Subpar Euroleague campaign for Maccabi Tel Aviv
vWHILE SCOTTIE WILBEKIN (center) and Maccabi Tel Aviv provided some Euroleague highlights this season, the overall results fell well short of expectations.
(photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
With high hopes after last year’s condensed continental success, yellow-and-blue falls flat.
Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia on Friday night to close out its Euroleague campaign in what was one of the club’s most challenging seasons in the recent past.
The yellow-and-blue enters the contest against Xavi Pascual’s squad with a record of 14-19 after finishing last season 19-9 before it was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ioannis Sfairopoulos and the Maccabi Tel Aviv brass were hoping that they would be able to continue what they began last year, and perhaps even play better after winning the Israeli Championship at the end of July when the league returned to action in the midst of COVID-19. However, sometimes when man plans, God laughs, and that’s exactly what ended up happening to the 2020/21 continental season.
Let’s revisit the situation that Maccabi Tel Aviv found itself back in last spring when the entire world was placed on hold:
The yellow-and-blue participates in two different leagues, the Israeli domestic competition and the Euroleague, which usually run parallel to each other from October through June. When the pandemic hit, all of the leagues around the world pressed the pause button in March 2020 as everyone tried to figure out how and when they would be able to get back to business as usual.
As the weeks went by, the Euroleague, along with the majority of leagues around the globe, decided to end their respective seasons while Germany and Spain played out their championship in a bubble format that came to a conclusion by the end of June.
The Israel Winner League decided to resume competition roughly where it left off, with a number of cosmetic changes, and was played out between the end of June through the end of July.
Some new players came in to replace others who didn’t return to finish the campaign while the majority of the Maccabi Tel Aviv players had either stayed in the country or came back to Israel, because at that time the Euroleague had not yet decided the fate of their season.
Maccabi had almost a full complement of players who captured the Israeli league title, including Deni Avdija – who left for the NBA after being selected in the 2020 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards – and Amar’e Stoudemire, who took a coaching role with the Brooklyn Nets.
Most Maccabi players headed back home late July or early August and were already back at training camp a month later instead of a two-month break which didn’t give them optimal rest time and a chance to rejuvenate.
In fact, Scottie Wilbekin lashed out at the Israeli league for the decision to return to play, saying that management didn’t care about the players and that it was something that really bothered him.
By beginning training camp in September, Maccabi put itself at a disadvantage over other Euroleague teams, which in some cases began at the end of July just when the yellow-and-blue hoisted the Israeli league championship plate.
Without a regular camp, new players including Dragan Bender and Ante Zizic, who both came from the NBA and hadn’t played since March, needed to not only get into playing shape but they also needed to learn how to play with their new teammates on the fly without a normal preseason game schedule.
Although Chris Jones and Oz Blayzer had played in Europe, the pair had never played at the Euroleague level and also needed time to adjust to a superior level of play which they had not experienced beforehand.
To help the club minimize the risk of virus infection, while also allowing the players the chance to travel with the most comfort as possible, management decided that the squad would exclusively fly on charter flights to every road game. This was a very big expense in a year that there would be virtually no ticket sales and revenues coming in from season tickets. But credit to the club for attempting to keep the players in the best condition possible.
Maccabi won its opening Euroleague game against Alba Berlin but then lost three straight to CSKA Moscow, Bayern Munich and Olympiacos. Very quickly the club sat at 3-8 by the end of November as it had dug itself a mega-sized hole to try and find a way out of.
Injured players Omri Casspi, Yovel Zoosman and John Dibartolomeo began returning to action, but it would take them time to get back into the swing of things which once again needed to be done while games were being played.
Sfairopoulos was able to pull the team to within just one games of .500 with a 10-11 record after a solid victory over Real Madrid in January, however additional injury issues to Zoosman and Casspi, as well as to center Othello Hunter, led to a stretch of six losses in seven games that sealed the squad’s fate.
Maccabi had a rough season on its home court, without fans in attendance at Yad Eliyahu, going 9-8. It is known throughout Europe that the yellow-and-blue faithful can intimidate the opposing teams into making mistakes, giving the team a true home-court advantage, but without that threat the visitors were able to pretty much do as they pleased. All in all, 13 of the yellow-and-blue’s Euroleague losses were by seven points or less as games that Maccabi had won the previous season all went the other way.
There’s no question that this Euroleague season was unlike any other that Maccabi Tel Aviv – and all of the other 17 Euroleague teams – have ever experienced due to the coronavirus. Some managed better than others, but at the end of the day the cream rose to the top and as the saying goes, the standings don’t lie.
Following the game at Zenit, the yellow-and-blue will turn its undivided attention to the two remaining competitions, the Israel State Cup final against Maccabi Rishon Lezion and the domestic league, which is in the midst of the second round of games.
Maccabi hopes to take both titles and bring joy to the fans, who are finally back in the stands. From there, the club will begin to retool for the upcoming Euroleague campaign with preparations beginning in earnest in just a few short months.
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at firstname.lastname@example.org.