No lockout here: Balls start bouncing around local courts

The Basketball Super League has undergone wholesale changes once more ahead of the start of the 2011/12 season.

Maccabi 311 (photo credit: BSL)
Maccabi 311
(photo credit: BSL)
The Basketball Super League has undergone wholesale changes once more ahead of the start of the 2011/12 season on Sunday. Maccabi Tel Aviv still remains the firm-favorite to win the championship, but after five seasons, the BSL decided to drop the ‘Russian rule,’ instead choosing to allow each team to use no more than four foreigners in a league game.
Since the 2006/07 season, two Israeli players had to be on court at any given time during a game, a regulation copied from the Russian league in the hope of promoting local players.
Despite losing in the relegation playoffs last season, Ironi Ashkelon remains in the top flight, while BC Habika’a won promotion from the National League to bring the BSL to 11 clubs.
No teams will be relegated this season either, with the BSL looking to increase the league to 12 sides for 2012/13.
One much-needed change which has yet to come to fruition is the cancellation of the Final Four, meaning every team at least still has a glimmer of hope of going all the way yet again.
Deputy Sports Editor Allon Sinai takes stock of the 11 teams battling for BSL supremacy in 2011/12.
After dropping the championship twice in three years, Maccabi utterly dominated the BSL last season, losing just once in 32 regular season, playoff and Final Four games. Tel Aviv won its regular season games by an average of 18.8 points and won each of its five post-season encounters by at least 14 points, thrashing Hapoel Gilboa/Galil 91-64 in the title game. Coach David Blatt improved to a 77-4 record in the regular season in his three years as Maccabi boss, and even with the Final Four format, it is hard to see Blatt not ending the coming campaign with a fourth league and cup double in four seasons as yellow-and-blue coach.
After going through a complete offseason overhaul in five consecutive years, Maccabi has held on to seven key players from last season’s roster, which also reached the Euroleague final. The additions include the likes of Devin Smith, Shawn James, Theo Papaloukas, Yogev Ohayon, Jon Scheyer and Jordan Famar, who is set to return to the New Jersey Nets once the NBA lockout ends.
Farmar’s departure will be a blow for Maccabi, but regardless, Tel Aviv’s roster is vastly superior to that of the rest of teams in the league and it will be a massive surprise should it not cruise to another championship.
Player to watch out for: Devin Smith. The signing of the 28-year-old American guard almost went unnoticed, but he has the potential to set the BSL alight with his combination of athleticism and long-range sharpshooting.
Last season: BSL champion, 26-1 in the regular season, beat Barak Netanya 3-0 in the playoffs.
Best case: Maccabi wins its second straight league and cup double, this time going the entire season unbeaten.
Worst case: Maccabi loses just one game in 2011/12, but it happens to come in the Final Four.
Despite having to build a completely new team following the championship winning 2009/10 campaign, Gilboa impressed last season by reaching a second straight title game in Lior Lubin’s first year as coach.
Lubin’s job hasn’t gotten any easier this season, with playmaker Gal Mekel leaving to play in Italy and his backup Guni Izraeli going to Jerusalem. But Dagan Yavzuri and Ido Kozikaro are among those who have stuck around, at least giving Lubin a few familiar faces to work with in what is sure to be a challenging season for the northerners.
Player to watch out for: Nimrod Tishman. After one disappointing season at the Florida Gators, the 19-yearold returned home last summer and is keen to prove his worth in the BSL after impressing at Hapoel Yokneam/Megido of the National League in 2010/11.
Last season: 2nd place, 17-10 in the regular season, beat Hapoel Holon 3-1 in the playoffs.
Best case: Lubin proves last season was no fluke and guides Gilboa to a second straight Final Four and a fifth in six seasons.
Worst case: After reaching two straight finals, Gilboa’s roster fails to gel this season and it is sent packing in the quarterfinal playoffs.
Jerusalem failed to reach the Final Four title game for a fourth straight year last season and Oded Katash will likely not last another season if it falls short once more. Katash led Gilboa to the championship in 2009/10, but everything possible seemed to go wrong last season and the coach has only held on to four players.
The Israeli core of Yuval Naimi, Uri Kukia and Moshe Mizrahi has been significantly improved with the additions of 2009/10 MVP Elishay Kadir and Guni Izraeli, while Brian Randle will have five new American teammates, including Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley and promising center Jarvis Varnado.
After last season’s team crumbled from the inside, Katash focused on bringing in positive characters this summer, and if the early signs are anything to go by, than Jerusalem fans are unlikely to resort to booing their team off the court like they did last season.
Player to watch out for: Luke Jackson. The 29-year-old was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 10th pick overall of the 2004 NBA draft, and although his career never took off as expected, he has got a set of skills that should be a joy to behold at Malha this season.
Last season: 3rd place, 16-11 in the regular season, beat Maccabi Ashdod 3-0 in the playoffs.
Best case: Jerusalem pushes Maccabi all the way in the Final Four title game.
Worst case: Even Katash’s charisma can’t save his job after Jerusalem fails to make it to the championship game for a fifth straight year.
Rishon has made consistent progress over recent years and for that to continue this season it will need to make the Final Four title game. After three straight years of relegation battles, Rishon finally made the playoffs under the guidance of Effi Birenboim in 2009/10 and the veteran coach went one better last season when he guided the club back to the Final Four for the first time since 2006.
Birenboim has once more assembled a promising roster that could go all the way to the final if it manages to avoid Maccabi Tel Aviv in the semifinals.
Rishon’s performances in the preseason games were encouraging, with Adrian Uter, Brandon Bowman, Joe Crawford and Derwin Kitchen looking like solid recruits and Nitzan Hanochi, Amit Ben-David, Amit Tamir and Igor Nesternko giving the team a solid Israeli core.
All the pieces seem to be in place for Birenboim and anything but a second straight Final Four performance will be a disappointment.
Player to watch out for: Or Solomon. Birenboim has said that the 18-year-old forward is destined to become a leading player in the BSL so expect him to see plenty of minutes off the bench this season.
Last season: 4th place, 13-14 in the regular season, beat Bnei Hasharon 3- 1 in the playoffs.
Best case: Lose by 20 points to Maccabi Tel Aviv in Final Four title game.
Worst case: The playoffs are once more as far as Rishon goes.
Bnei Hasharon failed to reach the Final Four for the third straight year last season and considering its current financial struggles its barren spell looks set to continue. The Ra’anana Municipality withdrew its backing of the team this summer, leaving Bnei Hasharon to try and survive with the funding it receives from the Herzliya Municipality and the money it raises from sponsors and gates receipts.
Bnei Hasharon will have one of the smallest budgets in the league this season and first-year coach Roei Hagay will be thankful that there are no relegation playoffs.
Erez Katz is still around and Washington Wizards forward Trevor Booker should provide some excitement for the club’s faithful. But he will be leaving once the NBA lockout ends and it looks to be a long season for Bnei Hasharon’s fans, with the team’s top Israeli player, Ben Rice, already being ruled out for the entire campaign after injuring his knee in training.
Player to watch out for: Carmel Buchman. After struggling in a single season at Temple University, the 20- year-old got his career back on track at Hapoel Yokneam/Megido of the National League last season and should get plenty of chances in the coming campaign.
Last season: 5th – 8th place, 16-11 in the regular season, lost 3-1 to Maccabi Rishon Lezion in the playoffs.
Best case: After being so disappointed with losing in the quarterfinals last season, Bnei Hasharon’s 2011/12 campaign is crowned as a success following a defeat in the quarterfinals.
Worst case: Bnei Hasharon consoles itself in the knowledge that there are no relegation playoffs after finishing in the bottom two.
Ashdod was the surprise package of last season, reaching the playoffs in its first ever top-flight campaign. Led by the eternally-fresh Meir Tapiro, who is closing in on his 37th birthday, Ashdod eventually ran out of gas by the time it reached the quarterfinals, but it has held on to most of its key players and will have learned a lot from last season’s experience.
Americans Ramel Bradley, Josh Carter and Josh Duncan will especially benefit from having a year in the BSL under their belt, and together with Dror Hagag and Craig Brackins, who will return to the Philadelphia 76ers when the NBA lockout ends, Ashdod has a roster that can cause its opponents plenty of trouble. Unlike most of the teams in the league, Ashdod has built on last season’s success and coach Ofer Berkowitz will have to deal with high expectations this time around.
Player to watch out for: Anton Shoutvin. After a season in the German second division at Freiburg, the 22-year-old returns to Israel determined to prove he has what it takes to succeed in the BSL.
Last season: 5th – 8th place, 13-14 in the regular season, lost 3-0 to Hapoel Jerusalem in the playoffs.
Best case: Ashdod cements its place in the BSL by playing in the playoffs for a second straight season.
Worst case: Ashdod gets the season off to a rough start and spends the rest of the year wallowing in mediocrity.
Pini Gershon breathed new life into the club when he joined the management in July and the expectations from the team are now naturally much higher. Dan Shamir was signed as coach and brought the excellent Dan Grunfeld with him from Bnei Hasharon.
Ron Lewis, Tasmin Mitchell and Bryant Dunston already seem like astute recruits, but Holon’s fate this season will largely come down to the play of Moran Rot. The 29-year-old Israeli guard inspired Holon to the playoffs last season, averaging 13.5 points and 5.9 assists, and will be playing with a chip on his shoulder after not being named in the Israel roster for this summer’s European Championships.
Player to watch out for: Niv Solomon. Israeli basketball is desperate for every big-man it can find and the 19-year-old 2.05m forward has been earmarked as a future international.
Last season: 5th – 8th place, 11-16 in the regular season, lost 3-1 to Hapoel Gilboa/Galil in the playoffs.
Best case: After winning a Euroleague title together at Maccabi Tel Aviv, Gershon and Shamir embrace once more, this time after Holon reaches the Final Four.
Worst case: A disgruntled Gershon leaves Holon after just one season, disappointed by the team’s play and disillusioned at not being able to attract sponsors.
Danny Franco did a tremendous job at Hapoel Holon last season and his abilities will be put to the test once more at Netayna. Adrian Banks, who was one of the best scorers in the BSL last season, is back for a second year, but Netanya will miss the excellent playmaking of Shmulik Brenner, who has left for BC Habika’a.
The remainder of the Israeli foundation is still around, while Yehu Orland and Lior Lifshitz have joined to give Franco more options. It does, however, remain to be seen if American Brian Asbury can make the switch from the National League in which he played at Hapoel Tel Aviv and whether power-forward Christian Burns can manage under the baskets without a natural center by his side.
Player to watch out for: Lior Hakhmon. After three seasons at three different clubs, the 25-year-old forward will likely never get a better chance to make his breakthrough.
Last season: 5th – 8th place, 9-18 in the regular season, lost 3-0 to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the playoffs.
Best case: Franco proves he deserves to be treated as one of Israel’s top coaches after making a magical run with Netanya a season after doing so with Holon.
Worst case: Netanya pays the price for its lack of big-men and doesn’t even make the playoffs.
After a desperately disappointing season, Haifa is determined to return to the playoffs and will try and do so with an essentially all-American starting five. Foreigners Jeremy Wise, Carlos Powell, Tyler Wilkerson and Sean Williams will be joined by the nationalized Sylven Landesberg, with Haifa’s Israelis to provide back-up off the bench.
Miki Gorka has got several talented youngsters at his disposal, including 21-year-old Tamir Arieli, who has captained all of Israel’s youth teams and now needs to prove he has what it takes to succeed in the BSL.
Player to watch out for: Sean Williams. There is little doubt regarding the 25-year-old’s potential, but the number 17 pick in the 2007 NBA draft has disappointed in his time at the New Jersey Nets and was cut by Hapoel Jerusalem last season before even playing a game. Williams’ indiscipline off the court has taken a heavy toll on his career to date, but if he can control his behavior he will be one of the more exciting players in the league.
Last season: 9th place, 8-19 in the regular season, beat Ironi Ashkelon 3- 1 in the relegation playoffs.
Best case: After a two-season break, Haifa is back in the Final Four.
Worst case: Owner Jeffery Rosen loses patience and offloads the club after Haifa misses playoffs for a second straight year.
Ashkelon was supposed to play in the National League this season, but the BSL decided instead to keep it in the top-flight as it represents an important part of the country, despite the fact that it lost to Maccabi Haifa in the relegation playoffs. After last season’s debacle, Ashkelon looks intent on building for the long run, bringing in coach Eric Alfasi and signing all of its Israeli recruits for at least two years.
Raviv Limonad returned home after a season at Menorca in Spain and together with Dwayne Mitchell gives Alfasi a threatening backcourt tandem that can hurt any team.
Player to watch out for: Amit Simhon. The 22-year-old forward should get a chance to begin realizing his potential this season.
Last season: 10th place, 6-21 in the regular season, lost 3-1 to Maccabi Haifa in the relegation playoffs.
Best case: A season that should have begun in the National League ends in the BSL Final Four.
Worst case: Ashkelon goes back to the drawing board after missing the playoffs for a second straight year.
Habika’a won the National League title for a second straight year last season, beating the favored Hapoel Tel Aviv, and this time it also decided to accept the BSL berth that comes with the achievement.
With the experienced Avi Ashkenazi on the sideline and the additions of the likes of Shmulik Brenner, Paul Delaney and Danilo Pinnock, Habika’a should be one of the more consistent teams in the BSL this season.
Player to watch out for: Ezequiel Skverer. The 22-year-old came through the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth system and after improving in each of the last three seasons at Habika’a seems ready to prove his worth in the BSL.
Last season: National League champion, beat Hapoel Tel Aviv 3-0 in the playoff finals.
Best case: Habika’a fans are left wondering why their team declined a place in the BSL last season after Ashkenazi guides the club to the Final Four.

Worst case: Habika’a fans reminisce of their days in the National League as the losses pile-up.
On TV: Hapoel Holon vs Maccabi Rishon Lezion (live on Sport5+ at 7 p.m.); Hapoel Gilboa/Galil vs Maccabi Tel Aviv (live on Sport5 at 8:55 p.m. )