Year in Review 2018: PBA enters 43rd season under new regime (Part 2)

Editor's note: the ESPN5.com team looks back at 2018's top stories in local sports with our Year in Review series. Read Part 1 of our PBA year-ender here.

The San Miguel Corporation dominated the 43rd season of the PBA.

The three teams under the SMC umbrella - San Miguel Beer, Ginebra, and Magnolia - each won a championship in the season that was, beginning with the flagship franchise, the Beermen, lording over the Philippine Cup for the fourth straight year.

San Miguel and Magnolia were so dominant they were in the finals twice. The Gin Kings, meanwhile, reached the semifinals of the All-Filipino and Governors' Cup, respectively, and bested the Beermen in the finals of Commissioner's Cup for their first championship in the said conference in 21 years.

There were great teams like Alaska, Meralco, NLEX, TNT, and Rain or Shine. But the three SMC teams proved they are a cut above the rest - at least this season.

Here's a recap of their championship conquests.


The San Miguel Beermen began the new season without Christian Standhardinger. The top overall pick in the 2017 Draft only suited up for the Beermen starting in the middle of the Commissioner's Cup owing to his obligation to Hong Kong Eastern in the ASEAN Basketball League.

But San Miguel was already a formidable squad that had the league on its heels even without Standhardinger. And that conference, they made a strong case for being the best team ever assembled.

Over the years, San Miguel has drawn comparisons with the Beermen of old and other great teams in the 43-year-old league. But the one thing that always made this current crew a cut above the rest was its top dog: June Mar Fajardo.

Fajardo is the league's reigning four-time MVP. He set a record sixth Best Player of the Conference Plum during that conference, leapfrogging mentor and former SMB great Danny Ildefonso who had five under his belt.

The 6-10 slotman is perhaps the most dominant post-up player the league has ever seen. Surround him with shooters - not to mention clutch shooters - like Alex Cabagnot, Marcio Lassiter, and Arwind Santos, plus a pesky defender in Chris Ross, and you have a team capable of establishing itself as a dynasty.

With a roster that looked like the national team on paper, SMB had made the Philippine Cup its playground, winning the last three editions. The Beermen showed their championship pedigree, topping the elimination round (8-3) before taking down perennial contenders TNT and Ginebra in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.

Fajardo and the Beermen once again asserted their dominance, lording over Magnolia in five games in the finals for their 25th title - the most in the league.

As humble as he was off the court, Fajardo showed no mercy as he battered the Hotshots on all fronts on his way to a Herculean 42-point, 20-rebound performance in a series-clinching 108-99 double overtime victory.

That was a night of firsts: Fajardo went on to win his first Finals MVP award and SMB became the first team to win four straight All-Filipino titles.


One of the highlights of the mid-season conference was the lifting of the PBA's lifetime ban on Renlado Balkman. Balkman was banned for life by former commissioner Chito Salud after the choking incident with Petron teammate Arwind Santos in 2012.

Balkman got his second chance with San Miguel after replacing Troy Gillenwater. He was eager to settle an unfinished business with the franchise.

It could have been a great story: Balkman returning to the PBA after five years and leading the Beermen to their 26th championship.

At first it looked things were going their way as Standhardinger also joined the team after his ABL stint. But Ginebra, led by probably the best import the franchise has ever had, rained on the Beermen's parade.

Before meeting in the finals, Ginebra (5th seed) and the Beermen (6th) had a rough road. Ginebra outlasted Meralco in the quarterfinals before taking down top seed Rain or Shine in the semifinals. The Beermen, on the other hand, ousted TNT and bested Alaska to advance to the finals.

It was a series that had all the trappings of a classic. In the previous conferences, the Beermen were invincible. But the Gin Kings, complete and healthy, found a way to beat the mighty Beermen.

Greg Slaughter made a world of difference for Ginebra. While most teams doubled Fajardo, Ginebra sent the 7-foot behemoth to guard the MVP. Although Fajardo delivered his usual numbers, the single coverage allowed the Gin Kings to shut down the other four shooters of SMB en route to the championship, 4-2. The Gin Kings, in fact, trailed 1-2 before winning the next three games to capture their first title in the Commissioner's Cup in 21 years.

It was Scottie Thompson, though, who won the Finals MVP for his all-around brilliance throughout the series. In the series-clinching Game 6, he had 12 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists. But his brightest moment came when he dropped 20 points, including the game-winner in Game 5.


In the last two editions of the season-ending conference, Ginebra and Meralco had been on top with imports Justin Brownlee and Allen Durham, respectively, leading the charge. But they failed to advance to the finals this time.

With Brownlee at the forefront, Ginebra looked like it was bound for a return trip to the finals. It topped the elimination round, beat NLEX with ease in the quarterfinals to arrange a Manila Clasico semifinals against Magnolia.

Magnolia leaned on its pesky guards, whose leech-like defense bothered Ginebra's frontcourt the whole series. The Hotshots took the best-of-five affair, 3-1.

Meanwhile, Meralco's ascent to the playoffs paled in comparison to Ginebra's. The Bolts have struggled to find their spark, losing their first six games of the conference. But they persevered, with former Best Import Durham doing almost everything for the Bolts.

They managed to snag a couple of wins including an upset win against the Beermen and secured the No. 7 spot heading into the playoffs where they faced twice-to-beat Phoenix. But Durham was a different kind of beast in the playoffs and towed Meralco to the semifinals.

But the penultimate stage was a different story. Mike Harris and the Aces ousted Meralco, 3-1, to set up a finals meeting with Romeo Travis's Magnolia Hotshots.

Magnolia won the first two matches with ease, but Alaska retaliated by taking Games 3 and 4 behind Harris. But the most critical moment was Paul Lee's game-winning leaner with 1.3 seconds in Game 5 that gave the Hotshots the series lead.

In Game 6, it was all Magnolia. Alaska didn't look like the same team that had stomped its class on the way to the finals. Mark Barroca, who was steady the whole series won the Finals MVP award.

It was championship No. 14 for the Hotshots, the first since the franchise achieved a Grand Slam in 2014 under legendary coach Tim Cone.