14 October 2014

Breaking Down the Bolts' Center Rotation

Bolts Center Rotation
In today's Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) standards, positions hold less weight than they did in previous decades. Whereas experimental line-ups were saved for a select group of squads in the past, the five-man line-ups that grace the hardwood today all have their own quirks and peculiarities.

Some utilize small forwards at the 4, while others feature dual-point guard sets. However, even with structural unorthodoxies trending, nearly every line-up features a man in the middle around whom the offense and defense can operate. The struggling Meralco Bolts are no different.

Even without depth at the position, the team still trots out a duo of big men capable of providing the team with a defensive backbone and an offensive foundation. And while one player earns more time in the national spotlight, both talents give fans reasons to be optimistic about the Bolt’s center situation for 2014-15 season.

Key Rotation Players

Reynel Hugnatan
(36 games played, 31.5 MPG, 8.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 0.3 SPG, 0.2 BPG)

Everyone knows that Hugnatan is a 6’4”, 210 lbs. power forward.

Historically, that's been true. Alongside big men like Abe King, Alvin Patrimonio, Nelson Asaytono, Bong Hawkins and Noli Locsin, Hugnatan manned the 4 slot and earned the reputation as one of the efficient player that the position has ever seen.

And in 2014-15, he'll still be a power forward in a large number of the five-man rotations that Meralco Bolts will employ. Next to missing-in-action Rabeh Al-Hussaini—a 6'7'' defensive presence with an offensive game limited to the post—Hugnatan is not the designated center. However, in every other situation, the undersize player will assume the center role.

At this point in his career, the almost 36-year-old's fundamental play is more than simply a trademark. It has become his livelihood.

He's no longer athletically capable of out-maneuvering opponents, nor is he physically dominant enough to simply bully them around inside. That said, there's a reason he's still a top post player of the Bolts despite the limitations brought by age.

Hugnatan’s IQ is still higher than the current crop of players, and he has capitalized by perfecting the aspects of the game unaffected by declining athleticism.

While many of today's big men—take Junmar Fajardo, Asi Taulava, Greg Slaughter for example—rely on pure dominance to put points on the board, the Bolts veteran is tactical. His array of post moves is overflowing, thanks to 11 years of experience, and his status as a legitimate mid-range threat—especially from the elbows—keeps defenses on their toes.

At his position, he's one of the best passers in the league—making him a dual threat offensively as both a scorer and a distributor.

And, of course, he's a stud defensively. He was not honoured by the league for his defensive rating, but he is the Bolt’s designated import stopper in the shaded area. All while playing nearly 32 minutes and shouldering more years than anyone in front of him in any category.

Danny Ildefonso
(21 games played, 12.3 MPG, 3.1 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.4 SPG, 0.4 BPG)

With the enigmatic center and former Ateneo star Rabeh Al-Hussaini still missing in action, the Bolts may have to contend with the veteran and comebacking center, Ildefonso. The two-time MVP (2000 and 2001) is just a shadow of his former self, but he still can play as a reliever to Hugnatan.

Ildefonso was picked first overall by Blackwater Elite in the expansion draft for the two expansion clubs participating in the league's 40th season, but couldn’t agree to terms with the management. Then, a few months ago, Meralco coach Norman Black said they’re still interested in Ildefonso but would only get him once he's free from commitment with Blackwater. Ildefonso hopes to make the most of what could probably be the final run in his illustrious PBA career.

After spending 15 years with the San Miguel Beermen, Ildefonso should have hanged his sneakers last year and admit to the world that it is time to retire. However, given the dearth of quality big man in the league, the Bolts may have to accept the fact that at this point, they need to sign the 6-foot-6 center. They would have been in better hands if they only tried to keep the much older and rejuvenated Asi Taulava in their fold instead of trading him, but the Pangasinan native will have to do for now.

Under new Meralco coach Norman Black, Ildefonso isn’t expecting to play major minutes, though he’d be happy to provide quality plays for a team that is out to improve on their 14-22 win-loss record last season under former coach Ryan Gregorio.

Consistency will have to be considered though. Ildefonso can still play, just like when he debuted for Meralco last 4 January 2014, played 29 minutes and scored 14 points to help his team win 92-88 in overtime and stopping a 4 game losing streak. The problem is that he won't be able to do this day-in and day-out. He has not shown any indication that his conditioning will allow him to do so.

In The Rotation

James Sena
(21 games played, 9.4 MPG, 2.1 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.1 SPG, 0.2 BPG)

Sena had a good offensive game (8.3 PPG) when he was still a rookie playing for the defunct Shopinas.com during the 2011-2012 season. He even earned the honor of being part of all-rookie team during that period.

Two years later, Sena’s numbers are at all time low. Probably owing to his reduce minutes under former coach Ryan Gregorio, Sena’s production are in no way near his three year average per game. However, in few instances where he was fielded in and asked to contribute, he showed everyone that he can still deliver.

His offensive game—currently revolving around strong pick-and-roll play and a fantastic distributing ability—is still developing, and his limits on that end have prevented him from earning consistent playing time. That said, he's trending up offensively and—with the fate of Al-Hussaini still uncertain—he may very well make his biggest jump yet.

But even without a dynamic scoring ability, there's no denying that Sena is a legitimate center and an ideal complement to Hugnatan and Cliff Hodge.

Sena may still play an important role in the transition into the team's next era, meaning he may log more minutes without Hugnatan at his side in order to acclimate him to a world where he's the primary big. He may spend more time with the second unit than in previous seasons, but that's more so a reflection of the lack of depth at the position outside of Hugnatan, rather than a signal of any decline.

Position Outlook

Even with a veteran Ildefonso back in the fold, the Bolts can't still be considered contender because of their under-sized center rotation. Ultimately, Hugnatan will still have to carry the weight early on, which everyone knows he will ultimately be overpowered. The willingness to defend the post is there. The desire to score at the shaded lane is present. However, without a hard-nosed unfaltering presence valued significantly on both ends of the floor to match the notable bigs in the league, the Bolts need not yet rest if they want to compete for a chance to win the championship trophy.

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