Earlier this year, Maccabi won the Euroleague Championship in an exciting upset over the Moscow Euroleague team.
Q: David, thanks for agreeing to talk to ChabDog about the latest developments in Euroleague Basketball, and your Maccabi team. First, let’s talk a bit about Euroleague, in comparison with NBA … are there any fundamental differences between the two that ChabDog readers should be aware of (e.g. are the games the same length, same number of fouls, does the style of play differ, any other key differences in terms of what the game looks like?)
A: The biggest differences in my mind are:
(a) Euroleague emphasizes more of a team game vs. individual talents. You rarely see an “isolation” based offense (think Knicks with Carmelo) like you see sometimes in the NBA. If people think of how the Spurs tend to play, that’s probably a good image of Euroleague; and
(b) the Euroleague season is much shorter, and games are only 40 minutes. This leads to more upsets, and also more intense games – as teams are only playing 1-2x per week … so each game “counts” that much more.
The feel of the Euroleague games tends to be a bit more akin to international soccer than US pro sports. Many of the teams have a national following, so you get a lot of the chants, etc. that you’ll see in international soccer. Maccabi Tel Aviv (Maccabi for short) in particular has the most loyal fan base I have ever seen – bar none – of any team in my life. We play our home games at Nokia arena in Tel Aviv, and the fans there are intense. There are a lot of stories of big games played in Nokia where the fans carried the team to victory. One needs to attend a game there to get a feel for it.
Another very cool feature of the Euroleague that leads to this intensity is how the season is structured. 24 teams are in the top division. The season starts with the teams divided (fairly randomly) into 4 groups of 6. You play each team in your group twice (10 games total). And then the top 4 teams from each division (16 teams total) advance to the second round (so one can see already that the first 10 games of the regular season carry a huge significance – if you don’t come out of the gate strong, you are eliminated). Then the 16 remaining teams are put into 2 groups of 8. You play each team in your group twice (14 games total), and the top 4 teams in each group advance to the quarter-finals. The quarterfinals are a best of 5 (2-2-1) format similar to US playoffs. But then the Final 4 gets interesting. The 4 teams go to a pre-determined site (last year was Milan,) and they play single elimination tournament over the weekend just like the NCAAs. This format, combined with a 40 minute game, means that games are fast, intense, and hugely upset prone. There is a very physical style of play.
Back to Maccabi fan base for a moment: in the Final 4 this year, one might expect each of the teams to bring an equal fan contingent. There were 2 teams from Spain, one from Moscow, and Maccabi Tel Aviv. Maccabi fans dominated. For example, before the final, the crowd was packed 85% yellow (Maccabi Tel Aviv colors) 90 minutes before tipoff, and the crowd chanted and shook the stadium pretty much non-stop until the final whistle 3 1/2 hours later. It’s hard to explain the intensity unless you were there to see and hear it in person.
Q: How would you compare Euroleague with the NBA, in terms of the quality of play and player talent level? Is it similar to major league baseball vs. say the Japanese league or is more like an AAA minor league team? And how do Euroleague payrolls typically compare with the NBA (e.g. are we talking something like a factor of 10X difference?).
A: In terms of talent, if we think of rating NCAA college basketball as a 50, and NBA as 100, one should think of the Euroleague as somewhere in the range of 85-90. Most Euroleague starters are guys who could at least hold their own at the end of an NBA bench. Often they have one weakness that keeps them from being an NBA contributor. But there are many Euroleague players that could contribute in the NBA. Over history, when Euroleague teams play NBA teams, the NBA wins 70-80% of the time, so that gives one a sense of the talent gap.
Money / salaries of course play a large role. As a general rule, NBA salaries are probably 7-10 times higher than Euroleague. But the top Euroleague players can make money analogous to what they’d make in the NBA (particularly on an after tax basis). A big difference appears at the end of the bench. The 10th-12th man on the Euroleague team might be making, say, $150,000, whereas the last guys on an NBA team are often still making 7 figures.
Q: It looks like the Euroleague teams are from all over Europe (including of course Israel). Does this present any special challenges, such as language issues, cultural differences (particularly for new players on Maccabi who do not speak Israeli)? When Maccabi is on the road, are any venues/cities more difficult for a team that is from Israel and/or with Jewish/Israeli players? In particular, how have places with large Muslim populations reacted to visits from your team, and vice versa when Maccabi hosts teams from Turkey and other Muslim areas?
A: There are instances of anti-Semitism that crop up around Maccabi. Recent comments out of Spain after our semi-final win this year got some publicity in US papers (the New York Times covered it), but like any racism, it’s generally spouted by idiots, and I’d rather not give it much oxygen by speaking about it here. But it does play a role in how certain things need to be done/how we conduct our basketball operations.
Q: When you are looking at bringing in new players, is there any special consideration to finding Israelis and Jewish players that might be able to assimilate better in the local culture, or are you pretty much focused on just getting the best players possible, wherever they come from? And perhaps you could tell us a bit more about the scouting process and where Maccabi typically goes to look for new players?
A: In terms of addressing that question, one point to appreciate is that most Euroleague teams are simultaneously playing in their domestic/home country league as well as in the Euroleague. Maccabi plays in the domestic Israeli league; this year, we won the playoffs for this league in a ridiculously close, intense and convoluted home and away series that is much too complicated to describe here.
Since many domestic leagues have rules about needing to have a certain number of domestic players, this greatly impacts how each Euroleague teams builds its roster. By way of example, Israeli Euroleague teams need to have at least 2 Israeli citizens on the court at all times when playing in the domestic league. Note — there are no such restrictions for Euroleague games, where teams could play all Americans if they so desire. So when building a 12 man roster that simultaneously needs to compete in the Euroleague and the domestic Israeli league, one needs to pay attention to more of a matrix of considerations than perhaps US pro teams do.
In addition, many of the top (non-US) players also play for their national teams (think Olympics, World Championships, etc). This is a great honor so very few players turn down this chance. But it means that some players are playing competitively at a top level virtually year round.
Euroleague teams (particularly low budget teams like Maccabi) tend to see a high degree of correlation between on court success one year and roster turn over the next year. This year, for example, we lost the final four MVP (a great player and wonderful young man named Tyrese Rice), in addition to our coach David Blatt (who now coaches the Cleveland Cavaliers after a wonderful European coaching career).
What this means is that we need to constantly be turning over our roster and searching for new talent all over the world. Our scouting department does a terrific job looking under every rock/leaving no stone unturned.
Q: As previously noted on ChabDog, your team had the amazing experience of recently winning the 2014 Euroleague Championship in an upset victory over the Moscow team. Has this had an immediate impact on the popularity of your team, and more generally, basketball in Israel and within Europe? Are you making any significant changes to the team for next season or is your attitude more, let’s not deviate from what we know works? Also, did this kind of phenomenal success shock you, or was winning it all something you saw as a realistic possibility when the season started.
A: In terms of Maccabi winning last year, it was perhaps a bit of a surprise. We perennially have one of the lower payrolls amongst the top Euroleague teams (there are complicated reasons for this), but we also have a long and storied history going back over 50 years. I would urge any basketball fan (particularly if one is interested in the history of Jewish sports) to learn/read about Tal Brody (a top NBA draft pick from Illinois who was asked – and agreed – to forego a lucrative NBA career to play for Maccabi). Tal led Maccabi to their first European championship and then gave a famous quote in Hebrew to the effect of “We just put Israel on the map. And I’m not talking about sports.” 40+ years later, I’m happy to say Tal is still actively involved with Maccabi.
Q: Let’s talk a bit about the upcoming exhibition games with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Brooklyn Nets this October. Perhaps you can tell our readers a little more about how the idea for the games came about … e.g. particularly with regard to the exhibition with Cleveland, and Maccabi’s prior relationship with the new Cavs’ coach, David Blatt (who was previously coach of Maccabi).
A: Maccabi is playing the Cavaliers on October 5 and the Nets on October 7. Both these games were scheduled a while ago. (It is pure coincidence that we are playing the Cavaliers with David Blatt now coaching LeBron and Co. after leading us to last year’s championship … but everybody asks me about that). Maccabi has played exhibitions against NBA teams many times in the past, and it is nice to re-establish this tradition this year. We have also considered doing something similar in China, as there is a growing basketball fan base there looking for top quality play. But one needs to remember that the players pay quite a toll physically and emotionally every time we add exhibitions to an already heavy schedule. The bottom line is that many of these guys spend almost an entire calendar year away from their families.
Q: Lastly, do you see a logical time frame for formal NBA expansion into Europe? Will it likely be done with 1-2 teams joining (like the Canada experience) or will we see blocks of 5-7 teams coming in all at once (like the ABA)…. and what do you think the implications of this type of expansion will be for the future of Euroleague?
A: Looking at this issue from a long term perspective, it seems to me quite likely that the NBA (and for that matter the NFL) will eventually look to expand into Europe. There are many logistical concerns, and I have not heard Commissioner Silver speak about this issue specifically, but with the strength of the European fan base, and the talent now consistently being produced in Europe (think about the Spurs for example and their various contributors from Europe), it seems like a very logical long term goal for the NBA. The argument for this type of expansion seems all the more compelling when one takes into account the fact that there are some smaller market NBA cities/teams that are struggling to compete year after year (I’ll refrain from naming specifics).
David — Thanks for much for your time, and good luck to Maccabi for the upcoming year and for your games against the Cavs and the Nets.