Sinai Says: Even with new format, Maccabi TA under plenty of Euroleague pressure

The speed with which Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Erez Edelstein adapts to Euroleague play will be crucial to the team’s chances of success this season. (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
The speed with which Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Erez Edelstein adapts to Euroleague play will be crucial to the team’s chances of success this season.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
It is an occasion Maccabi Tel Aviv fans look forward to every year.
After months of expectation and a summer of following their team from afar, the Euroleague home opener provides the supporters with their first chance for a first-hand impression of the players who will carry their hopes in the coming season.
And after an offseason of change like the one the yellow-and-blue has just undergone, the Maccabi faithful is especially excited ahead of Thursday’s showdown with old enemy and perennial powerhouse Real Madrid at Yad Eliyahu.
Adding even further intrigue to the game is the fact that the three players expected to be Maccabi’s star performers this season will be playing together for the first time. Guard Andrew Goudelock missed almost the entire preseason with a thigh injury and his return coincided with forward Sonny Weems going down with a tear in his calf.
The two finally played some minutes together in Monday’s BSL win over Hapoel Eilat, but Devin Smith was kept out of the game, a practice Maccabi plans to follow in local league action for much of the season due to his history of knee injuries.
The three are not only the highest paid players on the team, but are also the three top earners in the entire BSL. The combined salaries of Weems ($1.3 million per season), Goudelock ($1 million) and Smith ($900,000) dwarf the entire budgets of almost every BSL opponent, but their true test, at least over the next six months until the BSL playoffs get under way, will be in the Euroleague.
Maccabi is coming off an unprecedented failure in European basketball’s premier club competition, missing out on qualification for the Top 16 for the first time in its history last season.
The yellow-and-blue was also swept in the quarterfinal playoffs the previous year, and other than the almost miraculous Euroleague triumph of 2014, hasn’t reached the Final Four since 2011.
The remarkable run to the title in 2013/14 under the guidance of coach David Blatt was in many ways a curse in disguise. It convinced Maccabi’s ownership that it can compete and beat the continent’s best with a significantly smaller budget while continuing to maintain the old-fashioned running of the club.
Coming up well short in Europe and going consecutive campaigns without winning the local league title for the first time in 50 years, ensured Tel Aviv’s decision makers understood they need to change the way they operate in the front office even more desperately than another overhaul of the roster.
Hagay Badash, the former CEO of Israel’s largest investment house Psagot, was brought in to run the club and he promptly revamped its organizational structure.
Badash set up five different divisions whose bosses will all answer to him: sales and operations, professional, money and regulation, marketing and strategy and the youth department.
Badash will be the one who reports to the shareholders.
Maccabi lost over $5 million last season, but has increased its budget to a club record of over NIS 100 million, with the vast majority going towards the pay of the players and the coaching staff.
Maccabi can afford to do so not only due to its diverse and deep-pocketed ownership group, but also because of the change in the Euroleague’s format.
Maccabi’s Euroleague future is secure for at least another decade, with its income from the competition set to mushroom after a new Euroleague competition model was agreed upon last November.
Maccabi will be one of 16 teams which will compete in a round-robin regular season of 30 rounds, to be followed by best-of-five playoffs, with series winners advancing to the Final Four, at which the continental champion will be crowned.
That means Maccabi is guaranteed at the very least 30 Euroleague games, 15 of them at home compared to the five it had last season.
Despite missing out on the Top 16 last season, Maccabi is among the 11 A Licence clubs who signed multi-year deals to play in the Euroleague (Anadolu Efes Istanbul, CSKA Moscow, Olimpia Milano, FC Barcelona, Fenerbahce Istanbul, Baskonia Vitoria, Olympiacos Piraeus, Panathinaikos Athens, Real Madrid and Zalgiris Kaunas), with last season’s Eurocup champion Galatasaray also receiving direct entry.
German champion Brose Bamberg, Red Star Belgrade of Serbia and Unics Kazan of Russia each received a B Licence to play in the competition in 2016/17.
“This budget represents an all-time high for Maccabi. In my estimate, that puts us in about the eighth or ninth place out of 16 Euroleague teams,” said Badash. “Of course, what matters most to us is success on the court. But in my view, professional success is linked to success on both a managerial and a strategic level.”
Badash stressed the importance of using analytics and big data as a way to improve the team’s performance: “I think even a club with the stature and history of Maccabi has a lot to learn from other teams and other sports. The use of analytics has been proven as a useful tool for teams worldwide,” he explained.
The man put in charge of running the show on the court is coach Erez Edelstein, who is guiding a team in the Euroleague for the first time in his career.
Until this past summer, the Israel national team boss was regarded as the best active local coach never to have guided Maccabi.
Apart from the team’s three big American stars, Edelstein also has an Israeli core which includes Gal Mekel, Yogev Ohayon, Guy Pnini and Sylven Landesberg.
German Maik Zirbes is the team’s starting center, with Americans Victor Rudd, D.J. Seeley and Colton Iverson expected to mainly provide support from the bench.
With eight players only joining this summer, getting everyone to play as a cohesive unit is Edelstein’s main target and it is far too early to determine whether he will succeed.
“Only when you are part of this club do you understand its strength,” explained Edelstein. “Even experienced coaches in Europe aren’t sure how to approach the new format. My message to the players is that the supporters expect to see a team that gives 150 percent on the court.”
The fans will have their first real opportunity to assess Edelstein’s work to date when they witness his team in action against one of Europe’s best for the first time on Thursday.
With such a long regular season to come, even a second-straight defeat following the setback at Olimpia Milano last Thursday shouldn’t trigger any alarm bells. One can only wonder though, what Edelstein and Maccabi’s ownership would give for a morale-boosting win and perhaps an early sign that the club is finally heading back in the right direction.
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