Maccabi Tel Aviv’s season spiraling out of control

Eight straight Euroleague losses leave yellow-and-blue struggling for answers ahead of the clash in Jerusalem.

 IONNIS SFAIROPOULOS (left) and Scottie Wilbekin have had plenty of good times together with Maccabi Tel Aviv, but need to figure out how to halt the team's current slump. (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
IONNIS SFAIROPOULOS (left) and Scottie Wilbekin have had plenty of good times together with Maccabi Tel Aviv, but need to figure out how to halt the team's current slump.
(photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)

There were plenty of clichés spoken.

“We fight until the end.” – Ioannis Sfairopoulos

“It’s just the little things.” “I think we are getting better each game.” “I think we are moving in the right direction.” – Scottie Wilbekin

These were a variety of quotes from embattled Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos and star Scottie Wilbekin following the yellow-and-blue’s eighth Euroleague loss in a row, with this defeat coming on Wednesday night at Monaco by the score of 82-76.

Let’s face it, after eight straight losses, the quotes just don’t reflect the reality of the sad situation that the once-proud continental powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv once was.

The players simply aren’t fighting until the end, it’s not just the little things, the yellow-and-blue isn’t getting better every game and it most definitely is not moving in the right direction.

It’s much easier to send a quote via the press officer than to sit at the podium and field questions by journalists who want to find real-life answers for the club’s followers and fan base.

 AS HE has done time and again, Scottie Wilbekin powered Maccabi Tel Aviv to a tough victory, this time a 71-64 result over Hapoel Beersheba. (credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY) AS HE has done time and again, Scottie Wilbekin powered Maccabi Tel Aviv to a tough victory, this time a 71-64 result over Hapoel Beersheba. (credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)

These comments are not a reflection of the reality that Maccabi Tel Aviv is in, with a record of 7-11 after 18 European contests as well as a 7-4 Israeli league record, which could have easily been the exact opposite at 4-7.

Sfairopoulos and Wilbekin are trying to control the narrative, but as the Hall of Fame NFL Coach Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.” And that is the truth.

There is no hiding from the standings as Maccabi’s season is slipping away into oblivion.

The yellow-and-blue started the season well and before this current losing streak – which is now tied for the most consecutive defeats that any Maccabi team has had in Europe – Sfairopoulos’s team was churning along with a 7-3 record.

But then, suddenly the train hit a brick wall with loss after loss, first at Olympiacos then in Berlin and Madrid, at home to Kazan then back on the road at Fenerbahce, once again at Yad Eliyahu to Anadolu EFES, then in St. Petersburg to Zenit and finally to this week’s failure in the Principality of Monaco.

That is quite the European misadventure and one that the team is so desperately looking to put behind it, which is something that at least center Ante Zizic seems to understand and honestly stated in his post-game statement.

“When you’re on a bad streak, some shots that are supposed to go in, go out and you’re missing lay-ups and making some bad plays, but the toughest thing is to stop the streak,” he noted.

The bottom line is that the players right now have zero confidence to do what they were brought to Maccabi to do, which is to make winning plays, earn victories and advance to the Euroleague playoffs.

The worst part about it is that there looks like no way out of the current situation as management has just sat on its hands and done absolutely nothing. The club has not brought in any new players (other than center Mathias Lessort as an injury replacement early in the season, and he has since departed), and has not released any players from the squad.

There is nary a word internally about replacing the coach, while the optics that the team is conveying to its loyalists is well, just non-existent. There has been no major movement by management personnel as they continue to twiddle their thumbs and perhaps wait for a miracle to happen.

Eight Euroleague losses are equivalent to over 19 defeats in the NBA when looking at the number of games that are played in each competition. I am not sure how many coaches and general managers would survive that streak if their teams had been built to go to the postseason.

But yet Sfairopoulos, Nikola Vujcic and Avi Even – the coach, the general manager and the head scout, or architect, of the roster – remain in place with not a whisper of responsibility.

The fans have been patient, perhaps more than patient, as they have returned to the stands in record Euroleague numbers this season at Yad Eliyahu. But even they understand that the roster is not where it needs to be.

Wilbekin still controls the offense and Zizic is still an offensive force inside. Keenan Evans has been serviceable in place of Chris Jones, who has turned into a star for ASVEL Villeurbanne, while Angelo Caloiaro is still offensively challenged. Derrick Williams has not played in the postseason in his Euroleague career, Jalen Reynolds has been inconsistent, Kameron Taylor and Iftach Ziv are not ready to play in Europe and Israelis John DiBartolomeo, Jake Cohen and Oz Blayzer have no impact whatsoever.

The only minor move Maccabi has made was to leave struggling James Nunnally in Israel after a number of issues.

That is Maccabi Tel Aviv this season in a nutshell.

On Saturday night, the yellow-and-blue heads to the Israeli capital for a date with Hapoel Jerusalem in the Israeli Classico, which could turn out to be very ugly for Maccabi as the Reds are arguably the hottest team in the league and lead the standings with a 9-2 record under interim coach Yotam Halperin.

Jerusalem, ironically, began the season as one of the biggest disappointments in Israeli basketball when it struggled mightily under coach Oren Amiel and then began to make moves. First, it was Halperin moving down from the front office and his sports director position to the sidelines to replace Amiel, which has turned out to be exactly what the doctor had ordered.

Next, it was to bring back Suleiman Braimoh, who had been with Jerusalem for two seasons but was sent packing by Amiel over the summer as the big man signed with San Pablo Burgos in Spain. Then it was to sign a center in John Egbunu while jettisoning out two former NBA players who just didn’t fit in Thon Maker and Anthony Bennett. Noam Dovrat is also expected to join Jerusalem from Rishon Lezion in another savvy move by the club.

Maccabi, on the other hand, has done absolutely nothing.

Jerusalem will be chomping at the bit when Maccabi comes to town as it will look to avenge a pair of losses that it suffered to its arch-rival this season, in the Winner Cup by the score of 81-65 and 104-80 at Yad Eliyahu in league play. The Reds have been waiting for the chance for payback and will have a wonderful opportunity to do so at home in front of their own fans.

Maccabi could probably think of a million places it would rather be this weekend than the Jerusalem Arena, but the blame for that lies squarely on management, which allowed the current situation to grow and fester into an unstoppable snowball barreling down the mountain.

And that is why all the quotes at this point ring very hollow as Maccabi continues to try and sell the public a bill of goods.