As we reach the halfway mark of the 2020 Philippine Cup, we asked five of our PBA experts - two of whom (Carlo Pamintuan and Noel Zarate) are in the bubble - for their insights on which teams have performed well, who their early award-winners are, and how Calvin Abueva, whose suspension was recently lifted, impacts Phoenix's title hopes.
1. Two teams that have surprised you the most for opposite reasons (overachieving and underachieving)
Charlie Cuna: Not surprised about two teams as most are where I thought they would be at this point. It's just Magnolia, whose play, particularly in endgame situations, has surprised me. Many of the Hotshots are championship-tested players, yet the ineptitude they have shown in closing out games has been shocking. Considering their pedigree, these guys can still get it together, especially after that huge win over Ginebra.
Paolo del Rosario: I think the Blackwater Elite have surpassed my expectations. Coach Nash Racela has Blackwater competing at a higher level and they should only get better with more time together on and off the court. Hopefully we can see the Elite grow into a playoff contender moving forward.
Carlo Pamintuan: I thought Ginebra would struggle in the early part of the conference not because they're a bad team but because LA Tenorio and Japeth Aguilar -- two of their top players -- were late coming into the PBA bubble and had a lot of catching up to do. However, Ginebra has looked close to perfect so far and they're only getting better with the two also regaining their old form so this start could be considered as an over-achievement already.
I also think everyone expected the NorthPort Batang Pier to play much better than this. Although it's not too late, they've found themselves in a deep hole early. However, in terms of the biggest surprise, I think it would have to Magnolia's struggles. They were finalists in the last two editions of the Philippine Cup and were a basket away from dethroning SMB last year so everyone though this would finally be their time to shine. They can still recover, but this start is so unlike them.
Jutt Sulit: I have been positively surprised by the Phoenix Super LPG. Whenever someone like Calvin Abueva is on your roster but can't play, it's supposed to make your team suffer. It's supposed to hurt. But somehow, Phoenix was able to weather the storm. Sure, they were on the wrong end of back-to-back blowouts. But that was against TNT and Ginebra, the two undefeated teams in the bubble. On the contrary, I really thought NorthPort would break through in the bubble. Instead, they struggled. They looked out of sync on defense and, on offense, relied heavily on Sean Anthony and Christian Standhardinger. With Anthony down with an injury and Standhardinger having up-and-down performances, the Batang Pier will need to tap into other resources.
Noel Zarate: Overachieving: Phoenix. Underachieving: Magnolia.
Despite not having all its players here in the bubble available, Coach Topex Robinson has found a button to push to have everyone motivated to perform and not necessarily to win. However, the cohesion they've displayed so far actually makes them a Final Four darkhorse and Matthew Wright could be headed to a possible postseason feting.
Magnolia has playing its brand of basketball but it somehow only translated to two victories. Their three-guard quintet has difficulties against teams with size and they still appear to be groping for form in this environment. The "Bubble Clasico" win could be the catalyst to turn things around while there's still time.
2. Your early candidates for Most Improved Player, Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player
Charlie: For Most Improved, it has to be Prince Caperal right now, right? The Rookie of the Conference race is very tight so far - not one of them has really stood out in every game so far, but Barkley Eboña may have surged ahead at this point. The MVP so far has been RR Pogoy.
Paolo: Early returns suggest Barkley Eboña is a front runner for ROY. The Alaska big man has shown post moves that didn't seem to exist in the collegiate level and he has turned up eye-catching performances. Most Improved Player could see Prince Caperal and Jason Perkins as early candidates. Caperal has blossomed in the absence of Greg Slaughter giving Ginebra enviable floor-spacing with his outside shooting, while Perkins has grown into a double-double machine and is a key part of Phoenix's playoff challenge.
For MVP, I believe that RR Pogoy is a potential winner given his incredible scoring outbursts. But I wouldn't classify him as a clear-cut favorite just yet.
Carlo: MIP - Prince Caperal, MVP - RR Pogoy, ROY - Aaron Black
Jutt: Most Improved Player for me so far is Prince Caperal. The exit of Greg Slaughter from the lineup of Ginebra left a huge void and Prince proved ready when his number was called. For Rookie of the Year, I'll go with Aaron Black. There are other strong candidates like Adrian Wong, Arvin Tolentino and Mike Ayonayon, but Black has been hooping like a veteran. In Meralco's overtime win over Magnolia, the rookie took big shots down the stretch and was unafraid of major moments. As for my Bubble MVP, at this point, it has to be RR Pogoy. The man has been unstoppable. Not even a sprained ankle has been able to slow him down.
Noel: MIP: Prince Caperal, ROY: Adrian Wong, MVP: Roger Pogoy.
Coach Tim Cone has given the playing time of Greg Slaughter to Prince "The Vince" Caperal who has been lighting it up from deep, which has bought enough time for Japeth Aguilar to find his legs and wind. Plus Ginebra is 4-0 with Caperal as their starting center.
Wong may not have had the impact of Barkley Ebonia, but he's such a fit in the Rain or Shine system that there are some already likening him to a former ROY by the name of Paul Lee. Sure, he still has a ways to go to even be mentioned in the same breath as his predecessor but he has earned a spot in the Caloy Garcia rotation and his minutes are slowly rising. He could be a vital cog in the Elasto Painters' push for a deep playoff run.
Pogoy has thrived in this environment. He has epitomized treating this experience as a business trip and has been the most locked in player so far. Averaging close to 30 points per game and bucking an ankle injury that would have sidelined lesser cagers, Pogoy is proving to be the biggest Bong Ravena cannon here.
3. On a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being the highest, how much will Calvin Abeuva's return impact Phoenix's title chances?
Charlie: It could raise the slim chances a little, but he has been away from the game for a pretty long time - he may take a little time to jell and get his level of play to a point where he can really impact things the way he has in the past. Maybe a 2.
Paolo: Calvin's return is a very positive 4 for Phoenix. The Super LPG are suddenly so much deeper with Calvin's return and will benefit from The Beast's unmatched energy on the court. A fresh and eager Calvin Abueva could spell the difference between an early playoff exit and a potential title challenge down the road.
Carlo: Calvin is a game-changer and he gives the team an added weapon in their already effective system. So in terms of their chances, his effect would be a 5.
Jutt: Easily a 5. If we're just talking about the impact he's going to make, Abueva always makes immeasurable impact whenever he steps on the court. The question now is will it be positive or negative impact? Abueva is an energy grenade that Coach Topex Robinson can just throw onto the floor. He can get you 20 points and 10 rebounds on a nightly basis. However, these always came with his antics that did not always help his team. It would be interesting to see if "The Beast" will undergo a rebrand after all the seminars, workshops, community services and other requirements he went through during his suspension.
Noel: 5. The guy they've been dedicating games to is finally cleared to play and that's going to lift their morale immensely. Plus Calvin Abueva is perhaps their best all-around player so this gives Phoenix an incredible lift at the most opportune time.
4. Has anything changed about your answers from the pre-bubble 5 on 5?
Charlie: I did not include Pogoy as one of my possible MVPs. I mentioned Jayson Castro and Stanley Pringle. I guess RR is also on my list now.
Paolo: I initially pegged Christian Standhardinger as an MVP candidate, but NorthPort's poor conference has dampened that.
Carlo: It's beyond anyone's control, but the path to defending their Philippine Cup trophy just got a lot more difficult for the San Miguel Beermen after they lost Terrence Romeo. But I think we should still refuse to underestimate the heart of a champion.
Jutt: TNT still looks like the most solid team in there, but with NorthPort's struggles, Christian Standhardinger might not even make it to the Best Player of the Conference discussion. I'm going to have to change my BPC prediction to RR Pogoy.
Noel: My pick for MVP. While Christian Standhardinger is still an elite pivot, he somehow hasn't found his groove--especially from the free throw line. With NorthPort struggling, it will take Standhardinger a Herculean effort to turn things around for the franchise. But if he can be a major factor in towing a depleted NorthPort squad to the playoffs, then he'll definitely be in the MVP conversation.
5. Your one bold prediction about the rest of the bubble.
Charlie: This is tough. I'll say, the bubble Mythical 5 will have someone new on it, a first-timer.
Paolo: I think a Ginebra-Tropang Giga matchup in the finals is a sound prediction to make, so instead I will go with Phoenix and Rain or Shine reaching the semifinals and being potential party-poopers for the SMC and MVP group giants.
Carlo: We will see one or even two of the lower-seeded teams shock the top four. This setup is ripe for upsets.
Jutt: The PBA bubble is facing challenges and it will continue to encounter more of these as it moves along. It was patterned after the NBA's model but I hope we all understand that there are no resources to replicate that exact formula for the PBA. The league is doing its best to provide a livelihood for the people who depend on it. It is striving to bring some normalcy the best way it knows - through sports entertainment. I can't really predict which team will win or who will win awards but I know that this end up to be one of, if not, the most hard-earned PBA championships ever.
Noel: TNT will go 11-0.