2021 PBA Philippine Cup: San Miguel and Magnolia team previews

The 2021 PBA season is upon us, with a triple-header kicking off the Philippine Cup on Friday. How does each team stack up? Here's the third of our team-by-team previews, featuring the San Miguel Beermen and the Magnolia Hotshots.

Magnolia Pambansang Manok Hotshots

Additions: Calvin Abueva, Jerrick Ahanmisi, Loren Brill, RR de Leon, Alvin Capobres

Subtractions: Chris Banchero, Marc Pingris, Jessie Saitanan, Michael Calisaan, Mon Abundo

Holdovers: Paul Lee, Ian Sangalang, Mark Barroca, Jio Jalalon, Jackson Corpuz, Justin Melton, Rafi Reavis, Rome dela Rosa, Aris Dionisio, Kyle Pascual

2020 record: 7-5; 7-4 in elimination round, 0-1 in playoffs (lost to Phoenix in QFs)

Key stat from 2020: 98.2 defensive rating

Defense is still the calling card of coach Chito Victolero's Hotshots, whose opponents had to bleed for points inside the Clark "bubble." Teams only mustered 88.4 points, shot 40.6 percent from the field, and hit only 30.6 percent of their threes - all good for fourth-best among teams.

A pressuring game plan led to a lot of steals for Magnolia (8.6 per game, second-best) and a ton of turnovers for their opponents (18.1 per game, second-most). In all, opposing teams only managed 98.2 points per 100 possessions inside Victolero's pressure cooker.

For that, the Hotshots have their guards to thank. Four players averaged over a steal per game; Mark Barroca was still a pest and led the league in swipes with 2.3 per contest, while Jio Jalalon (1.4), Paul Lee (1.1), and Justin Melton (1.0) each also crossed the threshold.

Their gritty work on defense compensated for a lack of total polish on offense, where Magnolia was a middling squad, at best. They logged just 91.1 points per game (sixth) and only had an eighth-ranked offensive rating of 101.

Courtesy of the errors they forced, however, they scored a league-best 21.0 points off turnovers. Simply put, defense was the offense for them last year.

Player to watch: Calvin Abueva

Calvin Abueva and Magnolia are a match made in heaven: a rugged workhorse is joining a franchise with a blue-collar reputation. The 33-year-old do-it-all forward's presence masks some of the Hotshots' weaknesses while, at the same time, accentuating some of their existing strengths.

Last year, Abueva averaged 15.4 points on 45.6/29/71.2 shooting splits to go with 11.3 rebounds (second), 5.2 assists (third), and 1.7 steals (sixth), flashing his usual brand of all-around brilliance in his return from a 16-month suspension.

On offense, he gives the Hotshots another playmaking hub; he has to cut down on turnovers, but "The Beast" is certainly capable of sharing the rock, as he assisted on 26.3 percent of former team Phoenix's field goals when he was on the floor. Despite his shaky three-point shot, Abueva is still generally effective as a secondary or tertiary scorer.

On defense, Abueva can feasibly guard all five positions thanks to his switchability, his willingness to disrupt passing lanes, and his tenacity on the boards. His impact on the glass, in particular, is a shot in the arm for Magnolia, which grabbed just 46.5 rebounds per game (second-lowest) in the bubble.

Concerns about being able to keep his temperament in check are always warranted, but his showing last year proved that a locked-in Abueva will always be a force to reckon with on the floor.

2021 outlook: Despite the retirement of franchise icon Marc Pingris, Magnolia remains in pretty good hands.

Pingris' exit just so coincided with the arrival of talents who set up the Hotshots for success both in the immediate future and the long run. Aside from landing Abueva through trade, they also shored up their depth with rookies Jerrick Ahanmisi, Loren Brill, and RR de Leon, as well as 2019 draftee Alvin Capobres.

Ahanmisi, in particular, can instantly make an impact in terms of addressing a certain team weakness: shooting. The former Adamson star's sharpshooting made the Hotshots more than happy to take him 10th overall in the draft. Expect Magnolia's numbers from downtown to trend up as they shot a league-best 35.4 percent on threes in the 2020 Philippine Cup, but only fired 21.2 attempts per game, a bottom-two mark.

Magnolia's old reliables are still the center of attraction, though, and Paul Lee is the head of the snake. The 32-year-old guard was one of the most stellar offensive forces in the "bubble," averaging 19.7 points on 44.7 percent shooting, with a blistering 40.5 percent clip from downtown. His efficiency was off the charts; among 12 players who attempted at least 13 shots per game, Lee's 62.5 true shooting percentage - a measure accounting for field goals, three-point shots, and free throws - ranked second.

Defensively, the core is intact. Barroca, Jalalon, and Melton are again expected to hound backcourts, while Ian Sangalang and Rafi Reavis remain to dish out pain against frontcourts. Jackson Corpuz will probably take on a bigger workload, while Rome dela Rosa will continue to provide two-way stability in the wings.

In interviews earlier this year, Victolero insisted that the Hotshots are not a powerhouse. He may be right, but only in the sense that Magnolia does not have the same level of top-shelf talent that the likes of Ginebra and San Miguel possess. What they do have, however, is the discipline, continuity, and zeal to stick to their hard-nosed identity day in and night out. Count them out at your own risk.

San Miguel Beermen

Additions: CJ Perez, Fonso Gotladera, James Sena

Subtractions: Matt Ganuelas-Rosser, Gelo Alolino, Russel Escoto, Billy Mamaril

Holdovers: June Mar Fajardo, Chris Ross, Alex Cabagnot, Marcio Lassiter, Terrence Romeo, Arwind Santos, Mo Tautuaa, Von Pessumal, Paul Zamar, Wendell Comboy, Bambam Gamalinda

2020 record: 7-6; 7-4 in elimination round, 0-2 in playoffs (lost to Meralco in QFs)

Key stat from 2020: 28.5 percent three-point shooting by opponents

San Miguel allowed opponents to fire a league-high 35 threes per game. However, only 28.5 percent of those attempts were converted.

On the back of that, the Beermen were relatively stout defensively inside the Clark "bubble," holding opponents to just 100.4 points per 100 possessions - good for fourth-best in the league.

Of course, there remained the trademark disciplined defense anchored around two-time Defensive Player of the Year winners Chris Ross and Arwind Santos. Ross was one of the league's steals leaders (2.2 per game), while Santos was one of three players to average both over a block and a steal per game.

San Miguel's defense is expected to get a further boost in the new season with the return of six-time MVP June Mar Fajardo in the middle and the arrival of two-way stud CJ Perez, who averaged 2.0 steals (third) last year.

Player to watch: Mo Tautuaa

The easiest answer may very well be Perez, who will have to transition from being the go-to guy in Terrafirma to a secondary or tertiary option, or Fajardo and Terrence Romeo, who are returning from injuries that kept them off the team's title defense in 2020.

But Tautuaa warrants some attention as well, especially since he will also have his own adjusting to do after a career season that saw him become one of the more adept offensive options in the league. The 32-year-old big averaged 18.6 points (ninth) on 60.3 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in 35 minutes for the Beermen, who leaned on the Fil-Tongan to fill their Fajardo-sized hole in the middle.

Tautuaa was far from the usual back-to-the-basket post presence SMB has been accustomed to, but it was certainly hard to argue against his approach to offense. The 2015 top overall pick was highly efficient and posted an effective field goal percentage - a measure of efficiency in all field goal attempts, minus free throws - of 63 percent, best among players who attempted at least 12 shots a game.

There's always a chance that Tautuaa can replicate that sort of showing, but he will have to do so in a reduced role owing to the depth and talent on the SMB roster.

2021 outlook: It's probably unfair to say that it's "championship-or-bust" for the Beermen, although anything short of a title or a Finals appearance will most certainly be a disappointment for the storied franchise. San Miguel, after all, boasts the most loaded lineup on paper, making them presumptive title favorites in any conference as long as they are complete and healthy.

Teams will be hard-pressed to stop this iteration of SMB from steamrolling the opposition once they become more comfortable playing with each other over time. That's mainly due to the return of Fajardo - ever a stabilizing, tide-turning presence - and the addition of Perez, who will provide another dimension at both ends of the floor for a team that already has very few exploitable holes.

Barring a systemic or philosophical failure, this San Miguel squad projects to be a solid, if not elite, defensive team capable of retaining or improving last season's numbers. The team is harder to predict offensively, but SMB can surely do much better compared to 2020; inside the "bubble," they had a subpar attack that only had an offensive rating of 98.7, third-worst in the league.

Health and familiarity are the only things that will stop SMB from recapturing the All-Filipino crown it lost in 2020. One or both of those two things may get in the way of an immediate title in the coming Philippine Cup, but don't be surprised either if this powerhouse wastes no time putting it all together in its very first run.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Figures courtesy of Stats by Ryan on DribbleMedia.com