By Aljo Dolores, Karl Batungbacal, Karlo Lovenia, Michael Severino, Pio Garcia, and Toby Pavon

The Chosen One.

It’s a trope that’s existed even before LeBron James had it tattooed on his back. It’s something that has become a big part of Philippine culture.

For the better part of Jose Rizal’s life, he was seen by many as the game-changer that led the Philippines to freedom. Same goes for Ninoy Aquino during the Martial Law era. Aquino was seen as the light in the darkness of the Marcos dictatorship. During the 2016 Philippine Presidential Election, President Rodrigo Duterte was heralded as the one man who could lead the country to a brighter future.

This trope has also spilled over to Philippine basketball. This is best seen in the nation’s love for “hero ball”, where one player is given the chance to shine by making the clutch basket or live in infamy for missing it. Kiefer Ravena is a great example of being The Chosen One because he was expected to win games single-handedly despite being surrounded by more than capable teammates. His infamous “hero ball” moment came in Season 77 when NU’s Alfred Aroga blocked him as he went for the game-tying layup.

In the professional ranks, this fascination with The Chosen One mentality has seeped into the league structure and as some would say, held back the development of Philippine basketball.

“It annoys me.”  

That’s how Tab Baldwin, the current program director of the Gilas Pilipinas team described the current system in the PBA, wherein certain conferences would allow teams to enlist the services of foreign players to bolster their roster. During the Commissioner’s Cup teams would be allowed to recruit taller players, in the Governor’s Cup, less tall players.

To Tab Baldwin, having only one reinforcement at a time is a “big mistake” for two main reasons. First, he believes that there is a policy from the head office to intentionally “go-easy” on calling fouls against imports, thereby giving local players an unfair disadvantage when it comes to competing against the reinforcements. He thinks this disadvantage gives imports a false sense of superiority toward their Filipino counterparts.

Second, he believes that as a result of the unfair disadvantage placed against local players, team coaches are forced to run their entire strategies around the imports, much to the detriment of their tactical development. In both cases, imports become The Chosen Ones of their teams, whether they intended to or not.

But this isn’t something that just recently happened when Baldwin landed in the Philippines. As a matter of fact, the PBA’s fascination with imports was at its height decades ago, thanks to the stellar performances of “Black Superman” Billy Ray Bates, Tony Harris, and Norman Black, three of the best scoring machines in PBA history, beyond any comparison.

Billy Ray Bates and Norman Black showed how leaning on them could lead to multiple championships when given the chance, while Tony Harris proved just how coaches are right to put their trust in reinforcements like him.

However, what perpetuated from this one import rule that has been enforced since the age of the dinosaurs was this: give them the ball, get the hell out of the way, protect them at all costs. It put the imports in pedestals. And from that point on, Philippine basketball never recovered.

The most prehistoric thinking was born: “Asa sa import.”

These guys have been heavily depended on by their teams, eating up as many possessions as they can for gaudy stats. But not all of them can bring home a championship. Among those who have played in the PBA in recent years, only Justin Brownlee has been the high usage import who actually delivered wins to his team, crowd favorite Barangay Ginebra. So the key to victory during import-laden conferences was simply to whack the other’s import to death in the hopes of making him foul out. Taking out the import was like getting straight to the heart of the matter. Not having an import was seen as a huge crutch, one that even the mighty San Miguel Beermen could not overcome.

However, this has been more detrimental to Philippine basketball more than anything else. Teams are constantly looking for the next Billy Ray Bates but he’s not playing for any PBA team soon. Neither is Norman Black, who’s busy coaching Meralco. And well, Justin Brownlee is totally committed to Ginebra.

The historic success of imports in the PBA has created a fixation of finding a good one to rely on and to neutralize the one the opponent has. Too much attention has been placed on this one position that the other aspects of the game are too often neglected; aspects like running an actual offense in order to utilize the skills of the four other players on the court.

Which brings us back to the present; Coach Tab Baldwin’s comments on the role of imports here in the Philippines. To support Tab’s argument regarding the use of imports in the PBA, an independent firm sent us these statistics regarding the use of imports in the league during the 2019 Commissioner’s Cup and Governors’ Cup:

These statistics make sense and they do help support Coach Tab’s point, but for the most part, the data shows us something we already know. The core of the dataset starts with the number of FGAs per 48 minutes. By establishing that imports get more field goal attempts than locals, the rest of the statistics already line up together.

More field goal attempts mean more scoring possessions. Since you have more opportunities to score, you’re naturally going to get to the line more. This isn’t some groundbreaking idea; we already see this principle being applied by James Harden in the NBA. Can it be annoying? Yes. But it’s the truth and we know that.

With regards to fouls per 48 minutes, it isn’t reliable to use this data alone to prove that referees cater to imports more. In the first place, imports are often not assigned to the other team’s best offensive player. Of course, coaches wouldn’t do such a thing. They’d want to preserve imports because their reinforcements carry such a huge load of their offense. The more fouls an import has, the less opportunities he has to play on the floor.

The dataset provided to us all lines up together to prove one thing; imports get most of the possessions in PBA games. That’s absolutely true. But it doesn’t show that the league “goes easy” on calling fouls against imports. We’d need more data – such as tracking data – and actual clips to prove this argument.

Instead, let’s focus on the usage of the imports vis-à-vis that of the local players. To do this, we checked out the statistics from the 2016-2017 PBA Season courtesy of HumbleBola stats.

Some notes:

  1.       All statistics from HumbleBola Stats are unofficial and were independently collated.
  2.       We limited the data to those who played at least six games (a little more than half of the number of games per conference) and 20 minutes per game (a little more than the average of minutes played in the league) for a more reliable dataset. It would be irresponsible to include someone who only plays, say, five minutes per game or only played one game during each conference.

Let’s get started!

Top 5 PBA locals in Usage Rate, 2016-2017 Philippine Cup

Probably not the names you expected, save for Terrence Romeo and Calvin Abueva. Also, interesting to note among these players, Romeo is the only one with over 30 minutes of playing time (with some damn good efficiency too).

For now, remember these five names: Romeo, Manuel, Abueva, Lastimosa, and Maliksi. Let’s check out the stats from the next conference:

Top 10 players in Usage Rate, 2016-2017 Commissioner’s Cup

There are only three locals in the Top 10 of Usage Rate in the Commissioner’s Cup: Romeo, Abueva, and Wright. Romeo’s usage dipped from 35.6 percent to 32.4 percent, but it was still good for SECOND in the entire league. It’s honestly not surprising considering how we all know that Terrence likes to have the ball in his hands, but we still can’t help but smile when we see this fact confirmed by the stats.

Abueva’s usage went down as well, but that should have been expected considering teams usually get bigs/forwards during the Comms’ Cup. The case of Matthew Wright, however, is very interesting. His usage actually increased from 26.3 percent in the PH Cup to 28.1 percent in the Comms’ Cup. But for the case of this exercise, keep your focus on the five names from earlier; Romeo, Manuel, Abueva, Lastimosa, and Maliksi.

Top 10 players in Usage Rate, 2016-2017 Governors’ Cup

For the Govs’ Cup, only TWO locals ended up in the Top 10 for Usage Rate: Romeo and Abueva. It was honestly surprising to see Abueva get that many minutes even though teams usually employ wings or versatile forwards for this conference. Until now, still no sight of Manuel, Lastimosa, and Maliksi.

Now let’s compare the statistics of the five locals from all three conferences:

Alright, there’s a trend here! There was a consistent decrease in terms of Usage Rate and minutes played among all the players. There were three outliers, however.

Abueva’s MPG increased from 25.2 in the PH Cup to 28.2 in the Govs’ Cup. Maliksi’s Usage Rate increased from 29.9 in the PH Cup to 31.2 in the Govs’ Cup. Finally, Manuel’s Usage Rate increased from 33.0 in the PH Cup to 33.2 in the Govs’ Cup. The only reason Maliksi and Manuel didn’t qualify for the Top 10 of Usage Rate of their respective conferences was that they didn’t make the 20-minute limitation we set in analyzing this data.

We won’t consider these outliers as hurdles for our analysis. As a matter of fact, these three cases further enrich the conversation we’re having about the impact of imports in coaching, player development, and the league.

What the data tells us is that imports not only use up most of the possessions, but they also take away playing time from the locals who play their same position. This isn’t a call for the PBA and other leagues to ban imports — that would be short-sighted. The imports get the touches they do because they work.

Taking into consideration everything he said, Tab was pointing to the PBA’s one import system as the root of the developmental problems of Philippine basketball, and the “tactical immaturity”, the “import protectionism” are all symptoms of that main issue.

The problem lies in how, as Tab puts it, only a fool wouldn’t run their offense through the import, because it’s that effective. Running the offense through a dominant mercenary of a player who has the ability to score on almost every possession is the closest thing basketball has to a First Order Optimal (FOO) Strategy.

A FOO Strategy is a strategy in any game, sport, or competition wherein the effort and skill input is significantly smaller than the power or success output. We have had FOO Strategies in basketball before. Things like getting an early lead and then just running out the clock, or standing underneath the basket to turn away any and all shot attempts, or being the coach and giving the ball to Michael Jordan in the 80’s were all strategies that were largely effective but did not allow players to learn the other aspects of the sport. The defining feature of these strategies is not that they do not require any skill to be successful, but that the skill and effort required is vastly smaller than the level of success it yields. 

Ask anyone familiar with the games where these strategies are implemented and they would say that, while they’re annoyingly effective, as the level of play goes higher they immediately find less levels of success. That’s because by definition, FOO Strategies are exploits in the system that allow a player to succeed in a game without learning its other aspects. Here lies the single-import problem.

Unfortunately, the league and its coaches have fallen in love with this FOO Strategy which started decades ago and has only been doubled-down upon in recent times. Even the team Tab Baldwin is associated with in the PBA, the Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters, is guilty of trying to exploit this strategy, going the extra mile in hiring an NBA talent like Terrence Jones to dominate the offense. It’s one thing to see that the strategy works and implement it, and another to know it’s bad but still implement it.

Here lies the point of tactical immaturity. Running through the import is too effective a strategy not to do. Any coach who fails to capitalize on having a basketball powerhouse on their team is a fool, doomed to the bottom of the standings, and possibly unemployment. This means they never have a reason to innovate, worse, they have a strong reason not to innovate, leaving Philippine basketball stuck with the same mindset for decades.

In order for the league and its coaches to grow beyond this strategy, one of two things has to happen. Either the PBA changes its system, forcing everyone to adjust to having two, three or however many imports they decide they want to have or; someone, a coach, a general manager, an assistant, a consultant, bites the bullet and shows how “mature tactics” can be used to win, and win consistently. 

Sadly, even the team Tab Baldwin was associated with wasn’t up to the task for the latter, instead opting to double down on the “immature” tactic while pleading for the former. But there is hope yet. Local coaches have shown that it is possible to win without running their system through the import. In the 2016 Commissioner’s Cup, coach Yeng Guiao who has been much maligned for refusing to accept Tab’s comments showed that it is in fact possible to win in the PBA without having the import be the focal point of their game plan. Unfortunately, he was not able to sustain this success, and so this idea did not catch on, letting teams fall back on what has worked for them.

This whole single-import-savior concept has become flawed and frankly outdated in the present, especially with how basketball has evolved globally. The PBA has not moved on from the days of the likes of Billy Ray Bates and Norman Black putting up monster numbers each and every night, even when the NBA, from which the PBA copies A LOT from, has seen a massive shift from the early 2000’s. They went from the Kobe’s and Iverson’s dominating one-on-one to a more team-oriented approach in recent years, bannered by the Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors.

Locally, you have teams like Ginebra and San Miguel Beermen having more team-centric approaches, even with imports in the mix. Their more well-rounded development means that they don’t become bottom-feeders as soon as the Philippine Cup rolls around, unlike Meralco and TNT. And it has led to those two teams having almost all the championships the last five years or so. The fact that these teams are the exception to the rule makes it seem like the rest of the PBA is more focused on finding the next great import instead of the next great TEAM.

Of course, the PBA is not the only league that uses imports, especially in Asia. But a quick look at neighboring leagues and a few stand out in how theirs are used a bit differently. In Iran for example, five of the top 10 scorers are locals, and all five of those play for teams in the middle of the pack. Korea is an even more extreme case as each team is allowed THREE imports but they hardly crack 25 points per game. Some teams even have locals being the focal point instead. And mind you these are the same players that come over as reinforcements in the Philippines with high usage rates and put up big numbers, such as Chris McCollough, Ricardo Ratliffe, and Allen Durham. 

Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal

Ratliffe himself has mentioned how playing in both leagues was very different with the KBL’s more structured, team-oriented system versus the PBA that usually has them get the ball and just create. It is also good to note that these are two countries that have found great success in the FIBA stage as well.

A good example of this team vs. savior import concept in the Philippines was last year’s Commissioner’s Cup finals between TNT and SMB. They had similar talent across their rosters but went about it very differently. The KaTropa’s problem in that series was that they relied way too much on Terrence Jones to create even with other reliable options on the team, including Jayson Castro. He was pretty much Plan A-Z and once he was shut down, they had nowhere to go. Contrast that to the Beermen who had Fajardo and Cabagnot with the starters plus Romeo and Standhardinger off the bench. The game plan didn’t heavily revolve around McCollough trying to create which gave them more ways to attack. And that ultimately decided the series. TNT had the stronger, more well-known import but better coaching won in the end. 

It’s going to take more of this team-based mindset in order to grow out of the tactical “immaturity” that teams are so used to today, and it starts with taking the focus away from that one, solitary import.

We love to crown a Chosen One. But history has simply shown us that having just one isn’t going to cut it. It’s going to be a difficult process to take that focus away because the one-import policy is something that is not only ingrained in the rules of our league, but also the overall culture of the country. 

There are two ways to go about this change. In an ideal world, the policy is changed instantly by the leaders of our professional leagues. There’s also the more realistic option; someone is able to show everyone that this norm we have in place doesn’t work. The good news is, there are groups such as Coach Tab Baldwin and the Ateneo Blue Eagles, Coach Leo Austria and the San Miguel Beermen, and Chito Victolero and the Magnolia Hotshots, who have shown the flaws of this policy thanks to their success. It’s small steps to initiating true change, but it’s better than having nothing at all.

The toxic love affair is here to stay, but it doesn’t have to last forever. It can happen not by embracing a Chosen One, but by starting with One Choice.

The Correct Choice. The question is, are our leaders in Philippine Basketball willing to take that step?