EuroLeague coaching gigs come with even less job security than an appointment in the Trump administration.
With two-thirds of the regular season behind us, nearly half the teams—seven out of 16—have fired their head coach.
Some changes haven’t made a big impact yet in terms of wins and losses. Panathinaikos were 6-7 under Xavi Pascual. Now they’re 2-4 with Rick Pitino (and they went 0-1 with an interim coach).
It’s difficult to install a new system halfway through the year, and at a certain point, it doesn’t really matter who’s coaching if the roster is flawed enough. But in Tel Aviv, where Pitino and PAO fell in Round 20, Maccabi are on fire under new man in charge Ioannis Sfairopoulos.
After stumbling to a 1-6 start, Maccabi brought in Sfairopoulos and lost his first two games to fourth-place Efes and first-place Fenerbahce. It seemed like their postseason dreams were over before the season was 10 games old.
Since then, Maccabi have won eight of 11 to shoot up the standings into a three-way tie for the final playoff spot. They won on the road at CSKA Moscow for the first time since 2004, they were beating Barcelona by as much as 34 at one point and they’re riding their first four-game winning streak since 2014-15.
So how are they doing it? With more ball movement, a little less Scottie Wilbekin hero-ball and a ridiculous amount of energy.
In Round 20, Angelo Coloiaro was hustle personified. He was an unrelenting force flying around the court to grab every loose ball and cram home missed shots. He finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds (six offensive) and hit the dagger 3-pointer with two minutes left.
The crowd of 11,000 serenaded him, and he won a well-deserved weekly MVP award for his efforts.
Most teams have a couple guys who play with infectious energy like Coloiaro. Maccabi can put out entire lineups with players like that. They pressure ball-handlers and deny easy passes, and if they get beat off the dribble, Alex Tyus is there to clean up the mess.
This Tyus play at CSKA is a good example of Maccabi’s defense overall: aggressive, athletic and determined.
On the offensive end, Tyus is one of the best alley-oop finishers in Europe. He made 83.9 percent of his shots in January (26 of 31) on his way to the monthly MVP award.
While defenses worry about Wilbekin’s one-on-one scoring and Tyus rolling to the rim, Yovel Zoosman and Michael Roll are back-cutting them to death. They dive backdoor at the perfect moments, resulting in easy layup attempts or kick-outs to open shooters when the defense collapses.
They might slow down in February, but this Maccabi team is legitimately dangerous. They have good shooters, they play hard and the atmosphere in Tel Aviv is daunting.
If I were a top-three team, I wouldn’t want to draw Maccabi in the playoffs.
Fenerbahce dominate Olympiacos in statement win
In December, I said Fenerbahce would stomp the Chicago Bulls and run some suicides afterward just for fun. At this point, we can add a few more NBA teams to the list.
In Round 20, Fenerbahce showed why they’re the obvious championship favorites, spanking fellow Final Four contender Olympiacos 90-75.
As far as I can tell, this team doesn’t have a weakness. They’re locusts on defense, swarming around the ball to smother pick-and-rolls and post-ups. They deflected damn near every pass Olympiacos threw, and quickly turned defense into points.
On offense, they share the ball and work beautifully as a unit. If they need an isolation bucket, their roster is full of tough shot-makers. Erick Green (17 points on 100 percent shooting), Nikola Kalinic (16 points), Ali Muhammed (13) and Kostas Sloukas (12) took turns throwing bombs whenever Olympiacos threatened to make a comeback.
Fenerbahce have eight players—eight!—shooting at least 39 percent from three this season. In the paint, Jan Vesely, Ahmet Duverioglu and Joffrey Lauvergne are all tough to handle.
And not only are they talented, but everyone is essentially in their prime. No one is too young for the moment. No one is too old to step up when needed. It’s a loaded team with hungry veterans, the most successful EuroLeague coach of all time and a cauldron of an arena.
It’s no wonder this team is 18-2 and undefeated at home. There are some tough challengers—Real Madrid, primarily—but I’ll be surprised if this Fener team doesn’t win the title.
Real Madrid fend off rising Efes
In another matchup of top five teams, Anthony Randolph scored 24 points, including 14 in the first quarter, to lead Madrid to the 92-84 win.
If you’re going to watch one game from last week, I recommend this one. These teams are just so damn fun. While Madrid won the game, Efes should be optimistic about their Final Four chances.
Vasilije Micic is playing at an All-EuroLeague level and might be the most improved player in the league. Initially signed as a backup for Shane Larkin, Micic has been the better player this season, averaging 12.3 points and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 54.8 percent on twos and 45.3 percent on threes.
Micic scored 21 in Madrid, nearly out-dueling Sergio Llull, who came alive in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 points in the final frame to bury Efes.
Outside of Micic, Efes have multiple shot-creators, well-rounded forwards and a fun center duo with the physical Bryant Dunston and stretchy Tibor Pleiss.
Efes lost this one, but they’re still in fourth place, one game ahead of Olympiacos. If they can maintain home-court advantage, they could reach their first Final Four since 2001.
Top Three games of Round 21
1. Olympiacos (12-8) vs. Barcelona (11-9) | Thursday, Jan. 31, 2 p.m. ET
Why you should watch: Fifth-place Olympiacos host sixth-place Barcelona in a really important matchup for playoff seeding. Olympiacos won the first meeting 69-60 behind a monster 18-point, 14-rebound performance from Nikola Milutinov. If he dominates Ante Tomic and Kevin Seraphin again, Oly should get a crucial two-game cushion over Barca.
2. Baskonia (9-11) vs. Maccabi Tel Aviv (9-11) | Thursday, Jan. 31, 2:45 p.m. ET
Why you should watch: These are two of the three teams tied for the eighth and final playoff spot (Milan is the other). When the regular season ends, we could look back at this game as the most important in terms of deciding who sneaks in or who falls out of the playoffs. Baskonia won the first game by two thanks to a bone-crunching dunk by Vincent Poirier, but that was before Maccabi’s recent hot streak.
Matchup to watch: Poirier vs. Alex Tyus and Tarik Black in the paint.
3. Panathinaikos (8-12) vs. Efes (13-7) | Friday, Feb. 1, 2:30 p.m. ET
Why you should watch: Despite losing three in a row and four of five, PAO are only one game out of the playoff picture. A win over Efes would be huge for their confidence and their playoff chances. Meanwhile, going into the craziest arena in Europe is a great test for Efes and their Final Four aspirations. This could be a statement game for them, a chance to prove how mentally tough they are with a win in Athens. Efes won the first game 78-62 back in November.
Austin Green is an international journalist and scout covering EuroLeague and NBA prospects in Europe and Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @LosCrossovers.