By Karlo Lovenia and Michael Severino
It was an achievement that should have been met with thunderous applause. Instead, what we heard was a room filled with laughs, confusion, and even doubt.
Last April 27, 2020 Leo Austria was once again awarded the Baby Dalupan Coach of the Year award for the fourth time. Not only did he move ahead of Tim Cone and Ryan Gregorio, but is only one away from the record-holder, Chot Reyes. That is quite the accomplishment in just his fifth season leading the team.
Despite that milestone, there is still a sense that he doesn’t garner the respect his accolades suggest. Whenever his name is brought up as one of the best coaches in PBA history, it is met with ridicule and humor. His success has always been tied to having arguably the best big man in league history and a stacked roster. He’s only been seen as the Robin to June Mar’s Batman, so to speak.
With the big man now injured and the core of SMB battered up, many saw this as the End of an Era for SMB. But here’s another way we could have looked at it; this year could’ve been his best shot at proving that he’s not just a sidekick. He’s actually a good coach whose value is as important as the talent of his roster. We were witness to flashes of that in their first game of the PBA season versus Magnolia.
There was a bit of excitement with how much of a wildcard they were going to be. Without Junemar Fajardo, Austria suddenly lost the primary option of his offense. They had no player to even try replicating the classic 4-out 1-in sets the Beermen loved to run. What type of system then were they going to go with?
This single game, in classic social media era fashion, was a make or break situation for Austria. Come out with a convincing win; you shut your doubters up. Lose versus Magnolia; the haters are going to have a field day.
The Beermen looked different from the get-go. They ran less post-ups and instead used penetration to attract attention from the defense. Their most commonly-used action during that game was the pick and roll. Terrence Romeo, in particular, used this heavily and he thrived.
The Beermen won that game, 94-78, with Romeo leading the way with 19 points and seven assists. This can be misconstrued as Romeo simply being unleashed as the elite guard that he is. But Romeo didn’t just produce heavily. He was also able to get his numbers with efficiency and effectiveness. This was something he struggled with before he arrived with the Beermen. That all changed when Coach Leo Austria worked his magic.
Before the five-peat Philippine Cup run of the Beermen, they were simply a team full of superstars that didn’t quite know how to play with each other. If your chef doesn’t know how to mix his ingredients well, it won’t result in a good dish. That’s what the past SMB coaches struggled with.
Enter Coach Leo Austria who came in with a straight-forward approach: defense-first and players would have clearly defined roles. Ross was the court general and defensive ace. Alex was your bad shot maker while Arwind and Marcio were your 3DA forwards/wings. Then of course, Junemar was your pillar on both ends. He may have not been the best tactician or Xs and Os guy out there, but he put players in situations where they can succeed.
That’s exactly what he did with Terrence. He gave him a role — to be the ball-dominant sixth man of a championship team — while making sure he puts in an effort on the defensive end. It took some time, but eventually, it was worth it.
Terrence won two straight championships, and a Finals MVP, while being led by Coach Leo. But most importantly, he came out as a better basketball player. His talent was magnified and nourished at the same time. During that game versus Magnolia, we were witness to Terrence at his very best. His scoring remained elite, but his defense, playmaking, and control were even more glaring. He was a complete package made possible by the reigning Coach of the Year.
For the “Leo just has a superstar-laden team” crowd: There are so many examples of great coaches needing great players to win. Phil had MJ and Pippen, Shaq and Kobe, and Kobe and Pau. Pop had Duncan, Manu, and Parker. Even Baldwin had Thirdy and Kouame. Who can forget Kerr having a literal all-star team led by Curry and KD? The key is putting them in situations to win. And that is probably Leo’s biggest strength.
The next time he wins Coach of the Year, or even a championship, he shouldn’t be met with a room that’s filled with laughs, confusion, and doubt. It should be with thunderous applause, something a tactician like him deserves.
Eight championships and four Coach of the Year awards. Leo Austria’s legend is only growing, but as early as now, he should be considered as an all-time great head coach in Philippine Basketball.