As remarkable as their play has been in the first half of the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup, active consultant Mark Dickel says there's really no revolutionary secret behind an unbeaten TNT Tropang Giga offense that is leading the league in the standings and in the metrics.
The philosophy is pretty simple: spread it out, play fast, stretch the floor and move the ball around.
"You're stretching the defense just by having guys out there in simple actions. So we don't have to do difficult stuff in order to get an advantage," Dickel told the Coaches Unfiltered podcast. "And really, our job as the coaching staff is to stress being unselfish and moving the ball, because if we do that, the energy of the ball will find the right person and they tend to make shots when you play like that."
TNT's offense looks as good as it does on paper. It is generating 107.6 points per game -- 8.6 more than the second-best team -- on a healthy 45 percent shooting, good for fourth-best in the league. The ball is also distributed evenly, with the Tropang Giga handing out 21 assists per game (fourth).
A big part of their offense is also boosted by their work on the glass. TNT leads the league in total rebounds (46.4) and offensive rebounds (17.2) per game, and that leads to a lot of second-chance (19.8, first) and fastbreak (11.8, second) points.
Getting those extra points is key for a TNT team heavily reliant on three-point shooting. The Tropang Giga are first in attempts (42) and makes (13.4) per game from long range, and though they're only shooting 31.9 percent (seventh out of 12 teams) from that area, Dickel isn't really too worried since they're getting a lot of second chances anyway.
"The better we shoot the ball, it tends to be easier for us on offense. But I don't really worry about that so much," he said. "If he shot and he missed, there's a long rebound. They tend to be anyone's rebounds. So we just try and get everyone to go after the ball. And then when we get the ball, we try and get another quick, quick opportunity again."
The pace and hustle extend to the other side of the floor, where TNT has remained sturdy while averaging nine steals (third) and 4.2 blocks (fourth) a game. Most of these figures aren't really new to TNT. With Dickel on board, the Tropang Giga leaned on a lot on their perimeter game to make a finals run in the 2019 Commissioner's Cup and reach the Governors' Cup semifinals the next conference. They fell short of their ultimate goal both times, of course, amplifying some criticisms that jump-shooting teams aren't exactly built to win titles.
Dickel hears it all, but he says there's one key difference this time around.
"They're 100 percent right. We haven't won yet, so what they're saying is true. I hear the noise. I mean everyone says it, right?" Dickel expressed. "But to me, it's more a by-product of not having the right personnel yet."
Getting reigning Defensive Player of the Year Poy Erram to shore up the frontline was huge, and the team also addressed depth concerns in the backcourt by swinging a trade for Simon Enciso, drafting Kib Montalbo and picking up Jayjay Alejandro in free agency.
"I just didn't think we were deep enough, especially at the guard spots, in order to withstand getting an injury here or there. The adjustment was just trying to find a really quality backup for Jayson, and someone that can start in front of him at times. Getting Simon's been huge," said Dickel.
The additions not only filled the gaps in their roster but also met Dickel's criteria of being an unselfish player who was willing to sacrifice and strive to improve for the benefit of the team.
"It's been a process here. I've been here two years now and it's been very, very difficult to try and get players that really fit what I'm trying to do," said Dickel. "When we sat down with the management, a huge part of it was we want hungry guys, no matter the age they are.
"I'm very, very fortunate to have a whole lot of guys on the team that are really, really hungry to learn, and really want to improve, and they're coachable. I'm not the easiest coach to have. I'm very, very demanding and I hold them to a very, very high standard. Some of them at times struggle a little bit, that's why I've had to find a way to get the players here that I know that really want the same thing. "
It has been smooth sailing so far five games into the PBA bubble in Clark, where Dickel says the team's process of building chemistry was expedited.
"The bubble actually sped that process along for us. We're around each other all day. They're desperate to learn," he said. "For us, it's great, it's kind of a training camp. It really is. We're trying to add stuff to each game, put in another play for the next game. We keep adding to what we're doing."
During the team's 5-0 start, TNT has leaned on the prolific performances of Roger Pogoy and Ray Parks. No other team has two 20-point per game scorers on their roster; the duo is third and fourth, respectively, on the per game leaderboard.
Pogoy is averaging 24.2 points to go with 6.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals per contest. No player is firing (10.2 attempts) and making (4.4) more threes than the 28-year-old guard, and he's making a deadly 43 percent of his shots from that area. He opened the season with a 45-point explosion against Alaska and has won one Player of the Week award ever since.
"He's done the work. He's got his body right. He really wants to learn. He's just taking what the defense gives him. It's not a surprise when any of them have good games. I'm not shocked when they have good games, I'm more shocked when they don't," said Dickel.
The swingman's versatility and willingness to improve is why Dickel thinks Pogoy can continue lighting it up this conference and in seasons to come.
"I'm not standing there saying that he's going to continue getting 40 every game, but there's no reason why he can't have a good game every day. He can do much more than just score. You can play him off-ball, you can post him up. I think defensively he's getting better and better," he noted.
Parks, on the other hand, has done nothing but dispel the negative notions that surrounded him entering the PBA, said Dickel.
"He's so coachable. It's just the total opposite of what people think. He's a great kid, he wants to learn, he's got no ego," he shared. "There's no questions about him, his character, his personality. He's fit right in with the team, he gets along great with everybody. Pretty much all the things you've heard about him are the total opposite."
The only concerns TNT had with Ray were about his shape and buy-in, with the latter having been allayed during the coronavirus pandemic that suspended the 2020 season for seven months.
"Over the lockdown, we spoke, if not daily, every second or third day. I really stressed to him that he was 225 pounds. I wanted him to get down to under 200 pounds. Right now he's right at a 201 pounds. I think that's about right for him. You know, he's 6'4. He's at 9% body fat. He's right where he probably wants to be."
Building a relationship and getting Parks' full commitment to the team, meanwhile, was something he, Dickel and the rest of the team sorted out along the way.
"When I talked to Jimmy (Alapag, Parks' former coach in the Asean Basketball League) about him, I could tell that Jimmy and him had a great relationship. It just took some time to really get through to Ray and earn my relationship with him and really build some trust," he said.
So far, Parks has repaid the price that TNT paid to land him in a trade last year - "I love Don Trollano, I really liked Tony Semerad. They were hard pieces for us to give up to get Ray," said Dickel - by averaging 23.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals on 63 percent shooting. The red-hot Parks is also making 60 percent of his 6.2 shots per game from long range.
But Dickel thinks Parks' ability to pass the ball is "actually his best skill." His 3.7 assists rank just second behind Jayson Castro's 5.5 within the team.
"He's unique in how well he passes the ball ... he's a willing passer," he observed. "And if you look at how we play him, a lot of the hockey assists come from him. He distorts the defense just as much as Jayson Castro does. So we kind of have two guys now that can do that. So when Jayson's out of the game, I can play through him. It's a real, real unique novelty to have."
Dickel has high hopes for Parks, saying the 27-year-old has the tools to be one of the best in league history if everything falls into place.
"I think he can go down as one of the great, great players in the Philippines to ever play here. I think he's really that good. It's just the start. Obviously, he's got to stay healthy and continue to do the work," he said.
But in the meantime, all the focus for Dickel's wards is on the long-term goal of snapping the franchise's seven-year drought in the Philippine Cup.
"We're desperate to win a championship, you know? Obviously for boss Ricky (Vargas) and boss MVP (Manny V. Pangilinan), they really deserve it. It's been a long, long time. So every day, that's what we talk about. And everyone talks about how they can do the work in order to deserve that," said Dickel.
The short-term goal, however, is to stay healthy and gain a twice-to-beat advantage regardless of the seed in order to put themselves in a position of going all the way this conference.
"All the teams present problems, it's just [a question of] 'Can you inflict your will on them? Or are they going to inflict their will on you?' So from that perspective, all the teams here are capable of giving you problems. And if you don't come ready to play, you can lose. So I don't really want to single teams out. That will sort itself out in the next five or six games," said Dickel.
"For us, it's more keeping healthy, trying to improve each game, and then getting to the playoffs and being whole. And obviously getting the twice-to-beat is a huge advantage."