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.
Philippine Cup: 6-5 (6th) -- Lost to Magnolia in Semifinals
Commissioner's Cup: 2-9 (11th) -- Missed playoffs
Governors' Cup: 5-6 (8th) -- Lost to Brgy. Ginebra in Quarterfinals
Poy Erram, Marion Magat (IR), Papot Paredes (IR), Kyles Lao (IR), Paul Varilla, Kris Porter
Jonathan Uyloan, Emman Monfort, Michael Miranda, Dave Marcelo, Alex Mallari, Fonso Gotladera
Rest of the Roster
Juami Tiongson, Jansen Rios, Kevin Alas, Cyrus Baguio, Philip Paniamogan, Larry Fonacier, Raul Soyud, Kenneth Ighalo, Mac Tallo, JR Quiñahan, Bong Galanza, Asi Taulava, Kiefer Ravena (suspended by FIBA until August)
Biggest things to look out for
Two names: Kevin Alas and Poy Erram.
The return of Alas from an ACL tear is deemed to be among the fastest recoveries from that nature of an injury in the league. It, of course, helps that Alas just turned 27 and has kept trim despite not being to play competitively for almost 10 months (he was cleared to resume contact drills in November).
With Alas back in the roster, coach Yeng Guiao can now have the offense go through one of his original starting point guards that helped propel NLEX to their first Final Four appearance in franchise history last Philippine Cup. Even if Kiefer Ravena is still serving out his FIBA-imposed 18 month ban, Alas can now take the reins and have the support of a multitude of backcourt mates to have him dictate the flow.
Last season, Guiao showed that he liked to go for smaller line-ups against slower teams and wasn't bashful in deploying three guards for a majority of the tiff. However, with Alex Mallari's departure, the Road Warriors will have to rely on some younger, untested cagers to sustain that notion. Alas, though, will be the focal point of many NLEX games and his budding partnership with newly-acquired Poy Erram will be among the most anticipated in the new season.
Erram, shipped to the Road Warriors by Blackwater Elite in exchange for 2018 lottery picks Paul Desiderio (4th overall) and Abu Tratter (7th overall), now fortifies the interior defense that used to lean on the likes of Michael Miranda, back-up Raul Soyud and on occasion the Ageless Rock Asi Taulava. Erram is the last recipient of the PBA's Defensive Player of the Year citation and his norm of over two blocks a game last season earned him his first ever Mythical selection in the recently concluded Leo Awards and also got chosen by Guiao himself to Gilas Pilipinas.
One thing that Erram brings to the proverbial table for the Road Warriors is his uncanny timing on the pick-and-roll as he showcased on countless occasions for the Elite last season with John Pinto (now with the Meralco Bolts). Alas is also one who thrives on that play. If Alas and Erram can get that PnR action down to a science, then NLEX will jack up their field goal percentages and allow its known gunners like Larry Fonacier, Philip Paniamogan and even rookie Paul Varilla to have a zillion open looks.
Guiao made it clear during the many interviews he gave out to the media during his Gilas practices that handling the national team is his patriotic duty, but his coaching of NLEX puts food on the table. Guiao knows he has to prove why he dealt perhaps two of the most touted newbies for Erram and that has to begin right off the bat in the Philippine Cup. Imagine a starting line-up composed of Alas, Mac Tallo (combo guard), Fonacier, JR Quiñahan and Erram. Guiao will most likely use this combination a lot in the latter stages of the game as his finishing five.
It is common knowledge, of course, that two players don't actually define a team and despite all the future praises for Alas and Erram, it will still be how cohesive NLEX is that will determine how deep they go this season. Guiao uses intelligent players to run an intricate system that appears to be more free-flowing than it actually is. The mere fact that he practically moved heaven and earth to nab Erram could mean that he has a lot of faith in what this combination can provide from the get-go. The Road Warriors are decent in all departments, but they are not elite in any.
Once Ravena rejoins the fray sometime during the Commissioner's Cup is where we will see where all of this is going for the Road Warriors.
For now, it will be how solid the unit can become to compete in a conference they almost went all the way in last year. Can Erram become the dominating pivot he was slowly becoming in past two season, or will he reset and start from scratch? Can Alas be the leader everyone believes he can be? Will the veterans and youngsters mesh on a nightly basis? Will Guiao's preoccupation with his "patriotic duty" hamper the Road Warriors' quests?
NLEX could emerge as the surprise team of the Philippine Cup and if they get the right reinforcements in the import-laiden conferences, then this might actually be a true breakout season for the fifth year franchise and one that could cement Guiao's impending legacy as among the most iconic mentors.
But they may have to hurdle a few obstacles before they could run on fifth gear. They have the pieces. Now it's time to get every component together.
And once Ravena returns, their destiny will be in their own hands.