A new challenge poses for veteran coach Tim Cone and the Kings as another PBA season approaches. The departure of two symbols from the lineup is expected to change things up, but knowing the coach, Cone is obviously up for the challenge and the team is sure to rally onward.
“Sayang naman, pero ganun talaga, tumatanda din ang mga atleta.” An avid PBA enthusiast beckons. [What a loss, but that’s how it really is, athlete grow old too.
The two-time Grand Slam coach stated that he is still coming to terms with the fresh vacancies on the bench left behind by his old reliables, with big man Joe Devance going away from basketball and Mark Caguioa reportedly on his way out as well.
“It’s one of those moments when it feels like the end of an era.” Another PBA enthusiast adds.
A rather sad yet optimistic Cone tells reporters during the PBA Media Day last Thursday at the Novotel Manila. “Joe was a great guy, Mark was a great guy. They kind of created the culture that we have on the team where everybody gets along, everybody supports each other. There’s no [backstabbing] or fighting for playing time. I think that was established by Joe and Mark being such good people,” he continues saying, “We’re going to miss that veteran presence badly.”
When asked about Devance, who he had the longest relationship with in the PBA, Cone sounded nostalgic and even sentimental. This is but expected from the coach, known to bring out the best out of athletes he worked with. Their relationship began with the Alaska Aces in 2008 and grew to include the Purefoods and Ginebra franchises as the two were reunited each time Cone took a new coaching position. A champion maker indeed.
Cone, who has a league-record of a whopping 24 championships, coached Devance to all of his 12 titles.
“I feel depressed. Tough thing to swallow,” Cone said. “He’s been a huge presence for me through the years … He’s my longest tenured player — more than Johnny (Abarrientos) or Jojo (Lastimosa) or any of those guys.
He’s our chemistry guru. He was the one that always set up the chemistry for our team, he was the one that motivated players, he was the one where if a player had a problem, they’d go to him and talk to him first before the coaching staff ever heard about it.”
A quick flashback to the drafts will show: Devance played NCAA Division I basketball at the University of Texas at El Paso before being selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 PBA Draft by the two-year-old Welcoat team (now the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters). He only stayed there for a season before being traded to Alaska, where he and Cone helped the team win the Fiesta Conference title in 2010.
“Early in his career he was a great player. He was a player that could play any position…” Cone continues “But as he started to grow as a player, as a person, and get a little older, it became more about his personality and his leadership and his relationships with players. He’s the one guy that knew about relationships and how powerful they could be and how he could use it to his advantage.”
Devance was offered a spot on the coaching staff according to Cone, but the eight-time All-Star chose to try his luck elsewhere for the meantime.
“He decided he wanted to explore possibilities that he may have in the United States. I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear him coaching somewhere, but he’s got a welcome place back with us,” according to Cone.
Mark Caguioa remains an influential and an icon of inspiration for younger generations of players even as his minutes on the hard court decreased toward the end of his career. Caguioa leaves an impact that is relevant for today’s PBA.
A tragic scenario: as if losing one leader wasn’t enough, Caguioa’s retirement is approaching, and he will have to deal with yet another loss. Cone said he wanted to “retire quietly” and is no longer under contract with the team, though no official statement has been made as of now.
“We asked him for a ceremony, we asked him to retire his number, and he turned it all down. He said, ‘I don’t want any fanfare. I’d just rather retire quietly.’ He is retired.” Cone said. “…We’re hoping at some point that he and Jayjay (Helterbrand) will come back and give the fans a chance to have a proper goodbye. But that’s really up to them.”
Over the years, Cone has remained respectful of the nine-time winner, praising his desire to buy-in and lead the way for the rest of his colleagues. This is true despite the fact that Caguioa did not have a prominent position in Cone’s offense; he averaged just over 8.6 minutes per game over the next four seasons after logging 21.9 minutes in his first season with him between 2015 and 2016.
Caguioa was obviously a dedicated athlete evident in practices. “I think the thing with Mark that always amazes us is his ability to stand out every day in practice. He always was doing something that would kill somebody in practice and he was really a nice person to be around,” Cone praised and surely missed the 13-time All-Star already. “That’s what we’re going to be lacking.”
While Cone and Ginebra will be missed, it is hoped that the Devance and Caguioa-led core can keep the franchise on track.
In terms of talent, they appear to be in good shape. Ginebra should be in fantastic shape to win the new season with superstar guard Stanley Pringle and frontline cornerstone Japeth Aguilar returning in full health to lead a battle-tested club.
Pringle, a dynamic and deadly scorer in the backcourt, is getting back into form after fully recuperating from a meniscus injury in his left knee.
“In terms of injury, I think that he’s 100 percent. But in terms of his game and in terms of his full athleticism and explosiveness, I think he still has a ways to go. I’d say he’s about 80, 85 percent,” Cone said of Pringle. “But he’s back fully in practice, and he will be available for Game 1, unless something happens.”
“I don’t think Japeth has any restrictions at this point. I think his calf is fully healed. You do worry that with a calf injury, that can always recur. But I think he’s far enough away right now that we don’t have to worry about that, specifically,” Cone said. “He does daily stuff to prepare that calf for practice every day, and games. I think that’s something he’ll have to do for the rest of his career. But at this point, I think it’s far enough away from the injury that it’s safe to say he’s 100 percent.”
Although in the waiting game for his return, surely, Scottie Thompson, the newly crowned PBA Most Valuable Player for the 2021-22 season, will be key to their success. As good as the 28-year-old guard’s breakout season was, Cone believes the versatile player may still improve in the future if the ball is kept in his hands.
Coach Tim Cone asserts saying “What I’m most proud about is Scottie’s development and how much he’s improved. I still think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential. He still can be a lot better.” Cone continues, saying “We’re gonna try to keep the ball in his hands more than we did in the last conference, and I think that role will just grow and grow and grow as he continues forward.”