By: Sam Meyerkopf / @HoopLikeDrazen
Maccabi Haifa Heat Outlook
There I was, amongst thousands of Oakland A’s baseball fans piling into the Coliseum to watch their home team try to advance to the next round of the MLB Playoffs in a do or die game 5. As one of the biggest games in A’s history was roaring next door, I was casually sitting in the Oracle Arena as the Golden State Warriors continued their pre-season schedule, but this time the opponent was different, it was a team from Israel. This team from the other side of the world wasn’t about to let jet lag or a superior opponent rattle them though, as they ripped and clawed to a narrow 108-100 loss to a hopeful Western Conference playoff team.
The Maccabi Haifa Heat are an interesting story. They finished last in the Israeli league last year after appearing in the Championship game just three years prior. This offseason they decided to ship off everyone but semi-promising prospect Sean Labonowski and landed a new coach in an American and former college basketball coach (Radford University) Brad Greenberg. They opened up a brand new arena and hopefully are flipping over a new page in their history.
It all starts for the Northern Israeli club with American point guard Paul Stoll. He’s undersized and tends to over-dribble but he’s one of two catalysts for the offense. He has a slippery dribbling method and looks like someone who has no qualms with taking charge of the team or stepping up to take a big shot when necessary. He finished the game with 18 points, four boards, and three helpers. The question will be can he make that shot and can he keep the offensive wheels continually turning, not just dribble out the shot clock as teammates get annoyed.
The other offensive catalyst is non-other than the well-traveled Donta Smith. From Atlanta to China, Mexico to Puerto Rico, and now Israel, Donta has seen the world and then some. Smith is a multi-tooled player who scores efficiently, can have the offense run through him, mixes it up on the boards, and can defend the other team’s best player. He finished the game with an impressive 28 points, eight boards, and five helpers. Continually he took Warriors defenders off the dribble and always was a safety valve if the offense broke down. Smith and Stoll got Haifa out of trouble countless times and will be counted on heavily throughout the season. I’d look for Smith to be one of the more well rounded players in Israel this year and I caught up with him after the game to see how he thinks the Heat will fare this season: “We top 3, top 4 in the league in my eye. And a lot of people don’t really expect us to do well but the last few games we played, tonight and against Tel Aviv, say a lot about the team that we are. So I expect us to make a run and get in the playoffs. ”
Then asked what his team’s strengths would be, Smith responded with: “Defense you know, we scrap, play hard, we bang a little bit, and that’s what it takes to win, play hard every night. That’s what we try to focus on and so far, so good.”
Other starting players like stretch four man Pat Calathes and rugged inside presence James Thomas will provide Maccabi with unique looks, but Stoll and Smith’s play will be what makes or breaks this team. Rounding out the opening lineup is Cory Carr. The soon to be 37 year old isn’t as agile as he used to be but he can knock down a corner three when called upon and actually displayed a few quicker moves than you would of thought.
So there you have it, Maccabi Haifa has retooled with an American coach and entirely American starting five. With only one of those six people (Carr) having any experience with Israeli basketball.
Trying to speed up this team’s assimilation into Israeli hoops are Greenberg’s two assistants,both Israeli, Rami Hadar and Offer Rahimi. Also helping with team chemistry and experienced league play will be Haifa’s top two reserves and veterans of the Israeli League, Ido Kozikaro and Alex Chubrevich. Kozikaro at 34 will be the wise man of the squad. He was the one who came out to speak to fans after the game and he has 15 years of experience playing in Israel, with multiple All-Star selections to his name. Kozikaro showed some serious footwork and craftiness in the paint, which is what years of playing down there will give you. Chubrevich is a spry seven foot 26 year old who will be Maccabi’s banger off the bench. He hustles, hedges hard on screens, and looks to swat away shots coming towards his rim.
With the starters all playing over 30 minutes against the Warriors, it looks to me like this team will keep it’s rotations short and rely heavily on a few guys. Everyone outside of Thomas is a deep threat among the starters but Thomas is also the only true post player of the five. Meaning that when Haifa goes to it’s short bench, it will be mainly bringing in bigs that’ll give opponents something different to look at.
This is just one game, against a superior talent, but it shows us something. Haifa never stopped fighting. Even when the Warriors looked to be running away with the game after a 33-point quarter, Haifa came back firing in the fourth and outscored the California club. Defensively a lot will be asked of Smith to guard the other teams best offensive weapon and Thomas to patrol the paint on his own. Stoll and Carr will look to be pesky ball thieves as they combined for five steals versus the Warriors.
Teams with depth, solid post scorers, and physical point guards (Stoll is only 5’10”) should give Haifa trouble. But this team scraps better than most and on a night when an NBA team shot better, out-rebounded them, and had more assists, Haifa came within a couple shots of victory. Winning the Israel League is probably out of the question and making the Final Four will be a stretch but on a night where the starters stay out of foul trouble and Donta Smith is playing at full capacity, they’ll give a lot of teams in Israel trouble.
Coach Greenberg Experiment
Greenberg’s foray into Israeli basketball will be an interesting one. He does have international experience helping coach Venezuala’s national team and has spent more than a decade of his career working for NBA teams. After the game he talked about how when he was working for the Portland Trail Blazers he went to Spain to recruit newly drafted Drazen Petrovic to come to the NBA and later Arvydas Sabonis. Not a bad couple of guys to work with.
Though with little experience in Israel, it seems Greenberg’s system and principles will be implemented, especially when the players getting the big minutes are from the United States and will be able to relate more easily to him. But when it comes to scouting the league and what match-ups to use, he’ll have to rely heavily on his assistants. It’s an interesting experiment that American billionaire owner Jeff Rosen has installed. If Haifa weren’t relying on so many American imports to play big minutes, maybe an American coach with limited international experience wouldn’t have been brought in. But with the way the team was constructed, it seems like the transition to head coaching basketball outside the USA will be an easier move than for Greenberg than it is for most. But remember this is an experiment and a thrown together team, so all cards are on the table.
One of the most interesting things about this game is how it came together. Unlike say the Euroleague American Tour where Europe’s top clubs like Real Madrid and Montepaschi Siena played, Haifa organized this all on their own. On top of that, this was one of Europe’s worst teams last year, not a club you’d expect to be able to compete with NBA level teams. But Haifa has one of the most active online marketing and social media departments around. You can watch all of their games live on their website and they constantly update their Facebook and Twitter to get closer to their fans. This is also an organization that takes chances. When current Golden State Warrior Jeremy Tyler looking to forgo his senior year of high school and play abroad, he went to Haifa. Even though that experiment ended badly, it was Haifa who was willing to take the risk on the talented but entirely too young to play at such a high level player. Coming to the US to play Golden State and then Minnesota shows a team that embraces basketball as a global game and that reaching fans all around the world is a possibility. As an Israeli team, Haifa isn’t always considered on track or even having a plan with the management of their team. But there marketing seems to connect many different people around the world and hopefully their on court performance and off court work can finally find some symmetry.