Basketball / Euroleague

The Balls Aren’t Bouncing Their Way

Maccabi Tel Aviv, at a loss to stop offensive rebounds, struggles to keep its deterrent strength.

A top basketball team that plays in Europe is looking for a high rebound player. It’s not Gilboa/Galil, which is no longer considered one of Israel’s top teams. Neither is it Hapoel Jerusalem, which is lacking in other areas, nor even Maccabi Haifa, although it did pass on signing a foreign center.

With a $20 million payroll and three natural centers in Shawn James, Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Alex Tyus, it is none other than Maccabi Tel Aviv that has a serious rebounding problem, both in the local Winner League and the Euroleague.

Because of limiting rules in Israel, Maccabi has only had one local game for which all three big men were on the game day roster, in the opening loss to Hapoel Holon. James has played every game, while Schortsanitis and Tyus have split duties. In principle, two centers should suffice for league play. Indeed, just half a year ago the team relied almost exclusively on James.

In practice, Maccabi ranks eighth out of 12 teams in rebounding. While the team is third in defensive rebounds, it is a paltry ninth in offensive rebounds, depleting its opportunities for valuable second-chance points. Maccabi is overall +0.7 rebounds against its rivals but -2.4 rebounds under the offensive glass. That deficit translates into a potential of five to seven additional points.

In contrast to the local league, Maccabi’s European season is not too shabby despite the troubles and the critiques. Maccabi went into last night’s game at Red Star Belgrade with a 4-2 record. Still, the team’s weakness in the paint is all too apparent. Maccabi has only managed so far to out-rebound Lokomotiv Kuban.

Maccabi trails its opponents by 3.8 rebounds per game and is ranked 18th out of 24 Euroleague teams. Again, offensive boards are its Achilles’ heel - the team is fifth in defensive rebounds, at 25.3 per game, but dead last in defensive rebounds, at just 7.2 per game.

The difference stems from its shooting percentages. Maccabi is fifth in the league. Missing less means fewer opportunities for offensive boards. In contrast, its defense is performing well and forcing opponents to make poorer shot selections. The results are more balls flying off Maccabi’s glass. Maccabi gets 25 of them a game, but its rivals are collecting a ridiculous 14.5 on average.

In practice, Maccabi starts a European game with a deficit of seven offensive rebounds. It is a little hard to beat teams on your level week after week potentially giving up 14-21 second-chance points. Against Panathinaikos, which was in a slump, Maccabi was saved. The same could not be said for the Vitoria game.

In order to understand how Maccabi turned into such a weak rebounding team, just look at the players’ stats. James is still doing a terrific job in the local league, averaging 8.3 rebounds in 21 minutes per game, but his Euroleague numbers dropped from 6.5 last year to just 4.0 this season.

“Shawn started the season injured, which also hurt his rebounding. He will return to himself,” says head coach David Blatt.

Schortsanitis is not the same unstoppable player he was during his previous stint with the team. Even so, he averaged only 4.1 rebounds three Euroleague seasons ago. This season he is down to 3.3. While Tyus is holding his own under the glass, averaging 5.0 boards in 14 minutes, he has made just three appearances.

It is easy to presume that giving up on a natural power forward in favor of a small forward as the second frontcourt player is the source of Maccabi’s rebounding woes. But Maccabi is actually getting more of its rebounding from the four spot. Lior Mizrahi and Nik Caner-Medley averaged a combined six boards per game last year. This season both Joe Ingles and Devin Smith are grabbing 4.8 boards per game, while David Blu is averaging 4.7.

Perhaps the guards are the weak link. Yogev Ohayon has declined from year to year - 3.4, 2.7 to 1.6. He stole away with some memorable, crucial offensive rebounds in previous seasons. Yet in 91 minutes of Euroleague play Ohayon doesn’t have a single one offensive board to his credit. Ricky Hickman is taking just 2.7, low for 33 minutes of play per game; Tyrese Rice averages 2.2, Sylven Landesberg 1.6.

“Players at two positions are not delivering the goods,” says Moshe Weinkrantz of the Israel Basketball Association. “Shawn doesn’t grab enough, and neither does Sofoklis. We see a lot of balls falling far from the basket, sometimes reaching the 3-point line. Maccabi has athletic guards and forwards who have no reason not to chase down those balls, but it is just not happening right now. It is a matter of confidence and concentration.”

Maccabi insiders say they have identified the main cause behind the difficulties and the losses, but the situation just gets worse every week. In the three Euroleague games prior to Thursday, Maccabi’s opponents averaged 16.3 rebounds under its basket. Red Star was fifth in the league going into last night’s game, thanks to its 2.21-meter giant Boban Marjanovic.

Maccabi has also lost its deterrent power in the Israeli league. Ashdod grabbed 12 offensive rebounds and out-rebounded Maccabi overall in a game it lost by 27 points. Bnei Herziliya took 11 offensive rebounds.

“Before the game, we spoke about Maccabi’s rebounding vulnerability, especially with certain lineups you could go for the offensive rebound,” recalled Bnei Herzliya assistant coach Dror Cohen. “Rebounding is in the DNA of every team. Maccabi has no good rebound players. Most of the time they play with a guard at the four position, and then a foreign player goes up against them at this position and makes problems for them.”

Blatt does not deny the problem. “In order to be a good rebounding team you need good rebound players. In general, we are not a rebounding team,” says the coach. Maccabi isn’t planning any immediate roster changes, and Blatt is working with what he has, “so far not successfully,” as he admitted after losing to Vitoria. “We held down an exceptionally good offensive team’s shooting percentage,” he added, “but we failed to take advantage of this because we didn’t protect the rebound.”

Four days later, Hapoel Eilat almost pulled off an upset at Yad Eliahu with five offensive rebounds in the final minute and 15 overall. “We are trying to be aware of the fact that the team can’t do things like this,” said Ohayon. “We watch the video and it doesn’t help.”

Nir Keidar