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Maccabi Tel-Aviv: A powerhouse in decline

With the loss to Baskonia on the road (101-88) being the sixth straight for the Israeli team (5-10 record), it seems that Maccabi Tel-Aviv will not avoid another disappointing season, just two and a half years after winning the Euroleague title for a sixth time.

In the 2014 Euroleague Final Four, coach David Blatt and his players defied the odds and beat both CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid to return to the top of Europe for the first time in almost a decade (2005).

Since then, though, the team seems to be in a free fall. Not only did they play very badly on both ends of the floor in most of their games last season, but also failed to qualify to the top-16 for the first time in many years.

During the summer transfer period, the administration decided to make many changes to the roster in order for the club to become one of the favourites to win the title.

The acquisition of talented and versatile players, like Sonny Weems (11.3 points per game in almost 27 minutes of action), Andrew Goudelok (16.6 ppg, 49.2% from the three-point line) and Quincy Miller raised the expectations, with guards D.J Seeley (4.8 ppg) and Yogev Ohayon (4.9 ppg) making the back-court line even stronger.

For their part, newly-acquired centres Colton Iverson (nine points and five boards per game) and Mike Zirbes (67.8% on two-pointers) were expected to create a powerful duo inside the paint, alongside forwards Devin Smith (11.8 points per game) and Victor Rudd (8.3 ppg).

However, things have been completely different so far, as Maccabi’s executives made a big mistake in their effort to rebuild the squad.

More specifically, they didn’t hire an experienced coach, who would have a clear idea about the team’s playing style as well as a wide variety of plays that would enable him to take advantage of his players’ offensive talent.

Blatt was such a case, but signed with Darussafaka Dogus, with the American returning to the Israeli city as an opponent on Thursday night, when Maccabi welcomes the Turks in a “do or die” game.

The Israelis appointed Erez Edelstein as the head coach, however his contract was terminated just two weeks after the beginning of the season. With Rami Hadar taking Edelstein’s place, Maccabi was hoping to turn things upside down and climb higher on the table.

Although they claimed impressive victories against Fenerbahce, Olympiacos and Unics Kazan, the squad has lost six straight games since then, with their qualification to the top-8 being in serious jeopardy right now.

Consequently, Blatt’s former assistant, Ainars Bagatskis, replaced Hadar a few days ago and is expected to bring the club back to the winning track as soon as possible.

Maccabi’s main problem is their mentality, as the team is consisting of players who think they will win the games by just scoring points offensively and not by being equally effective on the other end of the floor.

It’s worth mentioning that this situation has started since the 2015/16 season and goes on until now, as the Israelis concede many points in every game (101 in their last game against Baskonia).

What we have also seen so far is a very talented squad that can beat any opponent, if they are at their very best, but can lose to anybody as well, if they play very badly.

And what a better example to prove this argument than the two emphatic victories against Fenerbahce (87-77) and Olympiacos (73-80) that were followed by painful defeats at home, against Brose Baskets (70-85), and in Belgrade, where Maccabi was decimated by Crvena Zvezda (83-58).

It’s also obvious that there is no specific game plan during the matches, with each player preferring to shoot the ball either from mid-range or beyond the arc, instead of executing the play.

The co-operation between Weems and Goudelok in the back-court line still needs improvement, as they score points mainly through 1 on 1 situations, while Iverson and Zirbes are not as productive as they were last year, because Maccabi’s playing style prevents them from acting as reference points and showing their strength inside the paint.

Concurrently, and due to his return to action after suffering a serious injury in the summer, Miller will need to have more playing time in the following games, in order to enhance his performance, which may negatively affect the team’s balance.

Bagatskis certainly has a difficult job to do, however his presence in Darussafaka’s bench, alongside Blatt, may be the key point in his effort to help the club make a comeback.

If his tactics are similar to Blatt’s one, then Maccabi will undoubtedly improve their chances to create a winning streak, which is of utmost importance for the team, as the season goes on.

That said, the bottom line is that Bagatskis seems to be the squad’s last chance to play better on both ends of the floor and climb higher on the table in order to qualify to the playoffs. Otherwise, and just like last year, the team will fail to go all the way to the end, despite its talented and deep roster.

And if the administration doesn’t hire a coach that can inspire the players and make them play for one another, under an effective playing style, then the Israeli powerhouse will certainly struggle to win the Euroleague title in the next few years.

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