Changing of the guard
If parity is one of the PBA’s key objectives this season, early indicators show positive signs of a more balanced competition in the Philippine Cup with previous low-level teams Blackwater, NLEX and Phoenix making strides in their bid to join the league’s elite circle. Only Kia has been left behind in the race but newly-designated team manager Joe Lipa and head coach Ricky Dandan are determined to turn things around sooner than later.
In the Philippine Cup last season, NLEX finished dead last, Blackwater ninth and Phoenix seventh. The Road Warriors were also the Commissioner’s Cup cellar dwellers. Blackwater was 11th in the second conference and eighth in the third. Phoenix was seventh in the Commissioner’s Cup then fell to 11th in the Governors Cup, prompting new coach Louie Alas’ arrival to replace Ariel Vanguardia. Overall, NLEX posted a record of 11-23 last campaign while Phoenix was 12-14 and Blackwater, 13-23. Kia was the tailender with 6-17.
It took a while for NLEX to hum under head coach Yeng Guiao but things started to fall into place in the last Governors Cup where the Road Warriors nearly made it to the semifinals, winding up fifth. NLEX got off to a strong start this conference, disposing of Kia, 119-115 and GlobalPort, 115-104 before losing to Phoenix, 102-95. Guiao brought in three newcomers in the offseason, veterans Michael Miranda and Ronjay Buenafe plus prized rookie Kiefer Ravena. Holdovers J. R. Quiñahan, Larry Fonacier and Juami Tiongson have scored in double figures in every game so far as Guiao’s equal distribution system is clearly reaping dividends. Also contributing to NLEX’ resurgence are Kevin Alas, Rabeh Al Hussaini, Alex Mallari, Cyrus Baguio and ageless Asi Taulava.
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Phoenix dropped its first assignment to defending champion San Miguel Beer, 104-96, but has bounced back to win two in a row, 125-102 over Kia and 102-95 over NLEX. Alas’ lineup lists six fresh recruits, veterans L. A. Revilla, Justin Chua, Rey Guevarra and Jaypee Mendoza and rookies Jason Perkins and Jam Cortez. Perkins, Chua and holdovers Matthew Wright and Jeff Chan have posted twin digit points in every appearance. The Fuel Masters also count on R. J. Jazul, J. C. Intal, Gelo Alolino, Doug Kramer, Willie Wilson and Karl Dehesa to provide depth.
Blackwater has emerged as the Cinderella team. The Elite bowed to Meralco, 103-98, in its first outing then stormed back to upend Rain Or Shine, 92-89 and Barangay Ginebra, 94-77. Head coach Leo Isaac enlisted veterans Mike Cortez and Chris Javier and rookies Toto Jose, Renz Palma and Kyle Neypes to reinforce holdovers Allein Maliksi, Mike DiGregorio, Mac Belo, Poy Erram, Roi Sumang, Dave Marcelo, Mark Cruz, James Sena and Nard Pinto. They’re playing beautiful music now with Belo and Erram regaining their confidence from injury, Maliksi coming off the bench to deliver instant offense and DiGregorio always a dangerous threat from the perimeter.
GlobalPort and Alaska are also on the rebound with wins in their last games. Last Wednesday, the Aces downed Meralco, 103-98, with Calvin Abueva and Vic Manuel erupting for 19 points apiece. And last Friday, the Batang Pier thumped Rain Or Shine, 78-70, behind Stanley Pringle’s 29 points and double-double efforts from Sean Anthony and Kelly Nabong. New coach Pido Jarencio has injected a strong dose of defense to reverse GlobalPort’s fortunes. In its first two games, GlobalPort gave up an average of 109.5 points. But against the Elasto Painters, the Batang Pier surrendered only 70. Once Terrence Romeo is reactivated from sick bay, GlobalPort will become an even more serious contender.
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Creating parity has meant overhauling lineups with the league witnessing a dramatic changing of the guard. At least 20 veterans were stricken off rosters from last season, making way for new faces. Among the notable cuts were Mac Cardona, Jonas Villanueva, Joseph Yeo, Jeric Teng, Carlo Lastimosa and Reil Cervantes. Also leaving the league were Dondon Hontiveros, Rico Maierhofer, Mick Pennisi, Danny Seigle, Tony de la Cruz, Rico Villanueva, James Forrester and JayJay Helterbrand.
More than 20 rookies are in lineups with GlobalPort taking in four freshmen, Julian Sargent, Michael Juico, Lervyn Flores and Joseph Gabayni. Switching jerseys were 25 veterans, including Ronald Tubid, Jay-Reyes, Dylan Ababou and Rashawn McCarthy to Kia, KG Canaleta, Nico Salva, Jason Ballesteros and Mac Baracael to Meralco, John Wilson to Ginebra, Nico Elorde to GlobalPort and Ronald Pascual to Alaska.
Surviving the shuffles were eight undrafted durables, including 38-year-old Chico Lanete of San Miguel Beer and 36-year-old Mark Yee of Kia. The others were unpicked in the 2014 draft – Jackson Corpuz, Roider Cabrera and Philip Paniamogan of Kia, Dexter Maiquez of Rain Or Shine, Jam Cortez of Phoenix and Gryann Mendoza of Magnolia.