Sinai Says: Israeli trio Blatt, Casspi, Mekel all with plenty to prove in NBA

Israel's 3 representatives in US league all find themselves in different situations, but ultimately have the same goal – to prove they belong with the very best.

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October 29, 2014 04:43
Gal Mekel

Gal Mekel of the Dallas Mavericks drives to the hoop against the Orlando Magic. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The 2014/15 NBA season will be nothing short of crucial to the remainder of the careers of Israel’s three representatives in the league.

Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel once more find themselves in a situation in which they need to prove they even deserve to be on court in the best league in the world, while David Blatt, for his part, simply has to win.

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Blatt may be entering his first season as the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers after guiding Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euroleague title five months ago. Nevertheless, he won’t be afforded even a single day of grace in the NBA.

That’s just the way it is when your roster includes the best player in the world, in LeBron James, who returned to Cleveland after four years in Miami, as well as the likes of proven stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

“Cleveland is already expected to win the East and, at worst, reach the NBA Finals. Which is a lot of pressure to thrust on a guy who hasn’t coached a single NBA minute,” ESPN.com senior NBA writer, Marc Stein, told The Jerusalem Post this week.

“But now for the good news: Because Cleveland is in the easy East, there’s really only one team that can stop the Cavs from reaching the Finals as long as all their main players stay healthy. There will be ups and downs for Blatt, of course, but realistically Chicago is the only obstacle in the way of a trip to the NBA Finals in his first season.”

For all of Blatt’s success with Maccabi, Stein has no doubt the Cavs wouldn’t have signed him had they known at the time that James was returning to Ohio.



“I think even Blatt would tell you that,” he said. “LeBron would have had major input on the coach if his signing came first. And the fact is he didn’t know anything about David Blatt until now.”

According to Stein, the biggest challenge facing Blatt is coming to terms with his limited power within the Cavs organization.

“Coming to grips with the fact that he doesn’t have the hammer,” was how Stein put it. “At Maccabi, even with ownership so heavily involved, Blatt was in charge of on-court matters. He was the unquestioned boss. In Cleveland, LeBron is the boss. Big difference.”

Israel’s first NBA player, Omri Casspi, is entering his sixth season in the league. He will be hoping his return to the Sacramento Kings will help kick-start his faltering career.

Casspi and the Kings agreed to a one-year minimum deal back in late July. The 26-year-old forward shined for the Israel national team this summer, leading the blue-and-white with 19.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game to help the side secure its progress to the European Championships.

He rejoined Sacramento after being released by the New Orleans Pelicans just two weeks after he was traded to the team from the Houston Rockets.

After an encouraging start to his time in Texas, Casspi slowly but surely dropped down the rotation, failing to score in double-digits in the team’s final 20 games of the season. He didn’t even play a single minute in Houston’s first-round playoff defeat to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Casspi averaged 6.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists over 71 games in Houston last season, reviving his career only slightly after registering just 4.0 points and 2.7 rebounds in the mere 43 games in which he took part in Cleveland the previous year. He was still far off the career highs he recorded in his rookie season with Sacramento (10.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 25.1 minutes per game).

“Casspi’s definitely comfortable in Sacramento because he’s obviously been there before, but we’ll need more time to make an accurate judgment,” Stein explained. “He can play both small forward and power forward there and should get a decent amount of playing time if he’s shooting well from the perimeter, because the Kings need shooters.

“I don’t think he’s ever been more ready at the start of an NBA season after his strong summer with the national team and good preparations in October.”

Despite his disappointing displays in recent seasons, Stein still believes Casspi’s NBA career is not in danger.

“I’ve been trying to tell people in Israel for years that the answer to this is “no.”,” he stated. “I don’t see Sacramento as some sort of “last chance.” He’s still trying to find a place he can call home in the NBA, but that doesn’t always happen right away.”

Stein believes proficiency from three-point range will be the key to success for Casspi, not just this season, but for the rest of his career.

“Casspi has the potential to be a 40-percent shooter from three-point range. If he can get to that level, that alone will keep him in the NBA for a while,” he noted. “He’s always been an underrated passer and rebounder for his size – and his defense is getting better – but consistently getting to a 40-percent level from deep would be huge for his career.”

While it remains to be seen what role Casspi will forge at Sacramento, he at least knows where he will be playing this season, which is something that can’t be said about Gal Mekel.

The 26-year-old guard is expected to be waived by the Dallas Mavericks in order to make space for the signing of J.J. Barea, who will clear waivers on Wednesday after being released by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Mekel impressed when given the opportunity in pre-season. However, with the Mavs roster including point guards Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris and Raymond Felton, even before the addition of Barea, it seems all but certain that the Israeli will have to continue his NBA career elsewhere.

Stein believes that Mekel will find another team in the NBA assuming the Mavs buy out the two remaining years on his contract.

“Until the whole Barea situation materialized, Gal was already having a successful season, because Dallas brought 19 players to training camp... 18 of whom had prior NBA experience,” Stein explained.

“So that meant three established players would have to be cut before Opening Night and I think a lot of people in Dallas expected Gal to be one of those three. But he played too well in the exhibition games for the Mavs to let him go. That was a victory right there, but now it appears that he might have to go try to establish himself somewhere else.”

Blatt, Casspi and Mekel all find themselves in different situations, but ultimately have the same goal – to prove they belong with the very best.

allon@jpost.com

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