By Aeron Gabriel V. Pantig, Associate Editor, The Adamson Chronicle

Before the rise of the San Miguel Beermen, another team was considered as a dynasty in the PBA. They were clean cut, efficient, and highly respected.

Times have changed. The juggernaut that is San Miguel is now as vulnerable as ever. The former kings of the PBA are ready to reclaim what is theirs. In the process, they’ve had to redesign and rebuild.

Wayback 2013, TNT KaTropa (formerly the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters) was the king of the all-Filipino conference after completing a monumental three-peat in the Philippine Cup. With the powerhouse trio of Jimmy Alapag, Ranidel de Ocampo and Jayson Castro, TNT was seated comfortably on its all-Filipino throne, until a one-man wrecking machine named June Mar Fajardo entered the scene, ended TNT’s reign and led the San Miguel Beermen to five consecutive Philippine Cup titles.

However, the Beermen’s campaign for their 2020 title defense was immediately inflicted a huge blow after the reigning five-time MVP sustained a fracture on his right shin and is expected to be sidelined for the entire 2020 Philippine Cup. As “The Kraken” left a deep void in the Beermen’s rotation, various teams have emerged to take advantage of the situation, looking to win an all-Filipino championship while they have a chance; and one of those teams is former king of the Philippine Cup, TNT KaTropa.

The KaTropa may have bowed down to the Beermen during their Best-of-Three Quaterfinals match-up last Philippine Cup, but things will be different once they clash again in the hardcourt.

REDESIGN

 For the past seasons, it has been evident that KaTropa’s most glaring weakness is their lack of legitimate big man who can crash the boards and anchor the shaded lane. Although veteran cogs like Kelly Williams and Jay Washington have been contributing quality minutes, both players are already in their late 30’s and what TNT needs is a younger rim protector who can provide energy on both ends of the floor. That’s why with a month left before the coming season, TNT made a major roster overhaul resolve their primary dilemma in reuniting with Poy Erram.

The 6-foot-8 center out of Ateneo, who was drafted 15th overall by the KaTropa in 2013, found his way back to the team in a three-team trade involving NLEX and Blackwater. Erram, who has played with Gilas Pilipinas in the first window of the FIBA Asia Cup, is no longer new to the system since it is also TNT active consultant Mark Dikcel who is currently at the helm of the national team.

In acquiring Poy Erram, TNT traded away two roster mainstays in Anthony Semerand and Yousef Taha. This shows the team’s conviction in redesigning their system around having a legitimate super-star big man, the first one they’ve had ever since Ranidel de Ocampo.

REBUILD

After months of negotiations following his contract expiration, Ray Parks Jr. has agreed to a one-year extension with the KaTropa. Despite Parks’ averages dropping to 12.2 points, 6.4 boards, and 3.6 dimes after he was shipped to TNT late in the Governors’ Cup, the second overall pick in the 2018 PBA Rookie Draft is expected to perform much better in the Philippine Cup once he gets better familiarized with the system. In his first PBA conference, Parks has been averaging nearly 20 points per contest playing for the Blackwater Elite and was also included in the Best Player of the Conference race.

To complement Parks will be Roger Pogoy and Troy Rosario, both of whom are coming off a stint with Gilas Pilipinas earlier this year. The two of them have served as the cornerstones of Dickel’s version of TNT, and spending an off-season training with Dickel in the national pool can only work to their advantage, giving them much needed experience and growth.

Yet through the rebuilding phase of TNT remains the last remnant of that early 2010’s all-Filipino conference dominance in “the blur” Jayson Castro. Castro has shown time and time again that he still has what it takes to take over games and bring TNT to deep playoff runs.

Arguably, TNT KaTropa’s projected first five- Jayson Castro, Roger Pogoy, Ray Parks Jr., Troy Rosario, Poy Erram, are among the top five players in their respective positions. There is no introduction needed for these players as they have already proven themselves effective in getting it done on the court. The only primary concern is the chemistry with a star-studded lineup. But with the leadership that Jayson Castro has, everything is in good hands. And once each player starts fit themselves into Dickel’s system, TNT KaTropa can definitely contend for a Philippine Cup title.

RECLAIM

For many conferences, TNT has come close to winning a championship, but just like in the last Philippine and Commissioner’s Cup they were thwarted by the San Miguel Beermen using their June Mar Fajardo-sized road block. Should they meet again in this coming conference, things will be different and the outcome may finally favor the Ka Tropa.

Since the reigning champion has lost their walking mismatch, Beermen head coach Leo Austria is expected to rely on Mo Tautuaa to patrol the paint. Although Tautuaa and Erram stand the same height, this favors TNT because Mo is not as dominant as ‘The Kraken’ in the post. Without the presence of a June Mar Fajardo, guards like Jayson Castro will be more confident in cutting through the defense and driving to the basket.

SMB is also expected to focus on their pool of talented guards such as Chris Ross, Alex Cabagnot, Terrence Romeo, Marcio Lassiter, etc. However, that leaves the Beermen vulnerable at the Power Forward position. Arwind Santos, who is most likely to play at the four spot, will go head-to-head against a much taller and younger Troy Rosario. The 6-foot-7 Rosario also suited up for Gilas Pilipinas during their game against Indonesia. Another Gilas mainstay who is on the side of the KaTropa is Roger Pogoy. The Cebu-native has developed into a two-way player and is capable of shooting the lights out at any given night. The experience that Erram, Rosario, and Pogoy gained from competing internationally is a vital factor for the KaTropa going into the conference.

With this newly refurbished lineup, having acquired the pieces to plug up their weaknesses, combined with the improved talent serving as the supporting cast, there’s a real case to be made for TNT Ka Tropa reclaiming their throne as the king of the all-Filipino conference. The road to the throne won’t be easy, but there’s no June Mar Fajardo-sized roadblock to stop them anymore.