The hits just keep coming for the Alaska Aces. They have an outstanding coach who knows what it takes to win and talented selfless individuals who put the team's needs first before theirs. They have the ardent support of some of the most loyal fans in the league. Still, all of this was not enough to get them their 15th PBA championship this season.
As head coach Alex Compton said throughout the season, there's no handbook for what they went through but, amidst the adversities, they were always eager to make the most out of every situation. There's a changing of the guards happening whether the Aces accept it or not. Simon Enciso and Chris Banchero have eaten up the minutes of veteran guard JVee Casio. Their erstwhile main big man Sonny Thoss has been spending more and more time on the bench.
They've gotten close to winning a championship again but the Alaska franchise was never really one that would celebrate a second-place finish. They are a proud team that now has to lick their wounds and try their best to turn things around quickly as the offseason will be a painfully short one for them.
Alaska opened the season by selecting former UAAP MVP Jeron Teng with the fifth pick in the 2017 PBA Rookie Draft. They also scooped up Davon Potts midway through the second round, which could be considered a steal as many thought he was a first-round talent. After losing assistant coaches Louie Alas and Topex Robinson to the Phoenix Fuel Masters, the Aces plugged those holes immediately with the entry of PBA champion coach Eric Altamirano and former PBA MVP Danny Ildefonso.
The Aces lost their first two games of the elimination round but quickly found their form with a renewed focus on offense. With five locals averaging in double-digits led by Calvin Abueva's 14.5 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, the Aces finished the preliminaries with a record of seven wins against four losses. However, in the quarterfinals, they were matched up against one of the four teams that defeated them in the eliminations.
NLEX showed their hunger in the best-of-three series as they were led by young stars Kiefer Ravena and Kevin Alas to a 2-0 sweep.
In the Commissioner's Cup, the Aces found a gem in Antonio Campbell. Early on, their import's performance had pundits saying he was one of the favorites for Best Import of the Conference. Campbell led Alaska to a 7-3 start but the caveat in getting a talented import is when there comes a time when he'll have to leave for greener pastures. Unfortunately for the Aces, this turned out to be the case for them as Campbell played last game in a loss to Ginebra where he was limited to six points and eight rebounds.
Alaska scrambled to find a replacement but they got lucky as a former import was available in Diamon Simpson, the man mainly responsible for their Fiesta Conference reign in 2010.
Simpson had an immediate impact on the Aces as he helped them win their last elimination round game against the Phoenix Fuel Masters to send them into the second spot and a favorable matchup against the Magnolia Hotshots in the quarterfinals. Alaska made quick work of their rivals in only one game as the Hotshots simply did not have enough chemistry with their new import Wayne Chism.
What made this run impressive is that Alaska did a lot of it without the help of Abueva who only played five games in the elimination round. The Beast was not able to tell the Alaska management his whereabouts when he missed consecutive games and practices. When he came back, Alaska stood firm and suspended him indefinitely. Alaska also lost Jeron Teng for a stretch as he recovered from injuries sustained from a knife attack.
The Aces not only survived but thrived during the absence of Abueva because of the magnificent play of Vic Manuel who averaged 24.2 points per game in the elimination round while only playing 21 minutes off the bench, making him a Best Player of the Conference contender.
Fate would test the Aces even more as main guard Banchero missed their semifinal pairing against the San Miguel Beermen to attend to personal matters abroad. Alaska gave it their all against the defending champions but their holes in their lineup were simply too big to plug as they lost 3-1.
An eight-year wait finally ended for Compton when an import he has eyed for the longest time finally decided to join the Aces in Mike Harris. While Alaska traded away Abueva before the Governors' Cup, it appeared like the squad did not miss a beat as they cruised to an 8-3 win-loss tally in the elimination round.
In the quarterfinals, they were faced with their old tormentors in the Beermen but, this time around, Alaska had the confidence and also a twice-to-beat advantage in their back pocket. The Aces finally exorcized the ghost of SMB as they only needed a game to dispatch of the Beermen and head on to the semifinals.
There, they battled two-time finalist Meralco which had a string of six-straight do-or-die games. The Bolts shocked Alaska in Game 1 but this only woke up Harris who refused to allow the Aces to suffer another loss in the series as they wrapped it up 3-1.
With the stellar play of Banchero and Enciso, many thought they'd have a great chance to finally get their 15th banner against the Magnolia Hotshots. However, Magnolia pounced on the Aces after a long break between the end of the semis and the start of the finals to give way to a FIBA Asian Qualifiers window.
After losing the first two games, Alaska rebounded to tie the series, altering their ball-screen defense against the Hotshots. Another severe blow hit the Aces in Game 5 as Manuel hurt his back, knocking him out of the series for good. The Aces were sunk by a Paul Lee game-winner in the turn game and were clobbered early by Magnolia in Game 6 for another frustrating end to their season.
What Alaska Needs
It was a unique situation for both the Aces and Hotshots as the 2018 PBA Rookie Draft happened while their Governors' Cup Finals was still ongoing. It was a handicap for both teams as it took away their opportunity to make trades involving players still on their active roster. While the other teams did their best to plug the holes on their teams by dealing with others, Alaska and Magnolia were only allowed to draft their incoming rookies.
Alaska found the perfect addition in Jesper Ayaay of the Lyceum Pirates as he'll be another guard who can pressure and score. A product of a former Alaska assistant coach in Topex Robinson, Ayaay will fit right into what Compton is running to give them another guard option outside of their mainstays and Abel Galliguez.
Another thing that Alaska needs is scoring from the forward spots. If Manuel continues to play off the bench, their starting center and power forward need to be viable options for points. It also would not hurt to add another scoring wingman.
The case of Carl Bryan Cruz will be very interesting for the Aces as the two-year moratorium on trading players from the Gilas draft has officially lapsed. The forward played limited minutes throughout his stint with the Aces but suddenly got into the rotation in the Governors' Cup finals. With his performance, he could either be a trade piece or a bigger part of the rotation for Alaska next season.