Maccabi Tel Aviv’s coaching change should create opportunity for Dragan Bender

Photo: YouTube | zubinho1965
Photo: YouTube | zubinho1965 /
Photo: YouTube | zubinho1965
Photo: YouTube | zubinho1965 /

Dragan Bender is a consensus top five prospect in the 2016 NBA Draft class. However, after he wowed us in a preseason tour of the U.S. this fall, the 7-1 power forward hasn’t gotten many chances to perform on the European stage this year. He is averaging just three points, one rebound and one assist per game in Euroleague action, and just one point and one rebound per game in domestic league play.

Maccabi Tel Aviv has also gotten off to a very disappointing start in both leagues. So far they are 3-2 in Israeli Premier League play, coming off a disappointing 88-83 loss to previously struggling Maccabi Ashdod. The same situation is unfolding in Euroleague play, as Maccabi was blown out by CSKA Moscow in a 100-69 loss to start group play and they are just 1-3 with their lone victory coming against the winless Sassari. They look to be on the verge of not making it out of the group stage after winning the entire tournament just two years ago.

This is Maccabi’s worst start to a basketball season in 15 years, so they decided to make a change this week by firing head coach Guy Goodes.

Goodes took over the job at the beginning of last season from now Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt, and has had little to-no-success at the helm of one of Europe’s proudest programs. This season, it’s been very noticeable just how much of a mess the squad has been in Euroleague play. Their rotations have been inconsistent, highlighted by Bender not getting minutes and steadily declining playing time for former Minnesota forward Trevor Mbakwe, who’s been the team’s best rebounder. They lack ball movement, averaging just 17 assists per game, and their offense has taken a nose-dive in several games, most notably their nine-point fourth quarter against Brose Baskets this past weekend.

Heading forward, it is obvious that Maccabi wants to salvage their credibility in this tournament and it appears they want to hire a coach who can make use of Bender’s talents. Among the reported frontrunners for the job are Dirk Bauermann, current coach of the Iranian national team and former German national team coach, and Simone Pianigiani, current coach of the Italian national team. The obvious tie between the two? They were the national team coaches for Dirk Nowitzki and Andrea Bargnani during their primes, which seems like relevant work experience when you’re trying to find someone to coach the most offensively gifted 7-foot European since Bargnani.

Either coach would likely be able to coax strong play from Bender, though likely in different ways. Pianigiani has historically run with a wide-open offense with the Italian national team and during his time at Fenerbahce Ulker, and he likes to emphasize letting guards attack off the dribble with one big filling lanes inside and one on the perimeter. That bodes well at Maccabi for not only Bender, but also Mbakwe and Jordan Farmar. Bauermann, meanwhile, coached Dirk from 2003-11, including the 2005 Eurobasket tournament, where Nowitzki averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds for the German’s silver medal team. Bauermann is slightly older, but he’s good at working with forwards at improving rebounding and creating spacing around one-on-one matchups.

It appears that Maccabi president Shimon Mizrahi has Bender in mind with his coaching search, which is refreshing given how the Euroleague season has unfolded. Even though Bender only turns 18 on Nov. 17 — and it’s unreasonable to expect him to get a bulk of the forward minutes — having just played 37 minutes in four games isn’t going to cut it, and Maccabi should be relying on their most talented youngster in addition to veterans like Mbakwe and Arinze Onuaku.

With this coaching change, it appears Maccabi wants to get someone who will play Bender AND make him better, which is good news for draft scouts because it will allow for further evaluation of how Bender’s unique skills could translate to the NBA.