Failure is rarely acceptable at many of Europe’s biggest basketball clubs, and these days the F-word is defined as losing a couple of big games in the first month of the season. Two teams have already fired their coach – but we’ll get to Panathinaikos, who have already appointed Barcelona’s former legendary general Xavi Pascual, some other time.
Maccabi Tel Aviv reacted to their 89-82 home defeat to Real Madrid by sacking head coach Erez Edelstein, dropping them to 0-2 in Euroleague. Galatasaray are one of three other teams to share a winless record after two weeks, and whilst coach Ergin Ataman is pretty much safe, changes might be coming to the playing staff. They had high hopes for ex-Memphis Grizzlies guard Russ Smith but he played only six minutes in this week’s 85-83 home loss to Crvena Zvezda and it would appear that his stay in Istanbul might be short.
It’s not great to be writing about anyone actually or potentially losing their job – just because pro sports are a cruel world, doesn’t mean we should take the possibility lightly. But given the reality, how both these teams adapt to the circumstances they find themselves in will determine if this Euroleague season can still be saved, or written off as a long, hard struggle.
On the surface, there are similarities between the two rosters. Both have put a lot of belief, and money, into a combination of explosive American scorers signed in the off-season. Smith, Justin Dentmon and Austin Daye for the Istanbul team; Andrew Goudelock, Sonny Weems, DJ Seeley and Victor Rudd in Tel Aviv. But while the red and gold-clad Turkish side still has some potential to improve, their Israeli rivals appear rudderless and chaotic.
They meet in Week Three on Wednesday in Tel Aviv, where one of these two clubs will earn their first win of this Euroleague season. So what better time to look into what is going wrong, and how it might be put right?
Galatasaray not so far away
Ataman made a bold statement about the season so far in Week Two versus Crvena Zvezda by going with the imposing hustle and energy of Goksenin Koksal in the starting lineup ahead of Justin Dentmon’s more artistic style. Alongside fellow workhorse Sinan Guler, they hassled the Serbian team into submission and ran out to a 19-5 lead. Koksal himself showed that he isn’t just a high-effort labourer, shimmying smoothly out of a closeout and draining the three.
Dentmon entered and immediately started racking up points, and demonstrated exactly how dangerous he can be as a scorer. While Guler and Koksal can give you workrate, and aren’t klutzes offensively, there will come a point where diminishing returns kick in and a more reliably potent scoring threat is necessary. That’s where Dentmon can still have a crucial role.
Weapons Grade Tyus
Another positive development, someone who has played for both of these clubs, is the return of Alex Tyus as a weapons-grade pick and roll finisher. He went into that weird dark Efes universe last season where previously awesome players lose their mojo, but it looks as though he has survived.
When he sets a pick it doesn’t matter that you know full well he’s diving to the rim, the question is what are you going to do to stop it? The only downside is that Crvena Zvezda realised the best thing to do is send help and foul hard – that’s what Nemanja Dangubic did on the key final minute play last week, and Tyus missed both free throws. He’s a career 48.6% free throw shooter in Euroleague, but he has a soft touch round the rim, can finish off balance and is a genuine shot blocker, already with five in two games this season.
Austin Daye is a newcomer to this level, having fallen off the NBA carousel, and wound up in Italy at Pesaro last season – not counting a three game cameo during the last lockout for Khimki Moscow. It hasn’t taken long for him to impress the fans at Abdi Ipekci, already hitting a game winner in the Turkish league and very nearly powering Galatasaray to victory against Crvena Zvezda. His shooting stroke is as pure as you’ll see in a 2.11m centre, and he does pretty much everything else with the same languid fluidity – turnaround fallaway jumpers and triple threat drives from the mid-post; low post hook shots, it’s all there.
He still looks to score every time he catches the ball, with passing only a last resort, but he’s not incapable of it. Defense is a question mark, but it’s not egregiously bad. With Tyus alongside him providing help side bail-out blocks, it looks at least possible that he could be part of a good team.
Where everything has fallen apart so far is the absence of a game manager, a playmaker who can sense when the tempo needs to be picked up or slowed down; to calm everyone’s nerves and to initiate the right offense. Dentmon is a pure scorer, and Smith for whatever reason looks like he is shrinking from any responsibility. Whether it’s the uptick in intensity from the DLeague, or a lack of confidence to play whatever role he has been given, it’s just not working.
Give this team a steady hand on the steering wheel, like Stefan Markovic, say, or Nikos Zisis, and things would be looking a lot more coherent. As it is, the main thing lacking is a calm temperament and the ability to react to adversity without freaking out. The last game was a perfect illustration of what happens when a few botched possessions lead to easy buckets at the other end and all of a sudden everyone is trying to narrow a 10 point lead over a single possession, instead of steadily chipping away.
When Galatasaray were up double digits, they looked unstoppable. They were up by 14, down by 15 and then ahead again in the final moments. The unofficial but authoritative Twitter account @GSHoops captured the emotional cardiograph best:
Ok unbury me I want to see this.
— Gala Basketball (@GSHoops) October 21, 2016
Ataman loves his individual scoring guards, and might argue he has the balance in Koksal and Guler, but something has to change so that his team doesn’t hit the panic button every time they give up a 7-0 run. At least it appears that some of the building blocks are there, and a change in personnel might be enough to at least give them the chance to chase a playoff position. Whereas….
Maccabi lacking accountability
Where to start with Maccabi Tel Aviv? Since David Blatt guided them to a sensational Euroleague championship in 2014, then bolted for Cleveland that summer, they have hired, and fired, three coaches.
Guy Goodes was a long-time Blatt assistant, who actually survived a full season in 2015/16, but couldn’t win the Israeli League playoffs, falling to Hapoel Eilat in the semi final series.
Zan Tabak took over in November last season, but couldn’t stop the slide that began under Goodes and they missed out Euroleague’s Top 16, for the first time this century. Tabak also lost in the semis of the Israeli playoffs, not good enough for a club that has won 51 of the 62 total championships. so in came national team coach Edelstein, whose four month stint ended over the weekend.
Indeed, perhaps that domestic failure has rankled the most amongst the Maccabi higher ups. Edelstein was probably on watch the moment they lost to Hapoel Jerusalem in the curtain-raising Winner Cup. This was no fluke – Amar’e Stoudamire has signed for the team he part owns, and they won the Israeli title in 2015 and made the finals last year. Maccabi has a real rival now, and with coach Simone Pianigiani on board, a new arena and momentum behind them it looks like this could be a long term project – as long term as anything in European hoops anyway.
A club statement on Edelstein’s dismissal, reported in The Times of Israel said “After a late-night meeting between team owners, management and Erez Edelstein, it was decided to end Edelstein’s tenure as head coach due to incompatibility between the two sides.”
Incompatibility doesn’t seem to have been a huge concern over the summer when the roster was being assembled. It wouldn’t have taken a huge amount of foresight to realise that Goudelock and Weems can only function when they dribble the ball and take their own shot, not to mention their questionable commitment to team chemistry.
Having said all of this, Maccabi were only down by three points inside the final thirty seconds of the Madrid game, having flirted with gifting the game to Spanish team with one defensive breakdown after another. That was only possible because Goudelock, Weems, Rudd and Seeley can all drop points over even well organised defense, which they all did against Madrid. It wouldn’t be fair to acknowledge that they might be better with Quincy Miller, who got hurt over summer, but would it make that much difference?
The failure of the pieces to mesh on offense wouldn’t necessarily be an insurmountable issue if there was any accountability for how they conduct themselves at the other end. That, not an ‘incompatibility’ between the coach and a roster he surely had little input in selecting, is the reason that Maccabi have struggled, and have far bigger problems than who tries in vain from the sideline to direct this mess.
Copyright issues prevent me from providing you with video evidence, but Goudelock has been auditioning for a companion piece to James Harden’s defensive filmography. Entire possessions pass him by, opposing players orbiting like planets around his static sun. He is constantly caught looking at the ball, and allows his man to drift away, forcing unwanted switches and open shots either immediately or one pass away. He finishes defensive possessions before a shot has even gone up.
I wouldn’t be so critical if it looked like he was working hard, but the evidence so far is that he isn’t. It’s one thing to be willing but ineffective, another entirely to be dogging it.
That’s where accountability comes in – look at Goudelock’s line from Thursday night – 16 points, 4-of-8 2FG, 1-of-1 3FG, 5-of-6 FT, 5 assists – or highlights of the shots he made, and you might think he had a good game. But he played 33 minutes despite offering up at least half a dozen auditions for that defensive blooper real.
He’ll never be a defensive anchor but I don’t remember him being this transparently bad for Zeljko Obradovic at Fenerbahçe. That’s the whole point – unless there is a level of accountability for how each player performs at both ends of the floor, nothing will ever change. If Goudelock had played this poorly for Zoc, he would have simply had his ass glued to the bench, but the guy whose job it was to enforce collective responsibility has just been blamed for the poor start and paid with his job. What kind of message does that send to the players?
It’s not like they should have to indulge Goudelock’s defensive no-shows in order to allow him to put up points – he would be just as capable a scorer if he just put his back into stopping the other team. Make no mistake, he is one of the most natural scorers Europe has seen in recent times, a phenomenally gifted shotmaker and, as he showed when Obradovic managed to coax it out of him, not incapable of unselfish playmaking either. But so far his latent bad habits have overshadowed the good, and crucially it doesn’t look like the organisational culture exists to snap him out of it.
Maccabi’s problems don’t begin and end with one player, so it would be unfair to pin him with all the blame. Overall, the offense has too many ‘single pass, dribble, dribble, shoot’ possessions. Sometimes, as on Thursday, this might translate into effective scoring, but it’s not a way to build a resilient offense against the best teams, and certainly no recipe for long term success.
Neither is presenting a succession of coaches with rosters they did not assemble, with little regard paid to on or off-court chemistry. Edelstein’s assistant Rami Hadar has been tossed the keys for the time being, but the record of internal promotions hasn’t been great recently. It doesn’t matter how many coaches the team goes through, unless change occurs higher up the ladder.