Maccabi Tel Aviv begins a Euroleague Double Week as they will play both Olympiacos and Fenerbahce at their temporary home arena in Belgrade. The yellow-and-blue will look to continue their solid start to the season which sees them at 4-2, but the competition this Tuesday (OLY at 21:05 Israel time) and Thursday (FEN at 21:05) at the Pionir Arena will feature last year’s Final Four runner up and one of this year’s most dangerous teams.
To understand what Maccabi head coach Oded Katash’s team is about to embark on The Sports Rabbi was in touch with a pair of journalists in Greece, Vasiliki Karamouza from Sport 24 and Vaggelis Patas from Newsbomb.gr who both shared their thoughts on what has been troubling the Piraeus based club after starting the season with a 3-4 record.
1) How do you view Olympiacos’s season so far? Did you expect this type of start?
Vaggelis Patas: Olympiacos is a team that has last year’s main roster but this summer lost the most important players in Sasha Vezenkov and Kostas Sloukas. The club has injuries and some basic weaknesses and that’s why they are looking to sign a player which I believe will not be a guard. So, it’s a but natural to start the season the way they have, but I think that if Olympiacos had won the game against Baskonia the outlook would be better.
Vasiliki Karamouza: Olympiacos had a bit of a sluggish start, which I didn’t expect to be honest. But it’s absolutely understandable given the injuries and the absences. One month and a half into the season and we still haven’t seen the whole squad on the floor.
2) It’s clear that they miss both Sasha Vezenkov and Kostas Sloukas, did they not bring in good enough players to replace them?
VK: I don’t think the answer to this question is that simple, because these players are really hard to be replaced. Vezenkov was at the peak of his career last season and maximized his potential through the Olympiacos system and playing style. Sloukas on the other hand is super experienced so he knew how to lead the team, especially under difficult circumstances. Not all players have that ability. Those qualities aren’t bought. Players have to develop them and this process doesn’t happen overnight. Alec Peters has been great so far, because he has more minutes and opportunities now. Luke Sikma was never expected to perform like Sasha. His injury has prevented him from finding his place on the team, so we have to wait and see what can he actually offer. Nigel Williams-Goss is very helpful in the backcourt and has a more upgraded role in comparison to his Real Madrid days. Thomas Walkup seems a bit exhausted at the time, but we already know what he brings to the table, so I don’t think anyone is worried about him. Shaquielle McKissic is also out since the season opener vs Panathinaikos, so when he gets back on track, we will be able to judge better whether there is a missing piece or not.
VP: It’s really difficult to replace players like Vezenkov and Sloukas. Vezenkov could score easily 14-15 points on his bad nights and Sloukas is a true leader and can take the big shots. So, I think that Olympiacos are still trying to find a way to play without them.
3) Will Ignas Brazdeikis be able to help the team going forward or is what we have seen what we will get?
VP: I think that Brazdeikis needs more time. He’s a better player and on a team like Olympiacos could be a great asset. But it’s seems that he is struggling to adapt and it’s clear that is not the real Brazdeikis, until now at least.
VK: Ignas had his ups and downs last year as well. I think he needs more time to fully adjust to Olympiacos. I believe he can do better and so does the club, that’s why they invested in him and paid a buyout to get him from Zalgiris. I don’t see him scoring 20 points every night, but as soon as his minutes and role is stable, he will get into his groove and help the team.
4) What is the latest on Luke Sikma and Shaq McKissic’s injury status?
VK: Sikma will travel with Olymoiacos to Belgrade and he is expected to play against Maccabi. McKissic has started mild training with the team. No physical game yet for him. He won’t play against Maccabi. I am not sure if will be available for the next game vs Red Star. But he is on his way back.
VP: Sikma will be back from his injury but we haven’t really seen him yet as he has played only two periods. McKissic is still out as is Nikola Milutinov.
5) What has happened to Thomas Walkup’s offense the last few games?
VK: As I mentioned earlier, Walkup seems exhausted, even if he never admits it. Last season he played 77/77 games with Olympiacos in all competitions and then he participated to the MundoBasket 2023 with Greece, where he also had an extensive role. He ain’t a robot so his body is not responding as he would have wanted or there are times that his judgment is clouded. I am sure that he will start performing better as soon as he gets the help he needs from his teammates.
VP: Fatigue! Walkup played in the World Cup with the Greek National Team and is playing the most important spot at Olympiacos. He’s one of the leaders this year but he needs some help at the playmaker position.
6) How have the fans reacted to the 3-4 start to the season?
VP: They are still calm but you know when you don’t win, things get worse. For sure, the fans did not like the loss against Baskonia and there is also a little bit of niggling about Sikma, because there is the opinion that Olympiacos must replace him.
VK: Well, fans in Greece always demand more and Olympiacos definitely spoiled their fans during the past two seasons. There are many voices that express the desire for another addition. Most of the people trust coach Bartzokas though so they are not on panic mode. At least for now.
7) How has Coach Bartzokas reacted to the season so far?
VK: I am pretty sure he hates the fact that so many players of his have been injured, but he remains calm and try to work as best as he can under the circumstances. As he has mentioned, he trusts his players and what they have achieved together the past few years so he isn’t rushing to jump into conclusions yet. He pretty much established that Olympiacos backcourt is full, but the team is always exploring the market and if something good comes up then there will be a transfer. I’d say the Reds will make a move for a big guy. Someone who can play the “4” and “5” position.
VP: Bartzokas has his plans and is calm because he knows that he has the trust of the Aggelopoulos brothers. Also, he’s a coach that will not sign a player, just to sign him, he will wait until he finds a player that can fit and help. I think what he said about the trust of his players before the game against Baskonia shows his mindset. But as I said if you don’t win things are only going to get worse.
8) Where do you expect Olympiacos to finish at the end of the season?
VP: I think Olympiacos will sign a player and if the injuries are manageable they will fight for a spot in the Top-10. But this year’s Euroleague is really competitive and you never know what will happen. For example a double week could change everything, it can make you a contender for a playoff spot or you could become one of the bottom teams.
VK: One way or the other, I believe Olympiacos will make it to the playoffs. I don’t know if they will finish in the first 6 positions after the regular season or if they will qualify to the playoffs through the Play In tournament, but anything less than that will be perceived as a failure after back-to-back Final Four appearances. After reaching the playoffs everything is up to the matchup and the current form, so I don’t have all the facts to predict something more at the time being.
9) How do you see the game against Maccabi?
VK: It’s going to be a difficult task. Maccabi has been performing very well even though the team had to be relocated and don’t have domestic games to maintain the rhythm. The fact that the team maintained the same core from last season and that no player participated in the World Cup definitely helped to have more chemistry and a better preparation. I think offence will be the key to game. Olympiacos will need to score more than usual. The Reds currently have the 3rd worst offence in EuroLeague, will Maccabi have the second best. Olympiacos will also need to stay out of the foul trouble, especially in the front court.
VP: I haven’t the chance to see a lot of Maccabi this year but I think they are a good team that is going to fight for a playoff spot in normal conditions at least because with all these awful things that are happening, it’s really difficult for the biggest team in Israel to focus on basketball. Maccabi is not playing in Tel Aviv and everyone know what that means. “Menora Mivtachim Arena” is one of the most difficult places to play in the world basketball.