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The Critical Flaw – Maccabi Tel Aviv version 2016/17

Courtesy Euroleague

Ainars Bagatskis has now coached one game in all three competitions that Maccabi Tel Aviv is currently playing in, the Israeli League, State Cup and Euroleague and has seen various different sides of his team in action. One of the reasons why he has seen a variety of “teams” is that some foreigners only play in the certain competitions. “I heard about this before I came, about this specific situation. We play with one team in the Euroleague, another team in the Israeli League and I’m practicing with everyone together and this is like a third team,” said Head Coach Bagatskis.

On one hand this could be an advantage. It gives some players more rest and more minutes for the Euroleague, plus frees up some space for more Israelis to play in domestic action. On the other hand, it doesn’t allow the coach and the team to come together and jell as a complete unit over the course of time. Bagatskis continued: “For me it’s not easy to keep the players in shape because some players will play in the Israeli League ten minutes and then not play for one week.”

There have been a lot of discussions as to why Maccabi has been struggling this season; the players, the coaches of which we have now seen four, management, the lack of cohesiveness on the court and more. But the one issue that has been consistent throughout this current campaign is that Devin Smith, once the Maccabi star has only been playing in Euroleague contests. Let’s analyze this a bit more to potentially get a clearer picture of what may be Maccabi’s main problem this season.

Without Smith in the Israeli League the team is still a solid 10-2, so the record doesn’t seem to be a big issue. In Cup games Maccabi scraped by Hapoel Gilboa/Galil 77-76 and Nes Tziona 75-73 which is a bit of a bigger problem but one that the Yellow & Blue has been able to overcome. However, Maccabi has lost 6 straight Euroleague games which is a massive problem.

Over the last five losses in European play, Smith’s offensive output has drastically dropped. His shooting percentage from two has gone from 29/55 for a solid 53% over the first ten games to a paltry 7/22 or 32% over the last five contests. The same is true from beyond the arc where again Smith over the last five games is 7/22 good for 32% compared to 22/51 or 43% during the first third of the Euroleague season.

Number 6’s minutes have also dropped by five minutes per game from 32 to 27 but it should be noted that the Real Madrid game in which he only played 16 minutes was taken out of this calculation. Another stat that bears looking at is free throws. Smith is certainly not one that goes to the line often but over the past five games he’s been to the charity stripe for only 2 (!) free throws, that’s it.

Could not featuring in Israeli competitions be hurting Smith both individually and with the team as a whole? “I don’t believe so,” said Smith. “We always have people sitting out in the Israeli league. We have a lot of foreigners and a lot of Israelis so there’s always going to be different lineups. It makes me feel a little better physically but keeps everybody a little fresh.”

Taking this at face value, who can argue with what Smith is saying. Players are always sitting out in the Israeli league, AGREED – CHECK. We have a lot of foreigners and a lot of Israelis so there’s always going to be different lineups, AGREED – CHECK. It makes me feel a little better physically but keeps everybody a little fresh, AGREED – CHECK. Three CHECKS, agreed on all accounts, but is it GOOD? That’s really the key question here that needs to be answered.

Interestingly enough, Smith provides the answer, “You might lose a little bit here or there you know from rhythm on the court but you can make that up in practice.” When you don’t play on a consistent basis and there are some that are playing more than others and some less than others, of course you will lose some rhythm. And I don’t believe you can really make this up in practice which is even something Bagatskis agrees with as we go back to his quotes from earlier, “I’m practicing with everyone together and this is like a third team. For me it’s not easy to keep the players in shape because some players will play in the Israeli League ten minutes and then not play for one week,” BINGO.

The lack of consistency between the personnel that features in each competition is hurting Maccabi more than anything else. But all parties are guilty because at the end of the day, the players are the ones who need to produce and the coaches have to come up with the game plan with the personnel at their disposal and management needs to enable the former to do the job to the best of their abilities.

The critical flaw is that the players are not playing together on a regular basis. This is hurting team chemistry, team unity and the players efficiency. Just look at Devin Smith’s production over the last five Euroleague games, lack of playing time is causing more problems than good. Intentions by management were there and in theory the idea to have a large roster and play only certain players in some competitions was good, but it has not worked.

Bagatskis can make some changes and corrections going forward and he’ll need to do so in order for Maccabi to have any chance to advance to the quarterfinals. At the end of the day the coach summed it up best, “Players have to do their job; play basketball. Coaches have to coach and management has to manage.”