Can yellow-and-blue reclaim its BSL dominance?

Mac TA must fend off a number of worthy Israeli teams gunning for sustained glory as 2010/11 tips off.

Baby Shaq 311 (photo credit: BSL Website)
Baby Shaq 311
(photo credit: BSL Website)
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s mission to reclaim the national hoops championship is clearly the main storyline ahead of the tip-off to the Basketball Super League season on Sunday. Hapoel Gilboa/Galil’s victory over the yellow-and-blue in the title game last season meant that for the first time since the 1960s Maccabi dropped the league title twice in three seasons.
Nevertheless, Tel Aviv will once more be the firm favorite to claim BSL glory in the coming campaign, although if the last few seasons have taught us anything it is that the Final Four format gives every team at least a glimmer of hope of going all the way.
Deputy Sports Editor Allon Sinai takes stock of the 10 teams battling for BSL supremacy in 2010/11. (teams listed in order of finish from last season)
Hapoel Gilboa/Galil
Not much remains from the team that made history in May. Coach Oded Katash left for Jerusalem and only four players survive from last season’s roster.
Last season’s MVP, Elishay Kadir, left for Maccabi Tel Aviv, with Brian Randle and Dion Dowell moving with Katash to the capital.
Lior Lubin, Katash’s assistant from last season, was handed the reins, and despite falling to Serbia’s Hemofarm Stada Vrsac in the first qualifying round of the Euroleague two weeks ago, Gilboa’s young roster has shown plenty of potential.
Gal Mekel should continue his progress alongside Jack McClinton, while Leo Lyons and Warren Carter will benefit from the presence of Ido Kozikaro under the baskets.
Gilboa’s roster is young, but it has depth and quality and it could well be another exciting season at Gan Ner.
Player to watch out for: Tyler Wilkerson. After four seasons at Marshall University the 22-year-old big-man is ready to begin his pro career after leading MU with 14.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last season.
Last season: BSL champion, 14-8 in the regular season, beat Ironi Ashkelon 3-0 in the playoffs.
Best case scenario: Lubin follows on from where Katash left off and guides the team to a fourth Final Four in five seasons.
Worst case scenario: The inexperience of Lubin and his young roster prove to be insurmountable and Gilboa loses in the playoffs.
Maccabi Tel Aviv
If losing the championships twice in three years is nothing short of disastrous at Maccabi, then dropping the title for a second straight season is truly unthinkable. Tel Aviv lost just one regular season game last season, but showed its frailty by barely edging Bnei Hasharon 3-2 in the playoffs before being outplayed by Gilboa in the final.
The yellow-and-blue’s budget yet again dwarfs the finances of the rest of the clubs in the league, but the last few seasons have proven how vulnerable Maccabi is under the Final Four format.
Tel Aviv hasn’t done itself any favors by going through a complete off-season overhaul for a fifth straight year, bringing in seven new players and signing its sixth coach in just four years.
David Blatt returns to Maccabi after six years on the continent and will be happy for a repeat of his two previous seasons as head coach at the Nokia Arena, when he went 51-3 in the regular season and guided the team to the league and cup double twice in a row (2001/02 and 2002/03).
After neglecting to boost its Israeli core last year, Maccabi brought in the best local talent available, adding Lior Eliyahu, Tal Burstein and Elishay Kadir to a roster which already included David Bluthenthal, Guy Pnini, Yaniv Green and Derrick Sharp.
Greek giant Sofoklis Schortsanitis will be an unstoppable force in the BSL and with Chuck Eidson, Jeremy Pargo and Doron Perkins all gaining valuable BSL experience last season, Maccabi once more has a team which can settle for nothing less than another league title.
Player to watch out for: Sofoklis Schortsanitis. It is difficult to miss the 25-year-old center, and it will be interesting to see what the rest of the BSL can do to slow down the gargantuan Greek international.
Last season: 2nd place, 21-1 in the regular season, beat Bnei Hasharon 3-2 in the playoffs.
Best case scenario: After a six-season hiatus, Blatt wins his sixth straight championship at Maccabi.
Worst case scenario: A second straight loss in the final means Blatt joins Pini Gershon and Tzvika Sherf on the ever-growing list of Tel Aviv coaches to drop a championship.
Hapoel Jerusalem
After failing to reach the Final Four title game for a third straight year last season, Jerusalem has rebuilt the team yet again, starting with the coach’s position. Oded Katash joins Hapoel after leading Gilboa to the championship and brought Brian Randle and Dion Dowell with him.
Israelis Yuval Naimi, Yogev Ohayon and Uri Kukia are the only significant survivors from last season’s roster, with Katash’s main local addition being Moshe Mizrahi.
Hapoel will be looking to make up for the relative weakness of its Israelis with quality foreigners with previous BSL experience. Besides Randle and Dowell, Jason Rich joins after showing his potential at Maccabi Haifa last season, with Sam Clancy signing after proving himself as a reliable post player at Bnei Hasharon.
However, Hapoel’s chances of success will likely rest more than anything else on the shoulders of Will Solomon, who returns to Malha six years leading the team to the ULEB Cup in the 2003/04 season.
Solomon is past his prime, but if he can come close to recapturing the form he showed at Malha six years ago there is no telling what Jerusalem can achieve.
Player to watch out for: Brian Randle. The 25-year-old showed consistent improvement under Katash’s guidance at Gilboa over the last two seasons and should be one of the best players in the BSL in the coming campaign.
Last season: 3rd place, 14-8 in the regular season, beat Maccabi Rishon Lezion 3-1 in the playoffs.
Best case scenario: Katash cements his place as a coaching legend at 36 years of age, winning his second straight championship with a team not named Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Worst case scenario: Even Katash can’t control Solomon and Jerusalem doesn’t make it to the championship game for a fourth straight year.
Barak Netanya
Netanya surprised all the experts last season, reaching the Final Four in its first campaign back in the BSL in more than a decade.
Eric Alfasi’s roster seemed to be one of the weakest in the league, but led by playmaker Shmulik Brenner and superb foreigners Danilo Pinnock, Marco Killingsworth and Tony Washam it finished the regular season in the top four, and beat Maccabi Haifa to reach the Final Four, before losing to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the semifinals.
However, apart from Brenner, Alfasi has had to virtually rebuild the team from scratch this summer, and despite the coach saying last week that he believes his side can repeat last season’s achievements, no one is expecting to see Netanya make the season-ending tournament for a second straight time.
Player to watch out for: Elton Brown. The 27-year-old forward has plenty to prove this season. Brown was a key member of the Hapoel Holon team which won the 2007/08 title, but after being brought back to Israel by Maccabi Tel Aviv the following campaign, was cut after playing just a single BSL game.
Last season: 4th place, 13-9 in the regular season, beat Maccabi Haifa 3-1 in the playoffs.
Best case scenario: Alfasi proves he deserves to be treated as one of Israel’s top coaches after guiding Netanya to a second straight Final Four.
Worst case scenario: Netanya makes the playoffs, but this time it’s the relegation playoffs.
Maccabi Haifa
Haifa has been one of the league’s top teams in the past two seasons, and despite replacing its entire roster and its coach during the summer, it has once more got every intention of challenging for a Final Four berth.
The 30-year-old Elad Hasin, who was Avi Ashkenazi’s assistant at Haifa in the last couple of seasons, has taken charge and has built a promising roster. Israelis Yoni Nir and Avi Ben-Shimol and experienced foreigners Sasa Bratic and Marco Killingsworth give Hasin a strong foundation, with Americans Derrick Low, Larry O’Bannon and Frank Robinson to ensure Haifa will at the very least be a Final Four contender.
Player to watch out for: Sylven Landesberg. The 20-year-old will be playing his first season of professional basketball after starring for the University of Virginia Cavaliers, being named ACC Freshman of the Year for the 2008/09 season. Landesberg could prove to be a real steal for Haifa, especially as he will be playing as an Israeli due to the fact his father is Jewish.
Last season: 5th – 8th place, 14-8 in the regular season, lost 3-1 to Barak Netanya in the playoffs.
Best case scenario: After a one-season break, Haifa is back in the Final Four.
Worst case scenario: Hasin is not ready for head-coaching and Haifa misses out on the Final Four for a second straight season.
Ironi Ashkelon
Ashkelon made the playoffs in the past two seasons and will be looking to go one better this time around. The reliable Ariel Beit-Halachmi remains at the helm, but Ashkelon’s roster doesn’t look strong enough to make the Final Four.
Veteran playmaker Dror Hagag gives the team the experience it needs, with the excellent Rashon Turner continuing for a second year after averaging 15.5 points and 10.6 rebounds last season.
However, Ashkelon’s small budget has meant that Beit- Halachmi has had to go for some unproven Americans, which could end up costing the team in the playoffs.
Player to watch out for: Gabe Pruitt. The 24-year-old former Boston Celtic will be playing in “Europe” for the first time and should be a reliable source of points for Ashkelon.
Last season: 5th – 8th, 11-11 in the regular season, lost 3-0 to Hapoel Gilboa/Galil in the playoffs.
Best case scenario: A third straight season ends in the playoffs.
Worst case scenario: Ashkelon fights for its life in the relegation playoffs and only survives by the skin of its teeth.
Maccabi Rishon Lezion
After three straight years of relegation battles, Rishon finally made the playoffs under the guidance of Effi Birenboim last season. The club’s faithful will be expecting nothing less in the coming campaign, with Rishon aiming to make the Final Four for the first time since 2006.
The powerful Aaron McGhee will be dominant under the baskets, with the speedy Denis Clemente to team up with Dwayne Mitchell in what promises to be a very dangerous backcourt.
All the pieces seem to be in place for Birenboim, who will be confident of reaching the Final Four three years after his last appearance at the season-ending tournament with Bnei Hasharon.
Player to watch out for: Denis Clemente. The 24-year-old helped lead Kansas State to the Elite 8 and a second seed in the NCAA tournament, averaging 16.6 points and 4.2 assists. However, he couldn’t land a place in the NBA and will have a lot to prove at Rishon this season.
Last season: 5th – 8th, 10-12 in the regular season, lost 3- 1 to Hapoel Jerusalem in the playoffs.
Best case scenario: After three years Effi is back where he belongs – the Final Four.
Worst case scenario: The playoffs are once more as far as Rishon goes.
Bnei Hasharon
Bnei Hasharon disappointed for much of last season, amassing a 9-13 regular season record. However, it ended up coming within a whisker of knocking off Maccabi Tel Aviv in the quarterfinal playoffs.
Dan Shamir has got an even stronger roster this term so there will be no excuse should the team fail to return to the Final Four after a two-year absence.
Erez Katz, Shawn James and Ron Steele are back from last season, while the sharp-shooting Lee Nailon returns to the team after three years. Nailon is already 35-years-old, but there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to average something similar to the 20.6 points per game he did in the 2006/07 season.
Sharon Sasson and Sam Hoskin are two more players Shamir can count on and confidence levels are very high at Bnei Hasharon entering the season.
Player to watch out for: Dori Asaf. The 23-year-old guard had some teething problems last season, but he will have learned from the experience and will be a lethal weapon off the bench for Shamir.
Last season: 5th – 8th place, 9-13 in the regular season, lost 3-2 to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the playoffs.
Best case scenario: After coming so close last season, Bnei Hasharon gets the better of the yellow-and-blue in the Final Four semis.
Worst case scenario: Nailon ruins the team’s chemistry and another early playoff exit means Shamir is looking for a new job.
Hapoel Holon
After once more coming close to extinction in the off-season, Holon will yet again be fighting for its BSL life on the court in the coming campaign.
Danny Franco, who guided Holon to the State Cup in 2009, is back at the club and will need to work more miracles if the team is to achieve any kind of success. The financial problems meant Holon began to build its roster later than it would have liked, with Franco also having a meager budget with which to sign players.
Guard Moran Rot, who won the championships with Holon in the 2007/08 season, returns and will share the backcourt with fellow Israeli veteran Amit Ben-David. Jamie Arnold gives the team an effective low post presence, but Franco’s Americans could be better and his short roster may well hurt Holon down the line.
Player to watch out for: Robert Hite. The 26-year-old former Miami Heat guard arrives from the Italian League, where he averaged 17.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game for Reggio Emilia. He will be expected to put up similar numbers for Holon.
Last season: 9th – 12th, 6-16 in the regular season, beat Ironi Nahariya 3-2 in the relegation playoffs.
Best case scenario: Holon not only maintains its BSL status for a fourth straight season, but even manages to sneak into the playoffs.
Worst case scenario: Relegation to the National League means Holon subsequently disappears from the basketball map.
Maccabi Ashdod
Ashdod didn’t even make the National League playoff finals last season. However, after both eventual champion Habika’a BC and runner-up Hapoel Yokne’am/Megido forfeited their places in the BSL, it was handed the opportunity to play in the top flight.
Ashdod seems intent on making the most of its chance, bringing in experienced coach Ofer Berkowitz and assembling a relatively strong roster.
The 35-year-old Meir Tapiro is well past his peak, but he is still a superb playmaker and combined with Or Eitan, Niv Berkowitz and Sean Daniel, Berkowitz has a decent Israeli core.
However, Ashdod’s eventual success and hopes of survival will depend very much on Berkowitz’s gamble on young Americans Ramel Bradley, Josh Carter and Josh Duncan, meaning the team could well struggle.
Player to watch out for: Ramel Bradly. The 25-year-old former University of Kentucky Wildcat played for France’s Dijon last season, averaging 12.0 points, 3.7 assists and 2.7 boards.
Last season: 3rd – 4th in the National League, 16-10 in the regular season, lost 3-2 to Habika’a BC in the playoffs.
Best case scenario: Ashdod proves it deserves its place in the BSL and enjoys a largely eventless campaign.
Worst case scenario: Ashdod regrets ever wanting to play in the BSL and is relegated after a single season.