The recently concluded Commissioner’s Cup marked the return of San Miguel Corporation’s flagship franchise. After two unsuccessful seasons, the Petron Blaze Boosters gave way to the return of the San Miguel Beermen. Unfortunately, this new incarnation succumbed to yet another disappointing finish, wasting a blazing 6-0 start and a twice-to-beat advantage by faltering against the 7th seeded Air21 Express. One positive thing going for San Miguel coming into this conference is that they’ve historically found the most success in the Governor’s Cup, winning their last championship in 2011 and ending as the runner-up to the San Mig Coffee Mixers just last year.
In their bid to return to the finals, they’ve kept the team largely intact, so let us first take a look at their new import.
With the return of imports such as Arizona Reid and Marqus Blakely, San Miguel decided to go a different route and bring in a first-timer: veteran NBA swingman Reggie Williams. Of course, the first question that pops into the minds of many is this: why not bring back Elijah Millsap? After all, he performed exceptionally well last time around as he averaged 27.8 points, 12.4 Rebounds, 3.8 assists, 3.2 steals and a PER of 25.9 (6th best in the league) while leading then-Petron to a runner-up finish. It only made sense to bring him back for a chance at redemption. His familiarity with both the team and PBA basketball were also big pluses. As games are played, there will undoubtedly be a little more pressure on Williams to show that he is indeed the right choice. So what exactly does he bring to the table?
The most prominent factor of his game is his shooting, something he showed in his time with the NBDL and the NBA. In his first season in the NBDL with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, he registered 26.2 points with a true shooting of 67 percent (on 16.7 field goal attempts). His most recent stint with the Tulsa 66ers saw him produce 20.2 points with a true shooting of 58 percent (on 18.7 field goals attempts) . He is also a career 37 percent three-point shooter in the NBA, with his best 3-point shooting mark coming in the 2010-2011 season at 42.3 percent on 3.0 attempts. His torrid outside spacing will help spread the floor for star center June Mar Fajardo and slashers such as Chris Ross and Sol Mercado. His time as one of the main options of his teams in the NBDL also show generally good shot selection as he would hardly miss in the 2-point area.
Another thing that has to be pointed out is that he has NBA experience. He played a total of 180 games (including 32 starts) for the Golden State Warriors, Charlotte Bobcats, and Oklahoma City Thunder spanning 5 seasons. His best showing was in the 2009-2010 season, having averaged 15.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists on a 49.5 percent shooting clip.
One of the biggest knocks on his game is whether or not he can bring something else other than an offensive punch, something that San Miguel already has loads of. Undoubtedly, the focus will be on his ability to defend the bigger, taller, and stronger imports (ie: Bill Walker, Arizona Reid). He comes in as the smallest with his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame and defense has never been his strong suit, but his length and 6-foot-9 wingspan should theoretically allow him to play and defend bigger than he is.
Fair or not, much of the conference will be spent on comparing his production to that of Millsap. In their tune up game against Ginebra, he “only” tallied 17 points but was said to be focused on facilitating and moving the ball. It remains to be seen how effective he will really be, but it’s sure that the pressure is huge on him and his team to prove that management made the right choice in tapping an entirely new and unfamiliar import.
Strengths: Pace and Space
For the Beermen to have continued success, they must be able to push the pace. One key aspect will be their ability to force turnovers and generate early offensive opportunites. Last conference, they ranked 1st in steals (8.4), points off turnovers (18.8), opponent TOV% (15.9) fastbreak attempts (11.4), and fastbreak points (17.0). Led by team captain Chris Ross (2.8 SPG, 5.8 STL%) and pesky defenders Sol Mercado, Marcio Lassiter, and Paolo Hubalde, they should look to pressure the opposing team’s point of attack every time, with Williams’ length being a welcome addition to the team’s aggressive defense.
Of course, they aren’t limited to an open court game as they are just as effective running their half court sets, moving the ball around, and looking for the open man, leading to conference averages of 34.6 3PT percent (3rd) and 23.2 assists per game (1st). It is highly important for the Beermen to hit their outside shots to keep defenses honest and avoid having multiple defenders collapse in the paint when they run their side screen-and-rolls and dumpdowns for June Mar. Marcio Lassiter (39.5%), Ronald Tubid (35.0%), and Paolo Hubalde (40.0%) will be the designated gunners but they need more help from Ross, Mercado, Chris Lutz, and Arwind Santos. Even if they do miss, it helps that they have enough players to grab those offensive rebounds (18.8 offensive rebounds and 36.7 offensive rebounding %, both league-leaders) led by June Mar Fajardo (12.5 OREB%), Doug Kramer (9.3 ORB%), and Rico Maierhofer (20.9 OREB%).
Weaknesses: Fouls and Focus
Even with all their offensive talent, the Beermen have problems generating free throws from their attempts, while also giving up a lot more in return. They averaged 23.9 FTs a game, hitting only 67 percent of them (both 3rd-worst). On the other hand, their opponents shot 27.9 FTs at a 73 percent clip (both 2nd-worst). They do have a propensity of giving up a lot of cheap fouls, getting themselves into the penalty early. They’ll have to clean up that part of their defense as those few points could mean the difference in a close game. The lack of FTs also tells me that they should not lose focus and rely on too many jumpers. Either get it into the post through Fajardo or drive it in. This is why spacing will be key to make it easier to score inside and fish some fouls.
Speaking of focus, one of the most important aspects of the game they have to work on is their mentality. They need to have that killer instinct if they want to go to the next level. For three straight conferences, San Miguel has gone on a blistering start only to lose steam and falter in the end. When they struggle, they tend to start out slow and usually need a half to really get it going. On the other hand, they also tend to relax and lose focus once they build a big lead, only to be rattled when the other team starts climbing back. That mentality won’t cut it going forward. It will be on Ross as team captain and Arwind Santos as the MVP and longest tenured player on this squad to make sure the team is in order.
X-Factor: Bench Mob
The bench will play a big role in deciding how far the Beermen will go. We already know what we’ll be getting from the starters as well as the 6th and 7th guys off the bench. The key lies in how the rest of the rotation performs, specifically the play of Lutz, Maierhofer, and rookie big man Justin Chua.
Can Lutz bounce back from a dreadful Commissioner’s Cup? He was only one conference removed from a good Philippine Cup showing (94.7 ORTG, 14.1 PER). With Santos’ move to the starting SF spot, Lutz’ minutes dipped and when he did get on the court, he looked lost and his confidence shot. He’d turn the ball over almost every time he touched it and could barely hit a shot. It’s not about to get better for him as he will be playing backup to Williams. My hope is that the coaching staff finds a way to get him going. He is still a talented player and would be a huge plus off the bench for the Beermen.
Another player that I think should get minutes is Rico Maierhofer. His minutes were severely limited as well considering he had to play behind both Arwind Santos and Kevin Jones. He only averaged 6.2 minutes and played in 6 games but when he did get on the court, he gave the team much needed energy chasing lose balls, going after offensive rebounds, and looking for easy points inside. His most memorable performance being the spark that San Miguel needed to overcome an 18 point lead in the 4th quarter of their game against the Air21 Express. The guy clearly knows his role and is rapidly becoming a fan favorite. The only issue with him is his spot in the rotation. With the exit of Jones, he’ll hopefully get to see more time.
The one reason Justin Chua could be a difference maker is because he is still pretty much an unknown. Back in Globalport, he was stuck behind big men such as Evan Brock, Jay Washington, Kelly Nabong, and Jondan Salvador. On this team, he’ll likely battle it out with Maierhofer and Doug Kramer for back up minutes. His numbers aren’t particularly impressive (his per36 stats come out as 10.0 PTS and 5.8 REBS) but if he can space the floor with his jumper, rebound, and defend well. He could earn a spot not only backing up Fajardo, but possibly playing alongside him.
I definitely see this team going on another hot start, ending up with a top 3 record. I don’t think Reggie Williams will be a downgrade from Elijah Millsap so I do expect the team to make it at least to the semifinals. If they can focus right and develop a better, stronger mentality, they could go all the way. But I definitely see them falling short once more. This is definitely the right direction for them though. We can only hope that they can be the same “grand slam slayers” they were in 2011.
The Beermen’s first assignment in their quest for redemption? The Alaska Aces. This will be a tough first opponent for them. Although the Aces started out slow last conference, the same cannot be expected this time around. They peaked right before the playoffs, only to fall to the San Mig Coffee Mixers. They still remain one of the top tier teams of the league though. Let us look at how the Beermen can win this game.
Keys to the Game
Force the Action
Being the best open court team in the league, San Miguel should look to push the pace at every opportunity. Alaska was the slowest paced team last conference, preferring to set up their offense in the half court. They used the least amount of possessions (85.7) and 2nd-worst in fastbreak points (7.3 points on 7.2 attempts). The slow pace also allows their defense to set up, as they topped last conference in opposing eFG% at 40.5 percent. They also only allow 7.8 FB points and 10.2 2nd chance points. It will be up to the guards to pressure and harass Jvee Casio and RJ Jazul at the point of attack to delay them from setting up the triangle. It is also on the bigs, specifically Fajardo, to rim run to try and seal his man for easy points.
Sharing the Rock
Constant ball and player movement should be emphasized the whole game unless there is a clear mismatch on the floor. Otherwise, the team should avoid constant isolation plays. It may be easier for the team to get Fajardo on the move against Sonny Thoss instead of forcing 1-on-1 post plays against one of the best defensive centers in the league. Alaska’s slow pace allows them to clamp down on their opponents, having limited teams to an average of 36.1 FG%, 28.4 3PT%, and 39.6 2PT% (good for 1st, 4th, and 1st-best respectively).
Finishing Defensive Possessions
The most important part of the Beermen’s defense will be their defensive rebounding. Despite their proficiency in generating 2nd chance opportunities, they also give up a lot to the other team. Alaska is an average offensive rebounding team, as such the San Miguel bigs have to make sure to box out against Thoss, Gabby Espinas, and Calvin Abueva.
Reggie Williams vs. Bill Walker
I think much of the focus will be the performance of Reggie Williams in his first game. It won’t be easy for him as he will be facing Bill Walker, a burly 6-foot-5 220-pound swingman. He is the type of import that may give Williams problems with his strength. He’s called “Bully Walker” for a reason. He is a career 38 percent shooter from deep, which is something to look out for. But he can also mix it up and bully his way inside. Williams will have to rely on his length to counter him, force him to shoot from outside, and not allow him to score in the paint.
I think this game will go down to the wire, with both imports producing well for their teams. Much of the game will be decided by the local match-ups. Can the Beermen run them down? Can they shoot their 3s? Will Fajardo win his match-up against Thoss? I think they will show that they have what it takes and pull it out in the end.