When the Star Hotshots traded away long-time franchise icon James Yap, it had the feel similar to when San Miguel swapped their veterans Danny Seigle, Dondon Hontiveros, and Dorian Pena to Air21 for young players, or when Seigle, Danny Ildefonso, Eric Menk, and Jimmy Alapag — stalwarts who played most of their illustrious careers for one team — wore different uniforms.
Yap, a two-time league MVP, used to be the face of Star for so long. It was expected that he’d retire a Hotshot / Coffee Mixer / Super Coffee Mixer / Chunkee Giant / Tender Juicy Giant (Dang it Purefoods, why so many team names?).
If you grew up watching the the last decade and a half of Purefoods basketball where Yap starred and led the franchise to numerous championships along with several other talented key guys, it would be a difficult pill to swallow.
But look where the trade mentioned above took San Miguel; they became this era’s PBA superteam, winning five championships under coach Leo Austria while setting the golden standard for the years to come.
Star realized that no matter how difficult it was of somebody who meant so much to the franchise and its fans, it was a crucial step for the betterment of the team.
It wasn’t long ago when the Hotshots plummeted into mediocrity. They won the Grand Slam under coach Tim Cone in 2013-14. Cone failed defend any of the three crowns they won the season after, leading to his departure and transfer to Barangay Ginebra.
Assistant coach Jason Webb was promoted to head coach for the 2015-16 season, but he inherited a team that didn’t play the same way it did two years ago. Injuries left and right compounded the woes, and the 2015-16 Hotshots were never able to leave a significant mark, finishing ninth, eighth, and 11th, respectively, in the Philippine, Commissioner’s, and Governors’ Cups.
Enter the James Yap-Paul Lee blockbuster trade. Star let go of a past-his-prime Yap who could only do so much and got Lee, who is at the height of his powers and was just coming off a championship season with Rain or Shine.
On paper, Lee’s addition obviously fortified the Star backcourt; what he does on the court is everything you could ask for from a combo guard. He can drive, dish, playmake, create his own shot, and when the game is on the line, he has both the experience and guts to take over.
A day after the trade, Star announced Chito Victolero would be the team’s new head coach for the 2016-17 season. Webb would defer back to an assistant in the set-up. Victolero used to coach the Kia franchise, where he put a premium on a guard play, three-point shooting, space, and a fast-paced style.
The Hotshots made a couple of more changes. First, they dealt Alex Mallari to Kia for Aldrech Ramos, solving a logjam at the wing and guard positions while also modernizing their front court. Victolero had handled Ramos under Kia, and there was no doubt he had pictured how to use Ramos especially with all the new talent surrounding him. That deal also allowed Allein Maliksi (who was later traded, unfortunately) to become one of Star’s premier wings.
Midway through the Philippine Cup, Star then let go of Jake Pascual and landed Rome Dela Rosa from Alaska, giving them a tough-nosed, defense-first perimeter guy to complement their many offensive weapons.
With Victolero having the pieces to compete, prioritizing youth, and with everybody healthy as well, the Hotshots rolled to a third seed in the Philippine Cup. They had a league-best 106.6 offensive rating and a whopping +15.2 net rating, also a league-best. They also topped effective field goal percentage at 54.2, points per game at 100.5 (the only team to average a hundred or more), and three-point shooting at 39.7 percent.
Victolero’s Hotshots were one of the most exciting teams to watch in the season-opening conference, and they almost made it to the finals, only falling to Ginebra in seven semi-finals games.
The Hotshots again made the semi-finals of the Commissioner’s and Governors’ Cups, as they turned around an atrocious season by pushing themselves back to PBA relevance. In those final two conferences, the Hotshots would always be at the top four of ORTG, net rating, eFG, PPG, and 3-PT FG%.
Two seasons ago, you’d think of San Miguel, Rain or Shine, and Alaska as your clear-cut top teams in the league. Right now, San Miguel, TNT, Ginebra, Meralco, and Star all have legitimate cases to be called upper tier PBA squads.
It was only unfortunate Star was swept by the Meralco Bolts in the Governors’ Cup semi-finals (credit goes to the Bolts for likewise transforming themselves into an elite group) with an undermanned roster. But come to think of it, they finished 2-9 in the same conference last season.
Thanks to embracing changes in both personnel and perspective, the Hotshots have turned themselves into one of the more relevant PBA teams anew. That is something that wouldn’t change anytime soon.