The race for the 2017 PBA Philippine Cup title is down to four teams, and games are expected to pick up until a champion is crowned by early-March. While the San Miguel Beermen, TNT KaTropa, Star Hotshots, and Barangay Ginebra San Miguel are out to give fans a treat, the eight teams that are already out of the running are reflecting on their shortcomings.
NLEX Road Warriors
Record: 2-9 (12th place; eliminated)
The Road Warriors were supposed to make a splash in their first conference under coach Yeng Guiao, who was hired to transform this team into a contender, in the same way he had molded a champion out of Rain or Shine. Guiao already had the pieces to build a competitive squad—Asi Taulava, Sean Anthony, Garvo Lanete, and offseason acquisition Carlo Lastimosa. However, the Road Warriors had a nightmare of a campaign in the Philippine Cup, marred by a five-game losing skid and a series of rough defeats. It also didn't help that NLEX was hit with another dilemma when Taulava reportedly demanded a trade after his minutes suffered a big dip. Guiao may have to go after players who suit his unconventional style to change his team's fortunes fast. He still has players who can fit into his system, sure, but some of them may have to spend more time on the sidelines to understand the method behind their fiery tactician's coaching madness/genius.
Record: 3-8 (11th place; eliminated)
Here's another MVP team that endured a difficult campaign. The Bolts entered the conference with momentum on its side after barging into the 2016 Governors Cup finals against Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. Despite the positive vibe their runner-up finish generated, there were fans who, coming into the new season, were still haunted by the team's dismal 1-10 performance in the Philippine Cup last year. At the start of this season, the Bolts looked like they had rid themselves of the bad juju that tormented them during last year's All-Filipino tourney, racing to a 2-1 start. But then came the back-breaking five-game losing streak. Strong plays from Reynel Hugnatan, Cliff Hodge, and rookie Ed Daquioag couldn't offset their struggles that mostly led to lopsided defeats. With another Philippine Cup frustration behind them, the Bolts will shift back to the formula that has made them competitive in the two reinforced conferences last season: enlisting quality imports like a Arinze Onuaku or Allen Durham to make them a force to be reckon with.
Record: 3-8 (10th place; eliminated)
Nothing much was expected from Mahindra after it made cash-saving moves by letting KG Canaleta sign with Globalport and trading Aldrech Ramos to Star as part of a three-team trade in the offseason. But even with cast made up rookies and discards from other teams, the Floodbuster seem to have made a solid impression despite starting the conference with five straight defeats. One positive that emerged under coach Chris Gavina's watch was the emergence of Alex Mallari as a go-to-player following four seasons with Star. LA Revilla eventually regained his status as Mahindra's top floor general, a feat that scored for him a spot in the Gilas pool. Who knows what could have happened had the team's top rookie Russel Escoto not succumbed to a major knee injury? For now, like Meralco, Mahindra's quest to make some noise depends on the import it'll parade in the Commissioner's Cup.
Record: 5-6 (9th place; eliminated by Rain or Shine in playoff for quarters)
Elite coach Leo Isaac perhaps gave a fitting description of his team's up-and-down showing in the conference. After one particular game, Isaac said the Elite were playing as if they were having a menstruation: every time they'd win consecutive games, they'd suffer demoralizing back-to-back defeats that halted their momentum, forcing them to find their rhythm once again. The positives are obvious: in Mac Belo Blackwater has a solid all-around operator to anchor their defense and offense. The marked improvement of guard Roi Sumang and the consistent play of versatile forward Art dela Cruz also mean that opposing teams can't afford to be overconfident againts the Elite. Isaac believes that Blackwater still lacks the identity that could help them get over the hump. But this much is clear: The Elite already have the talent to survive beyond the elimination round. Figuring out a way for them to function as a lethal unit is the challenge they have to face moving forward.
Rain or Shine Elasto Painters
Record: 5-6 (8th place; eliminated by San Miguel in the quarterfinals)
Life in the post-Guiao era appeared to be business-as-usual for the tough and gritty Elasto Painters. Amid offseason moves that sent erswhile team studs Paul Lee and JR Quinahan to Star and Globalport respectively, Rain or Shine looked like an automatic playoff-bound team from the get-go, winning five of its first seven games. Then came their Friday the 13th meltdown against San Miguel—a game that saw the Painters lose a six-point lead in regulation before falling in overtime. From there, everything that went right in the early goings of the elimination for them seemed to have vanished. They dropped four straight games and newly installed coach Caloy Garcia groped for form as he tinkered with the team's rotation. They made the quarterfinals after defeating Blackwater in a one-game playoff. But mighty San Miguel easily dispatched them when the quarterfinals began. The Elasto Painters remain one of the top teams in the league roster-wise, with James Yap, Beau Belga, Jeff Chan, Gabe Norwood, and Jericho Cruz still in its fold. A healthy Raymond Almazan next conference, coupled with a strong import, could help the Elasto Painters to regain their footing as they look to defend the Commissioner's Cup crown.
Phoenix Fuel Masters
Record: 6-5 (6th place; eliminated by Star in the quarterfinals)
Though a game above .500, Phoenix's habit of losing big stretched into the quarterfinals where Star bludgeoned them in two games by an average of 27 points (the Hotshots was the team that dealt Phoenix a 44-point defeat in December). The Fuel Masters can light it up on offense, especially with the Fil-Canadian rookie Matthew Wright firmly established as their budding go-to-guy. The deadly Wright led all rookies with an 18.5 points per game clip, third overall after the quarters. As his seasoning continues, Wright will further blossom into a star. Right now, though, he needs help from the improving Simon Enciso and veterans JC Intal and Cyrus Baguio to bolster the Fuel Masters' offense and easily abused defense.
Globalport Batang Pier
Record: 6-5 (5th place; eliminated by TNT in the quarterfinals)
Franz Pumaren brought Globalport back to the quarterfinals in his first conference as coach (Pumaren served as an active consultant last conference to avoid conflict with his role as Adamson Falcons mentor). Batang Pier had a whirlwind conference, with Terrence Romeo once again acting as the team's main man. He led the elminations in scoring at close to 29 per game, while his six assists per contest was second in the league. Despite having Romeo and his impressive backcourt partner in Stanley Pringle, though, Globalport still remains a one-dimensional team, lacking the inside presence that can ease the load for resident toughie Quinahan, who impressed on both ends after his arrival from Rain or Shine.
Record: 7-4 (2nd place; eliminated by Ginebra in the quarterfinals)
Another heartbreaking exit spoiled what was otherwise an outstanding conference for the Aces. Their tough, no-nonsense defense enabled them to gain the No. 2 seed after the eliminations. However, the Aces have been wracked by injuries all conference, with the mercurial Calvin Abueva dealing with aches and pains and the duo of Chris Banchero and Noy Baclao spending the remainder of the elimination on the bench. It was a blessing that rookie Carl Byran Cruz and Jake Pascual proved to be reliable subs who complemented Abueva and Vic Manuel. Despite the injuries, the Aces still had it took to repeat as Philippine Cup finalist, but they wasted their twice-to-beat advantage to Ginebra, squandering a 17-point lead in their first match, before bowing to the PBA crowd darlings in the rubber match. The Aces already have the components in place to potentially vie for the Finals. Sharper concentration, especially during end game, is a must for them to rediscover their championship form.