2019 PBA Philippine Cup preview: Can San Miguel extend its all-Filipino reign?

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 12 2019 12:50 PM | Updated as of Jan 12 2019 11:31 PM

MANILA, Philippines—Not even a month after wrapping up its 43rd season, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) is ready to begin a new year.

The league opens its 44th season on Sunday at the Philippine Arena, with Barangay Ginebra and TNT KaTropa getting the ball rolling in the 2019 PBA All-Filipino Cup.

Before that, however, the PBA will officially close its 43rd season with the Leo Awards to honor its brightest stars from last year.

The three teams under the San Miguel Corp. — San Miguel Beer, Barangay Ginebra, and Magnolia — have been tagged as favorites in the Philippine Cup after ruling the three conferences last year, with the Beermen favored to annex a fifth straight All-Filipino crown.

It would be foolish to count out any team, however, especially after a brief but busy offseason that saw several franchises overhaul their rosters and draft talented rookies who can make an immediate impact.

COLUMBIAN DYIP

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 1-10
First game: versus San Miguel Beer (January 18, Friday, Cuneta Astrodome)

Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Columbian Dyip, which played as Kia Picanto in last season's All-Filipino Conference, managed just one victory in the tournament and failed to make it to the playoffs. They would not experience much success the rest of the season, and finished with just six wins against 27 losses. Their woeful record rewarded them with the No. 1 pick in the rookie draft, which they used to select former Lyceum star CJ Perez.

With the versatile, athletic Perez in their lineup, Columbian Dyip is expected to make more noise in the season-opening conference. They certainly have one of the younger rosters in the league, with Perez teaming up with Jerramy King, Rashawn McCarthy, and fellow rookie JP Calvo to carry the load for Columbian. It remains to be seen, however, if their youth movement will quickly translate to wins.

Perez, for his part, enters his rookie year on a hopeful note. "Marami silang aabangan para sa Columbian Dyip," he said. "Kung ibibigay namin 'yung best effort namin, makakasilat at makakakuha kami ng panalo ngayon."

MERALCO BOLTS

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 4-7
First game: Phoenix (January 16, Wednesday, Araneta Coliseum)

Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

There is no denying that the All-Filipino Conference has been the Achilles' heel of a Meralco team that generally plays well during the reinforced conferences. With their undersized frontcourt, the Bolts have struggled to deal with players such as San Miguel Beer's June Mar Fajardo and Ginebra's Greg Slaughter, even as their young backcourt headlined by Baser Amer continues to impress.

The Bolts have reason to be hopeful for a better campaign this year, though. For the first time in a while, they enter the season with a full complement of players, as Ranidel de Ocampo, Jared Dillinger, and Cliff Hodge are now all healthy. All three players missed out on last year's Philippine Cup.

"I'm hoping that will make a difference in our performance, and we'll be able to play a lot better this conference," said Meralco coach Norman Black, who is targeting no less than a playoff appearance this year.

"I wanna make the quarters, I wanna make the semifinals. Finals, we have to wait and see, but to make the semifinals would be a big accomplishment for us this conference."

BLACKWATER ELITE

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 5-6
First game: versus NorthPort (January 16, Wednesday, Araneta Coliseum)

Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Blackwater had an up-and-down campaign in last year's All-Filipino Cup, booking impressive wins over Ginebra and San Miguel, but a four-game skid midway through the conference dented its chances of advancing to the playoffs.

The Elite now enter the new season as a much-changed squad. Gone is center Poy Erram, the team's pillar of strength the past few years, though they gained a pair of exciting rookies in Abu Tratter and Paul Desiderio. They are still waiting for the arrival of second overall pick Bobby Ray Parks Jr., who remains with San Miguel Alab Pilipinas in the ASEAN Basketball League.

Even without Erram and with Parks still in the ABL, Blackwater coach Bong Ramos is reasonably upbeat about their chances in the tournament. "Naniniwala ako sa pinapakita ng players ko, tsaka 'yung talent ng players ko ngayon. Pwede kaming manilat ng mga teams," he said.

"I believe na we wanna go one game at a time, and then dun sa one game at a time na 'yun, ma-achieve namin ang mga goals naming."

PHOENIX FUEL MASTERS

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 5-6
First game: versus Meralco (January 16, Wednesday, Araneta Coliseum)

Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

The Phoenix Fuel Masters just missed out on a playoff spot in last year's All-Filipino Cup, as they lost to TNT KaTropa in the playoff for the eighth and last spot in the quarterfinals. But as the season went on, they proved to be a team to reckon with, especially after acquiring Calvin Abueva in a blockbuster trade. The Fuel Masters wound up as the second seed in the Governors' Cup, though they fell to a surging Meralco team in the quarterfinals.

Phoenix is another team that enters the new season with fresh faces. Though they are still bannered by Abueva, Matthew Wright, and Jason Perkins, the Fuel Masters now also feature Alex Mallari and Dave Marcelo, acquired via trade in the offseason. Both are expected to be a major part of Louie Alas' rotation this conference.

Thus, the coach is touting the importance of their team chemistry as the season starts. "Kailangan 'yung chemistry namin ay makuha namin as soon as possible," he said. "So 'yun ang ngayon wino-work out namin." They need to develop this chemistry, Alas said, before they can live up to expectations as a dark horse in the tournament.

TNT KATROPA 

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 5-6
First game: versus Ginebra (January 13, Sunday, Philippine Arena)

TNT sneaked into the Philippine Cup playoffs as the eighth seed, beating Phoenix in a playoff for the last spot. Once there, however, the KaTropa were summarily dismissed by San Miguel in the quarterfinals. They endured a roller-coaster season the rest of the way, earning a high seed in the Commissioner's Cup only to be eliminated by the Beermenagain, then slumping through a disastrous campaign in the Governors' Cup.

The KaTropa would go on to have an eventful offseason that saw them trade embattled guard Terrence Romeo to San Miguel in exchange for Dave Semerad and Brian Heruela. Romeo, one of the most prolific players in the league, lasted less than a season with TNT. The team appears more than ready to move on from the saga, however, with coach Bong Ravena stressing that the changes were not that big of a deal.

"'Yun lang, may wala, may nawala, may pinalit. Wala masyadong big deal about it. Alam nila na may changes for the team, na we have to improve more," Ravena said. Much of their improvement will have to take place on the defensive end, added the coach. 

As for their goals, Ravena was blunt in saying that they are taking everything as it comes. "We're actually taking it one game at a time," he stressed.

NORTHPORT BATANG PIER

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 5-6
First game: versus Blackwater (January 16, Wednesday, Araneta Coliseum)

Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Then playing as GlobalPort, the Batang Pier made it to the playoffs as the seventh seed but their stint didn't last long, losing to eventual finalist Magnolia in the quarterfinals. As the season progressed it became clear that NorthPort would go as far as Stanley Pringle could carry them, especially after Terrence Romeo was shipped to TNT. Pringle responded with an MVP-level campaign, but the Batang Pier could not make it out of the quarterfinals in the Commissioner's Cup, and missed the playoffs entirely in the Governors' Cup.

Hopes are high for NorthPort heading into the new season, thanks in part to the entry of rookie guard Robert Bolick. The third overall pick in the draft figures to be a good fit with Pringle, as well as their other players in Sean Anthony, Moala Tautuaa, and Jonathan Grey. Already, the rookie said he is fitting in well with his team and is excited for the upcoming sesaon.

"Madali lang ako naka-adjust kasi mabait sila coach Pido (Jarencio), mabait lahat ng mga players dito," Bolick said. "Hindi mo na kailangan mag-adjust eh — sila na mismo mag-adjust sa'yo."

NLEX ROAD WARRIORS

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 6-5
First game: versus Rain Or Shine (January 18, Friday, Cuneta Astrodome)

Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Plenty of eyes were on NLEX in last year's All-Filipino Cup, thanks to the arrival of rookie Kiefer Ravena. The former Ateneo star was quick to live up to the hype, helping the Road Warriors clinch a spot in the quarterfinals. The team then went on to upset Alaska for its first ever semifinals stint, but their run came to an end in the semis against a tough Magnolia team. To make matters worse, Kevin Alas suffered an ACL injury in their semis series, ruling him out for the rest of the year.

Much has changed for NLEX heading into the new season. Ravena remains suspended by FIBA following a violation of WADA's anti-doping policies, and gone are veterans Alex Mallari and Dave Marcelo. But the team welcomed back Alas from injury, and acquired Poy Erram in a trade with Blackwater Elite. Coach Yeng Guiao acknowledged that the team gave up plenty for Erram — including two first-round picks — but he is also confident that the big man can be a game-changer for them.

The target for NLEX now is to duplicate last year's semis appearance, even without Ravena in the fold. "Semis lang muna, kasi mahirap naman magsabi ng anything more than that. Lahat naman 'yan gusto makapag-semis. Pero ang tingin ko, we have a really good, realistic chance to make the semis," Guiao said.

RAIN OR SHINE ELASTO PAINTERS

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 6-5
First game: versus NLEX (January 18, Friday, Cuneta Astrodome)

Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Rain Or Shine, a perennial contender, made it through to the quarterfinals of the Philippine Cup last year, but could not keep up with Ginebra in the playoffs. The Elasto Painters suffered a similar fate in the Commissioner's Cup, when they made it to the semis as the No. 1 seed, only to be ousted by the Gin Kings again. The Governors' Cup proved difficult for the E-Painters, as they went through a tough stretch highlighted by the disappearance of Raymond Almazan, missing the playoffs entirely.

All seems fine now in the Rain Or Shine camp, however, with Almazan back in the fold and determined to prove himself once more to his team and to the league at large. Coach Caloy Garcia says the team has also tweaked its system, to give James Yap a larger role in the offense. They still have their veteran core, bannered by Gabe Norwood and Beau Belga, although they did lose Chris Tiu to retirement.

Still, Garcia believes Rain Or Shine has enough talent to make a deep run this conference. "At least sabi ko, we have to make it to the semis. I feel that the players right now are more focused, and they want to prove something. We just have to have a good start," he said.

BARANGAY GINEBRA SAN MIGUEL

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 6-5
First game: versus TNT (January 13, Sunday, Philippine Arena)

Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Ginebra powered through an up-and-down elimination round in the Philippine Cup to make it all the way to the semifinals, where they bowed to eventual champion San Miguel in five games. The Gin Kings were still playing sans big man Greg Slaughter then, and thus struggled against June Mar Fajardo. Yet it was still a successful season for the Barangay: they dethroned San Miguel in the Commissioner's Cup, before just falling short in the Governor's Cup, as they lost to traditional rival Magnolia in the semifinals.

The Gin Kings head into the All-Filipino Conference as one of the favorites, just behind San Miguel. Very little has changed for Ginebra, as it only lost Jett Manuel who decided to pursue his career as an engineer. But the core remains intact, and Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar are healthier now after battling injuries last year.

Thus, Cone is confident that his squad has what it takes to compete for the title, not just in the All-Filipino but all throughout the season. "We feel that if we can get a healthy year from Greg Slaughter, and we can keep Japeth healthy, then we've got a real good shot at competing at a high level in every conference," he said.

ALASKA ACES

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 7-4
First game: versus Rain Or Shine (February 3, Sunday, Ynares Center)

Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Alaska barged into the Philippine Cup playoffs on the strength of a six-game winning streak in the middle of the elimination round, which included triumphs over Ginebra and GlobalPort. Unfortunately, the Aces could not get past the lower-seeded NLEX Road Warriors in the quarterfinals, falling in their best-of-3 series. The Aces improved as the season went on, making the semis in the Commissioner's Cup, then losing to Magnolia in the finals of the Governors' Cup.

But their impressive display in the last conference came at a high price. According to coach Alex Compton, the Aces have yet to formally begin their build-up for the new season; they only plan to start practicing on Monday, January 14. This, as several players remain on the sidelines due to injuries they suffered over the course of the long campaign.

"We have an awesome medical team, but they're not magicians," Compton said. "So I think, this will be the most unique and challenging, but if handled the right way, beneficial preseason that we've had in a long time." 

Even with all their injuries, Alaska should still be a team to watch out for, and Compton is putting his faith on players such as Jake Pascual, Carl Bryan Cruz, and Jeron Teng to pick up the slack while veterans such as Vic Manuel recover.

MAGNOLIA HOTSHOTS PAMBANSANG MANOK

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 8-3
First game: versus TNT (February 3, Sunday, Ynares Center)

It took a while for the Magnolia Hotshots to return to the top of the PBA in the post-Tim Cone era, but in the 43rd season they vaulted back into the top tier of the league. The Hotshots made an impressive run to the All-Filipino finals, where they shocked San Miguel in Game 1 behind a superb performance from Ian Sangalang. The Beermen ultimately proved to be the stronger team, but not before the Hotshots pushed them to the limit in a classic Game 5 thriller.

Magnolia ended the season on top, beating Alaska in the finals of the Governors' Cup. The Hotshots thus enter the new year on a high note, and they have been tabbed as one of the favorites for the Philippine Cup as well. Much is expected from Paul Lee and Mark Barroca, the heroes of their run to the title, as well as young stars such as Jio Jalalon and Rome dela Rosa, who also shone in the Governors' Cup playoffs. The Hotshots are also expected to welcome back veteran forward Marc Pingris at some point in the conference after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year's All-Filipino Cup.

For the Hotshots, the high expectations are much welcome. "Ire-ready lang namin ang mga sarili namin kasi nga, galing kami sa championship," said Jalalon. "Back to work kami lahat."

"Ito rin ang gusto ni coach Chito (Victolero), na makuha namin ulit ang finals. Hindi natin masabi kasi lahat ng mga team nagpapalakas din, so kailangan tumarbaho lahat," he added.

SAN MIGUEL BEERMEN

Record in last year's Philippine Cup: 8-3
First game: versus Columbian Dyip (January 18, Friday, Cuneta Astrodome)

Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

San Miguel's dominance of the All-Filipino Conference continued last year as the Beermen annexed a fourth straight title by beating Magnolia in the finals. It was another superb campaign for San Miguel, which saw them bounce back from a shocking loss in Game 1 by winning the final 4 games of the series. Game 5 was a showcase for June Mar Fajardo, as the big man put up 42 points and 20 rebounds in a 108-99 overtime win to clinch the title.

A Grand Slam, however, remained elusive for San Miguel. The Beermen fell to Ginebra in the Commissioner's Cup, and did not make it past the quarterfinals in the Governors' Cup. 

All eyes remain on San Miguel heading into the 2019 Philippine Cup, and not just because the Beermen are gunning for a fifth straight crown. They were not idle during the offseason, as they added high-scoring guard Terrence Romeo in a blockbuster trade with TNT KaTropa. They also re-acquired Ronald Tubid, along with Paul Zamar, to further bolster an already loaded backcourt.

Christian Standhardinger, last year's top draft pick, is also set to play in the All-Filipino Conference for the first time, making San Miguel's frontline even more formidable. 

With all the talent that they have, it is no surprise that the Beermen are once again favored to rule the All-Filipino Cup. But coach Leo Austria is the first to warn that this is far easier said than done.

"This season is really hard for us, dahil lahat ng team, nilagyan na kami ng 'x' eh, kami na ang target nila," he said. 

"We still have to work hard dahil sabi ko nga, our talent is not enough to win a championship. It needs a lot of team work, hard work, and sacrifices."

For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.