In order to understand the strange season Maccabi Tel Aviv is undergoing, despite the good results, one needs to go back more than two months.
In the opening Euroleague game against Malaga, which Maccabi won on the road 85-80, head coach David Blatt fielded a starting five that included Guy Pnini, Nik Caner-Medley and Giorgi Shermadini. As of now, the first one is suspended, the second is injured and the third is out of the rotation.
Pnini will return soon, perhaps next week for the Top 16 opener. Caner-Medley, despite opening 60 percent of Maccabi's Euroleague games, contributing 2.8 points a game, shooting 28 percent from the field and taking a lot of flak, is supposed to continue.
"He is relatively less productive for the salary he draws," says a club official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Perhaps it was a mistake to bring to this position a dominant player who is supposed to play 30 minutes when you have Lior Eliyahu, but remember that we weren't sure Lior would be here," the official stressed in reference to the team's two centers.
"In retrospect we should have brought in an inexpensive role player. If he would earn half as much, his production would be alright. There was also no reason to force him into being a leading player when you have Lior. He can stay and play 15 minutes."
Yet Shermadini, about whom Blatt said he has no complaints because he didn't get a chance, is the foreign player most likely to depart. When Shimon Mizrahi, the club chairman, talks about Maccabi's inside players he doesn't even mention Shermadini.
"We lack a big body under the basket, something similar to Sofo [Maccabi's former Greek center, Sofoklis Schortsanitis]," says Mizrahi. "We have Shawn James and Malcolm Thomas, but they need someone massive next to them. We're looking for a tall player, and if we find one we'll invest more money."
When asked about releasing a player, Mizrahi asserts he wasn't talking about replacements. "Either we'll add or we'll switch," he says. "I don't know."
A source at Maccabi explains that the decision in principle to bring in a center in place of Shermadini flows actually from the set of skills owned by James and Thomas. "People tend to forget that the most thrilling player with the highest contract was supposed to be Pops Mensah-Bonsu," he says. "We discovered later in the summer that he couldn't play. We starting thinking about what to do. It's easier to find players in December than in October. No one came out of the NBA camps who would improve the team."
The source says the team had the option of waiting until December but instead signed Thomas. "We knew he wasn't a post-up player like Bonsu, and one of the three tall players would be hurt because all three answer the same need. Right now we need a post-up player, which is something our three big guys lack."
The team has yet to bring anyone new, though Blatt said in a press conference last Thursday that Maccabi needed an extra player and predicted it would happen soon. Maccabi had an agreement with Australian center Aron Baynes, who led the Euroleague in rebounds and two-point baskets for Ljubljana, but the Slovenian club would not release him.
The latest name being tossed about is Darko Planinic, who leads the Adriatic League in scoring with 16.8 points per game. The problem is that Planinic is a 22-year-old Bosnian Croat who has never played for anyone but small club Siroki, and it's doubtful if he would help Maccabi in the Top 16.
Time to get moving
Blatt said if Maccabi wants change, it has to do something quickly because the first game is on the 27th. Another possibility being considered it to bring back Richard Hendrix, who was released by Milan, but a Maccabi official says Hendrix is not really a candidate because he is currently not suitable.
The question is if Maccabi is ready to commit financial suicide to bring in a player to make a significant impact. This year is different because Top 16 teams have to play 24 games, more than in previous seasons. Reaching the playoff stage adds revenue, but not that much.
Whether Maccabi can reach the playoffs with the current roster is a source of contention. David Federman, one of the owners, said candidly to Channel One this week that Maccabi may not be worth a playoff team. He says there is no need to lie to itself, but that is how the team has looked so far.
Mizrahi sounds more optimistic. "Maccabi strives to reach this season, like in previous seasons, the highest levels in the Euroleague," he says.
"In the wake of the format change for the Top 16, which is a welcome step, you have 14 games and meet some of the best teams in Europe. We have a good team that united relatively quickly considering the new players we have. This crew did a wonderful job. It lost two games out of 10 in the first stage, each by two points, with one game coming on a night of sirens and all that stems from that. We could go far with this lineup, but when you look at who you are about to face, you'd rather have someone massive under the basket."
Blatt says that while this team lacks the kind of star fans are used to seeing at this stge, few thought two years ago in November-December that Maccabi would reach the final. He says people's memories are very short. They become victims of what happened.
The coach says it's important to work as well as possible with the material the team has. He notes that these are the players the team bought within its financial restraints relative to European clubs. Blatt says it takes patience and more than four months for things to come together.
Still, says Blatt, it's not admitting defeat to want to make a change or two. He says that's the way of the professional sports world. Sometimes you see that something isn't good and isn't working, and when there's an opportunity to make a change, add strength and help the team you do it - but this is not a condition for success.
He would not say how far he expects the team to go, only that he always strives to go as far as possible. Maccabi's situation isn't made, stresses Blatt. He can't say if this is the team to take the Final Four, but the way things are now it's not ready yet.
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