A season up in the air

Between losing the pre-season Winner Cup to Hapoel Jerusalem and undergoing a summer of changes, Maccabi Tel Aviv will have to net some gains to get ahead.

New Maccabi TA head coach Guy Goodes (right) and new assistant coach Pini Gershon. (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
New Maccabi TA head coach Guy Goodes (right) and new assistant coach Pini Gershon.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
This was not the start of the season Maccabi Tel Aviv was hoping for. Claiming the Winner Cup is far down the list of goals Maccabi sets for itself ahead of every campaign. However, the yellow-and-blue still lifted the pre-season title in each of the previous four years and was eager to make it five in a row against Hapoel Jerusalem last week.
There is added significance to any game between arch-rivals Maccabi and Hapoel, even if it is being held before the season has gotten well under way.
Last Thursday’s showdown between the two leading forces in Israeli basketball was also their first meeting at the new Jerusalem Arena, which was inaugurated last week.
Maccabi was second best to Jerusalem throughout almost all the final, ultimately losing 81-78 in front of a sold-out crowd of 9,500 fans.
Maccabi won’t have long to mull over the defeat to Jerusalem, but it was certainly not the way new head coach Guy Goodes had hoped to begin life at the helm of the reigning Euroleague champion.
Goodes will need to quickly brush aside the disappointment, as the yellowand- blue already faces Liga de las Americas champion Flamengo in the 2014 FIBA Intercontinental Cup on Friday.
The two-game series will be played at the Gimnasio Maracanazinho Arena in Rio de Janeiro, with the opening encounter scheduled for Friday, and Game 2 set to take place two days later. The Intercontinental Cup, which dates back to 1966, was dormant for nearly two decades before its revival last season, when then Euroleague champion Olympiacos Piraeus defeated Pinheiros Sky for the cup.
Tel Aviv will then travel to the US, where it will face the Cleveland Cavaliers and former coach Davis Blatt on October 5 before playing the Brooklyn Nets two days later.
After spending four years under Blatt as an assistant, Goodes was the only candidate to step into his mentor’s shoes.
However, the problem for Goodes is the size of the shoes he inherits after Maccabi’s incredible run to the Euroleague title last season. Maccabi almost sacked Blatt following a poor start to the season, but he ultimately led them to a remarkable European title, as well as the local championship and State Cup.
Goodes was the natural successor, but Maccabi stunned the local sporting scene last month when it announced that Pini Gershon will be his assistant.
The 62-year-old, who guided Maccabi to three European titles, as well as numerous local trophies during three tenures as head coach between 1998 and 2010, hadn’t coached since he was sacked by the yellow-and-blue four years ago.
Gershon, who was a member of Hapoel Holon’s management between 2011 and 2013 while also working as a media analyst over recent years, promised he would not undermine Goodes.
“I will help Guy succeed,” said Gershon in an impromptu press conference at the club offices. “I have helped many coaches during my career, and I plan to help Guy. I have no intention of becoming Maccabi’s head coach. I hope he succeeds, and I will give him all the credit. I will not replace Guy under any circumstance. I have won enough games and I have taken enough titles. This is his time.”
The idea to bring in Gershon as an assistant was first raised by the Maccabi management several weeks previously, with Goodes initially objecting to the appointment. However, his position softened over the following weeks after he failed to land any of the candidates he had targeted as his senior assistant. Maccabi also agreed to guarantee the second year of Goodes’s contract, which had been a team option, in order to calm his concerns.
“I’m personally very happy, and I believe we will lead Maccabi to success,” said Goodes. “I had my concerns, but after meeting with Pini several times I decided to bring him in. It wasn’t a simple decision, but I’m sure we will succeed.”
Goodes’s initial wariness in agreeing to the appointment is understandable, considering what happened at Maccabi seven years ago. The up-and-coming Oded Katash was named as head coach ahead of the 2007/08 season, but due to his inexperience the club persuaded him to agree to the hiring of Tzvika Sherf as general manager. Following a poor run of results, Katash was fired and Sherf took over as coach.
“We trust Guy. He will be the one who makes the decisions,” said Maccabi chairman Shimon Mizrahi, who insisted it was Goodes’s idea to bring Gershon aboard. “Pini isn’t coming to conspire against Guy. He is coming to help. He said he will leave if Guy leaves.”
Continuity was supposed to ensure that Maccabi would be able to build on last season’s success. While Blatt’s departure for the head coaching position at the Cavs was inevitable, the hiring of his long-time assistant was meant to keep the yellow-and-blue on course for more glory on the back of a dream season.
Even more importantly, after having to rebuild the roster off-season after off-season time and again, Maccabi’s management really thought that this summer it would just have to fine tune the team. At least seven of the players who made up the core of last season’s side were meant to continue with the team, with the only real negative change to the roster expected to be the retirement of David Blu. That should have ensured a smooth transition to life under Goodes, but Maccabi’s plans were thrown into disarray when Euroleague Final Four MVP Tyrese Rice opted out of his contract and signed a threeyear deal with Russia’s Khimki Moscow.
Rice was paramount to Maccabi’s Euroleague triumph last season, scoring the winning basket in the semifinal against CSKA Moscow and netting 14 overtime points in the final against Real Madrid to lead the yellow-and-blue to a sixth European championship title in club history.
He was offered a 50 percent increase by Maccabi, but that was still nowhere close to matching the contract he was handed by Khimki, which will pay him more than double of Tel Aviv’s improved offer and in the excess of four million euros over the next three seasons. Khimki also agreed to pay Rice’s $350,000 release clause, which had to be activated until the end of June, leaving Maccabi completely helpless.
Rice’s back-court partner, Ricky Hickman, followed him out of the club, joining Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey.
Matters were complicated even further earlier this month when center Sofoklis Schortsanitis failed his medical upon his return to Israel.
The 29-year-old Greek giant was diagnosed with high blood pressure, returned around 15 kilograms overweight, and will have to undergo eye surgery to treat glaucoma from which he has suffered for several years. Schortsanitis is expected to be out for between two and three months, with his original $800,000 contract being void, as he failed the medical.
Maccabi agreed to hand Sofo a much-reduced short-term contract estimated at around 10 percent of his previous deal.
Should Sofo make a full recovery, he will be given a new improved deal. But with the center out for at least the next two months and with no guarantee that he will return to his best, Maccabi moved quickly to bring in cover.
Tel Aviv signed Australian-Serbian veteran Aleks Maric to a three-month deal, but he looked a shadow of his former self in the Winner Cup.
Should Sofo fail to recover, Maccabi will only have five returning players from last season: Yogev Ohayon, Sylven Landesberg, Guy Pnini, Devin Smith and Alex Tyus. Jeremy Pargo and Ohayon will be the team’s point guards, with Marquez Haynes and Landesberg to share duties at shooting guard while also playing at small forward. Smith is set to be the team’s starting small forward once more, with Nate Linhart to help from the bench, while Brian Randle and Pnini will play as power forwards. Randle can also play as center, although Sofo, Tyus, Jake Cohen, who was on loan last season, and Maric are supposed to be the team’s main big men.
If last season taught Maccabi anything, it is that there is no need to panic from a frustrating start to a campaign and that patience is paramount. Nevertheless, after a tumultuous summer of changes, there are more question marks than answers hovering over the yellow-and-blue, guaranteeing there will not be a dull moment at the club once more this season.