There are a lot of stories dominating the landscape at the FIBA Asia championship from September 23-October 3, especially with an Olympics berth on the line.
As the FIBA Asia enters the second round, I am writing a two-piece post examining two squads that I find the most interesting in this tournament: China and the Philippines. These two teams in my mind have the most at stake this tournament, especially considering they have gone through some ups and downs the past few years in terms of International success.
In this post, I am going to take a look at Smart Gilas Pilipinas (the team name for the Filipino Men’s National Team), their experienced roster, and how they will fare in new head coach Tab Baldwin’s first international competition as Gilas head coach.
You can also find the previous post on China, Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi here.
Smart Gilas is coming off one of their best stretches in international team play history, and yet, there still are a lot of questions lingering with this squad. In 2013, in front of Filipino fans in Manila, Gilas finished 2nd in the FIBA Asia tournament, which qualified them for their first FIBA World Championship (now FIBA World Cup) since 1978. Though they failed to advance to the second round in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, they did win their first game in almost 40 years, as they beat Senegal 81-79 and put up sterling efforts in losses against established programs such as Croatia (81-78 in OT), Argentina (85-81) and Puerto Rico (77-73). Though the 1-4 record wasn’t ideal, it was obvious that Gilas had gained some necessary international experience on the big stage that would help the national team going forward.
Unfortunately, things fell apart for Gilas in the 2014 Asian Games, as the squad, without Andray Blatche (who didn’t qualify for the Asian Games due to naturalization issues, which were different for those games from normal FIBA ones), finished a disappointing 7th. The team went 1-2 in group play, with a disappointing 95-93 loss to Korea, and a huge 77-68 upset to Qatar, ranked 48th in the FIBA world rankings. The underwhelming performance, as well as issues with personality and player rotations resulted in long-time national team coach Chot Reyes being forced out and replaced with Tab Baldwin.
Baldwin is not totally unfamiliar with the national team, as he served as a consultant recently to Reyes and Gilas. However, he has a plethora of coaching experience at the international level, as he coached New Zealand (which is his national background, as well as American) from 2001-2006 and helped the “Tall Blacks” qualify for the FIBA World Championship in 2002. After his tenure as coach of New Zealand, he also had stints with Lebanon and Jordan, helping rebuild and raise the respectability of those programs to where they are today (Lebanon is ranked 34th and Jordan is ranked 29th).
But, while Baldwin did fantastic jobs with New Zealand, Lebanon and Jordan, his tenure with Gilas is unlike anything he’s ever coached. He hasn’t coached a national squad whose fans are as basketball-crazy as the Philippines. He hasn’t dealt with an organizational structure that has been its own worst enemy for decades (the Philippines have been suspended by FIBA from international play 3 separate times since the 1970’s). Baldwin certainly has the coaching acumen and chops to help Gilas become a power in Asia up there with China and Iran. But, the same could have been said of Reyes, who ended up being forced out after a successful stretch due to one shoddy performance in the Asian games.
Coming into the tournament as one of the favorites, Baldwin’s tenure started disastrously as Gilas was upset by Palestine 75-73, who just recently resurrected their national team basketball program, was unranked by FIBA and was playing in their first FIBA Asia tournament in history. Gilas played a sloppy game, marred by unforced turnovers, missed open shots (including a lot of missed bunnies, i.e. layups), and a lack of rhythm on the offensive and defensive end. Little known Jamal Abu Shamala scored 26 points, had 15 rebounds and an efficiency rating of 29, thus displaying Gilas’ lack of tenacity and urgency on the defensive end. If you look at the highlights below, it is obvious that Gilas at times coasted a bit too much, and that resulted in Palestine not only hanging around, but seizing enough opportunities for the upset victory.
While Gilas certainly could have packed it in after such a humiliating loss, Baldwin has rallied his veteran squad to win 3 straight games, as they beat Hong Kong (101-50) and Kuwait (110-64) by impressive margins, and beat Japan 73-66 in their first second round game late last night/early this morning. The team was led by Blatche who scored 18 points and nabbed 10 rebounds despite dealing with a nagging ankle injury he suffered early in the Japanese game. Also, youngster Terrence Romeo had a solid game with 12 points and two steals, giving Filipino fans hope in the future of their program, which is undoubtedly Romeo.
Gilas has not changed much playing style-wise under Baldwin, as they still utilize the Dribble Drive offense to great extent and rely on their speed and quickness on both the offensive and defensive end. Gilas is at their best in transition, especially off live ball turnovers, especially with quick guards and wings such as long-time national team members Jayson Castro and Gabriel Norwood, and newer members like Romeo and Matthew Ganuelas. Even in their loss against Palestine, when Gilas was in transition, they looked like one of the best teams in the tournament. When things slowed down, and they were forced to create offense in the half court, they tended to struggle and be wildly inconsistent.
Unlike China, which is extremely young, this Gilas team is a more veteran squad, as they have an average age of 31 and have only two members of the team 25 and under (Ganuelas and Romeo). Thus, the emphasis with this squad is “win now”. That is especially evident with the inclusion of naturalized citizen Blatche, whose inclusion on the team has sparked a lot debate on the presence of naturalized citizens who have little to no apparent connections to the countries they represent. If you haven’t read it already, take a retrospective look at this piece by Grantland’s Rafe Bartholomew, the author of “Pacific Rims” and a leading authority on Filipino basketball. It definitely gives some perspective on why Blatche is not only on the Filipino team, but how he has adjusted to not just the team, but the culture of the Philippines as well. It may change your view on Blatche or other naturalized players playing in FIBA international competitions (Jerome Randle of Chicago did this with Ukraine in this recent Eurobasket). It may not. At the very least, it will give you more information and perspective on the process.
But back to Blatche, he as well as other veterans such as Castro, Norwood and forward Jean Marc Pingris are essential to Gilas’ chances at this FIBA Asia championship. Blatche especially shoulders a majority of the burden, as Gilas has struggled against teams in the past with bigger, more natural post players before Blatche arrived. In the FIBA Asia championship game in 2013, Iran bullied Gilas thanks to former NBA player Hamed Haddadi. That being said, Gilas did not have Blatche then, and now, Gilas has that weapon in the post to go head to head with Iran’s best player. It definitely makes their game on Monday night one worth watching, just for that Blatche-Haddadi matchup alone.
If Baldwin can do anything to improve this Gilas squad, it may center on utilizing the talents of his players within Gilas’ system, and preventing them from playing out of control. This veteran squad has many players who have been playing professional ball for a long time, and playing international competition is a whole lot different due to so many different talents needing to mesh together in such a limited amount of time. Many of the players play together or against one another in the PBA (Philippines Basketball Association), so they are used to the Dribble Drive style that is primarily played in the PBA (though the Triangle is utilized a lot, thanks to successful PBA coach Tim Cone). However, for some, Blatche especially, since he plays professionally in China, this adjustment can be a process.
How Baldwin handles and manages this issue will be key, primarily with Blatche. Even early on this tournament, it seems like Blatche can be a “ball-killer” on offense, preferring to play at the top of the arc rather than down in the block (which is something he’s always had a problem with, especially in the NBA with Washington and Brooklyn) and go 1-on-1 with his head down and not seeing the open wings sitting in the corners for the 3-point shot. Blatche is multi-talented, and when he’s on, he is probably one of the best players in the FIBA Asia player pool. But when he’s off, he can be a high-usage rate killer that can easily sink teams and squander leads, as was the case time to time in their loss against Palestine.
Gilas needs Blatche to be successful. There is no downplaying that. But, Gilas as a whole is better when they’re penetrating to the rim, kicking out to open shooters for three’s or finishing for layups. Watching players like Castro is so enjoyable to watch because he fits in the Dribble Drive so seamlessly, as he is able to time and time again on the drive finish at the rime gracefully or easily find his teammates beyond the arc for open shots. If you watch these highlights against Kuwait, this is Filipino basketball in a nutshell: fast-paced, shooting three’s, and aggressive play on both ends.
Blatche can fit in this, and he has fit in it before. But when he tries to do too much, tries to dribble too much, tries to play 1 on 1 too much and settles for lackluster mid-range shots, he is limiting himself as a player and limiting Gilas’ chances at being consistently successful. That is Baldwin’s challenge as Gilas coach, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can figure out this challenge as Gilas progresses further and faces tougher competition deeper in the tournament (starting with Iran).
There is no doubt this Gilas team is arguably one of the best in the country’s history. And after playing in the FIBA World Cup in 2014, it would be a tremendous boost for the country to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, which the Philippines has not qualified for since the 1972 games in Munich. Gilas has the experienced horses in place, and Baldwin has done a tremendous job with this team after their early set-back against Palestine. However, playing their style of play against Hong Kong and Kuwait is one thing, doing it against Iran, China and Korea is another. If Baldwin can get Gilas to play their style and play it efficiently against Asia’s powers, then it is strongly possible that the Philippines will break their long-time Olympic drought much like they broke their FIBA World Championship drought in the last FIBA Asia in 2013.