The arrival of Coach Tim Cone at the camp of Barangay Ginebra significantly improved its campaign this 2015-2016 season.
During the first two conferences with Cone as their head coach, the Gin Kings made the quarterfinals twice as the fourth seed.
In the Philippine Cup, Ginebra finished with a 7-4 record and reached the second phase of the quarterfinals before losing to GlobalPort.
Ginebra also toted a 7-4 mark in the Commissioner’s Cup, but failed to win a game against Rain or Shine in the best-of-three quarterfinals.
Now, the Gin Kings appear to be peaking at the right moment. They have an opportunity to finish with their best record since the 2013-2014 Philippine Cup where Ginebra finished 11-3 in the eliminations.
In that same conference, Barangay Ginebra also reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champions San Migel Coffee Mixers (now Star Hotshots) in an epic seven-game series.
So, what factors (or who) have contributed to Ginebra’s hot start in the Governors Cup? Let’s take a look.
Ginebra had a decent run during the past Commissioner’s Cup with import Othyus Jeffers. Thus, some fans hoped that Jeffers would be back for another tour of duty in the season-ending conference since he fits the height limit.
However, Ginebra decided to go another route after hiring Paul Harris.
Unfortunately, Harris got hurt during his first official game against GlobalPort. His thumb injury prevented him from playing. Not a good start to the conference for Ginebra because Greg Slaughter is also recovering from an ankle surgery. Therefore, Ginebra opted to get a temporary replacement in Justin Brownlee.
Fans had a lot of concerns and questions with the arrival of a new import. Is he in good condition? Can he learn their system quick? Will he have chemistry with the others? Is he better than Paul Harris or Othyus Jeffers? Can he bring a championship to Barangay Ginebra?
Some fans were bracing for the worst and the rest were hoping for the best. So far, hoping for the best is winning.
Justin Brownlee debuted with a loss versus Alaska. In that game, he suffered cramps but his numbers were pretty good (31 points and 13 rebounds).
He has been very consistent in seven games with the Gin Kings.
His lowest output is 24 while his high is 38. His current averages are 30.7 points (sixth among imports) and 11.9 rebounds. Certainly not eye-popping numbers but still above average. Definitely good enough to give them more wins than losses and good enough to allow (or send) a now healthy Paul Harris back to the U.S.
Moreover, Brownlee is an efficient player who takes care of the ball. He has the second lowest turnover rate among active imports and he even averages 4.7 assists per game.
Probably, the best part about him is his ability to hit perimeter shots. Brownlee connects on 2.6 threes per game on 36% shooting. That places him fourth among imports with makes while his 3-point shooting percentage is higher than AZ Reid, Michel Madanly, Terrence Romeo and Mark Barroca.
Lastly, Brownlee is a solid defender. He gets steals (1.7) and blocks (1.3) while avoiding foul trouble (1.9 fouls). Thus, he can challenge shots and play tight defense because he rarely gets himself in bad defensive positions or situations.
For Ginebra, its greatest asset is the tandem of Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar. No team in the PBA, not even San Miguel can match up against its Twin Towers. You can even add Joe DeVance to the mix as a third big and tall front court player. However, the injury to Greg Slaughter removed this advantage.
No worries for Barangay Ginebra though because a bigger threat has emerged this conference and this threat comes from its back court.
The trio of Sol Mercado, LA Tenorio and Scottie Thompson has been excellent. The Gin Kings can boast of a “three-headed monster” in their back court. All three are primarily point guards but they have learned to play SG as well.
In some combinations, Cone plays two of them together and in rare occasions, all 3 might be on the floor at the same time.
Mercado played fewer minutes during the first two conferences. Hence, his numbers weren’t that good or he played fewer minutes because his production was lacking.
Whatever the case may be, this conference is a lot different. How different? Mercado is fourth in minutes played behind Brownlee, Tenorio and Aguilar. His average this conference is the highest (13.1 points) in the last 10 conferences.
His assists are also up but the most impressive stat is his threes made. Mercado is riding a wave of confidence with his three-point shooting. His current hot streak has resulted into 2.1 threes made per game at an amazing success rate of 50 percent, easily his best shooting numbers from deep in any conference.
Aside from Mercado, LA Tenorio is also playing at a high level. His omission from Gilas Pilipinas 4.0 allowed him to rest and recover, while motivating him to play even better this conference.
Tenorio is scoring 13.8 points per game, which is his highest average in the past 12 conferences. His shooting from the perimeter is also at its peak.
Similar to Mercado, Tenorio is also on a hot streak from deep. He makes almost two three-point shots per game at 60 percent and his overall field goal percentage is at 53.8 percent.
He has been taking smart shots and he has been very efficient.
Lastly, Thompson, a former NCAA MVP, has been quite impressive. He is second on the team in rebounding behind Brownlee and among the local league leaders. That’s quite a feat for a rookie point guard.
It seems that Cone trusts him more with the ball these days because his minutes are up.
Furthermore, Thompson is an excellent rebounder, so he is able to get the rebound and initiate the transition attack immediately. He is a pass first PG who often makes the right decision.
However, his shooting needs a lot of work, but no need to worry because he is young and still a rookie. He will improve.
The injury to Slaughter also gave Japeth Aguilar more opportunities to flash his skills and shine.
The former Ateneo Blue Eagle had a disappointing stint with Gilas Pilipinas 4.0 in the recent FIBA Manila OQT.
He hardly played during that tournament. Therefore, to make up for that lost opportunity, Aguilar came into this conference more determined, focused and filled with intensity. He wanted to show the country that he is still among the top big men in the PBA.
The former Blue Eagle is definitely flying high this conference.
His numbers this round are pretty good: 15.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. Now, they aren’t exactly career-high numbers for him but that doesn’t matter because he is producing.
You can see Aguilar exerting maximum effort and hustle on the court. He is more active defensively especially since Slaughter is not around. It also helps him play better and tighter defense when does not get called for cheap fouls.
So far, Japeth has been able to stay in games and avoid foul trouble.
His 2.1 blocks display how dedicated he has been to play defense and help protect the weak side. He is often the last line of defense. He challenges a lot of shots that don’t turn into blocks but result into missed attempts.
Moreover, Aguilar often guards opposing imports because his length and athleticism become very bothersome. It is not a stretch to consider Aguilar as their best import defender especially since Chris Ellis has been sidelined with an injury.
On offense, Aguilar is still a beast when it comes to racking up fast break points that often come from soaring highlight dunks and exciting alley-oops. He loves running the floor in transition. He knows that his dunks always energize the Ginebra faithful and bringing them into a frenzy would help them win.
Aside from dunking, Aguilar has shown more confidence with his jumper. Yes, he is still inconsistent with his perimeter shots but his willingness to attempt jumpers forces the opposing team to guard him more.
Actually, Aguilar even tries more threes today and he has been relatively successful with his attempts from three-point range. He makes 0.6 threes on 1.1 attempts, not impressive numbers when compared to others, but when compared to his career, his 0.6 makes already show improvement. He hasn’t averaged that many threes made in at least the last four years.
With the return of Slaughter very soon, Ginebra hopes and prays that Aguilar will continue to be aggressive and active instead of playing in the shadows of Gregzilla.
No I in Team
Sure, Ginebra is winning because their import has been a perfect fit and four of their players are playing at a high level.
However, it would be unfair not to give credit to the whole team because the others are also contributing and it shows in the overall team statistics.
As a whole, the Gin Kings are a much improved defensive team. Actually, they have been excellent. They are no. 2 in least points allowed (93.9) while being no. 1 in defending against opponents’ shooting percentages (41.1%).
They’re also third best in steals, blocks and total rebounds. No wonder, they are among the top four teams in the league.
On offense, Ginebra is just seventh in team scoring, but they are tops in shooting percentage. They take smart and efficient shots, possibly products of their system and the growing team chemistry.
Furthermore, they are no. 1 in assists and no. 3 in least turnovers, which show more evidence that the team plays within their system and assigned roles.
Using isolation sets have been very limited with this bunch. Their PGs are unselfish and they try to look for the best shot possible.
Furthermore, guys like Devance, Mark Caguioa, Dave Marcelo, Chris Ellis, Jervy Cruz, JayJay Helterbrand and Aljon Mariano understand that minutes are limited. But they trust the coach and support their teammates.
Everyone’s minutes will probably lessen once Greg Slaughter and Ellis becomes 100 percent healthy, so more sacrifices will be asked. Things will be fine as long as they keep on winning.
Now, even with all their improvements, Ginebra can still do better in a few categories, namely: 3-point shooting and free throw shooting. I mean, the Gin Kings aren’t a perfect team, but they should certainly strive for that because a championship is what they are aiming for.
– Rolly Mendoza writes opinion pieces for FOX Sports related to basketball
Follow him on Twitter: @rollzter