“Basketball Tapas”: FIBA CL announces field, Eurocup adds 4 new clubs, Hickman joins Milano, Maccabi TA finds Miller replacement

In this edition of “Basketball Tapas”, the focus will be on the FIBA Champions League and their announcement of their field for the 2016-2017 as well as the Eurocup adding four new additions to replace the four Italian clubs that defected to the Champions League last minute. Also, we’ll take a look at couple of Euroleague clubs who made some key moves to boost their rosters.

Now, let’s get to serving!

FIBA Champions League announces field

After waiting for the Euroleague and Eurocup to make their announcements, as well as ironing out some last minute additions, the FIBA Champions League finally announced their draw for the upcoming 2016-2017 season. You can take a look at some of the highlights in the tweet below

 

Some key things to note about that draw and groupings:

  • Group D looks to be the most promising and competitive group in the regular season. Eurocup and LNB runner-up Strasbourg heads the group, but clubs such as Iberostar Tenerife of the ACB, KK Cibona and Mega Leks of the ABA, and possibly Besiktas of the BSL, if they get of the qualification group, will also be challenging for group supremacy. If there is a “group of death” of sorts of the four, group D may be it.
  • Speaking of Besiktas and the qualification rounds, I imagine there are some teams who probably aren’t happy about their status of playing in these rounds. Besiktas probably made the biggest splash in terms of transfers of any club in the BSL beyond the four Euroleague participants, and yet they only got a bye from the first round of qualification play. Furthermore, Dinamo Sassari, who participated in the Euroleague the past two seasons, will have to win in both rounds of qualification play to make it to the regular season group stage. They definitely were hit the hardest of the four Italian clubs who left the Eurocup out of fear of being banned in Serie A play.
  • The format is similar to the old Eurocup model, which has it’s positive and negatives (more teams participating, but less guaranteed exposure and games for teams in comparison to the newly-remodeled Euroleague and Eurocup models). As stated in a previous post, the competition is stronger than anticipated, but it’ll be interesting to see if the “favorites” (Strasbourg, Pinar Karsiyaka, Aris, etc.) will persevere to the playoffs and Final Four in this more cutthroat cup competition where there is less forgiveness when it comes to early losses. For FIBA’s CL to be taken seriously, they need big-time clubs to make it to the championship to get attention from basketball fans all over Europe. Unfortunately, this model is less conducive to making that happen in comparison to its competition (Eurocup), and that is a big risk for FIBA in their first year of this new “league”.

 

Eurocup adds four new clubs to make up for Italian defection

Days after the Eurocup officially announced its field, the four Italian clubs participating in the competition withdrew out of fear of sanctions and suspension from Serie A domestic play. This included Reggio Emilia, Cantu, Trento, and Sassari, as they ended up moving to the Champions League instead in order to avoid punishment (though they certainly took their time in doing so; it wasn’t confirmed that their four Italian clubs were out of the Eurocup officially until the recent Champions League field announcement).

The Eurocup didn’t wait long though to find replacements. Shortly after the Champions League announcement, the Eurocup announced the addition of four new clubs to take the place of the Italian defectors: Montakit Fuenlabrada of Spain, MZT Skopje Aerodrom of Macedonia, Lietkabelis Panevezys of Lithuania, and Volgograd of Russia. Fuenlabrada, who competes in the ACB Liga Endesa, and made the playoffs as a No. 8 seed last season, had some fun with their Eurocup announcement on Twitter:

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It is a bit sad to see that we will see three major European countries not represented in the Eurocup (France, Turkey and now Italy), which hurts the Eurocup’s position as the top second-tier competition in Europe. However, the addition of some new clubs to the mix should add some nice variety to the Eurocup field. MZT Skopje represents a country that has been underrepresented in major club competitions (Macedonia), and they could help get the country and its basketball federation a bit more recognition. Furthermore, Fuenlabrada proved to be a fun team in the ACB last season, led by Croatian standout Marko Popovic, and it’ll be intriguing to see if Popovic can have the kind of impact in the Eurocup this season like he did in the ACB a year ago.

The absence of Italian clubs in the Eurocup will be noted in 2016-2017, but the Eurocup rebounded nicely and quickly with these four additions.

Guard Ricky Hickman signs with EA7 Armani Milano

Former Maccabi Tel Aviv and Fenerbahce point guard Ricky Hickman announced that he will be signing with EA7 Armani Milano, a big signing for the Italian club that is coming off a Euroleague campaign where they did not qualify for Top 16 play.

Hickman represents another key move in what has been an active off-season for the defending Serie A champions. In addition to signing Hickman to take over point guard duties, they also kept star player Alessandro Gentile from going to the NBA (the Houston Rockets apparently had strong interest), and also signed Slovenian forward Zoran Dragic from Khimki and Serbian center Miroslav Raduljica from Panathinaikos. Not only are they favorites to retain the Serie A championship, but they could be dark horse contenders for the playoffs and perhaps Final Four with the strong quartet of Hickman, Gentile, Dragic and Raduljica.

After dominating the Euroleague in the early years of the “modern” format, only one Italian club has made the Final Four since 2005 (Montepaschi Siena in 2011). Milano, one of the strongest and most historic clubs in the Italian Serie A, has not made the Final Four since 1992, and one can imagine head coach Jasmin Repesa and the Milano organization and fans are eager to break both of those streaks in 2017. Milano still had to develop some depth and probably need to add a couple of pieces to make their frontcourt stronger around Raduljica, but so far this summer, Milano has done a lot to make their club stronger after such a down Euroleague campaign a year ago.

Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv signs forward Richard Howell

After the devastating injury to Quincy Miller, one of Maccabi’s premier signings this off-season, the Israeli powerhouse seems to have found a solution to their Miller situation. Richard Howell is on his way to the “Yellows” in Tel Aviv, via reports and this announcement on his Twitter. The 6’8, 25-year-old former North Carolina standout has played in the NBA as well as the D-League, and fortunately will be familiar with the club and the country, as he played last season with Ironi Nahariya in the Winner League, where he averaged over 15 ppg and 9.8 rpg. (Howell also played for Talk n Text of PBA in the Philippines last year, as pictured above.) Howell seems to be optimistic about going to Maccabi and Israel, as he had this to say on his Twitter:

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Howell is not as “pure” replacement for Miller of course. While he does help their frontcourt, he doesn’t have Miller’s ball handling skills, and is not the outside threat from beyond the arc that Miller is. He is more of an “around the basket” player, who relies on his athleticism and crafty, physical skills to generate points and garner boards on both the offensive and defensive end. That being said, he is a much better rebounder than Miller, and he will provide a nice physical combo for Tel Aviv when combined with Maik Zirbes, who plays in the same, “hard-nosed” style. Considering Maccabi was one of the worst rebounding teams in the Euroleague last season (they ranked near the bottom in defensive rebounding rate), their signing of Howell is a nice addition that should help make up for the loss of Miller somewhat.

Other “Tapas” of note…

  • Luke Harangody re-signs with Darussafaka Dogus: This was an expected move, as it didn’t seem like Harangody was sought after by many other European clubs or back home in the NBA, but this is good confirmation for head coach David Blatt. Harangody is a tough, crafty player who lacks natural athleticism but makes up for it with good footwork around the rim, and a “high-motor” on both ends of the floor. With Semih Erden gone to the NBA, Harangody will most likely be the “primary” player in the pivot for Darussafaka.
  • Real Madrid re-signs Andrés Nocioni: The “Los Blancos” juggernaut keeps getting bigger. After re-signing Jeff Taylor, they have also signed Dontaye Draper to help with point guard duties, and now have extended the Argentinian mainstay. Nocioni will be a peculiar fit, as the frontcourt is a lot more crowded with the addition of Anthony Randolph, and he could see more competition at the small forward with Taylor and teenage sensation Luka Doncic, who improved mightily last year. Nocioni will find his minutes, but he will be depended on less this upcoming year than in years past.
  • Kenny Gabriel close to signing with Olympiacos: With DJ Strawberry heading to Besiktas, Olympiacos is in need of athleticism on the wing. Olympiacos initially targeted former CSKA Moscow wing Demetris Nichols, but they have been unable to get a commitment from him as he is in discussion with some NBA teams still. In response, they have signed athletic wing Erick Green from the D-League, as well as Khem Birch to give them a boost of strength in the frontcourt. In their latest moves to get more athletic on the wing, Olympiacos has turned to former Pinar Karsiyaka forward Kenny Gabriel, who provides a similar skill-set to what Strawberry provided last season. Panathinaikos may have gotten a lot of the headlines this summer, but don’t count out their rival Olympiacos, who has made some shrewd moves to become more athletic this off-season.
  • Crvena Zvezda active with Ognjen Kuzmic and Jenkins signings: After losing Miller and Zirbes to Maccabi Tel Aviv, and parting ways with Tarence Kinsey, Red Star remained pretty quiet this summer as other Euroleague teams spent money left and right to boost their roster. While the club seems committed to building their club with local, Serbian talent, the past week has been the most active one of the summer for the surging Serbian club that made it to the Euroleague playoffs for the first time in club history. They signed Jenkins to replace Kinsey, a solid signing considering Jenkins is a more dynamic scorer than Kinsey, and he has familiarity with the Red Star club and environment (he played for them from 2013-2015), which should make his transition an easy one (the video of his sister reacting in awe to the Red Star “fans” in Belgrade remains one my favorites). The addition of Kuzmic also solidifies their front court, as the seven footer is the kind of presence that they need in the block on the offensive and rebounding end with Zirbes gone. It came a little later than expected, but Crvena Zvezda definitely seems primed to make another run to the playoffs, especially with this new combo of talent and coach Dejan Radonjic returning to Belgrade, a big victory for the club considering he was offered the position at Laboral Kutxa Baskonia this off-season.
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“Basketball Tapas”: Miller out for Maccabi TA, Taylor re-signs with RM, Abrines going to OKC

“Basketball Tapas” are newsletter-like posts where I highlight major news stories, articles and links on the Web centering on European basketball for that day or over a couple-day span. Hopefully, I will be able to make this a regular part of the blog where I am publishing it every day or at least every couple of days.

In this edition of “Basketball Tapas,” we will take at three major Euroleague-participating teams who will had major incidents happen to them in the past couple of days. Two of them were negative; one was positive. What happened and to who? Well…let’s get to serving our Tapas of the basketball variety for the day.

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Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv’s Quincy Miller injures self in pickup game; out 6-9 months.

Over a week ago, there were reports that Quincy Miller, Maccabi’s big summer signing from Crvena Zvezda, hurt himself in a pickup game back in the United States. Originally, it was suspected it would be a minor injury that would keep him out a few weeks. Unfortunately, news broke today about the severity of his injury:

Really difficult news to hear, especially considering how late it is in the summer signing period, and it will be difficult to replace a player of Miller’s talent and skill set. (How many 6’10 players can shoot threes, take it to the rack like a guard, and block shots?) Apparently, the injury occurred in a game with former NBA players like Baron Davis and Kenyon Martin and current NBA star Kyrie Irving, so it wasn’t as if Miller was horsing around and got hurt in an asinine fashion. (This isn’t the Monta Ellis on the Moped situation.)

It will be interesting to see how Maccabi handles this situation. They put a lot of hoopla on his (as well as Sonny Weems’) arrival, holding a “welcoming” ceremony of sorts this summer to help pump up the Maccabi fans for the 2016-2017 season. Without Miller, the outlook for this team’s a lot foggier, not a good thing considering Maccabi is coming off one of their worst seasons in club history in both Euroleague and Winner League play. Will they be aggressive in finding someone to replace him, and who at this point in the off-season? Or will management and Erez Edelstein simply roll the dice and depend on the roster they have?

I think it’ll be more likely that Maccabi will do the former than the latter.

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Jeff Taylor officially extends with Real Madrid

It was expected after Taylor received lukewarm interest from NBA clubs this off-season, but Real Madrid officially announced re-signing forward Jeff Taylor to a one-year deal with Los Blancos. Taylor struggled initially with Real Madrid, unable to find his role on the team in his transition from the NBA to the ACB and Euroleague. However, by the end of the season, Taylor excelled as a defensive-focused wing player, and started many games for Madrid down the stretch in ACB and Euroleague play.

Taylor has his issues. He struggles at times in team defense, he isn’t an adept shooter or shot creator, and he seems to “space out” on possessions on the floor. However, athletically Taylor is up there with any wing in Europe, and he adds more depth to a team that will be chock full of it next year, important to have considering the Euroleague’s extended season format. Though Madrid lost Sergio Rodriguez, the addition of Anthony Randolph, and the re-signing of Taylor, Gustavo Ayon and Trey Thompkins will make the Madrid club one of the longest and most athletic in Europe. And, consider the breakout season that Luka Doncic, still a teenager, could have next year after a solid full-season with the senior club last season, and this Madrid has to be a favorite for the Euroleague crown with CSKA Moscow and Fenerbahce Ulker.

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Alex Abrines signs three-year deal with Oklahoma City Thunder

A lot of big losses for Barcelona this off-season. First, they lost 6’7 point guard Tomas Satoransky to the Washington Wizards, and now, the OKC Thunder, fresh off losing Kevin Durant to the Warriors, poached wing Alex Abrines on a three year, $21-million deal. That being said, the deal wasn’t entirely bad, as it seems to have freed up money for Barcelona to sign athletic four-player Victor Claver from Lokomotiv Kuban.

The Abrines deal is interesting because Abrines really didn’t show much beyond being a spot-up shooter with some defensive capability last season. Granted, it was difficult to tell how “good” Abrines may have been last year, as he struggled to get consistent minutes from Juan Carlos Navarro and Brad Oleson, veterans Xavi Pascual clearly favored last year in the rotation, despite their regression in 2015-2016. Maybe OKC sees something in Abrines that most European basketball fans didn’t see last season, and see him as a specialized player who could boost their 3-pt shooting on the wing, something they struggled with last season beyond Kevin Durant and occasional flurries from Dion Waiters (whom they don’t seem to be bringing back).

However, Abrines will be making more than Tomas Satoransky, interesting to see considering Satoransky’s skill set seem more valuable than Abrines. Satoransky is a tall point guard in the Shaun Livingston mold who can shoot from beyond the arc, defend up to four positions (though three really well) and can penetrate and create offense for himself and his teammates off the drive. That seems to be a more valuable skill set to NBA teams than Abrines’ “shooting-focused” abilities, but Satoransky will be making less than Abrines on a per-year basis. Yes, it’s probably a pedantic issue, considering they are both going to the NBA, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

Other Tapas of note…

  • Fotis Katsikaris in negotiations to be Lokomotiv Kuban coach: The former Greek National Team coach (he wasn’t extended after the Olympic Qualifying Tournament) and current UCAM Murcia coach is a favorite to replace Georgios Bartzokas, who left for Barcelona. Katsikaris had a solid season with Murcia, where they gave Real Madrid a tough fight in round 1 of the ACB playoffs. The cupboard though is pretty bare in Loko, with Randolph, Malcolm Delaney and Victor Claver all signing elsewhere this summer. However, Loko will be in the Eurocup, and Katsikaris has done well in rebuilding jobs, as evidenced by his work with Murcia last season.
  • Besiktas signs Michael Roll: A surprising power move by the Turkish club, who will be playing in the inaugural Basketball Champions League competition rather than the Eurocup. After signing Devin Booker and Kyle Weems from French Clubs (Elan Chalon and Strasbourg, respectively), Besiktas stayed close, signing Roll from Büyükçekmece of the BSL. Roll was rumored to be going to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, so this is a bit of a surprise pickup by the Turkish club, and a big loss for the Basque team, who has lost a lot from last year’s Final Four team.
  • Jordan Sibert signs with PAOK Thessaloniki: A young, under-the-radar talent that will be going to a solid Greek club that often goes under-the-radar in the Greek basketball scene amidst Panathinaikos and Olympiacos. The 24-year-old Sibert, a product of Dayton University, averaged 13.1 ppg with the Erie Bayhawks of the D-League last season.
  • Maccabi Kiryat signs Trevor Releford and Koroivos signs Ken Brown: Two smaller clubs made pretty good point guard acquisitions, though we’ll see if these acquisitions move the needle for these mid-tier clubs. Releford, a product of Kansas City as well as the University of Alabama, scored 13.5 ppg in 28 games with Kolossos in the GBL, and gives the Israeli club one of the better point guards in the Winner League. Brown is coming from Lithuanian competitor Lietuvos Rytas, where he averaged 8.0 ppg in 28 games. He should give Korivos another point guard to complement Vincent Council, who averaged 5.8 ppg in 17 games last season with the Greek club.

It’s Only One Game, but Should We Worry About Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv?

Devin Smith and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv struggled to score as well as stop CSKA Moscow in their opening day 100-69 loss.

One of the premiere and most anticipated games heading in week 1 had to be between CSKA Moscow and Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv in Moscow. A rematch of the Final Four semifinal two years ago, where Maccabi pulled a stunning 23-12 4th quarter rally to upset the favored CSKA 68-67, CSKA killed the excitement early and also returned the favor and then some by beating Maccabi by 31 points (100-69) in what was the biggest blowout of week 1 in the Euroleague. While in some cases, the CSKA win is an indicator of how good this CSKA team may be this year, and how they are the early odds-on favorite to win the Euroleague title, it also demonstrated the issues this Maccabi squad will face this season. After a big off-season where they acquired big names such as former Los Angeles Laker and Clipper Jordan Farmar and VTB league stud Taylor Rochestie, as well as promoted top Croatian prospect Dragan Bender from the developmental league, many expected Maccabi to continue their annual string and run of competitiveness in the Euroleague, despite playing in a difficult Group D that also includes Darussafaka Dogus of Istanbul, Brose Baskets of Bamberg, and Unicaja Malaga in addition to CSKA. However, the lackluster performance on opening day exposed some major holes and issues that may present some difficult challenges for Maccabi when it comes to advancing beyond the second round.

The Cinderella Euroleague Run in 2013-2014

2013-2014 was a dream season as Maccabi went from underdog to winning their 6th Euroleague title in club history.

The 2013-2014 Maccabi squad was to European basketball what the “Hickory Huskers” were to Indiana high school basketball lore. After an 8-6 and 3rd place finish in their group in the second round, Maccabi pulled off a 3-1 upset over EA7 Emoporio Armani Milan in the quarterfinal to earn a surprise berth in the Final Four. After upsetting CSKA thanks to their miraculous 4th quarter of play, Maccabi carried on the momentum in the championship game, defeating the heavily favored, and star-studded Real Madrid 98-86 to earn their 6th Euroleague Championship in club history as well as finish the year 21-9.

The club relied on a hefty mix of wily veterans and hungry role players. Maccabi mainstays such as wings Yogev Ohayon and Guy Pnini were key as ever, but they also got solid years from fellow perimeter players such as David Blu (who retired shortly after winning the title), Joe Ingles (who parlayed his strong, multi-skilled performance that year into a contract with the Utah Jazz), Tyrese Rice (who left for more money and a bigger role in Moscow with Khimki the following year) and Devin Smith. Add that with the massive, but productive post presence of Sofoklis Schortsanitis and the strong post flexibility of Alex Tyus, and it makes sense that head coach David Blatt was able to lead Maccabi to a surprise Euroleague championship.

Blatt, a Princeton graduate and established as well as heavily respected European coach (he had coached Maccabi for years and also earned rave reviews in helping Russia to a bronze medal in the last Olympics), had built a solid, and battle-tested team that showed a strong resilience throughout the 2013-2014 campaign (they certainly took their lumps in the second round, and that may have helped them not just be overlooked going into the quarterfinals, but learn and improve upon their flaws). They averaged 79.5 ppg, and relied heavily on the 3-point shot, as evidenced by 36 percent of their total field goal attempts being from beyond the arc. However, they were efficient in their style of play, shooting 39.9 percent from beyond the arc and 54.4 percent on their 2 point attempts. Sure, his roster didn’t have the mainstream or higher-paid names of bigger clubs such as Real, CSKA or even Olympiacos, but they were still extremely productive, and better yet, they fit Blatt’s, perimeter-oriented, Princeton-influenced system perfectly, which sometimes can go a lot longer way than just pure talent (as demonstrated by Maccabi winning the Euroleague championship).

Guy Goodes and the honeymoon wears off for Maccabi in 2014-2015

Though they went 16-11 in his first year, analytics showed that Maccabi regressed significantly under new Head Coach Guy Goodes last season from their Euroleague championship campaign in 2013-2014

After winning the 2013-2014 title, Blatt sought greener pastures and a higher pay day in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers. As his replacement, Maccabi hired Guy Goodes, a former Maccabi player (as well as general Israeli basketball player, as he played from 1985-2004 with various Israeli League teams) and assistant under Blatt from 2010-2014. Goodes’ familiarity with the Maccabi roster seemed to be a promising sign and major reason why they hired him, and with most of the talent back, and some key additions in dynamic point guard Jeremy Pargo and versatile forward Brian Randle, many expected Maccabi to make a serious run in their defense of their 2013-2014 Euroleague championship.

Unfortunately, the team never quite meshed under Goodes. Though they did finish 16-11 and made it to the quarterfinals, their Expected W-L (check basketball reference.com for what Expected W-L is, which is basically a Pythagorean W-L taking into consideration point scored and points allowed) was one of a sub. 500 team (specifically 13-14) and they were utterly dominated in getting swept by Fenerbahce Istanbul in the Euroleague quarterfinals. The team struggled with consistency from their roster, as they got solid seasons from Pargo and guard Devin Smith, as well as post players Randle and Alex Tyus, but they got an underwhelming campaign from Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who averaged only 14.2 mpg and 6.5 ppg and 2.3 rpg in 26 Euroleague contests. Considering he was such a big factor in their 2013-2014 title run, the lack of production from the longtime Greek standout did not help their cause much in the defense of the title.

Additionally, it never seemed like anyone really stood out for Maccabi other than perhaps Smith, who was not just the team’s leading scorer in Euroleague play at 15 ppg, but also leading rebounder at 6.1 rpg. For a forward, that is not a bad statline to have, but Smith was a guard, which proved to be a Catch-22 for Maccabi. Yes, he was an incredible player who played hard on both ends of the floor and had tremendous impact for Maccabi in 2013-2014 (and it was recognized, as he earned 2nd team All-Euroleague honors and made the All-Imports team along with Pargo). That being said, when your guard is your leading rebounder, that screams all kinds of alarms with the weakness and lack of physicality from your post players, and that is not a recipe for success. Goodes and Maccabi tried all different kind of combinations, and brought in some late additions such as Joe Alexander to boost their depth and versatility and size, but it just wasn’t enough. Maccabi chemistry-wise just seemed to be a shell of the Blatt-coached 2013-2014 team that never really felt like a serious contender, even though they made it to the playoffs.

Rebuilding again with big-name players and youth for 2015-2016

17-year-old Croatian Power Forward Dragan Bender will be key to Maccabi’s Success and Whether they Bounce Back from the CSKA loss.

After the team’s disappointing sweep in the playoffs and the lack of production in 2014-2015, Maccabi let Schortsanitis go and replaced him in the post with 17-year-old Croatian super-prospect Dragan Bender and super-athlete Trevor Mbakwe. Bender has been a hot topic in all kinds of draft circles, as many scouts like his inside-outside ability, as well as his athleticism and maturity for a teenager playing at such high level with many long-time veterans. As for Mbakwe, he has been categorized as one of the strongest “athletic” talents in European circles, and has the potential for a breakout, as his offensive game, which has been slow to develop ever since his college days, has come a long way since he was at Minnesota.

The biggest veteran addition had to be Jordan Farmar, a former Los Angeles Laker and Clipper who was picked up to solidify the guard position along with Maccabi mainstays Smith and Ohayon as well as fellow newcomer and budding European player Taylor Rochestie (a former Washington State product under Tony Bennett), who was the leading Euroleague play scorer on Nizhny Novgorod last season at 18.3 ppg (Nizhny Novgorod was regulated to the Eurocup this season). Though Farmar has played the point guard position mostly in his career, he mostly likely will contribute as a wing/shooting guard in Goodes’ perimeter-based offense, especially with Ohayon seeming to have firm control over the point guard position and the heralded Smith on the other wing. That shouldn’t be too out of bounds for Farmar, as he played the point in Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense, where he ceded ball control to superstars like Kobe Bryant (as typical in Jackson’s version of the triangle). Farmar may not have the explosiveness of Pargo or Rice, two of Maccabi’s high-profile imports from the past two years, but he presents a long-range threat and veteran floor sense that should impact the offense for Maccabi, something that didn’t always happen on the offensive end of things for Maccabi in 2014-2015.

Either way, with a strong backcourt, a stronger emphasis on athleticism in the front court, and some improved depth, Maccabi on paper looks better than they did a year ago, and they are set up well for the future with their acquisitions of young talent like Mbakwe and Bender (however long Bender should stay). That being said, predictions and the preseason aren’t necessarily crystal balls, and despite some strong performances against EA7 in the NBA Global Games exhibitions, it all came crashing down for Goodes and the Maccabi squad in week 1 of the Euroleague season.

The perfect storm of offensive and defensive issues against CSKA Moscow

To say CSKA Moscow beat Maccabi is probably the understatement of the Euroleague season so far. The Russian power’s 100-69 dispatch of Maccabi not only proved how good CSKA could be this season, but the glaring issues that Maccabi needs to solve offensively and defensively in a Group that is no slouch with competitive teams like Unicaja Malaga and Brose Baskets also competing for the four spots to get into the next round of play. If Goodes’ team plays this week against Unicaja like they did against CSKA Moscow, they could easily be 0-2 and looking at a very large deficit in terms of point differential for the remainder of the regular season.

Let’s start out with the defense for Maccabi which really struggled, especially in their pick and roll communication. While Bender looked like a 17-year-old playing his first game in the Euroleague, he did some good things, especially on the offensive end. If Maccabi wants to be successful, Bender will be a big reason why. He gives them the kind of offensive versatility they simply can’t get from Mbakwe or Arinze Onuaku, a reserve center. (Though he is on a limited contract, and with the signing of Ike Ofoegbu just this week, I think Onuaku’s days could be numbered, especially since Randle will be coming back after sitting out game 1.) That being said, his defense (as well as the Maccabi perimeter defense) is a work in process, especially when defending the pick and roll. There were times where he was in no man’s land on the pick and roll and sagging way too off the kind of players you cannot sag off of, which opened up easy, lately contested shots beyond the arc. On the pick and roll, a lack of communication from the perimeter players, and Bender’s tendency to be non-committal in the lane before the pick and roll play developed either led to a lot of open jump shots, or easy drives to the lane for layups and dunks. When you play that kind of hesitant defense, as Bender showed, good teams like CSKA are going to shoot over 60 percent from the field, like they did last week.

However, I am not putting this all on Bender. He is still young and a project and still 17 years old. Playing in the Euroleague is tough for the wiliest of vets, and for Bender to be showing some production in game 1 is a promising sign. Furthermore, I think a lot of his defensive issues stemmed from hesitation and the mismatches CSKA threw at Maccabi rather than Bender’s natural defensive ability, which I think is  good to at least above-average due to his size, length and athleticism.

Even though this possession doesn’t feature Bender, this progression is a prime example of Maccabi’s issues with guarding the pick and roll. (In this possession is Onuaku and Mbakwe, who performed pretty terribly together on the court; they probably had the lowest plus-minus of any Maccabi post combo.)

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As you can see, this pick and roll starts pretty typical. CSKA’s post sets the high ball screen, Onuaku sages a bit, Mbakwe slides to play some help defense and the guard (in this case Rochestie) plays the point initially tight. But if you look at the play before, you can see that the miscommunication is already starting.

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The play started with a Teodosic dribble hand off, and Rochestie and Farmar (who initially guarded Teodosic) were supposed to switch. But as you can see from the picture above, it doesn’t seem that Farmar knows there is a switch so they are both chasing the CSKA player who has just received the handoff. This leaves an overplay on the left wing side, which forces Onuaku to sag because there are already two defenders on the ball handler (the defender who is staying on his man after the hand off is going over the screen).

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.47.35 PM

After the screen, Farmar who initially stayed realizes he needs to switch, especially considering how much of a sniper Teodosic is from beyond the arc. So he changes directions and sprints out to try and recover. Rochestie and Onuaku are forced to play the pick and roll, but, because Onauku played the pick and roll so soft initially, he really didn’t get a good “feel” on the screener and you can see him up top (Hines) having a lot of space to make his way to the basket. Mbakwe should help and be closing the lane here, but because Farmar, who didn’t switch initially, changed his mind, Mbakwe isn’t in prime help position. If the defender had kept his responsibility originally, Mbakwe probably would have closed this pick and roll lane sooner. But, because there was such last-minute communication, he leaves the lane open because he thought Farmar would have it.

Screenshot 2015-10-15 at 9.48.25 PM

And CSKA takes advantage. Onuaku and Rochestie are sucked in the pick and roll, and Mbakwe is way too late on the help. Hines gets the open pass and is able to throw it down for easy points. There has to be better communication than that when defending the pick and roll. You cannot do last-second toggling between staying and switching on a player in the pick and roll. That leads to easy possessions and points for the offense, as evidenced above.

On offense, Goodes still prefers a perimeter-oriented lineup like his predecessor Blatt. But, understandably, he wants to utilize the depth and talent of his post players. However, the problem is that his post players are a bit raw and unrefined on the offensive end, and because of this, they have a tendency to freelance in bad ways and kill Maccabi’s spacing, which causes shots to be more difficult than they should be. Take a look at possession where Farmar passes to Pnini coming off an Onuaku baseline screen.

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-1

The screen is not the best, but the play idea is sound. The baseline screen with the pass to the corner can free up the easy shot for the high percentage corner 3 pointer, a post pass to take advantage of a 1 on 1 mismatch in the block, or open up lanes for dribble penetration. That is…as long as the spacing is sound on both ends. But look at Mbakwe in the opposite post. He is drifting toward the low block instead of getting to the short corner or better yet, arc. And it only gets worse from there.

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-2

Pnini decides to drive, which is not a bad idea since they don’t switch off the screen. But look what Mbakwe does: he drifts down the low block. This is bad for all kinds of reasons. First off it shrinks any spacing and basically leads the defender right into the play. You can see there are 3 defenders around the rim now, taking away any easy shot possibility Pnini may have. And second, not only are there 3 defenders in the post, but 2 players are being fronted in the post as well, taking away any kind of pass for Pnini on the drive. So, Mbakwe’s decision not only took away Pnini’s driving lane, but also any passing bailout options, since all the Maccabi players are effectively covered on this drive.

And this is what happens:

Maccabi Baseline Screen Play-3

A tough fade-away, easily-contested jumper. That is not good offense and the spacing was a key contributor to that. While Goodes may want to utilize his deep front court, he needs to put in the right combinations so they’re not shrinking the lanes like Onuaku and Mbakwe did on frequent occasion last week.

Do Maccabi Fans need to worry?

Goodes is a fan favorite because of his history as a player, but he hasn’t really satisfied the masses on the court after taking over for Blatt. Unlike Blatt, Goodes seems a little overwhelmed strategically, and that was on full display against CSKA. Instead of focusing on spacing the floor with his talented perimeter players, he frequently used 3-out, 2-in lineups that seemed to do more harm than good (especially with Onuaku and Mbakwe). The silver lining in all of this is that Randle was out last week and is expected to be back for Unicaja, and Ofoegbu will be a better fit for what Goodes wants to do than Onuaku, who just seems like a square peg in Maccabi’s round hole offense. Add that with Bender more likely to be comfortable with a game under his belt and against a less high profile opponent, and Maccabi certainly can bounce back after such an embarrassing defeat.

If there is anything to keep an eye on against Unicaja, it will be their defensive communication, especially against the pick and roll. CSKA is a team loaded with talent, so its not surprising that they made them pay for their errors on the defensive end. I will not be surprised to see CSKA beat more teams by 30 this year at home. But, Unicaja is not CSKA talent-wise, and in interviews, improving the defense seemed to be a priority for Goodes and his team in practice. It’ll be interesting to see if Goodes and Maccabi make the proper adjustments, and will be more sound in their communication and defensive responsibilities. If they do, then this CSKA game might a blip on the radar. If they continue to struggle, and let Unicaja do easy work around the rim like CSKA (and it’s possible with post players like Richard Hendrix and Fran Vasquez who can do serious damage for Unicaja), then maybe opening week is a sign of a long season to come for Maccabi and their fans.