It is difficult to come up with positives from Gilas Pilipinas’ disastrous 2023 FIBA World Cup showing.
However, their latest loss to South Sudan provided a rare glimmer of hope. Gilas pulled off an impressive run in the second half where they trimmed South Sudan’s 16-point halftime lead to just four, 60-56, with 7:26 remaining in the fourth period.
The Philippines relied heavily on Jordan Clarkson, Dwight Ramos, Rhenz Abando, Kai Sotto, and AJ Edu during this stretch, including the first five and a half minutes of the fourth quarter where these players shared the floor without any substitutions.
While their gutsy run ultimately fell short as South Sudan pulled away to win by 19, 87-68, the success of this line-up should not go unnoticed by the leadership of the Gilas program. They wound up being the five players with the most minutes played for the Philippines as head coach Chot Reyes seemed to have finally found his best line-up combination four games into what is going to be a five-game tournament for this team.
Beyond their brief on-court success, what makes this quintet interesting is that none of these players have ever played in the PBA. Clarkson is a nine-year NBA veteran, Ramos and Abando decided to try their luck overseas in lieu of “Asia’s oldest pay-for-play league”, Sotto has been an international journeyman since his high school days, and the Cyprus-born Edu is usually in Manila just for national team duty.
These players’ home leagues, aside from Clarkson, implement FIBA rules which makes their transition to the national team seamless in terms of regulations. The same cannot be said for the locals who play in the PBA though as the league still implements rules that are similar to the NBA.
The most obvious difference between these two sets of rules is that FIBA allows teams to use zone defenses and lets players immediately swat the ball off the rim following its initial contact.
This has contributed to reigning PBA Most Valuable Player Scottie Thompson looking powerless on the international stage along with his contemporaries Jamie Malonzo, CJ Perez, and Japeth Aguilar. Six-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo and TNT Tropang Giga swingman Roger Pogoy have been effective to a certain extent, albeit this is more of a function of their skill sets rather than anything else.
The country has unanimously–and rightfully so–pinned much of the blame for this Gilas debacle on Reyes’ lack of tactical innovation, though some accountability should fall on the PBA too.
Besides the mismatch in rules, the three-conference set-up of the league makes it difficult for players to consistently commit to the national team on a regular basis. This not only leads to players who are unfamiliar with the FIBA brand of basketball, but fatigued as well from the grueling schedule.
The limit on foreign-born players and Filipino-foreigners also hurts the league as it prevents more talented players who would effectively raise the level of play from coming in. Many argue that this is done to ensure that players who have gone up through the local system are given their fair chance.
However, this kind of backward thinking needs to be done away with. Local players need to be challenged by external parties in order to raise their competence on the international stage.
The low hanging fruit for the improvement of the Gilas program is trimming the PBA schedule and fully implementing FIBA rules. The league should not be too concerned about losing revenue from a reduced schedule, given that arenas are usually empty during the regular season anyway.
The PBA was once a monument to how advanced Philippine basketball was in Asia. Today, it stands merely as a reminder of the country’s past glory and represents everything that is holding back the progress of local basketball. If the country wants to avenge its name on the international stage, it will all have to begin with reforms in the PBA.