thus far.

Best Team: CSKA Moscow

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As always, the premier Russian club has handled high expectations almost flawlessly. Nando de Colo was having another “MVP-esque” season, averaging 21 ppg and a PIR of 23.2 until his thigh injury sidelined him after seven games. However, even though they lost the reigning Euroleague MVP, they haven’t missed a beat, as Milos Teodosic has taken the sole mantle of leadership in de Colo’s absence. The Serbian is averaging 18.7 ppg, 8.2 apg and a PIR of 19.6.

While CSKA however has been the best team thus far over the first 10 games of the Euroleague campaign, their title will be threatened quickly over the next 20 games. Not only is de Colo out for a good period of time (he was expected to miss “several weeks”), CSKA’s depth is not nearly as dangerous as their title squad a year ago. After de Colo and Teodosic, nobody else has a PIR average over 10 except for Jeff Ayres, who has only played four games. Furthermore, the defense has looked shaky as of late in de Colo’s absence, as CSKA needed a buzzer beater to bail them out against last-place Brose Baskets Bamberg in a 90-88 win. CSKA ranks 11th in the league in points allowed, and though that’s not necessarily the best indicator of defensive effectiveness, it still shows that they aren’t quite elite in that category in comparison to offense (they lead the league in points scored).

With de Colo’s health, and CSKA’s supporting cast around Milos and Nando shakier than in seasons past, it could open the door for Real Madrid, who actually has a better points differential (+95 to CSKA’s +91) despite a worse record (7-3 to CSKA’s 9-1). Real has incredible depth, especially in the post, as Gustavo Ayon, Felipe Reyes, Othello Hunter and Anthony Randolph all offer different yet impactful skills to the table. Furthermore Sergio Llull is putting up a MVP-worthy campaign as the primary point guard with Sergio Rodriguez now in Philly, and Luka Doncic is turning into a budding point-wing superstar (and remember he’s only 17 years old). CSKA may be the best team now after 10 games, but Real could steal that title after Round 20, perhaps even sooner.

Runner up: Real Madrid.

MVP: Milos Teodosic, CSKA

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These past three games with Nando out of the lineup proves how important and effective Teodosic is to this CSKA team. Yes, de Colo is an essential part to this CSKA squad, and as stated before, an MVP-caliber player. However, I don’t know if they finish 9-1 after 10 games if Teodosic and de Color reverse roles. Teodosic is simply the unquestioned leader of this team, and at the point, he has been able to maximize his teammates’ effectiveness on the floor in ways that I don’t think any other Euroleague player today could, de Colo included. His combination of floor vision and offensive ability make him one of Europe’s most valuable commodities, and a key reason why CSKA will be gunning for another Final Four spot, and perhaps a successful defense of their crown.

That being said, Sergio Llull has been surging as of late, being the kind of playmaking guard that could make Los Blancos a “super-team” by season’s end. Llull is second in the league in PPG at 18.9 and also has 6 apg and a PIR average of 18.1. And he did this despite starting off the year atrociously from beyond the arc (he has gotten it up as of late, but it is still lackluster at 29.4 percent). The Teodosic-Llull MVP race will be interesting to follow throughout the Regular Season, as whichever team finishes the season with a better record could swing the MVP award for their respective point guard superstar.

Runner up: Sergio Llull

Most Entertaining Player: Keith Langford, UNICS Kazan

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Russian club UNICS Kazan is probably going to finish near the bottom of the Euroleague by season’s end, (and their 3-7 start doesn’t help many people think differently). However, despite their lackluster outlook and record, as well as home court attendance (watching UNICS home games are depressing considering the amount of empty seats; it resembles a women’s community college basketball game crowd), they sport one of the Euroleague’s most entertaining players in Keith Langford. The former Kansas Jayhawk leads the league in scoring average (23.2) and PIR average (24.2). And he is far from a one-trick pony, as he is also averaging 4.1 rebounds per game and 4.2 assists per game.

Plain and simple: the lefty scorer can do it all, and is not just key, but really the reason for any success UNICS has experienced and will experience this season. There won’t be a lot of highs this year for UNICS. Their appearance this season has all the signs of a “one and done” Euroleague team. That being said, the spectacular Langford makes this team somewhat competitive and worth watching on a week-by-week basis.

Runners up: Milos Teodosic, CSKA; Nicolo Melli, Brose Baskets Bamberg.

Best Coach: Sito Alonso, Baskonia

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Yes, Dimitris Itoudis and Pablo Lasso deserve credit for making CSKA and Real Madrid, respectively, the best two teams in Europe. And yes, after the top-three teams (Fenerbahce being the third), it’s a crapshoot four-through-nine. However, while they are 6-4 and are still a bit unpredictable, Baskonia has been a pleasant surprise this season. And new head coach Sito Alonso deserves a lot of credit for making Baskonia a playoff contender thus far.

Remember what happened to the Final Four squad this offseason: They lost Darius Adams to China; Davis Bertans to the NBA; and Mike James and Euroleague MVP-runner up Ioannis Bourousis to Panathinaikos. Though they were able to keep Adam Hanga from the NBA (the Spurs own his rights) and ACB rival Barcelona, they replaced their core 2015-2016 roster with a lot of question marks, including former NBA players such as Andrea Bargnani and Shane Larkin, and Johannes Voigtmann, who was playing for Fraport in the FIBA Europe Cup, a third-tier club competition, a year ago.

However, Voigtmann and Larkin have been revelations, and though his minutes and impact is limited to preserve his health, Bargnani has also been effective as well. A lot of credit should go to Alonso, who has been able to create an offensive and defensive system that has not only gotten the most out of Baskonia’s new acquisitions, but also the mainstays from previous seasons. This is a different team from last year’s squad, but they have been effective because Alonso hasn’t tried to mold them into last year’s team either, which is a pitfall of many teams who experience success the previous season. Alonso has long been considered one of the brightest young coaches in the European club scene considering his junior national team success with Spain as well as head coaching experience with Dominion Bilbao and Joventut. However, if he continues to build upon the strong Euroleague start, his stock will be even higher than before by year’s end.

Honorable mention goes to Rami Hadar, who has done a sterling job after Erez Edelstein was fired after two games. Maccabi Fox is a flawed roster, with a lot of egos and not a lot of depth in the frontcourt. However, Hadar has adopted a full-court, push-the-tempo, small-ball philosophy that has helped Maccabi go 5-3 under his tenure thus far. However, as strong as Hadar’s start has been, it still is just a shade below in impressiveness in comparison to Alonso, who has outperformed expectations with this roster thus far.

Runner up: Rami Hadar, Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv

Most Surprising Player: Johannes Voigtmann, Baskonia

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To stay on the Baskonia bandwagon, Voigtmann probably has been the biggest surprise thus far in the Euroleague. Voigtmann played last season for the Fraport Skyliners, and his signing earned a lot less publicity than fellow center Bargnani, a former No. 1 NBA Draft pick who played for the Toronto Raptors, New York Knicks, and most recently the Brooklyn Nets. However, Voigtmann has proven to be the more effective replacement to Bourousis this season.

In nearly 25 mpg, Voigtmann is averaging 12.3 ppg and 7.3 ppg with a PIR of 17.8 (his total PIR is seventh-best in the Euroleague). He is shooting 68.8 percent on 2-pt FG, 42.3 percent on threes, and 78.8 percent from the line. Plain and simple: not many bigs this year have been as effective and efficient on the floor as Voigtmann this year. The pick and roll combo of him and Larkin (who is 13th in the league in PIR) will continue to give opposing Euroleague (and ACB) squads trouble over the next 20 games (as long as they stay healthy of course).

Some other surprise names for consideration are Nicolo Melli of Brose Baskets, who is third in PIR, and Derrick Brown of Anadolu Efes, who is fourth in PIR. However, both teams are not as good as Baskonia (though Efes is surging), and both weren’t as under-the-radar as Voigtmann (both played for their current squads a year ago).

Runners up: Melli and Brown.

Most Surprising Team: Anadolu Efes

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After starting 0-3, Efes is suddenly 5-5, coming off a big win on the road in Tel Aviv against Maccabi Fox. What makes this so surprising is Efes went kind-of-under the radar this offseason. Yes, they did hire Velimir Perasovic as head coach, who was coming off a final four appearance with Baskonia. But roster-wise what they did was tame in comparison to their Turkish rivals. Fenerbahce returned pretty much their whole squad from their Championship runner-up season, and Darussafaka and Galatasaray both signed many American players (Brad Wanamaker and James Anderson for Darussafaka; Russ Smith, Austin Daye, Jon Diebler, Alex Tyus, and Justin Dentmon for Galatasaray) who were expected to have a major impact on their respective teams. Add that with the loss of Dario Saric to the 76ers of the NBA, who had been Efes’ star player the past couple of years, and it appeared that Efes was on their way to being the fourth-best Turkish club in the Euroleague.

However, Efes, despite their winless start, has been surging. Derrick Brown has been one of the Euroleague’s best players (4th in PIR), and they also have gotten incredible impact from Tyler Honeycutt (11th in PIR), Bryant Dunston (16th in PIR), Thomas Huertel (53rd in PIR) and Cedi Osman (54th in PIR). There is some serious depth on this Efes roster, and Perasovic has proven that he may be one of Europe’s best coaches. Many people credited Baskonia’s success more to Bourousis rather than Perasovic a year ago. However, a year later, Perasovic has this Efes roster coming together, while Bourousis is struggling to have any kind of impact with Panathinaikos.

Yes, Efes is in the middle of the pack now, but Efes, with their combination of length and athleticism and offensive and defensive effectiveness, could be rising to the top not just by the end of the year, but by the end of round 20, the 2/3 mark of the season. And it wouldn’t be surprising to see Efes be challenging Fenerbahce for the title of the best “Turkish” club in the Euroleague by that point either, especially considering Bogdan Bogdanovic’s injury issues.

Most Disappointing Coach: Georgios Bartzokas, Barcelona

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I figured Bartzokas to be an interesting pick, considering he coached a mid-tier team in Lokomotiv Kuban (though he did take them to the Final Four) and didn’t have any experience coaching in Spain. However, I thought his recent Euroleague success, and the additions of Victor Claver from Loko and Tyrese Rice from Khimki Moscow, and the re-signing of Joey Dorsey would give Bartzokas a solid foundation to build a successful team in his debut year.

Well, Barcelona is still competitive, as they are 5-5 and coming off a much-needed win at home over Panathinaikos. However, Bartzokas has really struggled to find any kind of consistency and chemistry with this Barcelona squad thus far. Yes, Barcelona has been effective defensively, as they have allowed the least amount of points in the Euroleague this year. That being said, defense was always Bartzokas’ strong suit (his Loko team last year was one of the most effective defensive teams in the Euroleague). Offense was the question mark with him, and unfortunately, that question remains unanswered. Despite their low points allowed total, their point differential is -31, a sign that the defense may be a product of a slow pace to go along with their glaring issues when it comes to scoring the basketball. Considering that mark is the third-worst in the Euroleague, Bartzokas needs to make some adjustments if he wants Barcelona to be seen as a serious Final Four contender.

Granted, Barcelona has experienced a lot of bad breaks. Juan Carlos Navarro, Pau Ribas, Claver, and Justin Doellman have all missed significant time due to injury, and considering Bartzokas gives a lot of freedom to his players to create on the offensive end (he relied heavily on isolation plays and the pick and roll from Malcolm Delaney and post players Chris Singleton and Anthony Randolph), the lack of major talent on the floor s been a hurdle. That being said, Tyrese Rice has been solid this year (15.81 PIR), and he is the kind of dynamic guard that Bartzokas utilizes well (as he did with Delaney and Dontaye Draper a year ago). It will be interesting to see if Bartzokas will rely even more on Rice going forward, especially if he starts to feel the hot seat more as the season progresses.

Runner up: Ergin Ataman, Galatasaray

Most Disappointing Player and Team: Ioannis Bourousis and Panathinaikos

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I understood that Bourousis would probably regress and not duplicate the kind of MVP-season that he had last year with Baskonia. After all, that team really found lightning in a bottle, especially in Euroleague play.

Nonetheless, Bourousis has seriously regressed. In 2015-2016, Bourousis averaged 14.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg on 55 percent shooting from 2-pt FG, 38.3 percent from beyond the arc, and 81.1 percent from the line. This year? 8.9 ppg, 5 rpg, 42 percent 2pt FG percentage, 25 percent from beyond the arc, and 72.7 percent from the line. Last year, Bourouis was second in the league in total index rating. This year, Bourousis is tied for 54th in total index rating.

And honestly, Bourousis’ regression has been a bit of a microcosm of Panathinaikos’ team this year. Other than Nick Calathes, who has really bounced back after an off-year last season, (he is 8th in the league in index rating), and Chris Singleton (who has proved that he was as every bit important to that Loko team last year as Randolph), Panathinaikos has just struggled to mesh on the court, especially on the offensive end. Mike James, also from Baskonia, has struggled with injury as well as ineffectiveness, and KC Rivers hasn’t offered much else on the floor beyond points. Add that with injury to James Gist and inconsistency from James Feldeine and Demetrius Nichols (as well as others), Panathinaikos has been the personified mediocre. Considering the amount of money this organization spent this summer, that kind of title is not necessarily a badge of honor.

Yes, Pana may be on the upswing after making a coaching change early in the year (Argyris Pedoulakis and his lack of ability to coach an offense finally caught up to him). But, I am not sure if Xavi Pascual, the former Barcelona coach, is necessarily the right fit for this team. They have players who do well in free-flowing offenses (such as Calathes, Singleton and Bourousis), and Pascual is known for a heavily-structured attack, featuring lots of set plays. Already, we can see the struggles initially, as Pana and Pascual are trying to find the right balance and where to compromise on the offensive end (especially in Pascual’s case). Furthermore, much like Bartzokas in Spain, Pascual has little to no experience in professional basketball in Greece, let alone outside of Spain. Yes, Pascual is a big name with a lot of victories, but can he make the adjustment to the culture of not only the organization, but the faithful Athens fans? Bartzokas is going through his growing pains, and it’s showing that Pascual is going through his own as well.

The big question is if Pana will be patient enough to see it out with Pascual. Considering the expectations placed on this squad at the start of the year, and rival Olympiacos’ recent successes over them in Euroleague and domestic play, I guarantee that Pana management won’t have thick skin with Pascual or this team if serious progress isn’t shown in the next 10-15 games.

The fact that Pana is at this point of desperation and panic is disappointing, because I figured Pana to be one of the more enjoyable teams in the Euroleague this year, especially after they acquired a rejuvenated Bourousis. Instead, they have seemed to be one of the more dysfunctional ones both roster and coaching wise.

Runner up: James Anderson, Darussafaka (player); Galatasaray (team).

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.

David Blatt, Darussafaka and Istanbul: A Respected Coach’s Rocky and Quick Road Back to Europe

“Make no mistake. I have won everywhere I have been…and I plan on doing the same here.”

When he was hired in May of 2014 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, David Blatt echoed those words to the media public. Blatt, was fresh of a Euroleague championship victory with Maccabi Tel Aviv over longtime European and Spanish power Real Madrid, and the Cavs, who had missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season, were looking for a refreshing voice to lead their team going forward. And it made sense for the Cavs to hire Blatt. Not only did he prove he could win at Maccabi, both in the Winner League in Israel and in the Euroleague, but he also found success as an international coach, leading Russia to a surprising bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. For Blatt, the lure of coaching a NBA franchise was a lifetime challenge he coveted and desired, much like any coach who looks for the next “step up” in the coaching ladder. Cleveland, with the top draft pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, had some valuable young pieces like Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett at the time, and Blatt, who had a history of producing overachieving teams with limited talent, seemed to be like a good fit, and a breath of fresh air that the organization needed after retreads like Byron Scott and Mike Brown (again) failed in four playoff-less seasons Post-Lebron.

Of course, Blatt didn’t expect to be a head coach so quickly in the NBA: when he stepped down originally from Maccabi Tel Aviv, he appeared to be headed as an assistant to Golden State or Minnesota to situate himself with the NBA game, similar to Ettore Messina before him, who became an assistant with the Lakers and then Spurs after a successful tenure with CSKA Moscow. (Apparently, Steve Kerr wanted Blatt badly and it seemed to be a done deal until Cleveland called and interviewed him.) Nonetheless, he was given the opportunity as NBA head coach, and Blatt wasn’t going to turn it down, even if he was not as familiar with the American game like the European one. However, with his Princeton-influence, strong defensive mentality, and fiery personality, Blatt looked like he would have some success, and would make the necessary adjustments over time to become a successful NBA head coach. After all, he was going to coach the Cavs, who had suffered mediocrity since Lebron James left town. Just getting them into playoff contention would be enough; a playoff berth, even as an 8 seed, would be cause for celebration and validation of his hire.

And then less than two months later, this happened.

Who would have thought that it would be the beginning of Blatt’s long, painful, and frustrating march back to Europe?

The relationship between Blatt and Cavs star Lebron James seemed strained and doomed from the start.

To be fair, Blatt never asked to coach Lebron and Lebron probably would have never asked Blatt to coach him either. Blatt was coming to coach a young team, one that was going to be led, in his mind, by No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and former No. 1 pick Irving and supported by Thompson and Bennett (oh yeah…I forgot Bennett was a former No. 1 pick too…somehow) in the block. In Blatt’s mind, his young guys would grow into his system, be used to his authority and demands, especially considering Wiggins and Irving had been used to demanding coaches in college like Bill Self at Kansas and Coach K at Duke (Wiggins and Irving, respectively). And though Blatt had not really achieved anything in the American game as far as coaching, that was going to be fine: neither had any of the young players on the Cavs.

However, with Lebron now on board that all changed. After Summer League, Wiggins was traded to Minnesota along with Anthony Bennett and some other pieces for Kevin Love, a NBA Veteran and All-Star. Now, the hope in Cleveland, with the Big 3 of Lebron, Kyrie and Love wasn’t just to make the playoffs, it was to win the Eastern Conference AND a NBA Championship. Blatt of course didn’t back down from the challenge, but in retrospect, I don’t think he realized the magnitude of media scrutiny as well as intensive player ego management that would haunt him for his one-and-a-half season stint in the city of Cleveland.

On paper, there is not much you can argue with when it comes to Blatt’s tenure. He went 83-40, including 53-29 in his first season with the Cavaliers, leading them to an Eastern Conference Championship, as well as 2 wins in the NBA Finals, the first two wins ever in Finals history for the franchise. He also did this without Kevin Love throughout most of the playoffs, and without Irving from games 2-6 of the Finals, as well as some games during the playoffs. This year, the Cavs started 30-11 and Blatt had them as one of the better teams in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency this season (they were 3rd and 10th in those categories this year).

Usually, with any other team in the NBA, there would be talk of an extension after a 30-11 start. But this was Cleveland, and “Lebron’s” Cavs, and while one couldn’t argue with the record, the marriage between Blatt and Lebron and the Cavs never really felt stable over the one-and-a-half year time. Let’s just take a look at some of the issues that plagued Blatt as the Cavs’ head coach:

  • People questioned Blatt’s authority on the team, as Lebron had grown a reputation for tuning out or overruling Blatt during timeouts and play calls.
  • There was widespread consensus on the team that Tyronn Lue was more respected and listened to on the coaching staff from the players; what makes this more awkward is that Lue was a finalist for the Cavs job, though Lue on frequent occasion has gone out of his way to say he didn’t agree with Blatt’s firing.
  • There were reports that Blatt seemed to be overwhelmed by big moments, as he froze up and panicked when diagramming plays during timeouts during crucial stretches of the playoffs (the Chicago series having several reported instances of this).
  • Blatt treated other Cavs players differently from Lebron during practice, as he would go out of the way to criticize role players while not saying anything to Lebron, even if James was the main culprit of the mistake.
  • The media and Blatt did not get along, as Blatt chastised the media with sarcastic answers and patronized their questions during press conferences and interviews.

As with anything, some of those were true to an extent and some were most likely overblown. As stated in the last point, Blatt and the media did not get along well, and with Lebron a superstar in the NBA, and being an “Ohio Native,” it was obvious what side the local media (and many cases national media) would side with, and thus Blatt never seemed to get any kind of positive momentum in the public eye during his coaching tenure. And hence Blatt, a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year, not only was let go by the Cavs, but his legacy in America is somewhat tainted, as he is known for being successful as a NBA coach “only because of Lebron.”

For any basketball coach, being typified in such a way is not only an insult to the work and sacrifices one makes to be a head coach (as is especially true with Blatt who really had to work hard to get every head coaching job he earned, especially in Europe), but also a death stamp of sorts when it comes to future jobs. Just look at Mike Brown, who cannot get another head coaching position in the NBA after failing in Cleveland a second time (granted without Lebron, but it confirmed the “cannot win without a superstar” talk).

It really is unfair. It’s one thing if Blatt had no coaching experience. It’s one thing if he came to the States openly wanting to coach a Lebron James-led team. It’d be one thing if he wasn’t a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year as recently as two years ago.

But here we are…after 123 NBA games, David Blatt is going to Turkey.

Former coach Oktay Mahmuti wasn’t the coach to help Darussafaka surpass other Turkish rivals like Efes and Fenerbahce

Darussafaka is a totally different landscape than Blatt’s previous European stop, Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. Of course, there is a cultural change that Blatt will not only be making from America, but his last experience in Europe. Blatt is Jewish and Israel is primarily a Jewish state, so Blatt fit in very well not just in the organization and city of Tel Aviv, but the culture of Israel as well. On the contrary Darussafaka is located in Turkey, primarily a Muslim country. And hence, it will be interesting to see how a mostly Muslim fanbase will react to a Jewish coach leading their team, though I think Blatt understands there may be some bias against him due to his cultural background. (And to be fair, Istanbul has really grown as a city and is more progressive than most Muslim-majority countries; simply look at many of the non-Muslim Europeans and Americans on clubs in the Turkish Basketball League).

And yet geographic culture is not the only issue; there is also a difference in basketball culture from Maccabi as well. Last season was Darussafaka’s first season in the Euroleague, and the club only has a modest history of success. The last time the club won the Turkish Basketball League Championship was in 1962 (and the other time was in 1961) and from 2010-2013, the club was regulated and participated in the Turkish League’s second division. And honestly, it makes sense that Darussafaka has struggled to be in the limelight: they share the same city with other bigger clubs like Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Efes, three traditional Turkish powerhouses with fervent fan bases and wealthy ownership groups (and who will also be participating in the Euroleague next year; Galatasaray missed last year, but will participate again after winning the Eurocup last season).

However, in 2013, Dogus Holding (a financial conglomerate based out of Turkey) bought the club and has made an effort to help Darussafaka compete with the traditional basketball powers based out of Turkey. It started with hiring of long-time Turkish coach Oktay Mahmuti, who had coached other Turkish clubs like Efes and Galatasaray to various degrees of success (he also coached Italian club Bennetton Treviso).  In 2014, Darussafaka won the Turkish Second Division and were promoted back to the first-division domestic league. And the following year, they finished 3rd in the Turkish Division and qualified for the Euroleague as a wild card.

This season was a bit of an up and down campaign for Oktay in his third year. Despite it being the first year in club history in the Euroleague, Darussafaka qualified for the Round of 16, ousting long-time power Maccabi in the their group to do so for the final spot. However, the Round of 16 was far less kind as Darussafaka missed the playoffs by going 5-9 and finishing 6th in their division, also behind Turkish rival Efes, who went 7-7 (though as consolation, Darussafaka did finish better than Cedevita Zagreb of Croatia and Unicaja Malaga of Spain).

Domestically in the BSL (the Turkish Basketball League), the results were a little more disappointing. Darussafaka finished fourth in the regular season standings at 20-10 and were ousted in the semifinals by Efes convincingly 3-0. Though there had been considerable steps taken by Oktay and his club since his hire, Oktay didn’t exactly generate the most excitement out of Turkish basketball fans as well as the Darussafaka fan base, which is run by new owners to the European basketball scene who are more akin to the “tech” owners that we see in the NBA today like Robert Pera of the Grizzlies and Vivek Ranadive of the Kings.

The biggest pitfall for Oktay in his tenure in Darussafaka was his defensive-oriented style of play, and his teams lack of ability to generate consistent offense. Granted, that has been Oktay’s calling card in his coaching career, and he did a decent job at it with Darussafaka last year, as their 102.8 defensive rating was actually 5th best in the Euroleague last season. However, the offense was not just boring, but borderline atrocious, as they posted an offensive rating of 99.2, which was seventh-worst out of all Euroleague teams last season. This led to a negative efficiency difference rating of minus-3.6, which put them below average and barely over Bayern Munich (minus-4.0) and Maccabi (minus-4.8), two teams who didn’t even qualify for the Round of 16.

With the combination of an ineffective, lackluster offense and rather mediocre attendance numbers (Darussafaka was 5th lowest in the Euroleague when it came to home attendance), it made sense that a change was deemed essential by ownership. Oktay was a consistent force and was going to keep them competitive as the head coach. However, with only 16 teams now qualifying for the Euroleague starting in 2016-2017, Darussafaka not only needed a big name who would help Darussafaka make the transition from a “B-quality” team to an “A-quality” one. Oktay wasn’t going to give them that, and Oktay wasn’t going to help them attract bigger names on their roster as well.

And that is where Blatt comes in.

Already in his comfort zone in Europe, Blatt talked to European prospects at the Adidas Eurocamp this summer.

Apparently, Darussafaka was in talks with Blatt in April and had made him an offer around that time. However, Blatt wanted to test the NBA coaching waters, as he interviewed for vacant NBA jobs such as the Knicks one (apparently his desired choice), the Kings position (his second choice) and the Rockets job. After all three jobs went to other candidates, and not impressed by other offers (there were rumors that Blatt was asked to come back to Maccabi, but he passed on the offer), Blatt signed with Darussafaka, impressed by their commitment from ownership and management (he has a multi-year contract worth around 3 million euros per year), and motivated by the chance to build something special in Istanbul.

The cupboard certainly won’t be bare next season for Blatt. Darussafaka has a nice collection of American talent such as returning scorer Scottie Wilbekin, former Notre Dame star Luke Harangody, Reggie Redding, Jamon Gordon, and Marcus Slaughter; European talent such as Georgian Manuchar Makroishvili and Serbian Milko Bjelica; and domestic talent such as former Celtic Semih Erden and Emir Preldzic. And with Blatt now on board, it will be interesting to see what kind of other talent Darussafaka will be able to attract this off-season, especially considering Blatt’s European success and NBA experience (despite all the issues, he did still win an Eastern Conference championship, which is more of an accomplishment than a lot of NBA coaches not to mention current European coaches). It is to be expected that Darussafaka will be able to attract another name or two during this signing and transfer period.

Blatt has never shied himself away from a challenge and that certainly is evident in Darussafaka, though of a different sort. With Maccabi and Cleveland, he had to manage big expectations, and he was able to be successful with such lofty goals placed upon him from upper management. Darussafaka is a different challenge. The history isn’t there like Maccabi, nor is the superstar there like in Cleveland. Darussafaka’s most successful season was arguably last year, and yet, they fired their coach. If anything, this situation feels more like a Memphis Grizzlies or Sacramento Kings scenario rather than the Cleveland one he faced in the NBA (unrealistic expectations combined with a “no-so-elite” team).

And yet, this current job in Istanbul, might be more in Blatt’s wheelhouse. He relishes being the underdog and surprising people. He has done it in his coaching career countless times. He won an Italian League title with Benetton Treviso, even though they were one of the more under-the-radar teams in Italy. He upset two powers in the Final Four in CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid during his 2014 Euroleague title with Maccabi. And he led Russia, who had fallen off the global stage after the break up of the Soviet Union, to not only a 2007 Eurobasket title, but a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics, despite coming into each of those tournaments as heavy underdogs.

This is exactly the kind of coach Darussafaka needs. They need someone to help charge fan interest in Istanbul in their club. They need someone to utilize their talent to their maximum ability. They need someone that can help them go toe-to-toe with Turkey’s best clubs, not an easy task after Fenerbahce was one quarter away from nearly winning the Euroleague championship.

Yes, Darussafaka has not played a game yet, but they are a team that should be watched during the 2016-2017 domestic and Euroleague season.

Blatt and Darussafaka seem like a perfect match.

I just wonder how long this tenure in Turkey will be before the NBA starts calling again.