Analysis: Cautious optimism ahead of Maccabi's coming season

Analysis Cautious optim

Despite the sizeable 20-point victory, Maccabi Tel Aviv's Euroleague debut against Union Olimija Ljubljana on Thursday night was, for the most part, not a pretty sight to behold. Although Gershon's squad showed glimmers of greater potential and some marked improvement over last season, Maccabi also displayed some of the same weaknesses that caused the previous squad to bow out of European competition without even making it to the quarterfinals. An unpolished offense is not necessarily cause for concern at this point -- the team will have plenty of time to gel and gain confidence ahead of its next Euroleague encounter against Lior Eliyahu's Caja Laboral Vitoria in two weeks, assuming that their upcoming bouts with NBA teams don't achieve the opposite effect. Actually, the offense, although it probably won't ultimately turn out to be as fluid and overpowering as in the glory days of Anthony Parker, Nikola Vujcic, Sarunas Jasikevicius and company, could serve Maccabi well, especially in its home games at the Nokia Arena. Gershon, it seems, has assembled a team which may end up better than its component parts, with intelligent players who will grow increasingly comfortable playing with each other the more they understand the colorful coach's complicated offensive philosophy, which encourages players to shoot early in each possession rather than waiting for the perfect chance. Still, we didn't see much of that offensive brilliance on display last night, with more than a few fumbled fast breaks and many offensive sets that didn't lead to open shots. With Gershon's system in place, a well-coached team should end up with a good look at the basket within ten seconds of bringing the ball up the court. On Thursday there were too many instances when the 24-second clock wound down to the wire, leaving the team with difficult looks and forced threes. One aspect in which Maccabi showed a marked improvement from last year was in its ability to drill the long-range shot consistently, especially on the break. Even taking into account several desperation attempts with the clock nearing zero, and the fact that sharp-shooter David Bluthenthal is still sidelined with injury, Maccabi still hit an impressive 50 percent from beyond the arc. This ability, which was one of the hallmarks of the 2004 and 2005 Euroleague championship teams, should prove to be an increasingly lethal weapon as the team gets its transition game going. Maccabi ran the floor as much as it could, partly to make up the difficulties it was facing in its half-court game. Alan Anderson showed impressive athleticism in several explosive drives to the hoop, but the coaches will want to get Chuck Eidson more involved for the nights when Anderson will be shut down by the stronger and more athletic defenses of European powerhouses with larger budgets than Ljubljana's. The fact that Ljubljana managed to lose by such a large margin, despite having pulled down 18 boards on the offensive end, says more about the quality of the opposition's offense than Maccabi's current scoring prowess. This surely will not be the case when Tel Aviv meets teams with massive frontcourts that can convert second opportunities in the paint to easy buckets. The only inside player to show real aggressiveness in battling for boards was Yaniv Green, whose limited time on the court in the second half saw Maccabi hold Ljubljana scoreless for long stretches and consolidate a double-digit lead. Green's aggressive defense and tenacity in working the glass should buy the veteran some valuable minutes in a season where Maccabi's Israeli players will probably only be breaking records for accumulated bench-time. Another source of optimism should be Maccabi's improved defense. Despite being renowned for his brilliant offensive philosophy, Gershon's championship teams all had the ability to severely limit an opponent with stretches of stifling defense. In this respect, the current team is perhaps more reminiscent of the Suproleague championship squad of 2001, which often blew out teams on the basis of its defensive intensity -- without possessing the kind of offensive flair that characterized the Parker-Vujcic-Jasikevicius dynasty. Even taking into account the current poor quality of Ljubljana's squad, it is noteworthy that the Slovenians only managed to tally 20 points four minutes to halftime, with the hustle-bound Andrew Wisniewski, Anderson and Doron Perkins constantly harassing their opponents, forcing turnovers and getting into the passing lanes to spark some easy transition buckets. The basis for a strong - if not brilliant - team is there, and, with a promising defense and an offense that will only improve with time, Maccabi can allow itself to be cautiously optimistic for the coming season. But first it has to face the New York Knicks in the Garden on Sunday night and match up with the LA Clippers in the Staples Center two days later. Perhaps the prospect of having to box out the likes of David Lee and Marcus Camby will go a long way towards upping Maccabi's intensity on the boards.