The Last Word: It's time for Neven Spahija to go

Despite my clear lack of experience and depth of knowledge of basketball, even I cannot fail to recognize the sad, obvious truth of Maccabi Tel Aviv's demise this season.

jeremy last better pic (photo credit: Courtesy)
jeremy last better pic
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As a former Englishman, I would never categorize myself as a basketball expert. In fact, until last season, I had little understanding of the sport itself. Avid readers will perhaps remember the near-epiphany I had when I fell in love with basketball last season after Hapoel Jerusalem came back from 17 down to storm into the ULEB Cup semis. However, despite my clear lack of experience and depth of knowledge of basketball, even I cannot fail to recognize the sad, obvious truth of Maccabi Tel Aviv's demise this season. After years of quality play and near-total domination in Europe, Maccabi has looked a shadow of its former self since the departure of the great coach Pini Gershon in the summer. True the team has yet to lose a game in the local BSL, but in Europe, where it counts, the team's been way off the pace. And despite still being a little ignorant of the complicated rules and nuances of the game, it still seems incredibly obvious to me that the blame for the team's failures must be laid on the man in charge. When Croatian Neven Spahija was named as Gershon's successor, eyebrows were raised. Spahija had done well at his previous clubs, but he was not a big name. And Maccabi definitely was and still is a big name - the team which had lost in the final of the Euroleague in 2006 and won the competition the two previous years. An army of thousands of fans had descended on Prague for last season's Final Four and were more than bitterly disappointed at losing in the final and therefore being named only the second best team in Europe. How those fans will now be dreaming of those heady days. After Thursday's appalling performance against Tau Vitoria in Spain, Maccabi is 2-2 in the Top 16 and can only come in second in the group, which would set up a daunting quarterfinal against CSKA - if it qualifies at all. There appears to have been two massive problems at Maccabi this season: the bad selection of new players and the lack of confidence since the start of the season. Both of these issues are the responsibility of the coach. There's no doubt Spahija was taking over Maccabi under difficult conditions. The basis of the wonderfully successful team molded by Gershon left - Sarunas Jasikevicius to the NBA's Indiana Pacers a year earlier, and then Maceo Baston and Anthony Parker also to the NBA and Will Solomon to Fenerbahce before the start of this season. The only star that remained was Nikola Vujcic, arguably the best of the lot, but still not great enough to carry an entire team. It has also widely been cited that the timing of the Lebanon war in July and August dissuaded some better players from moving to Tel Aviv. But it was Spahija's job to take slightly worse players than Parker and Saras and create a strong unit. Instead he has created a team, and a club, in disarray. Surely he could have chosen better foreigners than Will Bynum, the already-thrown-out Rodney Buford and the recently-arrived Goran Jeretin. Note I have failed to include Noel Felix because poor Noel has spent nearly the entire season on the bench. Maybe he also isn't good enough, but he hasn't even had a chance to prove himself. The lack of confidence has shone through Spahija whenever he has addressed the media in recent weeks. It was most obvious after the Euroleague loss to Tau in Tel Aviv last month. Ten days earlier, Maccabi had lost the State Cup for the first time in ten years. What it needed was a confidence boost. What it got was a slap in the face. After the game Spahija held an embarrassing press conference in which he appeared to blame himself, saying he felt the team was playing as well as it could in practice sessions and "maybe I am the problem." He looked very close to quitting and really it would have been the right thing to do. Now, two European games later, the situation has become beyond a joke. Now is the time to move on and bring someone new and fresh in. When (not if) Maccabi is eliminated from the Euroleague in the next couple of weeks, it will be time for Neven to cut his losses. He was the wrong man for the job and it's time for him to admit it before the situation spirals completely out of control and the Israeli league title is snatched away from Tel Aviv for the first time since 1993.