(Editor's note: Custom advanced numbers are courtesy of Ryan Alba, proprietor of Stats by Ryan' on DribbleMedia.com — a collection of advanced stats for the PBA that uses up-to-date totals and formulas from both NBA.com/Stats and Basketball Reference, as well as other independent hoops websites.)
IN one of his first interviews shortly after TNT announced his return to the franchise, coach Chot Reyes made sure to temper title expectations and explained how, in a PBA where half the league is capable of vying for a championship, nothing is guaranteed.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Reyes said in a conversation with The Game last February. “[T]his is not going to be a walk in the park. This is not going to be an instant thing.”
He might have undersold his team a little bit.
Over eight months after that interview, the Tropang Giga are back on top of the league — a return they have sought for more than half a decade — after breezing through the competition with the sort of ease and composure that Reyes claimed would be absent in the first place.
Winning championships is never a straightforward ordeal. That's all the more true in today's PBA, where blockbuster trades, a wave of talented young talents, and a bevy of title-contending teams have made playing basketball in the time of the pandemic more taxing than it already is.
Which makes TNT's ascent all the more impressive. As teams around them grappled with personnel turnover and all other adjustments required by another bubble, the Tropang Giga, who dealt with their own roster changes along the way, buckled down, bought in, and remained composed in the face of adversity. That was none more prominent than in the playoffs, where, save for a seven-game thriller against San Miguel, Reyes' wards largely cruised past the competition.
A lot of their success was dictated by their defense, where the Tropang Giga used their collective length, experience, and savvy to produce the second best defensive rating (94.4) in the league at the end of the conference
But let's focus first on the offense. Defense is a critical ingredient in a title campaign, but getting to the top still involves a lot of scoring the basketball, and TNT certainly did a lot of that when it outgunned San Miguel, which posted the best offense this conference, and Magnolia, a team that still finished with a top-four defense even after being dismantled by the Tropang Giga.
TNT finished with the second-most potent offense, blitzing opponents to the tune of 103.3 points per 100 possessions. The scary part: this team hasn't reached its ceiling in terms of points production quite yet.
How is that possible?
Well, let's start with Mikey Williams, the first rookie to be named Finals MVP since 2003, and the star that fueled the engine of the offense for the entire conference.
After being limited by Chris Ross to just 13.9 points on 32.4/32.7/58.3 shooting splits in that series against the Beermen, the fourth overall pick of the recent draft bounced back in a big way against Magnolia, which, despite boasting solid guard defenders, still allowed Williams to torch them to the tune of 27.6 points on 51.6 percent shooting, including a ridiculous 54.6 percent on eight three-point attempts, along with 5.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists.
The blend of volume and efficiency was astounding. Among players who logged more than 15 minutes a game in the finals, no one was more accurate than Williams, who posted a true shooting percentage (TS%) — or a measure of total shooting efficiency accounting for the cumulative value of field goals, three-pointers, and free throws — of 68.5-percent, a mark way above the league average (49.7 TS%) this conference, and a result of Mikey practically evaporating every defensive coverage thrown at him by the Hotshots.
Those numbers probably weren't sustainable for an entire conference, but Williams did finish the all-Filipino with a league-high 18.7 points on 53.0 TS% (tied for third among the top 10 scorers) along with 4.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists (seventh) in 35.8 minutes and 24 games. He absolutely shot the lights out from long range; only one guy attempted more threes a game than Mikey did (8.5 attempts), and he hit them at a 39.8-percent rate, tops among just nine players who put up at least six threes a game.
It's probably fair to assume that Williams, 30, still has room to improve, especially once he gets fully comfortable against PBA defenses. Williams can still grow as a passer in terms of making more advanced reads and cleaning up careless turnovers, but he was already pretty solid on that end and was generally careful with the rock (2.2 turnovers).
TNT's further growth on offense, however, does not really lie on Williams alone, as a lot of the responsibility falls on longtime stars Jayson Castro and Roger Pogoy, who both had pretty pedestrian conferences offensively.
After finishing fourth in scoring in 2020 by averaging 20.0 points on 41.2/31.8/83.1 splits (51.4 TS%), Pogoy's scoring dropped off a cliff inside the semi-bubble, where he only managed 14.0 points on 38.7/25.4/72.5 shooting (46.4 TS%); he was a little worse in the finals, where he only managed to put up 11.6 points on 36.4 percent shooting. The first-time champion made up for it by rating as one of the best defenders in the league and by sprinkling in some timely scoring outbursts, but TNT will need him to produce consistently if the team wants to keep or improve its stature as one of the best offenses.
(Side note: Williams should get even more credit for carrying that TNT offense in the finals because aside from him and Pogoy, no other Tropang Giga player averaged double-digit scoring. That's normally not a good sign, but Magnolia just didn't have enough pep on offense to take advantage.)
A more assertive and calculated Castro should benefit TNT. The 35-year-old point guard is still one of the best penetrators and still pressured the rim frequently, so that got him a lot a bunch of foul shots (team-high 3.3 attempts, 16th in the league), which he converted at a splendid rate (his 84-percent was third among players who attempted as many free throws per game). That anchored his above-average TS% (54.3) and kind of offset his subpar shooting overall (40.1 percent on field goals, 25 percent on 3s).
It's safe to say that Castro will have to shoot better, but he may have to hunt for his shot a bit more, as the seven-time champion finished only fourth in the team in attempts behind Williams, Pogoy, and Troy Rosario; there's an argument to be made that he can afford to step back and concede some touches, but it's only a matter of time until the team demands more from him once opposing defenses figure out how to keep Mikey and the rest of the offense in check on a regular basis.
Elsewhere, certain players have to continue being effective.
Rosario recovered nicely after a horrid 2020 campaign that saw him put up 10.9 points on 42.5 TS%. He's taken less threes (2.8, down from 4.2 last year) as Reyes deployed him more as a roller and in the dunker spot rather than spotting up or popping for 3s most of the time, but that has resulted in an increased efficiency (54.6 TS%) even as his scoring dipped slightly (10.8 points). There aren't publicly-available stats to determine his scoring around the basket, but his stout percentage inside the arc (58.3-percent, best among players who took more than eight shots a game) told the story of a man who looks more comfortable on offense.
Poy Erram's scoring dropped a tad (9.4), but that's not an entirely accurate representation of how solid he has been. He had an awesome series against San Miguel (12.7 points on 51.7/44.4/73.3 shooting splits, 63 TS%); if that ends up being the norm for him, TNT has itself a weapon for all seasons — a diligent roll man, a viable post option, and a stretch 5 who can kill you from outside if you pack the paint. A little more consistency should do the trick.
Kib Montalbo is a very interesting bench option. Advanced stats paint him as one of the best perimeter defenders already (ninth in Dribble Media's defensive box plus-minus), but his scoring (and growth as a playmaker) should earn him even more minutes. The former De La Salle guard finished the conference with averages of 6.4 points on 49.4/39.7/70 shooting splits for a team-high 63 TS% in just 15 minutes; title teams like TNT certainly love having a tertiary option like Montalbo who can shoot and defend in a smaller role, and there's a great chance he'll stick around with this core if he continues his upward trajectory.
It goes without saying that the defense will continue to get TNT a lot of points. We'll discuss the other end of the floor in a later piece, but it's important to note that the Tropang Giga, a top-two team in transition and the league's best when it comes to getting points off turnovers, will continue to hustle, press, stifle and force their foes to commit errors in order to get more possessions (they were fourth in pace this conference). TNT getting offense in the halfcourt and on defense spells trouble both for opposing teams and to those expecting this team to fall flat like the days of old.
Other squads can continue loading up their rosters with as many stars as they need, but that probably won't matter if this Tropang Giga team finds another gear in the near future. Give them your best shot; TNT is back, and it isn't about to hand back the crown and roll over the next time you see them on the floor again.