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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A Quick Preview to the Eurocup Semifinals

This blog focuses on the Euroleague and little else. While I have thought about going into Eurocup, Champions League and European domestic league play, as an American, I do not have the time nor resources to go that in-depth into the full scope of European basketball. And thus, second-tier competitions like the Eurocup have gone mostly ignored by me during the regular season. It’s just one of the realities you have to accept when you’re running a blog powered by passion and interest in a subject rather than dollars.

However, we are hitting the home stretch of the Eurocup, as the quarterfinals have officially finished, and the semifinals begin Tuesday. With a champion earning an automatic spot in the Euroleague, the remaining four teams will be battling it out fiercely to gain one of those coveted positions in Europe’s top competition.

So, who should European basketball fans pay attention to? What are the matchups? Who should be favored, and why? Let’s take a quick look at the Eurocup Final Four, and their respective Best-of-3 series’.

Lokomotiv Kuban vs. Unicaja Malaga

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Loko took care of business in the quarterfinals, sweeping VTB rival Zenit St. Petersburg with relative ease. They won 77-52 in Kuban in game 1, and then cruised to a 88-77 win on the road in the deciding game. After an uneven regular season in Eurocup play, where they went 3-5 in the opening round, Loko has been on a roll, going 5-1 in Top 16 play and winning 7 of their last 8 games. One of the big reasons has been the change in personnel, as Sasa Obradovic, the former coach of Alba Berlin, took over for Fotsis  Katiskaris in November. Loko, coming off a Final Four appearance in the Euroleague season fired Katiskaris after a 1-3 start in Eurocup play, and the move has paid off, as Loko has gone 10-3 under the Serbian head man.

Obradovic has a fiery reputation (as evidenced by him nearly coming to blows with Alex Renfroe during a timeout while coaching Alba Berlin), but his personality has rubbed off on Loko in a good way. This team is certainly not as loaded as the Final Four squad a year ago. Anthony Randolph, Dontaye Draper, Victor Claver and Chris Singleton are playing for other Euroleague squads, and Malcolm Delaney is currently in the NBA. However, though they lack the star power from a year ago, there is a grit and toughness with this Loko squad that Obradovic has been able to find success with. Former Temple star Mardy Collins is a two-way player, who is able to do damage both in the post and the perimeter on the offensive and defensive end. Guard Taylor Rochestie this year with Loko has been able to recapture some of the luster he once had as a player with Nizhny Novgorod a couple of seasons ago (he suffered a bit of a down season with Maccabi Tel Aviv last year). And lastly, Matt Janning has added some much needed outside shooting and scoring, while Andrey Zubkov, Kevin Jones and Ian Vougioukas have provided versatility and production in the frontcourt.

Yes, on paper, this team is a lot less impressive than last year’s Euroleague squad. That being said, this Loko teams plays a lot differently from the 2015-2016 team…and that’s a good thing. While former head coach Georgios Bartzokas (now with Barcelona) had Loko humming as one of the Euroleague’s best defensive teams a year ago, offensively, they struggled to find cohesion. They relied heavily on the trio of Randolph, Singleton and Delaney, mostly in Isolation and Pick and Roll, and though it could be successful at times due to the talent of those three, it often could stagnate and be brutal to watch, especially against the better-coached defensive teams in the Euroleague. Obradovic definitely has utilized this Loko roster more creatively, as they seem to flow a lot better in the motion offense Obradovic has installed in Krasnador. And, they haven’t lost much on the defensive end from last year either, as evidenced by Loko absolutely suffocating Zenit St. Petersburg in the quarterfinals.

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Obradovic doesn’t have the talent that Bartzokas had last season, but this team hasn’t lost much, and may be a bit more enjoyable to watch on a game-to-game basis in terms of chemistry on the court. That being said, advancing to the title game won’t be easy. Unicaja Malaga is playing in their first Eurocup ever, but it’s a dubious honor: Unicaja has been a mainstay in the Euroleague prior to this season. While Unicaja didn’t have the talent depth of Loko, they also were hurt in the demotion to the second-tier competition, as star player Mindaugas Kuzminskas ended up going to Darussafaka before eventually making his way to the New York Knicks of the NBA (Dacka got the money from the Knicks for Kuzminskas’ rights).

Much like Loko, Unicaja had to go through a bit of a rebuild in 2016-2017. However, head coach Joan Plaza has seemed to right the track of a club that struggled immensely down the stretch a season ago. Wing Kyle Fogg has been the leader on the perimeter and go-to-scorer for this group (though primarily off the bench), as he averaged a team-high 12.8 ppg on 55.1 percent shooting from inside the arc and 43.2 percent from beyond the arc during the Eurocup regular season. Fogg was not alone though, as Alberto Diaz, Jamar Smith, Oliver Lafayette, and Nemanja Nedovic all added much-needed production and scoring at the guard position for Unicaja. In the paint, center Dejan Musli has brought some much needed production over from Manresa, as he averaged 12.1 ppg and 3.9 rpg during Eurocup play. Additionally, Alen Omic has brought physicality and relief for Musli at the center position, while forward Jeff Brooks had added some needed athleticism and inside-outside scoring ability.

Plaza plays a bit of a different style from Obradovic. He prefers a slower pace, is a bit more methodical on the offensive end, and utilizes a deep bench. Much like Obradovic though, Plaza is a fiery coach who will get after his players when needed, but they have responded to him frequently on occasion, as evidenced by getting his team to come back after losing game one and win two straight games against Bayern in the quarterfinals (including the clinching game in Munich). Now, can Unicaja keep up the magic? Will they have enough left in the tank after the slog of not only a Eurocup campaign, but an ACB one, which is much tougher than the VTB slate that Loko faces domestically? It will be interesting to see, as Obradovic and Plaza will be holding nothing back on their squads, especially with the opportunity to return to the Euroleague on the line.

Valencia Basket vs. Hapoel Jerusalem

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While Loko and Unicaja will be a fierce matchup, they are pretty close in composition to each other: animated coaches; rosters of overlooked, overachievers; both one year removed from the Euroleague. The other Eurocup Final Four matchup on the other hand is a battle between two remarkably different teams, not only in terms of style of play, but roster and philosophy as well.

Valencia, coached by Pedro Martinez, has been one of the strongest teams in Eurocup competition this year, highlighted by a 15-2 campaign leading up to the Semifinal. Valencia is an offensive machine, as evidenced by their 84.4 ppg. However, they score points with an incredibly efficient, spread the wealth motion-offense, which utilizes a full bench and multiple people scoring the ball. In many ways, Valencia exuberates the definition of a basketball team: multiple players contribute, they move the ball around unselfishly, and they communicate and frustrate opposing teams on both sides of the ball. The kind of culture Martinez has built in Valencia, and his ability to get his teams to compete with bigger, more financially-loaded Spanish clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid the past couple of seasons are coaching accomplishments that should be appreciated this year by more European basketball fans (they will be if they win the Eurocup and return to the Euroleague).

Valencia’s unique success is demonstrated in the numbers. During Eurocup play, only one player averaged double digits ppg (Bojan Dubljevic) and only three players averaged over 20 mpg (Dubljevic,  Fernando San Emeterio, Joan Sastre). That kind of versatility and depth had made Valencia a tough team to scout and game plan for, as any player from Valencia can beat opposing teams on any given night. Additionally, they also have multiple players who can play both inside and outside, as evidenced by them ranking 4th in the Eurocup in 3-ptrs made. Hence, it should be no surprise that with that kind of depth, Martinez’s squad has only lost twice in 17 Eurocup games.

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On the flip side, Hapoel Jerusalem and head coach Simone Pianigiani have opted for a different approach to Eurocup success. While Valencia has excelled with a spread-the-wealth, utilize-the-bench method, Hapoel has preferred a more NBA-like, star-studded approach. Without a doubt, Hapoel may have the most talented starting lineup in the Eurocup, with former NBA All-Star Amare Stoudemire and European mainstays Curtis Jerrells, Jerome Dyson, and Tarence Kinsey leading the way. And Pianigiani hasn’t shied away in his usage of his quartet of talented stars: in the playoffs, Jerrells, Dyson and Kinsey are averaging over 30 MPG, and Stoudemire is averaging over 26 MPG. That kind of playing load is typical of NBA teams, not European ones balancing a European and Domestic season at the same time. To compare, Valencia had only one player (San Emeterio) average more the 25 MPG during their playoff series with Khimki Moscow.

Pianigiani is a lot less complicated on the offensive end than his counterpart Martinez. Hapoel looks to get the ball to their playmakers off the pick and roll and in isolation, and that means letting their playmakers like Jerrells, Dyons, Kinsey and Stoudemire be creative in terms of getting buckets at the basket. For the most part, the strategy has been successful, as Hapoel averaged 86 ppg against Gran Canaria in the quarterfinals. However, they are extremely dependent on those  four, as the highest ppg average beyond the four is forward Travis Peterson, who averaged 7 ppg and 23 mpg during the quarter finals. If any of Hapoel’s big four struggles from the field or is hitting a cold streak, they get in trouble, as they don’t have many options in their 9-man rotation to really step up and take the scoring mantle. Additionally, due to the freedom and fatigue caused by heavy minutes, it is common to see their stars make bonehead mistakes from time-to-time, sometimes killing the momentum they build on offense. That being said, they haven’t seen those issues often in either Eurocup or Winner League play thus far, but Valencia will be a significant upgrade from what they have faced for the most part in 2016-2017 in either league.

What’s funny about this situation is that both teams’ respective previous rounds provided good practice for their semi-final match up. Hapoel beat a Gran Canaria team that was well-disciplined , depended on a lot of different players for scoring, and played a deep lineup. Valencia bested a Khimki team that was loaded with athleticism and stars such as Alexy Shved, Robbie Hummel and Marko Todorovic. Hence, both teams should come ready on Tuesday after such competition in the quarter finals, though this semi-final match up will still be a major step up from both Gran Canaria and Khimki.

The big question to this series is this: who is more prepared? Will Valencia’s depth and discipline  be enough? Or will Hapoel’s talent and explosiveness win out? Whoever wins, they will enter the Eurocup final as the favorite.