Import problems endanger Meralco's playoff streak

Meralco's usual success in import-laden conferences has proven to be elusive this 2019 PBA Commissioner's Cup as the Bolts are in danger of missing the tournament's quarterfinals for the first time since 2011.

Coach Norman Black could not help but lament their import situation in the midseason tiff, saying that the quality of reinforcements this time around has slipped from their previous ones.

"This is normally where we recover. We do pretty badly in the All-Filipino and fortunately over the years, I've been able to bring in a lot of best imports. This time we weren't as fortunate. Not that our imports are bad players, but obviously they didn't fit Philippine basketball, they didn't perform well here," Black said.

Meralco has changed imports thrice in a bid to find that singular game-changing force able to propel them back into the knockout stages. The team went with Gani Lawal (26.2 points and 21.4 rebounds on 56 percent shooting) for seven games, but a hamstring injury cut his tour of duty short.

Jimmy Lee Taylor had a crack at trying to tow the Bolts, but his one-game audition against TNT (13 points, 18 rebounds on 5-for-10 shooting) last July 15 didn't impress Black and the rest of his coaching staff.

"That's the gamble you take. You always want to make sure you bring in a good import to help you become a successful team," Black said. "Definitely, teams go as their imports go."

The import shuffle comes mainly from their decision to move away from Arinze Onuaku, whom Black thought wasn't the one to lead them further into the playoffs this time around.

"We had Arinze twice. We didn't win with him. We weren't trying to come in fourth place again, or third place again. We wanted to win a championship. The direction from the management was to go out and get somebody new, somebody better," explained Black.

"There's no question that maybe we would have had more stability with him because he's already been here, he's already done that. But the idea is to win a championship, not to come in the semifinals."

The jury is still out on third import Delroy James. He's averaging 26.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists on 47 percent shooting in two games and even tallied a triple-double against the Batang Pier last night, but Meralco is still 0-2 so far with him.

"[That was] one of the best games I've played in, though, to be honest, in terms of back-and-forth, everybody playing for something. I was looking at the box scores at the end of the game, we won every stat except points," James said. "But I felt like we fought hard, as a team we fought hard. Everybody could see that."

Black wasn't satisfied with James' production on offense despite the gaudy numbers. "Today we needed him to score more. I don't think he was very aggressive offensively but he did share the basketball. He had a triple-double. In any league, any game, you get a triple-double, you probably played pretty well."

"But we needed more offense from him because that's one of our weaknesses. We're not a high-scoring team. Would have been better if he scored more points tonight."

He's willing to cut him a bit of slack, though, since James hasn't had a lot of time to adjust to the level of play in the PBA.

"It's really difficult when you bring in imports in the middle of the conference. It's almost like you're gambling a little bit. Not only the fact that you have to re-teach the whole system again because his new, but the fact that most of the other imports are already accustomed to the Philippines and he has to come in and adjust immediately," said Black.

Meralco still has a slim chance at making it into the quarters if they win against San Miguel and have the odds fall in their favor in the standings. But doing that will admittedly be a tall task given SMB's renewed vigor and the high level of play shown by Chris McCullough, whom the Beermen brought in late this conference to shake things up.

"We play San Miguel so that's very difficult at this point. This was a game we really needed to win. Not winning this game put us in a very tough position," Black rued.

"We're both from New York," James said of McCullough. "Played against him sometimes back home in New York. He's a very, very amazing talent. He could do everything on the basketball court. It will be tough for us but we should be ready."