Sinai Says: Maccabi Tel Aviv at critical fork in the road

To have two straight seasons finish in such a dejecting manner is a first for Maccabi.

June 8, 2016 01:58
Maccabi Tel-Aviv

Idan Paz (right) and forward Itay Segev (left) are expected to remain at Maccabi Tel Aviv for another season to continue their development, but Ike Ofoegbu (second left) and Dagan Yivzori (second right) will be among those who will pay the price for the dejecting 2015/16 campaign. (photo credit: ERAN LUF)

Maccabi Tel Aviv has experienced bad seasons before. Arguably even as bad as its horrendous 2015/16 campaign which ended on Monday night with a 71-69 loss to Maccabi Rishon Lezion in the BSL semifinals.

But to have two straight seasons finish in such a dejecting manner is a first for Maccabi.

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In fact, it has been exactly 50 years since the last time the club went consecutive years without claiming the league title. And Maccabi didn’t even make the final in the last two campaigns.

Tel Aviv already received a startling wake-up call last season, becoming just the second team in local playoff history to squander a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five semifinal series against Hapoel Eilat. It failed to respond, perhaps with the memories of its triumphant 2013/14 campaign under David Blatt still fresh in the ownership’s mind.

However, while it may have only been two years since Maccabi last lifted the Euroleague title, those days feel like a distant memory now, with this season’s disaster acting as a painful reality check.

Maccabi is clearly no longer the perennial Israeli champion. That is simply a fact when considering that the yellow-andblue, which claimed 37 of 38 championships between 1970 and 2007, has won just one of the past four league titles.

While one under-par campaign can be put down as an anomaly, two consecutive capitulations are already the mark of a trend.

Maccabi did win the State Cup earlier this season, meaning it at least didn’t become the third yellow-and-blue team since 1970 to end a season empty-handed and join the 1992/93 and 2007/08 sides.

But it nevertheless finds itself in uncharted waters after being knocked out in the Euroleague regular season earlier in the campaign before also falling at the first hurdle in the Eurocup.

Maccabi tried changing coaches, bringing in Zan Tabak to replace Guy Goodes in mid-November. It signed six players mid-season, with 19 different players in all playing for the yellow-and-blue in 2015/16, accentuating the helplessness of those running the club.

One couldn’t help but feel sorry for Tabak after Monday’s game, with the Croatian, who shoulders some of the blame for the shambolic season, but certainly not most of it, somehow maintaining his composure despite knowing that he had just coached the team for the last time.

“I was brought to Maccabi to fix a problem that was already here,” he tried to explain. “In some parts I succeeded, and in some I didn’t.”

The problem Tabak was referring to is the roster he inherited.

Part-owner David Federman revealed earlier this year the dysfunctional fashion in which Maccabi is being run and the drastic measures required in order to take the club back to its former glory.

The story behind the signing of Jordan Farmar last summer is just one of many examples that show the unprofessional manner in which decisions are being made at a club once considered the standard bearer in professional sports in Israel.

Farmar left Israel in January after a miserable six months at Maccabi.

Speculation regarding his future had been raging for weeks after he failed to settle at the club. Farmar, who was the highest paid player on the roster earning in the region of $1.25 million a season, averaged 8.9 points and 2.8 assists in 20 minutes per game in Maccabi’s failed Euroleague campaign, and saw his role further marginalized following the signing of Tabak.

“We had signed Taylor Rochestie and had Yogev Ohayon under contract, but my son Danny [who was the team’s general manager until choosing to take a step back in recent months] called me and told me that Jordan Farmar wants to come. The team’s professional staff said that it would be problematic to play Farmar and Rochestie together, but we as owners decided that this would be a very attractive backcourt. We took the risk and we were wrong.”

Despite still being listed as Team Manager on the club’s website, Federman admitted that Nikola Vujcic is the man in charge of all professional decisions.

“We have CEO Eli Drikes, who is in charge of everything happening in the company, and Nikola, who is in charge of the professional side,” he explained, with Vujcic set to continue calling the shots next season despite this term’s humbling results.

Federman said Maccabi will lose over $5 million this season, but said the club will increase its players’ budget for 2016/17 due to the change in the Euroleague’s format.

Maccabi’s Euroleague future is secure for at least another decade, with its income from the competition set to mushroom after a new Euroleague competition model was agreed upon last November.

The yellow-and-blue will be one of 16 teams that will compete in a round-robin regular season of 30 rounds, to be followed by best-of-five playoffs, with series winners advancing to the Final Four. That means Maccabi is guaranteed at the very least 30 Euroleague games.

“Next season Maccabi will have 12 players and each and every one of them will be capable of playing against the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and CSKA Moscow,” promised Federman back in February.

“There is no doubt that this has been a difficult and unsuccessful season. It may be the worst season in Maccabi’s history.

We are aware of the fact that we have made some bad mistakes. We tried to fix what we could, but now we are already looking ahead to next season.”

Maccabi’s roster will undergo a complete overhaul in the summer, with American guard D.J. Seeley, who played for Gran Canaria in Spain this season, becoming the latest to agree personal terms earlier this week.

He joined American forward Quincy Miller and German center Maik Zirbes, who both played for Red Star Belgrade this season, as well as Sonny Weems, who was released by the Philadelphia 76ers in March.

The 23-year-old Miller averaged 14.1 points and 5.7 rebounds in the Euroleague, while Zirbes, 26, logged 12.4 points and 6.1 boards.

Miller was originally drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 2012, staying with the team for two seasons (2012-2014) before joining the Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons in 2014/15. After being cut by the Brooklyn Nets in preseason, Miller signed with Belgrade.

Weems also began his NBA career with the Nuggets, in the 2008/9 season. He played for the Toronto Raptors (2009- 2011) before leaving for Europe, going on to become a star player at CSKA Moscow.

The 29-year-old returned to the NBA this season with the Phoenix Suns, but was released in early March and played just seven games for Philadelphia before being cut.

Assuming the deals are made official in the coming weeks, Maccabi already has 12 players on its roster for next season.

Gal Mekel, Yogev Ohayon, Sylven Landesberg, Devin Smith, Guy Pnini, Trevor Mbakwe, Richard Hendrix and Itay Segev are all under contract for 2016/17.

However, Maccabi is looking to cut ties with the disappointing Hendrix, and is also considering the future of Smith, who was handed a lucrative three-year contract extension last April, but struggled with injuries all season.

Maccabi is clearly well into its preparations for 2016/17, with its roster nearing completion. Somehow though, perhaps the most important decision, that of the identity of the next head coach, has yet to be made.

The matter hasn’t even been discussed by the club’s directorate, while almost all of its Euroleague rivals have already occupied the crucial position, including Darussafaka Dogus Istanbul, which signed Blatt last week.

The likes of Greece’s Georgios Bartzokas, Italian Andrea Trinchieri and Israel national team coach Erez Edelstein have all been mentioned in connection with the job.

There are many other candidates as the search process is only about to begin. Bartzokas, for one, is believed to have been unhappy with the fact that he will have little input on the building of the roster.

Maccabi isn’t inventing anything new by bringing in a coach to guide a squad he didn’t assemble. It is done across the NBA and Europe. But considering the results of the past two years, it is hard not to wonder if Maccabi is not setting itself up for more failure, yet again putting its trust in those responsible for the recent embarrassments.

Until Maccabi addresses the core of its problems – namely, the way in which professional decisions are made at the club – it will enjoy no more than incidental success and continue its transformation from a source of envy to one of pit

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