While he was technically speaking to the media, Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Neven Spahija’s words were targeted at a very select group – his players.
Ahead of a month that could make or break his team’s season, the Croat even resorted to using the dreaded “crisis” declaration.
Professional athletes and especially coaches tend to do all they can in order to steer well away from uttering a word that many of them feel leaves an indelible stain.
But considering Maccabi’s situation and the crucial stretch of games it is about to begin, Spahija intentionally described his team’s current state as a crisis.
It wasn’t blurted out in the heat of the moment either. Following Maccabi’s 85-76 loss to Ironi Ness Ziona in BSL action on Sunday, Spahija used the “C” word twice, first during his post-game TV interview and then again in the official press conference.
“Lately we are playing very bad basketball and it looks like we have some crisis,” he said initially, before later adding, “it isn’t about the system or the quality of whoever is on the court, it means that this is a kind of crisis.”
A season that began so promisingly is all of the sudden threatening to fall apart at the seams. The fact the team has lost three games in a row is in itself far from dramatic. But the timing of the losing streak – and mainly the sense that Spahija and his players are running out of ideas to try and lift the team – have once more increased the pressure levels at the yellow-and-blue, a symptom that has haunted the club over recent seasons.
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It was just four years ago that Maccabi won the Euroleague title, but it has completely lost its way since. The team hasn’t even reached the BSL final in three straight seasons after previously going 50 years in which it never went two consecutive seasons without winning the local championship. Tel Aviv reached the Euroleague quarterfinals in 2014/15 under Guy Goodes, an achievement which was underrated at the time, but failed to make it past the regular season for the first time in club history the subsequent season and last year finished in 14th place out of 16 teams following the change in the competition’s format.
After being coached by six different coaches in a 15-year period between 1999 and 2014, Maccabi’s inability to cope with its recent lack of success was highlighted by the constant changes made at the head coaching position. Seven different coaches have been at the helm over the past two years, including four just last season.
Tel Aviv set multiple negative club records in 2016/17, including most defeats in a season (35, previous worst was 20), most defeats in a European campaign (20, previous worst was 11) and longest losing streak (eight, previous worst was six).
The defeat to Maccabi Haifa in the semifinals of the BSL Final Four ended Arik Shivek’s short one-month tenure as head coach. Shivek only guided the team in four games, replacing Ainars Bagatskis ahead of the playoffs. The Latvian was only appointed in December 2016, with Rami Hadar resigning following less than two months at the helm after beginning the season as an assistant coach to Erez Edelstein, who was fired after just two Euroleague games.
Understanding that major changes were required in the way the club was being run, Maccabi’s ownership decided to take a step back during the off-season, giving sport director Nikola Vujcic and new head coach Spahija greater responsibilities which their predecessors could only dream about.
After a deal to bring back David Blatt fell through, Spahija became the obvious choice due to his standing in European basketball and previous experience at Maccabi.
Spahija guided Maccabi in 2006/07, but left after only one season, winning a BSL championship and reaching the Euroleague quarterfinals. He lost his job as the side didn’t triumph in convincing fashion and lost in the State Cup semifinals.
Having won domestic league titles in six countries – Slovenia, Croatia, Lithuania, Spain, Israel and Turkey – Spahija joined the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks in 2014 and spent three seasons on the staff of head coach Mike Budenholzer.
He completely gutted the Maccabi roster from last season, bringing back only a single player in youngster Itay Segev. The Israeli core that included among others Guy Pnini, Yogev Ohayon and Gal Mekel was broken up, with Spahija desperate to start with a clean slate.
Initial results were encouraging, especially in comparison to recent years.
The relatively lower expectations following the constant failures of previous seasons were a huge blessing for Spahija. But as the campaign has progressed and with the disappointing results piling up, criticism of the Croat is growing.
A loss to Ness Ziona in BSL regular season action can easily be brushed aside as insignificant as the championship will anyway be decided in a Final Four tournament that won’t be held until June. But after losing to Hapoel Holon in the State Cup final last month, the yellow- and-blue’s first defeat in the competition since 2008, and with losses in the Euroleague piling up, it is clear Maccabi is dealing with more than a minor setback.
Frustration on all sides has been growing with every defeat and Maccabi and Spahija need to find answers immediately.
Maccabi’s 93-73 loss to CSKA Moscow last Thursday saw it fall to 12-12 in the Euroleague, dropping to a .500 record for the first time in almost two months. Tel Aviv continues to cling on to a place in the top eight in the standings, but will need to start to win on the road on a more regular basis to ensure it qualifies for the playoffs, preferably already this Thursday when it visits Efes Istanbul.
Not only has Maccabi struggled to win away from Yad Eliyahu Arena this season, it has had a real difficulty even keeping the games close. Tel Aviv dropped to 3-8 on the road with the recent loss at Unicaja Malaga, with its only away victory over the past three months coming at the slumping Olimpia Milano. In its other road contests since the triumph at Khimki Moscow on November 16, Maccabi has lost by an average 17.3 points, falling by at least 12 points in each game.
The yellow-and-blue still has to visit Istanbul twice, including a trip to reigning champion Fenerbahce, as well as travel to Spain for its final two games at Baskonia Vitoria and Valencia.
Maccabi has just a one-game lead over Vitoria in ninth place, with Malaga and Red Star Belgrade a further game back.
Tel Aviv plays its final six regular season games over the next month, also hosting Khimki and Panathinaikos, while also playing four times in the BSL. The yellow-and-blue is currently tied for first place at 14-4 with Hapoel Holon, but in three of its four upcoming local games faces tricky showdowns.
Maccabi hosts Hapoel Jerusalem (which is dealing with its own problems) on Sunday before visiting Holon the following weekend and also going to Hapoel Tel Aviv in what is always a hotly-contested affair on the first day of April, five days before it caps the Euroleague regular season at Valencia.
“Like I said now to the players in the locker room, I really don’t want to blame anybody. Everybody has a responsibility and I’m the first one,” said Spahija after the defeat to Ness Ziona. “But it is not the time to cry. We have to go through this situation and try to find the way out.
“We’ve hit a wall,” he added. “It is difficult to understand the performance of the players right now. All of us, including me as the leader of the program, have the responsibility of this situation. We have to find a way to get out of it, not to blame, to work hard and still think positive.”
Spahija has a healthy roster at his disposal ahead of the upcoming crucial stretch, which is far from a given. However, instead of gelling at the critical moment, the squad seems to be desperately lacking belief.
In case any of his players are still complacent, Spahija made it clear to their face and in the media that the team is in a crisis.
Either matters improve soon, or the situation will get a lot worse, and ugly, in a fashion that has come to characterize Maccabi over recent firstname.lastname@example.org
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