It would be easy to assume no one in the region can knock the Philippines off its throne in basketball after the way Gilas Pilipinas clobbered its southeast Asian rivals on the way to capturing the country's 13th straight SEA Games gold medal.
The Philippines blasted its opposition by an average of 54 points in the preliminaries, and smashed Indonesia and Thailand in the semis and finals, respectively.
Despite those outcomes Tim Cone believes other national teams are slowly closing the gap. Cone got a close look at Thailand, Indonesia and first-time SEA Games bronze medalist Vietnam and believes it's not advisable for the Philippines to send an all-amateur national team to future regional games.
"Teams have improved. They get their own leagues and right now, Vietnam has their own league. They have a lot of guys that are coming from the United States as Viet-Americans in the league and that elevates the competition," Cone said. "And then you have the ASEAN league where the Thais are playing, Singapore is in there, Indonesia, they didn't have a team this year, but they have a team in the past, so they are growing."
"We can't bring amateurs anymore in the SEA Games because they have gotten too good," he said. "We got to bring our best players, and if we bring our best players sometimes, we're gonna have these kinds of games. There's no in-between. You either bring the amateur players or the best players from the PBA, who are the best players in the country and they're gonna be good because they have size. And then we got shooting, we've got point guard play and we got defenders."
Cone, though, said the improvement of other countries will benefit the Philippines.
"Southeast Asia is catching up, and that's a good thing for basketball around the world," he said.
Developing basketball culture
Vietnam was the biggest revelation in the SEA Games after taking home its very first bronze medal.
Kevin Yurkus coach of Vietnam's national team and the Saigon Heat in the ASEAN Basketball League, however, knows they are just starting to grow the sport.
"In the Philippines, well, basketball is part of the culture, from the grassroots program to the NCAA (and UAAP) is just a different level," Yurkus said. "We're nowhere near in Vietnam and we can't tell you (if we're just) 5 years or 10 years (behind the Philippines). It's hard to put a number on it."
Yurkus, who steered the Cantho Catfish to the 2018 Vietnam Basketball Association title, said the Philippines simply continues to improve in the international arena.
"(The Philippines) keep setting the bar higher. They got high international expectations, World Cup appearances, Olympics and then regional dominance, so to put a measure on where you want if you want to be with the Philippines in X-number of years is not fair for the Philippines and not fair for us. We just want to worry about what we can control, and just continue to build on our success here at the SEA Games and hopefully, we get better and better."
Vietnam star forward Justin Young agreed.
"I think as a group of guys, we know that we can match up with the Philippines," Young said. "It's just that the depth we don't have right now. The Philippines has 1 to 12 players that can play at a high level while Vietnam is not there yet," shared Young, one of several Vietnam-American players in the team.
As for former Gilas coach and current Indonesia coach Rajko Toroman, his immediate focus is developing the next wave of Indonesia's stars.
"We tried talking about (containing) turnovers, but these are difficult things. The decision they have to make must be quick and our best player Abraham Grahita had eight turnovers (against Vietnam). So it's not a good tournament for us I think, but this team can play much better (in the future)," he said.
Like Vietnam, Toroman also said Indonesia is still way behind in basketball skills compared to the Philippines.
"(The Gilas players) dominate the rebounds and a lot of points come from fast breaks. They run like crazy and they have great shooters," observed Toroman. "They come from the PBA and they have better imports, high quality games so everything is on their side."
Thailand coach Chris Daleo shared the same sentiments.
"They are strong and deep. They are well-coached, they have big players, educated players," said Daleo, whose first stint as Thailand national coach yielded a silver medal finish, an improvement from the team's bronze haul in 2017.