Coach Derek’s Quandary

The blowout victory seemed to point to the Green Archers finally getting their game together. Then games 10 (vs UE) and 11 (vs UP) happened.

All the gains that we had hoped they had achieved in that marvelous victory over the Tigers appeared to have evaporated in the space of two games. The hot-shooting, smooth-playing Taft Team apparently transformed into a pre-season version of themselves, unable to shoot well or defend consistently. Something went missing.

So what happened?

This is still a new team

Let’s not get lulled into false hopes. This is still, to all intents and purposes, a new team that has only practiced together a couple of months before the start of the season. That’s not enough time for Manong Derek’s teachings to become ingrained into their basketball psyche.

There will be lapses. They will still be inconsistent. It’s difficult to make teamwork appear all of a sudden – that takes time playing together, a luxury that they haven’t had yet.

Coach Derek is still also learning what he can expect from his players. Although how they do in practice can tell him something about their abilities, he still needs to see them in action in a real game to gauge how they will perform, how they react, what their instincts are, how well they can blend in with their teammates, and which player combinations will work best.

The players need minutes to prove their worth. Innate ability and potential do not necessarily translate into effective game play. Because Coach is still trying to figure out what he can expect and who figure into his best combos at different parts of the game, he has had …

Inconsistent starting lineups

We’ve seen Derek experiment with different new players in past games: Austria, Cuajao, Galman, Manuel, and Escandor. The starting lineup helps establish the pattern of the game if the team executes properly, and the second team should build on that momentum, or at the very least, keep up with the opponents until the starting 5 returns.

Putting in the best players in the starting 5, if they play as expected, can give us a running start and the lead, and put the opponents on the back foot. If the lead is big enough, the second team can then hold the fort or even extend the lead if the other team is still reeling from the ‘shock and awe’. There shouldn’t be a significant drop off on both ends when the subs start coming in.

What’s key, though, is to establish your own game, and prevent the other team from doing the same.

Probably figuring out that UE wouldn’t offer much of a challenge, Coach Derek opted to start with an unusual lineup against UE: Baltazar, Winston, Nonoy, Nwankwo, and Escandor. Not the strongest lineup, and definitely not a dominating one.

Bad idea.

The Warriors took full advantage of this cobbled-together Archer lineup to grab the early lead before settling for a 20-9 lead over a shocked Taft squad. The weakest team holding a double digit lead over the 3rd placer??? It happened. Unfortunately.

It’s a truism that any team can best the best team on a good day. This almost happened, as the Warriors played with a confidence not usually found in the bottom dwelling team. They took control, kept us at bay with timely hits, and only folded in the closing minutes after dragging us into the first overtime game of the season. Only the clutch performance of Nonoy and Balti saved the Archers from the ignominy of gifting UE with their first win in a long time.

Ok, perhaps Coach thought that the starting 5 against UE would have figured things out, and repeated the same lineup against UP, maybe figuring out that UP could be in the dumps after getting upset by Adamson in their previous game.

Actually, same result as against UE, as the Archers did get the first lead, but yielded it almost immediately, allowing UP to get into their game-long groove. Those first minutes showed that UP wouldn’t be easy pickings, and in fact, UP essentially ended up dominating the game, until a late game Fighting Maroon swoon gave us a sniff, but we couldn’t quite pull it off.

Again, a weak starting lineup could have cost us control of the early going, and that set the tone for the game because we didn’t shake UP’s confidence, they got their game going, and we had to play catch up for most of the game.

There is a plan, right?

Knowing Manong Derek, there is always a plan. He definitely has a target in mind, and a strategy to get the team there according to certain milestones. Of course he’s not sharing the plan with us.

Before he can finalize the plan, he has to be certain of the pieces (read: players) and what he can expect from them, thus the experimentation with the lineups.

Under normal circumstances, his rotation would have been fixed by now, but this isn’t the old normal, it’s the ‘new normal’. He didn’t have the benefit of time with the team to assess them individually and collectively, and there were not pre-season tournaments or tune-up games that could have helped accelerate the familiarization process.

So his timeline for getting the team to play as a cohesive unit has to take a bit longer. There is no instant formula for teamwork, it takes time.

How long? There’s also no rule of thumb there on how long it takes to be a team. Look at the LA Lakers this season – 3 probably NBA Hall-of-Famers in James, Davis, and Westbrook, yet they were unable to maximize their individual talents and flamed out at the end of the regular season. The presence of great individual talents does not ensure that they can be a good team, so blending is a challenge for any coach, Derek included. Some things really take time.

What might that plan look like?

Only Derek knows how far he thinks this team can realistically go. Of course he’s aiming for the title, but what does it take for us to do it with the team as it is now?

With 3 games to go in the eliminations, and the team playing a bit erratically, we will probably make the playoffs assuming we win 2 games. But toppling the defending champs might be tall order because it doesn’t look like the team has enough time to fix all the stuff that needs work.

With so few games left, the developmental aspect will probably now have to take a back seat to tactical planning on how to best finish the season. We are at 7-4, and with ADU and FEU, and we need to win 2 of our remaining games (against FEU, ADU, and NU) to clinch 3rd.

Assuming Ateneo sweeps (a likely scenario), and assuming we win 2/3 games to ensure we place 3rd in the eliminations, these are the potential games under a stepladder setup:

  • 1 game – vs #4
  • 2 games – vs #2 which has the twice-to-beat advantage
  • 3 games – vs Ateneo

Development vs finishing strong

The question is do we target a good finish (which means eschewing experimentation and relying on a short rotation) versus developing the team by giving them more exposure (but risking a weaker performance).

Tough question to ask. But that’s where Derek’s objectives for this season come into play.

Let’s look at the first option – start strong.

This would mean limiting the development minutes significantly, and probably limiting the rotation to a 9-10 man group. Based on the stats as of April 23, seven players have seen action in all 11 games: Baltazar (33 minutes ave), Winston (30 minutes ave), Lojera (23 minutes ave), Nelle (25 minutes ave), Mike Phillips (26 minutes ave), Ben Phillips (8 minutes ave), and Nwankwo (13 minutes ave), and we can also safely include Nonoy (18 minutes ave) in that list if he hadn’t suffered a slight injury just before the first game of the season.

Let’s see who else got minutes. Manuel played 8 games (9 minutes ave), Austria 6 games (14 minutes ave), Cuajao 6 games (8 minutes ave), and Galman 5 games (10 minutes ave).

Those 8 players sound like a solid core team that could compete with the top tier teams. Unfortunately they haven’t been together enough, so they haven’t been able to gel sufficiently to be a consistent force. They have their ups, and unfortunately some downs when the teamwork evaporates and they get down on themselves.

Those 8 have a complete blend of talents that allow them to play fast, slow, perimeter, and inside. It’s a versatile, talented team that can dominate opponents. But conditioning might be an issue if Derek stays with just an 8-man rotation, so he’ll need quality minutes from another small group.

Anyone from Manuel, Austria, Cuajao, and Galman could be called onto spell any of the core team.

With possibly only 6 games to go, could be less, there’s not much more ‘together experience’ that could be had in the remaining games, and finishing strong.

Developing the team for the future

The best way to get players ready for actual competition is to expose them to game-time situations.

There are only so many minutes Derek can spread around in a game – 200 in a regulation game. Giving second and third stringers minutes in a game will help hasten their development, but at the expense of playing the better members of the squad, and that can spell the difference between winning and losing a game this season.

Playing the core of the team for the rest of the season will probably result in a better placing this season, but when depth is needed, what Derek will have at his disposal will be talented athletes with a very high upside, but with little game-time experience.

Experience helps develop teamwork, instincts, reflexes, and in-game judgment. There’s no substitute for playing time.

Derek’s Quandary

Therein lies the rub. Derek either prioritizes finishing this season strong, or he develops the rest of the team, which can lead to losing games. It’s a no-win situation at this point, but certain decisions need to be made.

I’m glad I’m not in Derek’s shoes. But whatever he will decide, he can be sure we have his back. As does the rest of the team.