By the time this gets published, Coach Chot Reyes will be somewhere where his thoughts are solely focused on getting a ball through a hole. Only this time, it’s on the golf course and not on the basketball court as he will be taking a well-deserved break from basketball.
Over the past few days, during regular interactions with peers and officemates, I was not surprised to learn that the subject of Gilas Pilipinas’ misadventures has found its way into most households. Standing front and center of the team’s disappointing, frustrating, heartbreaking, and gut-wrenching World Cup defeats is none other than the team’s head coach, Chot Reyes.
The veteran tactician has long caught the ire of the Filipino basketball fanatics who directly attribute the failures of the team to him.
“Ganoon naman talaga eh. Kapag panalo, magaling yung player. Kapag talo, tanga yung coach,” he shares, half in jest, during an interview I had with him even before the FIBA World Cup tournament had even started.
Everyone (myself included) has their own critique and their own analysis to explain why the results panned out in the way they did, with Gilas Pilipinas finishing with a 1-4 win-loss record throughout their World Cup campaign. And we’ve heard or read most of them either in the form of videos, articles, and of course, as memes on social media.
What most have yet to hear, however, is how Coach Chot Reyes himself gives his own critique on their performance at the World Cup and how he has reflected upon concluding his second stint as the head coach of our men’s national basketball team.
Fortunately, an opportunity presented itself to me to hear straight from him. As you can imagine, I seized it without any hesitation and proceeded to ask him the questions burning in my head which only he can help me make sense of.
“We didn’t perform”
In a post-game press conference at the 2023 FIBA World Cup where Chot Reyes told the public that he was stepping aside from his role as head coach of Gilas Pilipinas, he uttered these words. So this is where I started to ask my questions — throwing it back to him and asking him what would have made him say otherwise.
“If we advanced or we qualified outright to the Olympics,” he answered. This was a bit obvious, so I probed further, asking him who he forecasted for Gilas to beat to be able to get that outcome.
“Dominican Republic and Angola,“ he said. Again, somewhat expected. But he then proceeds to share that a huge part of getting our ‘desired outcome’ was really riding on getting the victory in the first game. An early victory would have undoubtedly set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
Unfortunately, both those matches didn’t go our way. The first one saw us fall in the end game after going toe-to-toe against a Dominican Republic team that was playing at their best; whereas in our second game, we shot a terrible 4/22 (18%) clip from deep which was supposedly the weapon we turned to against the taller and more physical Angolans.
“If we didn’t foul out in [the match against] the Dominican Republic, who knows? We had the lead in fourth,” he expressed.
Just to briefly touch on our third match against Italy, it would be difficult to beat any team that makes 17 of their three-pointers. (Heck, even the USA fell to a hot-shooting Lithuanian team that managed to knock down 14/25 of their three-point attemps.)
But Coach’s takeaway from all of this is that we were right there with the best in the world against all matches.
“I’m sure ‘yun ang sinasabi ng mga tao. All of those games are winnable games. Kaso “Choke” Reyes ka kaya hindi mo naipanalo. So they were attributing the fact that we didn’t close out those games with a win, but they don’t attribute the fact to me that nakadikit tayo the entire game.”
While Coach Chot’s sentiments are valid and worthy of sympathy, the results of the matches are black and white and unforgiving. So the fact remains — we went winless in Group A.
We did not, in fact, perform.
What went wrong?
When this question was thrown his way, I have to say I was surprised with his response.
“It was really Justin Brownlee’s injury,” Chot Reyes revealed. “That created a scenario wherein we didn’t have that flexibility anymore.”
Coach is, of course, talking about Justin Brownlee’s ankle injury which was already bothering him as early as the recent Southeast Asian Games.
“Noong July 25, doon na in-announce sa amin ni Justin na magpapa-opera na siya,” Reyes adds.
The big surprise to most here was that Coach Chot Reyes revealed that they were really weighing the option of tapping Justin Brownlee for the World Cup in the event that they couldn’t get Jordan Clarkson on the deadline that they had originally set, which was July 25.
“I’m not saying eventually that’s what we would have done. From the start, in my mind, our naturalized player for this [tournament] was [Clarkson],” he clarifies.
Speaking of injuries and players that weren’t available until the games were a few days away, late additions Kai Sotto and Scottie Thompson also fall into this list.
“Kai was not a hundred percent going into the Dominican Republic game.”
Coach Chot reveals that the team’s physical therapists had their hands full with it but injuries are the part of the game that there’s really not much anyone can do. “We have to commend [Kai] for soldiering on and continuing [to practice and compete].”
Scottie, of course, had that hand injury that kept him out for a long stretch and this obviously hampered his performance in the tournament.
And then there’s the case of players who weren’t even in the mix at all — Carl Tamayo, Justine Baltazar, Jordan Heading, and many others, but that’s another story.
To sum it up, in Coach Chot’s own words, what went wrong was player availability, lack of practice time together for the final 12 and injuries.
Predictable offense and over-reliance on Clarkson
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Coach Chot for this tournament is the team’s offense — or lack thereof. And inevitably coupled with this would be how most everything revolved around Jordan Clarkson.
You can almost close your eyes and picture it (though none of us really want to). The lack of offensive sets was apparent to the point wherein opposing defenses found it easy to shut down what we were trying to run.
And so, as they should, opponents would naturally try to stymie this and call for ball denial schemes on Clarkson as soon as we crossed halfcourt because they already knew that’s where the ball was going. Their hands were already in a position to deflect the ball on the passing lanes or already anticipating an interception.
This in turn led to us scrambling on offense with less time on the clock to work with. This meant what followed was a lot of dribbling at the top of the three-point area until ultimately we ended up with a forced shot or a bail-out three that we weren’t able to knock down as much as we wanted to.
“They see how reliant we are on Jordan. They really don’t want us to get into a flow and they want to get the ball out of JC’s hands. And that’s the problem when you have limited time as a team. We really struggled to counter that type of pressure.”
When asked about this, Coach Chot pointed to one culprit, and one culprit only — practice. The fact that the final 12 that were named to bear our country’s colors in the tournament were only able to practice as a complete roster for a total of 10 times had a huge negative impact.
“Yoon ang nakakapanghinayang. We started practice June 7 and then formally talaga noong June 12 pero nakumpleto lang kami noong August 18.” Coach goes on to say that they had a lot in their pocket offensively and defensively but due to the ‘shortened’ practice availability, they had to ‘prioritize’ which ones to go through.
One of the things that excited a lot of fans during the lead-up to world games was that our offense actually looked good in the games that Gilas played during the Heyuan WUS International Basketball Tournament held last August 2-7.
While there were some kinks here and there to be fixed, the offensive execution was significantly better for Gilas in that tournament.
“That was really our worry. Sa ganda ng tinatakbo natin, how will this be affected when these new guys come in.” Chot Reyes goes on to specify that the worry stemmed from the fact that 25% or three out of the final 12 players for the World Cup (Kai, Jordan, and Scottie) were added to the mix after the tune-up matches that were going well.
Why didn’t we apply pressure on the ball more, too?
One thing I pointed out to Coach Chot Reyes was how I noticed that in Group A of the FIBA World Cup, we were the only ones being pressed by our opponents, but they weren’t doing it to one another. He responded by explaining that this was due to our team being known to rely on our guard play.
So when I threw the question back as to why didn’t we return the favor (more often, and particularly late in games), I found his response to be a fair one, but one that left me a bit unsatisfied as well, if I’m being completely honest.
“That’s an ongoing discussion sa amin. Our problem is Jordan [Clarkson] is playing too many minutes.” What he meant by this is that press tactics aren’t really sustainable given our team’s composition. We cannot expect Clarkson to also cover the other side of the floor when a lot is already being asked of him offensively.
As I’ve said, it’s a fair point, though one that is particularly hard to swallow as it seemed that we couldn’t pull the trigger on the right play even if we wanted to.
On Abando, favoritism, and player rotation
There was a lot of clamor for more playing time for Rhenz Abando. Being the energetic, exciting high-flyer that he is, his being on the floor changes the complexion of games as he is what I like to call a make-something-happen type of player.
“We only had one game wherein we had a bad start — South Sudan,” Coach points this out as this is the only game that Abando was part of the starting five.
Abando has actually built a great career so far by coming off the bench. This is true for both his days in Letran, as well as his current pro-stint with Anyang KGC in the Korean pro league.
“Hindi pang-start talaga si Rhenz. When I spoke to him, ‘yun talaga ‘yung role niya.”
And while Coach Chot will not get a rebuttal from me when making these statements on Rhenz not being a starter, I still stand firm that there were definitely moments in the first couple of games where we would have benefited from having the kind of energy that he brings to the floor if given just a few extra minutes.
Just like the decision as to when to play Rhenz is ultimately the coach’s call, the same goes for everyone else. Kiefer, Dwight, and AJ all played exceptionally in this tournament— the numbers tell this story. And because they did, Scottie, CJ, Jamie, and Japeth all had limited minutes.
“So we always go by the numbers. Well, not always, but we are guided by the data. So ‘yung mga nagsasabing favorite-favorite, it’s either they don’t know the game or they didn’t look at the data,” Coach Chot asserts.
Am I giving the man a pass? I’m not even softening my stance. I still very much believe in every word that I wrote after we lost to Angola. I’m still of the position that while there were things outside of our control, there was also a lot that we could have done to affect the outcome of the game that was in our control. And these things were ultimately Coach Chot’s decisions. But at the same time, I am not oblivious when very valid facts are pointed out to me.
Speaking of facts, here’s one for you.
The last two FIBA World Cup victories of the Philippines were won under his tenure as coach. That’s two more victories on the world stage that he has over any other Philippine coach alive today.
Chot Reyes was far from perfect. But he has done more for Philippine basketball than all of the “haters” out there combined (I used the word “haters” as opposed to critic to distinguish the truly concerned ones from the mere mudslingers out there). I am merely giving the man his props and his much-deserved respect.
The man has already owned up to everything and taken full responsibility for the team’s failure to reach its goals. Further, he has extended his apology to the Filipino people on more than one occasion, and most importantly he has announced that he has stepped aside as the National team’s coach for good.
Let that be the end of it.
Banner image from FIBA Communications.