The 44th season of the PBA was all about big moves and what could have been for the TNT KaTropa. It will be the fourth straight season that TNT will end without winning a title, but they were able to take a step forward by returning to the PBA Finals after a five-conference absence.
It was the year of big-name prospects for the KaTropa as they got imports with legitimate NBA pedigree in Terrence Jones and KJ McDaniels. It also saw the rise of two youngsters in RR Pogoy and Troy Rosario. It was Year 11 of Jayson Castro and "The Blur" showed no signs of slowing down.
TNT pulled the trigger on huge trades in their quest to win another PBA title but they painfully fell short on every turn.
After a frustrating ending to the 43rd Season of the PBA, which saw them miss the playoffs of the Governors' Cup, it was clear that the KaTropa needed to make improvements to win a championship. TNT's moves at the start were limited. They managed to pluck Jay Washington from free agency but it quickly became apparent that they would need to pick up better and younger talents to compete.
They were stuck in an awkward situation with Jericho Cruz who was healthy but not in their lineup. What made this even more difficult to accept was that trading for Cruz cost them Kris Rosales and TNT's 2018 first round draft pick. It ended up being the fifth pick overall, which Rain or Shine used to select Javee Mocon. At that stage, Abu Tratter and Bong Quinto were still on the board and any of those three players would have quickly been rotation players for the KaTropa.
TNT did well enough to finish with a 7-4 record with Ginebra and San Miguel Beer for the third, fourth, and fifth spots. The KaTropa matched up early against the Beermen, who were gunning for their fifth straight Philippine Cup Trophy, and were eliminated in the quarterfinals.
The KaTropa then loaded up with an outstanding talent in Jones who quickly set himself apart from the rest of the imports as he was simply on another level. TNT was involved in the most infamous game of the season against the Phoenix Pulse Fuel Masters that saw Jones getting slapped with a 70,000-peso fine and Calvin Abueva drawing an indefinite suspension from the PBA.
They only lost a single game in the elimination round as they were the first seed heading into the playoffs. TNT was pushed to a do-or-die game with eight-seeded Alaska but they recovered in their next match.
In the semis, they took on defending champion Barangay Ginebra with resident import Justin Brownlee but even his presence was not enough to overcome Jones as the KaTropa won the series 3-1.
The Commissioner's Cup Finals would be one for the books as it drew a lot of attention even from fans of other teams because of the drama between the two camps. After winning Game 1, TNT could have been in complete control of the series as they seemed headed to a Game 2 win. However, emotions and nerves got the better of them as Jones was baited into an unnecessary hit on Chris Ross, which led to a technical foul and the import's disqualification from the match. Missed free throws and an epic play from Ross and Alex Cabagnot turned the game into a double-overtime classic, which SMB would win 127-125.
Although TNT rebounded with a Game 3 victory, it was clear that they were already on the ropes as the Beermen were gaining rhythm while the KaTropa could barely get anything from their bench as they missed the services of Anthony Semerad who hurt his shoulder in the semifinals.
Jones and Castro won the Best Import and Best Player of the Conference awards but it was SMB that picked up the championship.
This loss made the KaTropa even hungrier as they selected McDaniels. They got into an early rhythm as they won their first seven games of the conference but ran into a bit of trouble when Castro was injured.
TNT made moves as they felt chemistry was something they could sacrifice for talent and picked up Mike DiGregorio from Blackwater for Brian Heruela. They doubled down by trading away Anthony Semerad, Don Trollano, and a 2021 first round pick for Ray Parks.
The entry of Parks paid off big time in the quarterfinals as he sank two free throws to win the game against the defending champion Magnolia Hotshots in the quarterfinals. Like what happened in the Commissioner's Cup Finals, TNT was also up 2-1 in the series against the Meralco Bolts but Allen Durham was simply too hot for their defense to handle as Meralco arranged the completion of their trilogy against Barangay Ginebra in the Finals of the 2019 PBA Governors' Cup.
What they need
The first item on the list for TNT in the upcoming season is to get a big. They used to have one in Moala Tautuaa but they thought trading him away was worth the risk that was Terrence Romeo. Their fellow MVP teams already got high caliber bigs as NLEX traded for JP Erram and Meralco parted with a couple of future first round picks to get Raymond Almazan.
The problem for the KaTropa is that there are not a lot of top caliber bigs in the PBA and, right now, none of them may be on the market, so they'll have to be very creative or perhaps part with some of the top talents in their team to get the big man they'll need, especially for the 2020 Philippine Cup.
Kelly Williams was their main center last season but he's already 37 years old and Yousef Taha has not shown the consistency needed to become a reliable big man.
TNT did well in the draft. They wanted Adrian Wong but he was already scooped up by Rain or Shine with the fifth pick. They got a guard in Kib Montalbo in the first round, a wing in Simon Camacho in the third round, and took a chance on Val Chauca for the 41st pick overall.
Now they will have a lot of thinking to do on how to build their upcoming roster. Their problem in the import conferences was that they ran low of serviceable players, which put so much pressure on their starting unit to play well every game.
TNT is a team that is only a couple of players away from winning another championship but the quest to get a hold of the help they need will be tough.