The last thing Maccabi Tel Aviv wants is to raise expectations.
After all, the yellow-and-blue has yet to even reach the business end of the season. So much more can, and will, still happen over the next four months and Maccabi has plentiful past experience of setting itself up for disappointment.
However, there is no escaping from the fact that Guy Goodes’s Maccabi team is not only looking as good as last season’s Euroleague winning side, but that it is currently playing more impressive basketball than David Blatt’s roster did at this stage last season.
There is of course no guarantees the season will end in similar fashion. With the Euroleague being decided in a Final Four format and the BSL final to once more be determined on aggregate score over two legs, Maccabi has still got countless obstacles to overcome even should it enter the crucial stage of the season as a favorite.
But considering the team’s performance over recent weeks, one can’t blame yellow-and-blue fans for feeling optimistic.
It was hard to see at the start of the season how Maccabi would be able to build on last term’s astonishing success.
The backcourt duo of Tyrese Rice and Ricky Hickman left for lucrative offers abroad, while David Blu announced his retirement. The biggest blow was the departure of head coach David Blatt, who announced he was leaving the day after Maccabi wrapped up the BSL championship before ultimately being named as the new head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Blatt was the heart of the team in the previous four seasons, time and again finding ways to get his rosters to play better than the sum of their parts.
He left massive shoes behind, but so far Goodes has filled them admirably.
Goodes had been groomed for the position for much of the previous decade, serving as an assistant coach to Blatt for four years after guiding Hapoel Jerusalem for two seasons.
Nevertheless, there were many question marks hanging over Goodes’s promotion to the head coaching position, including by some sections of the Maccabi ownership.
That ultimately led to the appointment of veteran Pini Gershon as his assistant, a move which raised many eyebrows, including those of yours truly.
After all, the 63-year-old had previously guided the club to three European titles and his signing seemed like a shameless move forced upon Goodes due to the ownership’s lack of belief in the new man in charge.
Goodes admitted that he had his doubts when the idea was initially suggested to him, but as things currently stand, it seems to be a match made in heaven.
The warm embrace between the two following last Thursday’s impressive Euroleague win over Real Madrid which moved Maccabi level with the Spaniards at 4-1 atop Top 16 Group E, was a hug between two people celebrating success that few believed was possible.
Gershon has surprisingly embraced the role of assistant, but it is Goodes who deserves most the credit for finding the right balance which allows him to benefit from his sidekick’s experience without denting his authority.
With 19 wins from its past 20 games over all competitions, Maccabi finds itself ideally placed to repeat last season’s triumph.
Tel Aviv’s victory over Real was its fourth straight and seventh from its past eight games in continental competition, including a win over another of the Euroleague title favorites, Barcelona.
An 11-game winning streak sees Maccabi sit atop the BSL standings with a 16-2 record, four games clear of Hapoel Jerusalem.
The yellow-and-blue also progressed safely to the semifinals of the State Cup where it will face Maccabi Haifa on February 16 in the hope of claiming the trophy for a sixth consecutive year three days later.
It was just three months ago though, that Maccabi’s season seemed to be heading in a worrying direction.
A humiliating 20-point defeat to Hapoel Tel Aviv capped eight days from hell. It began with Maccabi’s heaviest- ever loss in local action, a 93-63 defeat at Hapoel Jerusalem and was followed by a home loss to mediocre Croatian side Cedevita Zagreb in Euroleague action.
Goodes’s extremely broad shoulders, quite literally, seemed to slump for the first time following the defeat to Hapoel, with the crippling pressure at Maccabi finally also getting to him.
With the game already decided, Goodes was ejected just under four minutes to the end of the fourth period after a heated exchange of words with the officiating staff.
Goodes kicked aside chairman Shimon Mizrahi’s chair in disgust as he made his way down to the dressing room, and received some chilling stares from Mizrahi and the rest of the team’s ownership at the arena.
But that proved to be the low point of Maccabi’s season, with the team winning 23 of 25 games over all competitions since, while seemingly improving its performance with every passing week.
Even when taking into account the team’s teething problems at the start of the season, Goodes has gotten life as Maccabi’s head coach off to a better start statistically than any of his predecessors since the turn of the century, including Gershon and Blatt.
He has won 73 percent (11 of 15) of his Euroleague games to date, with no other coach going above 70% at this stage of the campaign.
The bottom line will ultimately decide how Goodes’s time at the club will be remembered, but considering how many of his predecessors failed, he couldn’t really be better placed.
Yoram Harush (1998), Oded Katash (2007) and Effi Birenboim (2008) didn’t even make it to the midway point in their first season with the yellow-andblue, with Neven Spahija being sent packing after one term.
Only Gershon and Blatt were able to succeed in the unique circumstances that exist at Maccabi, and with Gershon by his side and four years of daily work with Blatt under his belt, Goodes has every reason to believe he can follow in their footsteps.
Goodes was known for his mental toughness as a player, overcoming two destructive knee injuries to prolong his career. That mental fortitude helped him withstand an early crisis and has got Maccabi playing like one of the favorites to lift the Euroleague title once more.
There is still a long way to go, but Goodes has exceeded all expectations to date and the fact a repeat as European champion is seeming increasingly possible pretty much says it all.[email protected]