Barangay Ginebra made it to the Finals in back-to-back conferences. Last conference, they got the monkey off their backs and finally won their first championship in eight years. This conference, they survived several injuries and multiple elimination games to make it back to the Finals.
Coach Tim Cone’s arrival to the team has brought a newfound defensive intensity and mental toughness that they previously didn’t have. He brought legitimacy to Ginebra and they can now be considered championship contenders.
Contenders aren’t the same as champions.
They learned firsthand that San Miguel is still the team that the rest of the league will measure up against if they want to win the crown. Ginebra wants to be more than just contenders. They want to be champions of the highest class. They want to be on the same level as this current San Miguel team, building a dynasty one trophy at a time. They want to be on the same level as Coach Cone’s Grand Slam San Mig Coffee team.
Ginebra is slowly making their way there though. They’re headed in the right direction. Their recent success is a testament to that.
Sol Mercado and LA Tenorio have formed a potent and dangerous backcourt that’s responsible for Ginebra’s offensive success. Tenorio bounced back from a funk during the pre-Cone era to take control of his team and regain the rank of Gineral. He’s managed the team very well and has balanced his scoring and playmaking roles. Mercado turned himself into a keeper after years of being trade bait. He developed an outside jumper that, combined with his almost unstoppable slashing game, makes him a killer scoring option.
Besides these two cornerstone talents, Ginebra has a fearless, young core that’s starting to develop together. Scottie Thompson is a bundle of kinetic energy. He’s a tireless worker that’s a black hole for rebounds. His effort and hustle has made him a fan favorite. Kevin Ferrer brought the confidence and swagger he had in UST to the pros. In the Philippine Cup playoffs, he showed that he won’t back down from anyone and isn’t afraid to take big shots.
The rest of the team is rounding out well.
Japeth Aguilar is learning to play within himself and within the system. He’s corralled his bad tendencies and is more reliable now. Joe Devance remains to be a gritty and versatile competitor. Chris Ellis is recovering from injury and was a solid contributor in the Finals. Jervy Cruz and Dave Marcelo are solid options as back-up big men. Mark Caguioa and Jayjay Helterbrand have provided leadership on and off the court.
Greg Slaughter’s return will only serve to bolster the team. The seven-foot big man will bring stability to the inconsistent Ginebra offense. Before he got injured, Slaughter was a force for his team. In the Philippine Cup last year, he averaged 23 points and 15 rebounds. He seriously challenged June Mar Fajardo as the best player in last year’s Philippine Cup.
With Slaughter back, Ginebra has a fail safe when their offense sputters. Just like the Beermen, they can dump the ball into their big man and have him create points inside. Defensively, his massive frame will only help the much-improved defense of his team. The wing players can now put more pressure outside knowing that their big man’s got their back inside. Slaughter is also one of the few big men in the league with the physical tools to handle Fajardo.
Slaughter’s return will bring some challenges to a Ginebra side that has gotten used to playing without their center.
Spacing will be the primary issue. Ginebra learned to play a more wide-open system with Slaughter sidelined. This freed up Tenorio and Mercado to frolic in the paint to create for the rest of the team. Aguilar also occupies the same space inside, especially when he runs the pick-and-roll with his guards. Slaughter’s return clogs up the middle and will change the plays that his team will run when he’s on the floor.
Another concern will be the touches. Slaughter’s boom in last year’s Philippine Cup was brought upon by an increase in his offensive possessions (16.3 FGA in the Philippine Cup). But Ginebra’s runs to the Finals were on the strength of their offense that shared the ball and balanced the shots among all players on the floor. The team will have to find the right balance between feeding the big man while still sharing the ball with the rest of the team.
Thankfully, Ginebra has the winningest coach in the country to put it all together. If there’s anyone that can get his team to adjust, it’s Tim Cone. He’s the binding force of the team, one of the biggest reasons why they’ve found success in the last two conferences. Cone helmed Ginebra’s return to the Finals even with a roster that was missing key players due to injury. There’s no reason to doubt that he can find a way to integrate Slaughter back into the mix seamlessly.
Ginebra’s got a roster that has a good mix of veterans and young prospects. Their players have found their roles and have bought into his system. They’ll be getting a superstar big man back into the fold within the year. The future looks bright for the team as long as Coach Cone is running the show on the sidelines.
But they can’t get complacent. There’s a lot of work ahead of them. The San Miguel Beermen still loom in the horizon. If they want to take down this dynasty, they will have to continue to get better together and trust the process that started a year ago.