Surely, it did not make as much noise or call for the same amount of attention as the off-season trade that mainly sent JVee Casio and Dondon Hontiveros to Alaska and LA Tenorio to Barangay Ginebra San Miguel, but the trade that transpired last week between Air 21 and, again, Ginebra, might prove to be an important one for both teams involved.
Air 21 Coach Franz Pumaren, whose team was languishing near the bottom of the standings, had expressed his desire weeks ago to acquire a point guard, someone to ease the burden off veteran Wynne Arboleda and to find a reason not to heavily rely on newcomer Simon Atkins. Ginebra, on the other hand, just was not playing up to par. The Barangay was getting impatient, blaming a lack of frontline aggressiveness as one of the culprits in the below-average performance of their team.
Rumors swirled, a three-team trade was supposedly in the works, someone allegedly "in-the-know" quelled all of it by saying there were no such negotiations, then, just like that, the deal was indeed done, involving two, not three, teams. Mike Cortez, the Cool Cat, drafted by the Alaska Aces in 2003 as the first overall pick, after a stellar UAAP career with the La Salle Green Archers, had been traded by Ginebra to the Air 21 Express in exchange for rookie big man Yousef Taha.
Many Ginebra fans did not particularly like the trade, since they could not believe that a former number one pick, a good floor leader who showed flashes of brilliance quite often, could only merit a straight-up, one for one, deal involving an unproven neophyte center, who had played less than ten PBA games and was not even a first round pick (Taha was drafted 11th overall, the 1st pick of the 2nd round.). But teams have needs and, though only time will tell how right the two teams involved were in completing the transaction, the deal looks very promising after the initial performances of the players involved.
Just a couple of days after the trade happened, Cortez suited up for Air 21 last Friday, 09 November 2012, at the Cuneta Astrodome, against Barako Bull. Inserted early in the game, he looked unsurprisingly lost. He had a miscue here and there, missed a jumper or two out of rhythm, and got beat on the defensive rotation a few times. Fortunately for him, his team kept the score close, and even went ahead at times, setting up a vintage Mike Cortez performance that many had not seen this conference.
In the late third quarter, and more so in the fourth quarter, Cortez turned it up on both ends of the floor. He hit a triple. Then he stole the ball and went in for an uncontested lay-up. Then he hit another triple. He hit a quartercourt jumper. Then he hit another one. With the Cat at his coolest, Air 21 broke won its second straight after breaking its 4-game losing streak, holding to win the game by one point, 86-85. In twenty-four minutes of action, Cortez scored 24 points, had 6 assists, grabbed 6 rebounds, and stole the ball 5 times. He had four three-pointers, and just one turnover. How efficient.
Five other Express players scored in double figures and helped in the win, but in his first game with them, Cortez showed why Pumaren pushed hard for the trade to happen. Arboleda was the first to smile and high-five Cortez at the end of the game. While still low in the standings, the rise from last to seventh after the win has Air 21 looking forward to its next game on Wednesday, 14 November, against the faltering Alaska Aces. Cortez will surely have adjusted even more by then, and provide more of his exceptional skills for his new team. Cortez said that he just wanted to play more. No doubt, he will be able to with the Express.
On the other hand, Ginebra faced Global Port just after Cortez led his new team to victory. Coach Siot Tanquincen did not field Taha the entire game, which Ginebra won to break its own 5-game losing streak. Confronted with postgame with questions as to why he did not use Taha at all after giving up the talented Cortez for him, Siot explained that it would be unfair to throw Taha into the fire after having had only a day or two to try and learn the Ginebra plays on both ends.
Soon after though, Taha, with a new clean-cut hairdo, the opposite of the wild, flailing curls he sported with Air 21, was given a chance to show his stuff for the crowd favorites. With the Express, he had shown energy, hustle, and a nose for the ball. He scored when given the opportunity, but that was not his fortè. Against Talk 'N Text on Sunday, 11 November, at the Mall of Asia Arena, the Barangay cheered his entry into the game in the second quarter, and he immediately responded with some hustle plays, a couple of emphatic shot blocks, and the usual energy he provides. After a short but productive stint, he sat back on the bench, as the fans and his teammates applauded.
He was a fixture on the bench for almost the entire second half, but when TNT threatened to come close, Siot reinserted Taha into the lineup late in the fourth quarter. Again, he provided quality minutes. He got a couple of rebounds, he made a pair of great passes to teammates in the lane for easy shots, and he clogged the lane on defense. After steadying the center position for his team, he returned to the bench as Mark Caguioa closed out the game and gave Ginebra its second straight win.
Taha finished with modest statistics. In twelve minutes, Taha had 3 points (an and-one conversion in the second quarter), 2 rebounds (I was at the MOA Arena and can swear he had more than that — boo to the statistician.), 2 blocks, and, impressively, 3 assists. Most importantly, his coach showed extreme confidence in him by putting him back in the game at crunch time to help out hard-hat Rudy Hatfield, who was winded after his usual monstrous effort on the boards. Taha's play endeared him to the Ginebra faithful, excited his teammates, and showcased what he can bring to the table for the sixth-place Kings.
Clearly, their roles for their new teams are very different. While Cortez will be the main point guard for Air 21, with increased minutes, duties, and responsibilities, as well as expectations, as the games go on, Taha will be a frontline role-player for Ginebra, who will be used as needed. However, with his enthusiasm and intensity, he should raise the bar for Ginebra big-man performances to the point that, if the others don't hustle, Taha will surely be there to come in and provide some up front.
As I said, only time will tell the actual impact of this trade. The results, so far, are likely acceptable to both sides.
You can follow Charlie Cuna on Twitter @Charlie C.
Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.
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