There was a ton of optimism heading into the 5th window of the 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers. It was supposed to be the continued reinvigoration of a team still reeling from the effects of the infamous brawl versus Australia that saw several coaches and players fined and suspended. With doom and gloom surrounding the program, the appointment of Yeng Guiao was supposed to signal a fresh start. He seemingly gained the trust of the SMC side as well with several star players being lent to the team. With a respectable showing in the 2018 Asian Games and the 4th window of the qualifiers, it finally looked as though Gilas Pilipinas was headed down the right path.

Come the fifth window, optimism grew with SMC lending yet another boatload of players with 5 from SMB, 4 from Ginebra and 2 from Magnolia led by the return of June Mar Fajardo and Greg Slaughter. It was an exciting prospect to see these two former rivals and their teammates figure into an all-star like lineup. Proclamations of “most talented pool” and “arguably the best team” started coming. Even the daunting task of needing to win 3 of their last 4 games seemed like a done deal. Alas, they were wrong. We were all so terribly wrong.

DIFFERENT ACTORS, SAME STORY

Photo Credit: FIBA

Two games later and this window felt like a reality check – a very harsh slap to the face. Kazakhstan wasn’t supposed to be a very tough matchup especially with how the Philippines easily dismantled them in the first game of the Asian Games. They were proven wrong as Stanley Pringle’s second-half explosion was simply not enough in the face of the Kazakhstani’s three-point sniping and dizzying quickness on the floor. It was the Philippines’ inability to get stops that eventually led to their shocking defeat.

What should’ve been an easy win suddenly made the match against powerhouse Iran a must-win. It was a downer. But just a day before the second game, news of Iran experiencing internal turmoil and missing several key players broke out. It seemed as though the basketball gods were smiling down on us with this big opportunity. Heck, it went as far as the Philippines being favored to win. But once again, they failed to capitalize. Like the game before, the heroics of returning Jayson Castro wasn’t enough. The offense dried up and Iran heated up at just the right time. Just like that, World Cup dreams and newfound optimism seemingly went down the drain.

It’s funny how both losses were nearly identical. The Philippines would have a good start and falter in the end. The other team would do just enough to keep themselves in the game and just out-execute the Filipinos down the stretch. As mentioned early, they were harsh reality checks. Every bad shot attempt, every missed free throw, every missed rotation, every turnover, every offensive rebound, every foul given up, every clutch shot by the opponent felt like a dagger. They were painful reminders that behind all the changes and high hopes, the Philippines is still plagued by the same old problems: the lack of preparation, chemistry, an over-reliance on individual talents and on one-on-one basketball. Having more “puso” than the other team can only take them so far. Think about it. Did Alexander Zhigulin simply have more heart than his defenders when he hit three after three? Did Mohammad Jamshidi and Behnam Yakhchali when they hit clutch baskets back to back after struggling in the first half? Not entirely, Yes, there was that will to win. But there was also familiarity and trust in their teammates and their system. Despite being the “lesser” team, Kazakhstan banked on trusted weapons to lead them to victory. Despite a depleted lineup, Iran banked on a wealth of experience to grab the win. Yeng Guiao mentioned the lack of maturity and chemistry as reasons for the loss. It definitely showed with how they only had 3 weeks to get everybody together. In hindsight, maybe that 1-3 record in tuneup games should’ve been a warning.

There’s a reason why that 2013-2014 iteration was arguably the best even with less individual talent available in the pool. Context does matter as that team had Andray Blatche when he was still in good shape, and backcourt tandem of an in-his-prime Jayson Castro and sharpshooting legend Jimmy Alapag. But they also had to rely on an aging group of shooters in Larry Fonacier, Jeff Chan and Gary David and a severely undersized Marc Pingris and Ranidel De Ocampo up front. Not to mention June Mar Fajardo was still a shaky foul-prone newcomer to the national team back then. Still, they shattered expectations in both the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship and the 2014 FIBA World Cup. The reason? They had more than enough time to prepare and gel. They learned the system, learned each other’s tendencies and learned to rely on and trust each other. It’s unfortunate that those 1-2 month long training trips were never made mandatory. There have been calls for the return of Blatche, Terrence Romeo, and Calvin Abueva among others. It’s easy to point at individual players as quick solutions. Reality is, it doesn’t matter who’s on the roster or who calls the shots, as long as the governing body acts like we have the world’s greatest players and can simply put them together and build a cohesive team in a snap, we’ll keep on witnessing heartbreak after heartbreak.

A KRAKEN UNLEASHED

Speaking of June Mar Fajardo, the inability to properly utilize the 4-time PBA MVP is criminal at this point. No matter how you look at it, he’s come a long way, even in international play. He’s slimmed down and learned how to get his points of pick-and-rolls. Fast forward to the 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers and he’s learned to leverage his heft and positioning against the best Asia has to offer. He’s proven that his game can still be effective and not just limited to the PBA.

Still, despite the steady progress and production, he’s almost always reduced to a glorified “pulot boy.” Not saying coaches should change and build their whole gameplan around just him but at least devise some plays to make use of his strengths in the post. Having him just set screens, stand to the side and clean up misses is a bit of a waste. There were just too many instances of him not touching the ball for minutes at a time even with several good seals. It seems like no one but his teammates can recognize it. Both Kazakhstani and Iranian bigs are no joke but Fajardo had no problem getting good positioning against them. He just doesn’t get enough opportunities. Coach Yeng mentioned that he adjusted his plays to accommodate him (and Slaughter) but it simply didn’t materialize. His increased playing time and consistently starting and ending games is much appreciated. But the lack of offensive options are a bit worrying.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW?

It’s not all doom and gloom. The Philippines still has a chance to grab a World Cup. It’s just that they let go of the chance to control their own fate. A lot of things have to go their way, including select teams continuing to win or needed to lose. That’s always a tricky situation.

Unfortunately, even if they do get in, the same problems will arise unless all parties involved adjust accordingly. They have so many problems with regards to politics, factions, and scheduling with only a small hope of them being resolved anytime soon, or even at all. Fact is, they’ve remained stagnant while the whole region is set to improve. Australia and New Zealand have moved over. Iran, China, and South Korea are still powerhouses. The Central Asians teams are still tough opponents. Japan and Thailand are looking to rise up with their new recruits. Meanwhile, the Philippines still faces the same old issues from years ago.

As a basketball fan, that still won’t stop my support. Despite my many complaints, I’ll still rapidly support the national team. I’ll still be excited at announcements of the pool and any practice pictures I can get my hands on. I’ll still cheer and scream watching their games. And I also know that I’m tired of moral victories and heartbreakers. I’m tired of struggling against teams that should be easy wins. I’m tired of hearing that more “puso” and fight is all that is needed. I’m tired of having to hear lack of chemistry, lack of preparation and basketball politics as reasons for losses and upsets. It would be nice to watch a team with crisp execution. It would be nice to watch a team that doesn’t look like headless chickens in clutch situations. It would be nice to watch a well-oiled, cohesive team once again. I think this basketball-hungry, basketball-crazy nation deserves to watch and witness that kind of team.