Before the 2015 Governors’ Cup Finals, I wrote that it wasn’t necessarily the end for the Star Hotshots, they were merely straddling the line between “championship-caliber” and “contender.”
The 2013-14 Grand Slam champions have a roster other squads would kill for. On one hand, they still had the old gang – James Yap, PJ Simon, Joe Devance, and Marc Pingris. Then on the other, that core was complemented by a budding young group of role players in Alex Mallari, Justin Melton and Mark Barroca.
And of course, they still had master tactician and the man behind 18 PBA titles, Coach Tim Cone.
Merely a couple of days after the San Miguel Beermen won their second championship of the season, it was announced that Tim Cone was headed to Ginebra. His assistant, Jason Webb, would be taking his place on the Hotshots bench, while the other coaches were getting divvied up. Heading to the Barangay with Cone was his right-hand man, Richard Del Rosario. Staying with Star are Johnny Abarrientos and Mon Jose. Webb will likely add to his bench prior to the start of the season, too.
Where does this leave Star? This is a franchise that went from the top of the PBA summit, to failing to defend their crowns, to forcefully being made to revamp. What is next for this team?
During the introductory press conference, Webb shed some light on how the new Hotshots would play, moving forward. Kiss goodbye to the Triangle Offense, as he says he wants the team to play more up-tempo ball, though he will “use some elements” of Cone’s pet system.
Perhaps more importantly, so far, no Hotshot has taken the long route to Barangay Ginebra. Yet.
Assuming that the majority of the Star rotation players stay in their margarine-colored jerseys, Coach Webb has a lot going for him in his first stint as a head coach. He assumes control of a star-studded squad that’s a proven winner, and with specific areas where there’s room for improvement.
Take for example the Hotshots’ outside shooting, or lack thereof. Last conference, Yap and company made just six triples a game on a 31.6 shooting clip. Understandably, this is a team that doesn’t really look to bomb away from deep like Talk ’N Text or Rain or Shine, but it wouldn’t hurt if they could convert more from long-range, especially if they did so with more consistency.
When Star faces good defensive teams like San Miguel Beer or Alaska, opponents have the luxury of focusing on the interior, and not worrying a whole lot about the guys outside the arc, save for probably James Yap and Joe Devance. The Hotshots don’t really space the floor that much, given the triangle offense, and also because they lack the sort of player that can really create that space.
Even the second unit guys like Mallari, Melton and Barroca can struggle to fix this problem. They too can be a bit predictable, with defenses looking to stop Barroca dribble-drives, or Melton mid-range jumpers. Mallari may can one or two triples an outing, but defenses can live with that. More Allein Maliksi might remedy this, or working to cure an almost team-wide dip in three-point percentage during the Governors’ Cup.
Aside from on-court strategies, Webb has the daunting task of motivating the Hotshots. True, these are proven winners, and you need an unworldly drive to pick up four straight titles. Certainly, Coach Tim Cone and his staff did an excellent job to make sure that everyone’s egos were in check, and the various personalities were all on the same page. It’s a balancing act that Cone has perfected throughout all his years as a PBA coach.
With that said though, you never know what a breath of fresh air can do, especially for a veteran group like this. After running the same cerebral system for several conferences, maybe a new, more wide-open style of play brought by Webb can fire these guys up. Also, odds are they’ll be out to prove that this team can win, even without Cone calling the shots.
What Star lacks in outside shooting, they make up for it in team chemistry and passing. The Hotshots probably don’t strike most casual basketball fans as a team that produces a lot of dimes, but they are really a good passing squad. On average, they hand out nearly 18 assists a night, and in their Governors’ Cup run, they had more assists than their opponents in nine out of their 16 games.
The Hotshots’ crisp ball movement stems from their being together for so long. These guys know where each one is every time they’re on the floor. In particular, they’re a very good interior passing team, finding creases and wrinkles in tight defenses, to get dishes to Star players open in the paint.
This is likely the kind of spacing elements that Webb wishes to retain next season, as Star generated the bulk of their assists when they dumped the ball into the post and uses that as the hub for their triangle. A perfect example of this was when they went up against the Alaska Aces in the semifinals. Sure, the Hotshots were routed in a sweep, but Alaska was forced to shake up their defense, as Devance and Marc Pingris were able to wreck their zone by moving the ball purposefully. If the Hotshots can get that sort of passing in transition, or with more player movement, then Webb has plenty of opportunities at his disposal.
The Star team is also a very well-disciplined unit. There may be some adjustment going from a veteran like Cone to a first-timer like Webb, but it’s unlikely that they’ll have on-court antics, brawls, or outside concerns disrupting this squad. The Hotshots have long appeared to be an extremely coachable and mature bunch. Don’t expect Twitter rants or walkouts to dampen this team’s resolve.
The Tim Cone era has set sail, and a new age is upon the Purefoods franchise. They’ll have their doubters and skeptics for sure, but one can argue that this coaching change came at the right time. The Star Hotshots may have lost their coach, but this allows them to transition into the future.
They won’t win a Grand Slam, and on paper, they’ve dropped to third amongst the San Miguel Corporation teams, but we might also see a rejuvenated squad, hungry to prove themselves, and with a massive chip on their shoulder, fueling their drive.
These are exciting, if a little scary, times for the Hotshots, but as they say, change can be a good thing.