(photo credit: Allon Sinai [file])
The only thing bigger than Neven Spahija's smile Tuesday evening was the question mark hanging over his new team.
After reaching three straight European championship finals and winning two of them, Maccabi Tel Aviv has gone through a total overhaul this summer, acquiring a new coaching staff and five new players.
The main uncertainty is Spahija himself. Pini Gershon, who guided the team to three Euro titles, left the team for a new challenge and a larger check at Olympiacos in Greece and vacated one of European basketball's most desired jobs.
Many eyebrows were raised when Spahija was announced as Gershon's replacement, and the Croatian has been scrutinized from his first minute at the club.
Spahija's job will be made far more difficult by the departure of three notable players.
Anthony Parker, who is arguably the best basketball player to ever play in Israel, left for the NBA's Toronto Raptors, leaving a huge void on and off the court.
Maceo Baston followed suit and joined the Indiana Pacers, hooking up with former Maccabi star Sarunas Jasikevicius.
Will Solomon may have been a disappointment in his one and only season with Maccabi last year, but he still got the team to the Euroleague final and, unlike Maccabi's new American players, was a European basketball veteran.
European experience may well be the missing ingredient in two of the replacements Spahija has brought to the team.
Rodney Buford and Will Bynum are unquestionably very talented players, but with Buford only playing briefly in Europe in the past and with Bynum never even appearing for a European side, the two will certainly need time to get accustomed to their new surroundings.
Nikola Vujcic will be as reliable as ever under the baskets, and the return of Yotam Halperin will help Spahija. But even so, the Croatian will still need to mold a practically new team in a mere six weeks.
Will Spahija still be smiling in 12 months? Only time will tell. But one thing's for sure, succeed or fail, Maccabi's next season promises to be as exciting as ever.
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