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The NLEX Road Warriors Are A Player Away From Reaching The Finals
If Coach Yeng had this missing piece, they might even have gone all the way
by John Paulo Aguilera | Mar 22, 2018
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The recently concluded semifinal round of the 2017-18 PBA Philippine Cup has left Pinoy hoops fans a few basketball points to ponder:

-Another Greg Slaughter injury has cost Barangay Ginebra San Miguel the chance to compete
-The NLEX Road Warriors were one player away from the Finals
-Magnolia Hotshots got tired of changing their name and being eliminated early
-Just give the damn trophy to the San Miguel Beermen already

All of those concerns have surfaced in the past, one way or another, except for the one about first-time semifinalist NLEX. The Road Warriors were expected to make some noise this time around, following a respectable quarterfinal finish in last year's Governors' Cup and the drafting of Kiefer Ravena. Despite ending up at the No. 6 spot after 11 regular season games (6-5 win-loss record), coach Yeng Guiao and his boys were looking good in the playoffs, even eliminating the third-seeded Alaska Aces in the quarters. And if Kevin Alas didn't tear his ACL in Game 5 of their revenge matchup against the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok, who knows how far they could've gone. So it's not farfetched to think that if they had this missing piece, the Road Warriors might even have gone all the way.

First, let's examine the current makeup of the team. Coach Yeng has the luxury of multiple go-to guys in Ravena (team-high 15.7 ppg 5.3 apg), JR Quinahan (13.2 ppg team-high 5.7 rpg), and Kevin Alas (10.8 ppg). The same goes for the veteran leadership that Asi Taulava (45 years old), Cyrus Baguio (37), and Larry Fonacier (35) provides. Collectively, the three are not only a solid locker room presence, but also fairly reliable in spurts. The biggest revelations from the Magnolia series, though, are the undrafted Michael Miranda (9 ppg in semis, 20 in Game 6) and Raul Soyud (8.2 ppg 5 rpg in 5 games), who, along with Quinahan, have solidified the NLEX frontline for years to come.

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In terms of opponents, it's safe to conclude that NLEX faced a (lesser) mirror of the Finals-bound Beermen. Every other team in the semis has at least two above average big men—a post operator (June Mar Fajardo, Greg Slaughter, Ian Sangalang), whose frontcourt partner is either athletic or rangy (Japeth Aguilar, Aldrech Ramos, both in the case of Arwind Santos)—as well as crafty guards (Jio Jalalon, Scottie Thompson) and/or do-it-all forwards (Matt Ganuelas-Rosser, Joe Devance). The Road Warriors only got the backcourt covered with their own dynamic duo, and as promising as Miranda and Soyud were, they are nowhere near the level of the June Mars and Japeths of the league.

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It's shocking to find out that a Guiao-mentored squad entered the semifinal round ranking 10th in blocks per game with a measly three rejections and ninth in steals (7.4). Despite winning both departments against the Pambansang Manok—44 to 40 swipes and 23 to 13 swats—the Road Warriors weren't too far from their season averages. They were also the third-worst in offensive rebounds (12.6) and fourth-worst in total rebounds (47.5), which Magnolia dominated all series long except in Game 3. Imagine if NLEX faced the more imposing SMB and Ginebra frontlines, although crashing the boards aren't just for the towering bigs, as proven by Thompson (10.7 rpg for fifth-best in the league) and Stanley Pringle (7.9, 13th).

Coach Yeng is known for turning his roster upside down and giving players at the end of the bench a chance. But his magic bunot-laden coaching style isn't without a system, and the seven-time champion tactician needs the right personnel. Between burly centers (Enrico Villanueva, Beau Belga) and stocky guards (Willie Miller, Paul Lee), Guiao's previous successes heavily involved a multi-faceted swingman—a hard-nosed defender and versatile playmaker, the likes of Junthy Valenzuela and Gabe Norwood. This was supposed to be Alex Mallari (9.4 ppg 4.6 rpg 2 apg), if not for his inconsistency. Which brings back the question, who's the ideal man to slide into that ultimate glue guy role?

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Say Guiao's former wards (Norwood, Sean Anthony) and anyone from the semifinalists are essentially untouchables, a handful of names come to mind: either Cliff Hodge or Jared Dillinger of the Meralco Bolts, or if we're pushing our luck, Wilfred Uytengsu should make the Yeng-Calvin Abueva match made in heaven possible. Not even factoring in everything that the Alaska Aces superstar can do on the court (13.8 ppg 10.3 rpg 2.8 apg 1.3 bpg 1.7 spg), the fiery mentor would like nothing more than a player who is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, which is the perfect description for The Beast. And imagine the heated exchanges between the two Kapampangans during timeouts—Pido and Terrence have got nothing on them.

Of course, Guiao coaching Abueva is a long shot like LeBron James in a San Antonio Spurs jersey, but if NLEX isn't in such a hurry, why not wait (and lose a couple more conferences) for CJ Perez?

 

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