It has been three weeks since a PBA game has been played, but this is still an enjoyable time of the year for PBA fans; the Off-Season. The term off-season, is strictly for the fans, however, as even the finalists for the Governor’s Cup have resumed practice this past week. Other teams have long been practicing, some by the beginning of October in preparations for the 2016–17 All-Filipino Cup. The off-season is also the time of year where each team’s management get to show off their wizardry by improving their team off of the court through the draft (or in this year’s case, a baffling “special draft”) and trades.
Although the break after the Governor’s Cup has been shorter than a usual year, moves were still made by PBA teams in hopes of pushing their team to the title. Most moves are tough to judge until a few years after trades have happened and it’s hard to judge the “special draft” because nobody knows the order of that draft, except for the men in the room that day (depending on who you talk to, that meeting lasted somewhere between 6–10 hours). For the most part, I’ll steer away from the confusing draft and attempt to grade each team’s off-season so far (season starts in two weeks). Here we go…..
ALASKA ACES Grade: B
Alaska stayed pat for the most part (OK, so they didn’t resign a 42-year-old big guy, so what!). They lost Eric Menk and Sam Eman up front, so they drafted big (Carl Bryan Cruz). We’ll call that a push for now. At the end of last year, Alaska traded away Cyrus Baguio for two future 2nd round picks (probably nothing). Technically, that isn’t an off-season move, but I didn’t like it at the time & I still don’t.
Being at Alaska the last two years, I know they put an emphasis on improvement, both individually and as a team. They are a championship contending team, being to 4 of the last 6 Finals, including the last 2 AFC Finals. They believe in their team and think with a few improvements; they can finally get over the hump. They foresee that they can make that improvement on the court, rather than off of it. So while, for the second year in a row, Alaska didn’t make any earth-shattering movement, they kept a good thing going and it is tough to argue with their decision. Coach Alex Compton being with the team the entire preseason (rather than missing most of the preseason on Gilas as an assistant) is also a good sign for Alaska. Barring an injury to Calvin Abueva, Vic Manuel or Sonny Thoss, I’d expect the same consistent Alaska we have seen since Coach Alex has been leading the Alaska ship.
Barangay Ginebra Kings Grade: B
Much like Alaska, Ginebra didn’t do much. Why should they? They just won a championship less than a month ago. Yeah, they did well with “special” draftee, Kevin Ferrer, but breaking into the lineup with Ginebra’s current roster for Tim Cone will be tough. They re-signed The Fast and The Furious, Jayjay Helterbrand and Mark Caguioa. Both proved to be worth it, as they both played instrumental roles in Ginebra’s Governor’s Cup title run.
Ginebra made a few minor moves, but for the most part, they have their pieces in place. With a short break, Coach Tim will have to fight off the championship “hangover” many teams fall victim to in the PBA (See Rain or Shine last conference). It’s a long season, and with the emotional high of finally bringing a championship to their loyal fans, I’ll be interested in seeing where they are at after five games. They have some questions (Will they miss Greg Slaughter? Did Ginebra improve or was Brownlee just that good? Will LA return consistent or complacent after the last conference? Will Japeth embrace being a starting center?), but with their lineup and coach, they have the potential to make another immediate title run.
Blackwater Elite Grade: C
It was good news, bad news for Blackwater this off-season. On the one hand, they picked up the prized Mac Belo in the “special draft” and then Raphael Banal in the regular draft. They should be happy about that. However, on the other hand, they traded their best player (Carlo Lastimosa) for James Forrester. Maybe James Forrester can play. I don’t know because despite being on three teams in three years, I haven’t seen very much of him. What I do know is that Carlo Lastimosa can play.
Now there are other reasons for trading a guy beside just statistics and talent, but Lastimosa had to have more value than Forrester (and a 2nd rounder). Anybody competent can recognize that. We’ll see if Forrester and Blackwater can prove me wrong, but I see another dismal year for Blackwater.
Globalport Batang Pier Grade: B
Despite not getting good reviews after Draft Day, I still give GlobalPort a B. They had to give up Jay Washington, but they picked up J.R. Qiuñahan, who is coming off of his best year of his career. They also picked up Niño Canaleta for nothing (Thanks, Mahindra. More on that later).
Global has the roster and top end talent to win, but can (Head Coach?) Consultant Franz Pumaren get his team to defend? In that answer, you’ll find whether Global can contend or not. It sounds simple, but after watching them defensively last year, it’s much more complicated than that. Lack of individual effort and mindset, combined with no visible team concept, provided a Vikings all-you-can-eat buffet of sorts for opposing offenses. Significant improvement in that area is a must if Global is to come close to their potential.
Mahindra Floodbuster Grade: F
Enough has been written about what Mahindra has done this off- season. I’m not going to waste anybody’s else’s time going over their blunder’s. What I will say, is that the players on the team will play hard and the coaches will coach to the best of their ability, but if the powers that be above them keep crippling the team with their decision making, they will never consistently win. It’s a shame. Expansion in the league was supposed to be a good thing. With some of the moves the two newest members of the PBA have made in recent years, I can’t say that it has been.
Meralco Bolts Grade: C+
Here is another team that hasn’t made many changes. Coach Norman was quoted as saying he was “very happy” with his picks on draft day. That has to count for something. However, they lost Jimmy Alapag to retirement, and there was a big difference in the way the team ran offensively when he wasn’t in the game last year. With Alapag’s departure, Meralco needed help in the backcourt, and they got it when they moved seldom used Rey Guevarra, for veteran guard, Joseph Yeo.
Yes, the team did make some strides after the AFC last year. They made impressive playoff runs in both the Commissioner’s Cup and Governor’s Cup. Of course, they had two prime imports in Arinze Onuaku and Allen Durham to help them in those tournaments. I expect them to be better than 1–10 (their record in last years All-Filipino) this AFC, but will they have enough to make another run at the semifinals? We will see….
NLEX Road Warriors Grade: A
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, I give NLEX an A! As mentioned in the Blackwater breakdown above, NLEX secured a high octane, scoring guard from Blackwater (Carlo Lastimosa) while giving up a player they rarely played (James Forrester) and a 2nd round pick. NLEX also benefitted from the Mahindra fire sale by picked up promising, young big man Bradwyn Guinto for two seldom-used players (Jeckster Apinan and Renren Celda). So NLEX improved on an already formidable roster, but their real major acquisition was at the coaching position, where they were able to lure away Coach Yeng Guiao away from Rain or Shine.
Coaching in this league is not to be underestimated. Coach Yeng is a proven winner. Red Bull and Rain or Shine were perennial contenders and eventually champions under his watch. He is a master tactician that commands respect on the sidelines during games. I guarantee you NLEX won’t be running a 1990’s offense anymore or playing the oldest player in the league, the most number of minutes. His teams play hard and with confidence. Expect the same from this NLEX team. I love this team. NLEX is a team that wants to win, and it shows in the off-season moves they have made. I expect to see NLEX compete for a semifinals spot and if things go right, potentially the finals or All-Filipino title. Bang!
Phoenix Fuel Masters Grade: B
I like the direction this team is heading. Since new ownership has taken over, they have shaken the “farm team” label and now look to be in it, to win it. These are good things for the members of the team and the league as a whole.
Matthew Wright will be an excellent guard in the PBA. I am also hearing good things about “regular” draftee Gelo Alolino. Phoenix liked their draft so much; they release veterans Josh Urbiztondo and Mark Cruz. A key for Phoenix is health. If they can stay healthy, they have a chance to make some noise. They showed trust in the players they have this off-season by not making any drastic changes. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Phoenix chose to continue to build on what they have. I like it.
Rain or Shine Elasto Painters Grade: C-
Rain or Shine is a team to admire. They have been the epitome of consistency over the last few years, going to the semifinals 9 of the last 10 conferences. They have built their team mostly through the draft and developed their players in-house. No bogus trades or hijacking of drafts. They draft well and develop their players, for the most part. They should be a blueprint for the way an expansion should form a team (they entered the league in 2006).
This year is a rare off-season where you can question some of their team management decisions. It all started with Coach Yeng Guiao. There were rumblings in the Governor’s Cup that Coach Yeng hadn’t renewed his contract yet. One has to ask, why wasn’t he taken care of right after their Commissioner’s Cup championship? Not extending Coach Yeng then left the door open for what eventually happened, Coach Yeng bolting for NLEX soon after their rare, early elimination in the Governor’s Cup. Next, they made a bombshell of a trade, when they traded their best player, Paul Lee for 34-year-old James Yap. Rain or Shine also traded J.R. Quiñahan, coming off a career year, for well traveled Jay Washington. Word on the street is that defensive ace and do-it-all wing, Gabe Norwood, remains unsigned at press time. Why the shake-up?
Coach Caloy Garcia could be ready to take over the reigns. I don’t know. We’ll see. Rain or Shine usually fared well when he had taken over for Coach Yeng in the past. Maybe Rain or Shine knows something about Paul Lee’s knee that the rest of us don’t? It’s probable that James Yap and J-Wash’s best days are behind them, but that doesn’t mean they can’t fit into a winning team. They both still have attribute’s that are rare. Mike Tolomia was their “special” draftee, and people are high on him, so that’s a positive. I question the moves because Rain or Shine had a good thing going. I would have loved to have seen them run it back with the same team, even with Coach Caloy at the helm. That’s just me, though…. Only time will tell if these moves will keep the Rain or Shine train of consistency heading in a positive direction.
San Miguel Beerman Grade: B
The champions of the last 2 All-Filipino championships don’t have to do much other than keep their team intact to be favorites to three-peat as All-Filipino champions. They have the reigning 3-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo on their team and surround him with studs at every position. They gave up Ryan Arana, and it doesn’t look like they are resigning Gary David, but they add RR Garcia and Keith Agovida. “Special” draftee Arnold Van Opstal makes SMB even bigger and will provide depth up front initially. Van Opstal could eventually turn into a pretty good PBA player. Barring an injury to Fajardo, look for San Miguel to be a strong contender for the title again.
Star Hotshots Grade: B+
Just two years removed from their Grand Slam team in 2014, Star finished no higher than 8th in the three tournaments last season. Changes were needed. First, head coach Jason Webb got the ax for Chito Victolero. They moved the immensely popular James Yap for Paul Lee. Star, then got help from Mahindra as they acquired Aldrech Ramos for guard, Alex Mallari and RR Garcia, who eventually moved to San Miguel. Finally, Star was able to snag highly touted guard Jiovani Jalalon in the “special” draft.
If you’re a Star fan, you have to weigh if Lee, Ramos & Jalalon are better for your team than Garcia, Mallari & Yap? Unless something is still seriously wrong with Lee’s knee, I’d have to say I like the first group better for the long haul. Although Ramos has been on a few teams, I’ve been impressed with his play the last couple of years. He’s toughened up a little on defense and has even scored in the post a few times. Stretch 4’s or 5’s even are becoming increasingly valuable in today’s game and few do it better than Aldrech Ramos. Star would get an A from me here, but Chito Victolero has a lot to prove to me still as a head coach in the PBA.
TNT KaTropa Grade: D
Let’s face it Talk-N-Text underachieved last season. After winning a championship in 2015, they somehow ended up with the top two picks in the 2015 Draft. Despite this, Talk-N-Text could only make the semifinals once in three tournaments. For this, TNT decided to replace multi-titled Coach Jong Uichico with longtime TNT assistant Nash Racela. I get that part.
The part that I don’t get is, I hear up to six of their players whose contracts expired remain unsigned still, including Jayson Castro, Kelly Williams, and Ryan Reyes. If the management at TNT is disappointed in their player’s performance, I get it, but make a decision. It’s bad enough there is this archaic system in place where players are at the mercy of their team up until a year after their contract expires. Now, here we have a prime example of a team taking advantage of these outdated rules. These guys are professionals. They are adults with families. Many of them have served TNT for a number of years. TNT has had all year to resign these guys, and it’s two weeks before the opening, and none of them have signed?!? What’s going on?!? Their season ended over a month ago! Now, I know nothing about the negotiations going on (if there even are any?), but it seems pretty simple to me: If you like a guy that was on your roster last season, sign him. If not, release or trade him. This process should have been done weeks, if not months ago. Even if the guys all end up signing in the next couple of days and everything seems fine by the opening, what took so long?
Again, I don’t know the full story, but this isn’t a good sign heading into another competitive PBA season for TNT. TNT used to be a destination players coveted to go. It doesn’t sound like that is the case anymore. The fact that so many of their free agents remain unsigned, along with the unprofessional manner in which TNT handled replacing Coach Jong (the media found out before he did), reflects my grade of their off-season.
I love the feeling at the beginning of a new season. New hope and optimism fill the air along with anticipation. The off-season is a home for drafts and trades. Teams are trying to predict the future at the draft or one up another team in a deal. Off-season moves are part of the game that just as easily wins and loses games off of the court before they are even played on the court. While PBA teams are gearing up down the home stretch before the season opens, maybe there will be more movement to shake things up? Who knows what will happen? While we don’t have much control over what happens, as observers and fans, we can only hope that the move our team makes is the right one. To live and die in that space can be torturous, but it is also pretty fun to discuss.
This season is the first basketball season in a long time where I am not on a basketball team gearing up for an opening game. It is a weird feeling, but I am still looking forward to the PBA season. I still will be watching carefully. So there you have it! My first blog post is in the books. What do you think? Please share and comment.