Israeli Basketball Searches for a Competitive Edge

Fans and media do not exert the kind of pressure on basketball teams that they do in soccer. The basketball clubs, therefore, are going to have to start motivating themselves.

Another Premier League soccer coach was removed from his position last week, the eighth this season. Meanwhile, in basketball’s Winner League the tally remains at one.

To explain the imbalance, consider that Israeli soccer is traditionally more competitive than basketball. There's usually an actual fight for the title and competition for the playoffs can be fierce and unpredictable – this season in particular is producing some interesting results.

In basketball, though, Maccabi Tel Aviv has ruled the roost almost every year for the past three decades. Even when lowly Ashdod came within 40 minutes of the championship last season, they were steamrolled by the near-perennial champion in the final. In light of this, there's a sense of foregone conclusion in the league.

Not that basketball teams aren't also under pressure – from fans and from owners – to succeed. But with the exception of maybe four teams - Hapoel Eilat, Maccabi Netanya, Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv - it’s hard to believe that the issue of ditching the coach hasn’t come up in the national sports press. The local press did raise the issue concerning Gilboa/Galil and Hapoel Jerusalem – maybe if they had lost a big game at the wrong time it could have even happened.

In regard to Maccabi Tel Aviv, the issue was noted only once by one columnist but it’s impossible to know what would have happened had the team lost the State Cup final. Maccabi fires its coaches not because of failure in the Euroleague but when the management fears it may lose its grip on the national title.

Other teams entered dark periods - Ashkelon at the beginning of the season, Holon in the middle of the season and Gilboa/Galil almost all season long - but the teams’ managements’ only move was to replace players. And despite losing his first six games last year, Netanya held onto its coach, Danny Franco.

Local basketball has much to learn from soccer – especially in terms of nurturing local talents – but soccer must also learn from basketball, namely the virtue of patience.

The main difference between the two sports is the pressure applied by fans and the media. Take Maccabi Haifa, for example, perhaps the best basketball team in the country after Maccabi Tel Aviv and its strongest competitor since the 2008 title-winning Hapoel Holon team.  It's strong in every position and the roster has depth and stability that Maccabi Tel Aviv can only dream about.

So why is Haifa in only fourth place in the league (fifth place if it had lost to Netanya last week)?

Because Haifa, unlike Maccabi Tel Aviv, isn’t under pressure to win every game. Because Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt hauls his players over the coals after every win, while Haifa coach Brad Greenberg strokes them after they lose to Holon then get pummeled a week later at Gilboa/Galil’s Gan Ner arena. And we’re talking about rivals who had lost the taste for victory.

After a full week of State Cup games, Maccabi Tel Aviv trounced Gilboa/Galil while Haifa lost at home to lowly Hapoel Tel Aviv. But when they get to the important games – such as the State Cup quarterfinal against Herzliya, the semifinal against Jerusalem or the game that could grant them home advantage in the playoffs – Haifa gives great performances.

With all due respect to Eilat and Jerusalem, Haifa is the only team capable of threatening Maccabi Tel Aviv this season. Maccabi Tel Aviv President Shimon Mizrahi knows this, which is why he doesn’t want to finish the regular season with an enormous points gap between him and the second team, only to travel to fourth-placed Haifa for what could be the season’s deciding game.    

“What a terrible league," a friend said to me after Maccabi Rishon Letzion's 20-point win over Maccabi Ashdod that cut short Ashdod's recent winning streak. "Just when it seems like someone is playing well, they get hit on the head and fall."

Sure, we can look at the glass half-full:  After a dull, predictable period, the league has become exciting again in the last two weeks and games are being sealed in the final seconds. Teams like Ashdod come into games as favorites and lose, while previous losers like Gilboa/Galil suddenly start winning. Teams known for weak defenses, like Ashkelon, Herzliya and Ashdod, manage to step it up and turn in some low-scoring games this week at the Nokia Arena and in Netanya.

But overall, the level is not fantastic. Too many foreign hoopsters are running around Israeli parquets or wasting their time on our benches. But at least we’re back to a situation in which every game is a game, so it’s no time to be complacent.

Nir Keidar
Nir Keidar