Erez Edelstein has precious little room for error.
Any way you look at it, there is only one acceptable outcome to the Israel men’s national team’s EuroBasket qualifying campaign.
Either Edelstein guides Israel to its 12th straight participation in the European Championships or he will be labeled as an utter failure.
Operation Protective Edge wreaked havoc with the blue-and-white’s preparations, with the players having to run for cover time and again during training sessions and a warm-up tournament in Rishon Lezion being moved abroad.
Crucially, the team was also forced to host its qualifiers in Nicosia, Cyprus due to the security situation.
However, Edelstein fully understands that there can be no excuse for missing out on the EuroBasket tournament.
Despite the objective difficulties, the Israeli roster looks to be in good form heading into the campaign, amassing a 4-2 record in its warm-up games, including two wins in its final two contests against Germany and Latvia in Bamberg over the weekend.
Nevertheless, Edelstein is far from happy. The fiery 53-year-old, who was named as the Israel coach in February, is the kind of individual who is rarely pleased with his team’s performances.
Edelstein always expects more from his players and it remains to be seen how his demanding demeanor will go down with the current group.
“We are trying to do our best under the circumstances.
However, I can’t say that I’m satisfied,” said Edelstein upon the team’s return to Israel on Monday.
“We are one week before the start of the campaign and I am very worried. We have so much to improve on. However, the guys really want to do well and are really looking forward to the job on hand so I hope we can make the final adjustments we require.”
So far, there have been nothing but compliments for Edelstein, who has specialized in getting his teams to play better than the sum of their parts, most recently at Hapoel Tel Aviv over the past three years.
If he does so once more with the Israel squad, the team should have little trouble qualifying for the EuroBasket. Edelstein has never had this much talent at his disposal and his success in molding the roster into a cohesive unit will be the decisive factor over the next few weeks.
Israel plays all six of its qualifiers over an 18-day period, also facing the Netherlands and Bulgaria in Group B.
Following the first qualifier against Montenegro on August 10, Israel will play three consecutive road games versus the Netherlands (August 13), Bulgaria (August 17) and Montenegro (August 20). It will then finish the campaign by hosting the Netherlands (August 24) and Bulgaria (August 27).
The seven group winners, as well as the sixbest second-place finishers, will advance directly to next summer’s tournament.
Israel will be aiming to win its group, especially with Montenegro playing without NBA stars Nikola Pekovic and Nikola Vucevic, as well as the nationalized Tyrese Rice.
The Dutch and Bulgarian rosters are even less threatening, while Israel will be playing with all its big guns, including with two NBA players for the first time.
After forgoing Israel’s EuroBasket campaign last summer so he could focus on his preparations for his rookie season in the NBA , Gal Mekel will be the national team’s undisputed starting point guard this year and will join forces with Omri Casspi.
Mekel took part in the European Championships in 2009 and 2011, but in his most recent campaign with Israel two years ago he received very little credit from then-coach Arik Shivek.
He averaged just 2.1 points and 1.0 assists in eight minutes per game, while Yogev Ohayon was playing almost 30 minutes per contest.
However, with Ohayon out due to health reasons this summer, Mekel is now the one orchestrating Israel’s play.
He slid right into the role in the team’s warmup games, with Casspi also impressing after a disappointing display in last year’s EuroBasket.
Casspi averaged 11.4 points per game in Israel’s miserable championships last summer, eight points fewer per contest than he managed in the qualifiers.
Without Mekel and with a mediocre Casspi, Israel finished bottom of its group with a 1-4 record.
“We are improving with every game,” said Casspi. “We are working on our chemistry and learning the system. We are all playing for the system and we are looking good.”
Edelstein believes in running at every opportunity and his fast-break system on offense is likely to result in a relatively short rotation.
Besides Casspi and Mekel, the core of the roster is set to include the nationalized D’or Fischer and fellow center Yaniv Green, forwards Lior Eliyahu and Guy Pnini and guard Yotam Halperin. The likes of Afik Nissim, Raviv Limonad and Elishay Kadir will be expected to contribute from the bench when they are called upon, but they may also never enter the floor in certain games.
In the past three EuroBasket tournaments, Israel was knocked out in the first round. It amassed a combined record of 3-10, with two of those wins coming in meaningless encounters after the team had already lost all hope of advancing.
The current roster is young enough, and especially talented enough, to finally once more make its mark on the championships, perhaps even reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 2003.
First things first, however, with Israel still needing to book its place in the tournament, which is still without a host after Ukraine was stripped of the honor due to the ongoing conflict there.
Somewhat ironically, Israel is one of eight nations who have applied to host the event instead of Ukraine, with Germany, Croatia, Finland, Latvia, France, Poland and Turkey also all putting their names forward. FIBA Europe will announce its decision in September.
It seems highly unlikely that FIBA Europe will name Israel as the host, especially after it sent the blue-and-white to host the qualifiers against the Netherlands and Bulgaria in Cyprus on Tuesday after already previously ruling that the Montenegro game can’t be held in Tel Aviv.
The last time Israel was forced to host games away from the country was in 2006. It ended that campaign bottom of a group which included Bosnia, Macedonia and Portugal and only ultimately advanced to the championships via the last-chance tournament which no longer exists.
The coming weeks will be Edelstein’s chance to prove he is the right man to coach the national team. It is not necessarily his last chance, but he knows as well as anyone else that failure to qualify for the EuroBasket tournament is simply not an option.