The PBA is finally back, with a double-header on Sunday (4:00 p.m. on TV5, One Sports, and PBA Rush) kicking off a unique 2020 Philippine Cup that will be played inside a bubble in Clark, Pampanga. Games will be played every day for the elimination round with no fans, and players and coaches will be staying in a hotel during their downtime under strict protocols. Six-time MVP June Mar Fajardo of the San Miguel Beermen won't be around, along with other names like Marc Pingris, Larry Fonacier, and Cyrus Baguio.
How will the teams adjust to this environment? Will Fajardo's absence impact the title odds? Which team is built for this? We asked five of our PBA experts - two of whom, Carlo Pamintuan and Noel Zarate - are also in the bubble - for their takes.
1. Fact or fiction: Without June Mar Fajardo, the field is wide open in the bubble.
Charlie Cuna: Fact, but it's not as wide as some might choose to believe. San Miguel is still a formidable team even without the Kraken and any of the stars on the team (and there are many) can pick up the slack, particularly on offense. Defensively, they will suffer a bit without JMF, but there are many live bodies who know how to compete and make the right plays. There are three or four teams that will seriously challenge them and maybe less that can beat them in a series. What's great will be watching those three or four teams try their luck, with heightened confidence precisely due to the absence of the six-time MVP.
Paolo Del Rosario: Fact. I don't think this requires much thought, considering that June Mar Fajardo has been the single most dominant local in the PBA for the past decade. This is the time for someone to stake their claim to the crown.
Carlo Pamintuan: Fact. If you take away a player as dominant as June Mar Fajardo then the other teams have a better chance of winning the Philippine Cup compared to the past few years where the San Miguel Beermen dominated. This, however, does not mean that the Beermen have no shot at retaining the title. They are still one of the deeper teams in the league with a head coach who knows that it takes to adjust without Fajardo. Remember that they managed to win three games in the Beeracle run without Fajardo so it's not a stretch to say that they could retain the title.
Jutt Sulit: Fact. Even if June Mar was there, I might still say it's fair game for everyone. The league will be in an unprecedented setting. Most of the things players had been used to before will not be there. Not even the fans. At this point, it's difficult a pinpoint a favorite to win it all.
Noel Zarate: Fact. San Miguel will have to reinvent itself to have a decent shot at a title defense and could be involved in several close games where its winning pedigree will be tested.
2. On a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the lowest, rate how much the mental aspect of being in the bubble will impact players.
Charlie: 1. These guys are professional players. They may have lots of idle time to ponder any concerns they have outside the bubble, but the moment they step on the court, it should be all business and the focus should be on basketball and nothing else. Anyway, if there is a dire, and it should be dire, family emergency that they really need to attend to, they will leave even with the threatened fine and suspension. That's almost a no-brainer.
Paolo: 3. Every player and team need a level of mental strength and fortitude for sure. But for the moment I am more worried about their physical conditioning after such a long layoff.
Carlo: 5. In this setup, whoever can focus on the task at hand will win it all. At this point, it feels like we're still on the honeymoon phase of the PBA Bubble. Players are still enjoying themselves as they are finally allowed to play the game they love but things will be different a month when they start missing their families. Like what we saw in the NBA Bubble, the mental aspect of the game can slow down some of the most talented players.
Jutt: I'd say 4. There's just so many new and different factors inside the bubble. We've heard so many stories about players and even coaches being superstitious - eating the same food every gameday, going through the same routine, and all that. I'm not sure how much of that can be maintained. On top of that, of course, they're away from family and the people they care about in the middle of a pandemic. And above all, these players are going to be there for two months. Maybe the first two weeks wouldn't feel tough yet, but it's going to be harder the weeks go by. Believe though that these guys know why they're there and come gametime, they'll be locked in.
Noel: 4. The teams here are still in the process of programming themselves that this is a totally different environment and the team that copes the best could actually negate some of their physical weaknesses if they remain mentally strong. The lack of distractions might actually be the biggest distraction. It's a 10-week business trip and for how long teams subscribe to this fact will be the true barometer of their drive to complete the mission at hand.
3. Aside from fans and family, what is the biggest thing that teams will miss in the bubble?
Charlie: Individual me-time. Surely, many of the players, if not most, enjoy their solitude pre and post-game and in between game days. They will not have much of that as there are hundreds of people all housed in the same building and everyone has a roommate who they can't get away from even if they want to. The camaraderie is great, and loneliness should not really be a problem. Finding time alone will surely be.
Paolo: Probably the ability to leave the 'workplace' and shut off after games. These guys will literally live and breathe basketball everyday for weeks, and will miss having a little break.
Carlo: Having their own time. Everything is measured here in the bubble. Gym time is limited. Leisure time is scheduled. We saw some of these players working out for hours during the ECQ and it's something that might be difficult to pull off with the current set up.
Jutt: Routine. I'll revert to my answer in the second question. Life in the bubble will be so much different from how it was for the players back in their homes. From their usual food, to the comfort of their own beds, to their hobbies and pastime activities. There will be some getting used to.
Noel: The routine of sleeping in their own beds and being their private selves--especially because they all have roommates here. Many have their own ways of coping with pre- and post-game stuff and being able to get away from it all, even briefly, is not an option in this bubble environment. Keeping focus in a focused setting could be quite challenging especially after a prolonged period away from the usual norms.
4. Is there any particular team that you think is built for this environment?
Charlie: None. I'm curious to see though how Ginebra will play without its usual throng of fans in the stands, giving the team a boost at opportune times during games.
Paolo: Probably Rain Or Shine. They have a rugged character that I feel will serve them well in this bubble environment.
Carlo: I can't explain why but I think Alaska will do particularly well in the bubble setup.
Jutt: None. It's a situation no one could have expected or anticipated. Not until it happened. I'm confident teams prepared as best as they can to be ready for the Bubble Cup. But built for this environment? Not sure about that.
Noel: That's difficult to surmise because this has never happened before. The older players will have a tougher time recovering if their teams play thrice in any given week, but the younger players will also be mentally tested. We'll know when competition gets into full swing.
5. Your picks for the 2020 bubble champion and bubble MVP.
Charlie: SMB and TNT. Ginebra probably also. Jayson Castro and Stanley Pringle.
Paolo: TNT. Christian Standhardinger
Carlo: I'll stick to the pick I've made before and say it'll either by Jayson Castro or Japeth Aguilar rising to be the top player of the conference. As for the champion, I'd say the Beermen buck the odds and win it all once again.
Jutt: Champs: TNT. MVP: Christian Standhardinger.
Noel: TNT. Christian Standhardinger.