Why SBP’s best play was to revive the Gilas Cadets

In my previous article here, I wrote about how returning to the “old” Gilas model of having a pool predominantly made up of top amateur basketball players was a “one step forward, two steps back” approach.

I believe that still holds true, but I also believe that, given the context in which the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) operates, they really had no better option.

Caught in the sweeping tides of change epitomized by the new FIBA calendar and qualification system for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, the SBP undoubtedly foresaw even more troubled waters in terms of its already uneven partnership with the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) when it comes to forming the national team. The Gilas program already had it tough when it came down to borrowing players from the different pro clubs in the current set-up, where international competitions were seasonal and the PBA could still afford (albeit seemingly begrudgingly) to adjust its overly packed (and yet stretched) three-conference season. With the advent of FIBA’s “competition windows” imposing their will starting in the last quarter of 2017, the PBA would have surely had to consider the highly unlikely (and naturally unpopular) option of slicing and dicing its conferences into even smaller bits.

Imagine having a 2-week break in the Philippine Cup to watch a hastily-formed-and-trained Gilas squad made up of the best (read: available) PBA cagers hosting and visiting different Asia-Pacific countries and then having to see them back with their mother clubs to continue the conference afterwards. It’s a whole new different ballgame, and definitely uncharted territory for Philippine basketball.

(When coach Tab Baldwin and I talked about this two weeks ago, he remarked how this “competition windows” set-up works for FIFA because, at least from his perspective, football is less reliant on in-game systemic adjustments and team chemistry compared to basketball, where teams need to go through longer training camps to be more familiar with a coach’s approach and to better gel. This, for him, is why football has managers and basketball has coaches.)

An alternative would be to continue the conference WITHOUT the Gilas players suiting up for their respective teams. That, however, is counter-intuitive, would short-change the fans, and would never fly.

Happily for the PBA, it looks as though they won’t have to cross that bridge because the SBP has seemingly made the decision for all stakeholders.

We go back to the old model by plucking the best amateurs (most of whom are expected to join the 2016 PBA Draft and are projected to be high picks), offering them PBA-competitive multi-year contracts, and having them focused on one long-term goal — finish among the top 7 Asia-Pacific teams by 2019 and qualify for the World Cup in China.

That, of course, is easier said than done, considering the rising level of play in our continent, not to mention the entry of Australia and New Zealand into the mix. That is easier said than done with a full complement of the truly best players in the PBA. That is easier said than done even if Andray Blatche and Jordan Clarkson were to play side-by-side.

Again, reviving the Gilas Cadets program is a flawed maneuver, but the bitter reality is that years of having the same issues refusing to suffer a permanent death have forced the SBP’s hand.

When coach Rajko Toroman needed pros to reinforce his 2011 Smart-Gilas team, all they had at their disposal were guys from Talk N Text and Meralco. When coach Chot Reyes was forming his team for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, there were notable turn-downs and “pirating players” controversies. When coach Tab went to war in the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, he had to make do with a squad that had only one member from the PBA’s 2015 Mythical First Team.

When coach Rajko’s Gilas quintet fell short of the podium in 2011, there was a clamor for PBA players to form the backbone of the national team, but PBA player availability has been so unreliable that this current Gilas iteration has been forced to reach beyond its declared 24-man OQT pool just to have enough warm bodies in the Meralco Gym.

All these factors point to how, if the SBP and the PBA chose to continue suffering in the status quo, neither would be true winners. The ironic thing is that this Gilas Cadets alternative doesn’t seem much better, too. Yes, Gilas has an unassailable group of players for the next few years, but the Cadets are short on depth, size, toughness, and experience. I mean, who are we kidding, right? The bottom-line is the best Filipino ballers are in the PBA, and the Filipino basketball fans deserve no less than the best to represent them.

Again, it’s not as if the SBP made light of this choice. The SBP knows this decision is no laughing matter, and, if anything, it causes more anxious sighs.

At the end of the day, this was, indeed, the SBP’s best play, though it’s not exactly a “good” play. Imagine Kiefer Ravena having to take a fadeaway three-pointer at the end of the shotclock because he was backed into the corner by a ferocious FEU double-team.

All our squabbles and all our differences have driven the SBP into a corner, and this is their fadeaway three — an unfortunate product of the heavily-flawed way we do basketball here in the Philippines.

If this blows up in our faces, the SBP alone isn’t accountable.

We all are. – By Enzo Flojo

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