Just last year, after the 2014 PBA Expansion Draft, people were talking about how Blackwater won it and how KIA made some head-scratching decisions. Eyebrows were already raised when they announced that they’ll have our “Pambansang Kamao”, Manny Pacquiao as their playing coach. That expansion draft kind of added fuel to the fire. I mean they got Reil Cervantes over Alex Nuyles and Mike Burtscher over JR Cawaling (No offense to these players but KIA really lost to BWE on this one – on paper at the very least).
But KIA was quick to answer those critics with a resounding “upset” win against their fellow expansion team in their first game this season. In front of thousands of PBA fans at the Philippine Arean, KIA showed what they were made of – just like their playing-coach (in the boxing ring of course), they didn’t go down without a fight.
They managed to turn things around in the second half and explode for 38 points; Only the basketball gods know how they were able to do it. Bottom line is, with the lineup they had, nobody was expecting them to win against Blackwater. But out of sheer will, they did.
The future looked bright for KIA at that point but what followed was a bitter reality check for the team, losing 10 straight games to cap off their maiden conference in the PBA. If the Philippine Cup was a preview of things to come, it wasn’t a pretty sight. But true to their character, KIA wasn’t satisfied and felt they needed to make some changes in order for them to be competitive.
And so, they started making smarter basketball decisions, starting with their head coach. Yes, on paper, Manny Pacquiao is still KIA’s head coach but we all know that he isn’t the one drawing the x’s and o’s for this squad. It’s actually one of his assistants that acts as the head coach of the team. Beginning the Commissioner’s Cup, they appointed Chito Victolero to assume this role.
With him steering the ship, KIA finally went on and won their first game in the PBA against no less than the Philippine Cup Champions, the San Miguel Beermen. If there was an upset of all upsets, this game would be it.
Everybody was expecting SMB to win this game but KIA just played their game and gave themselves a chance to win. With great defense (limited Beermen to below 20 in the first 3 quarters) and a more fluid offense, KIA finally barged in the win column in the PBA. A few more games down the line, KIA proved to everybody that the win against SMB wasn’t just a fluke as they were able to rack up three more wins in the Commissioner’s Cup, all against championship-caliber teams: Purefoods Star, Talk ‘N Text, and Alaska. All in all, the Commissioner’s Cup was a huge turnaround for KIA. They showed everybody that they deserve a spot in this league.
Of course, this wasn’t all because of Coach Chito Victolero. This was also because they made some smart player changes (i.e. sign some veterans, role players, fix their rotation, and get a behemoth of an import). LA Revilla started more games for them and was instrumental in their wins. Mark Yee, Leo Avenido, and Eloy Poligrates (although he’s only a sophomore, he doesn’t play like one) provided that veteran presence KIA needed off the bench. And who can forget about the big man in the middle, Mr. Peter John Ramos? He was such a force for KIA down low that even June Mar Fajardo had a difficult time guarding the guy. He was so dominant that he was able to average 35.9 points and 21.2 rebounds per game. His gigantic presence really improved KIA as a team.
With their import playing like that, there were still some skeptics. They say KIA was only able to win games because of him. Well, to some extent, they were right. However, it can’t be denied that they were improving steadily. It was a sign that better days are coming KIA’s way.
Entering the Governors’ Cup, they made additional player changes (Nuyles for Cervantes), tinkered with their rotation a bit, and signed a defensive import in Hamady N’Diaye plus a steady Asian import in Jet Chang – all turning out to be smart decisions for the team.
Right now, they are at 4-5 beating SMB, NLEX, BWE, and just recently, league leaders Barako Bull Energy. They are doing this with an improved defense only allowing an average of 86.5 points per 100 possessions in their wins. Of course, Hamady N’Diaye’s presence is a factor but we also have to give credit to the locals of KIA as well. Currently, they are sitting at 7th place with 2 games left. Indeed, they have improved significantly over the course of just their first year in the league.
More than their improvement statistically, what impresses me most is their attitude towards the game. They are underdogs and they embrace this role. They are composed of a bunch of role players and some unheralded players, with a young coach at that, yet they are able to make life uncomfortable for the big boys of the league. They play with the same mentality no matter who their opponent is. They may be down by 20 or up by just single digits, they play the same – KIA Basketball. They go hard. They go all out. They go full throttle. This is what makes this team fun to watch. And to be honest, I’m now a fan of this squad.
KIA’s gonna continue on improving, that’s for sure. Hopefully, they don’t trade their 2nd pick in the coming 2015 PBA Draft and pick a franchise player that could solidify their team even more (so they can finally show everyone that they could win even without an import). Hopefully, people are gonna realize that KIA isn’t a “joke” and they are in this league to win it.
Featured Image Credit: PhilippineSports.net & Hoops.PH (Edited by: MI.NI Graphics and Design)