Changes within a basketball team, more so during what is technically the middle of the season, can be disruptive for those who were left behind.
Such was the case for the NLEX Road Warriors, who after seeing Kiefer Ravena return to Japan’s B.League before the start of the 2022 Honda PBA Philippine Cup dealt away a potential franchise cornerstone in Calvin Oftana to sister team TNT Tropang Giga. Further complicating matters was the exit of Yeng Guiao, who returned to the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters and was replaced by former San Beda Red Lions and Barangay Ginebra head coach Frankie Lim.
The loss of two key players and a head coach thus lowered expectations with the Road Warriors, who entered the 2022-2023 PBA Commissioner’s Cup with the hope of building towards long-term success.
Their most recent win, which came no less than over the Tropang Giga, could be the spark that they just might need.
Led by Earl Clark’s conference-high 45 points, NLEX pulled off the upset over the more fancied TNT even as the Road Warriors were missing a handful of players dealing with various ailments. NLEX’s bench production, though, made it seem otherwise, as Kevin Alas and Don Trollano combined for 40 of the Road Warriors’ 52 bench points.
Coincidentally, the NLEX’s win over the Tropang Giga was Lim’s first win with the squad, a breakthrough that certainly must have felt good. Not only did the seven-time PBA champion (both as a player and coach) get that off his back, but it also shows that the players are getting more accustomed to what he has been trying to implement in the brief time he has so far had with the Road Warriors.
At 3-2, NLEX is currently in the thick of things and has a shot at getting the top seed in the 2022-2023 Commissioner’s Cup. Of course, there have been blowout losses to the likes of the undefeated Magnolia Chicken Timplados Hotshots and the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters, but wins over the TNT, the Elasto Painters, and the Blackwater Bossing have offset those and given the Road Warriors confidence in their capabilities. Through it all and despite the talent situation having been in flux and opposing teams usually being more stacked than them, they have nonetheless remained competitive.
Staying the fight is something Lim should also appreciate with NLEX, especially since his team is short-handed at the moment. As of this writing, the Road Warriors’ 3-point shooting, which is second in the PBA at 35 percent, and comes despite being last in the league in terms of assists per game (18.2). The low assists, though, could change as NLEX gets more games with Lim’s system in place under their belts.
Having a former NBA veteran in Clark also helps keep them in the hunt, as he has had no qualms carrying the load as some of the Road Warriors are sidelined. The 14th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft is agile enough to work his way through athletic defenders, can serve as a one-man fastbreak, and also stretches the floor with his 3-point shooting (44 percent through five games).
Injuries have already hounded NLEX this early in the conference and it may not be something they can set aside anytime soon. Ensuring the health of the active players, especially that of Clark, Alas, and Trollano, would be crucial since most of the Road Warriors’ offensive production runs through them.
JR Quinahan, Anthony Semerad, Kris Rosales, and Philip Paniamogan are currently on the mend, but their return to the court doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve returned back to pre-injury form. How Lim and the rest of the NLEX coaching staff ease these players back into the fold will be crucial, but the depth these players could provide would bode well for the rest of the team.
Roster turnover was rampant within the NLEX Road Warriors, but that hasn’t taken away their competitive spirit. Though they have been counted out and are short-handed as of late, that hasn’t stopped the Road Warriors from racking up wins, which could continue to come even when they return to full strength.