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2019 PBA team preview: Healthy Bolts hope to break through

ESPN5.com previews the 12 PBA teams ahead of their first games in the 2019 Philippine Cup, the kickoff conference of the new PBA season.

2017-18 Summary

  • Philippine Cup: 4-7 (11th place) - Did not make the playoffs

  • Commissioner's Cup: 7-6 (6th place) - Lost to Barangay Ginebra in the quarterfinals

  • Governors' Cup: 8-9 (4th place) - Lost to Alaska in the semifinals

Additions

  • Trevis Jackson, Bong Quinto, John Nard Pinto, Gabby Espinas (reserve/injured list)

Subtractions

  • Ken Bono, Jason Ballesteros

Rest of Roster

  • Mike Tolomia, Baser Amer, Bryan Faundo, Cliff Hodge, Nico Salva, Baser Amer, Chris Newsome, KG Canaleta, Garvo Lanete, Anjo Caram, Jared Dillinger, Reynel Hugnatan, Ranidel de Ocampo, Jammer Jamito

Biggest thing to look out for

The last three editions of the Philippine Cup has been nothing but disappointment for the Meralco Bolts who won just eight out of 33 games overall.

In the last three years, the Bolts have not been fortunate to acquire a quality big man, someone who could provide double-double numbers every game and patrol the shaded lane for the team.

Meralco coach Norman Black appointed centers in commission like ageless undersized big man Reynel Hugnatan and Cliff Hodge to help Jason Ballesteros last season. But we all know that to do well against the likes of powerhouse squads San Miguel, Barangay Ginebra and even Magnolia-the three conference champions last season, the Bolts just can't simply rely on undersized bigs to win.

Despite that, however, the Bolts have always made a splash in the import-spiced conferences with Black going to familiar faces like Arinze Onuaku and Allen Durham in plugging the gaping hole in the middle.

The result? A consistent playoff appearance in at least the last six import conferences.

Except for the 2018 Governors' Cup where injuries to key players affected Meralco in the eliminations, the Bolts have reached the finals twice the last three times in the third conference behind Durham. The Bolts also came one win short of making the Commissioner's Cup finals in the 2016 season, losing only to the Alaska Aces, 3-2, in a physical semifinal series.

But all that could possibly change as Meralco is set to start its 2019 PBA season with some exciting additions in vastly-improved guard John Nard Pinto, rookies Trevis Jackson and Bong Quinto, along with free agent pickup Gabby Espinas.

Outlook

Meralco veterans Cliff Hodge, Jared Dillinger and Ranidel de Ocampo spent a considerable time on the injured list last season.

Hodge dealt with ankle issues that forced him to miss the first four games of the Philippine Cup last season. He then hurt his knee in a collision with Willy Wilson during his first game back. De Ocampo also missed the entire Philippine Cup due to a calf injury, while Dillinger dealt with bone spurs on his right foot that forced him to miss a big chunk of the Governors' Cup.

But with the three veterans now healthy, hopes are high for Meralco to finally breakthrough this season, beginning in the All-Filipino conference.

De Ocampo and Dillinger are deadly outside snipers. Their combined championship experience could bode well for Meralco, a team that is still in search for its first PBA title since joining the league in 2010. Hodge, on the other hand, is a relentless worker at the post. He may have the height of June Mar Fajardo, but he puts in 110 percent every time he's on the floor. The trio's presence could hopefully alter the team's fortunes this season, considering that Meralco was ranked among the fewest rebounding teams in 2018.

As always, Meralco will have to rely heavily on its grit, gang-rebounding and solid team defense in the hope of breaking through in the PBA's 44th season.

Except for the Philippine Cup, Meralco ranked among the top three teams in defense last season, limiting its opponents to below 90 points in the two import conferences, a trademark of Black-coached squads.

Free agent pick-up Gabby Espinas remains a welcome addition for Meralco. At 37, Espinas is expected to contribute in rebounds and be a solid defender in the post.

As far as offense is concerned, no Meralco player figured in the top 10 scoring this past season, but that's because Black elected to spread the team's offense to a number of players.

Three-point shooting was Meralco's main weapon in 2018. Baser Amer and veteran forward KG Canaleta led the Bolts in three-point field goals made with close to a hundred shots made last season.

Garvo Lanete, Chris Newsome and Mike Tolomia also showed their ability to knock down the three on any given night, while Hugnatan has developed his long-range over the last two years.

But perhaps, the biggest addition in the offseason for Meralco was the entry of Pinto.

Pinto saw his stock rise after averaging career-high numbers of 11.3 points, 6.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds in more than 30.7 minutes of play for Blackwater in the Governors' Cup. He also shot a league-best 56.8 percent from three-point range, helping the Elite to the playoffs en route to a franchise-best fifth place finish in the season-ending conference.

Pinto's contract issues, however, paved the way for his exit from the Elite, who traded him to Phoenix in exchange for Joseph Eriobu. Then, the sweet-shooting Pinto failed to come to terms with the Fuel Masters and eventually ended up with Meralco.

Pinto's shooting, improved playmaking and no non-sense defense will surely boost the Bolts' guard-heavy rotation.

With healthy players and new additions, Meralco will continue its quest for a first-ever franchise PBA championship.