As Matthew Wright departure looms, Phoenix Super LPG sets up quiet passing of the torch

For so long the star man of his PBA franchise, Matthew Wright's potential departure could see Phoenix Super LPG initiate a transition to pass on the torch in the Philippine Cup. PBA Media Bureau

For Phoenix Super LPG, it's all about reading the writing on the wall and accepting fate instead of resisting it.

As the growing likelihood of franchise star Matthew Wright's departure hangs over the franchise, the Fuel Masters brass appear to have embraced the art of letting go -- choosing to chart the course for the future rather than staying locked in a fruitless contractual stalemate with the Fil-Canadian guard.

Of course, it helps that Wright has been transparent about his entire decision-making.

"Last year pa we were already aware that [the possibility of] Japan is already there. He was open to us about his plans. Hindi ito 'yung na-surprise na lang kami na isang araw, biglang may Japan [offer] na," Phoenix head coach Topex Robinson told ESPN. "Now [in the offseason] he said his piece, management listened, and then they kind of compromised."

The said compromise did not come in the form of a pricey contract extension, but instead in the form of a commitment to one final stand. Before the three-year max deal he signed back in 2019 expires this August, Wright will play one more conference -- the upcoming 2022 PBA Philippine Cup -- before assessing whether he stays in the Philippines or chooses to board a plane to Japan to continue his career in the B.League.

"I signed for three years back in 2019, and they're gonna get three years out of me. I intend to play until the very last second of that contract. That's what being professional is about," Wright told reporters during the PBA Media Day at the Novotel Manila in Quezon City last Thursday. "Nothing's going to change at all. I'm gonna practice early, go hard, and you're gonna get the same Matthew Wright."

Strictly speaking, "the same Matthew Wright" might not be entirely there moving forward. There's no question that he will continue to leave everything on the floor, but Robinson said that the 31-year-old might not even be there as much as he normally was simply because Phoenix will begin to lean on the other pieces in the backcourt beyond Wright.

"Alam niya rin na he might not play the same minutes that he used to play because he respects that I am also preparing in the eventuality that he's not going to be with us anymore," Robinson said, alluding to the certainty of Wright leaving at some point. "But he's still committed to this last conference with us, and we also committed our trust to him, that he's our guy."

Wright playing less minutes -- he averaged 37.1 in the 2021-22 PBA season and has played 34.2 a game throughout his five-year career -- does not mean his impact will be diminished. Perhaps the reduced workload might even bode well for his efficiency.

After averaging a career-best 21.1 points on 59.3 percent True Shooting (TS%) along with 5.5 assists and 4.4 rebounds in 2020, the 6-foot-4 star's production in the 2021-22 season slipped to 16.3 points on 46.5 TS% -- almost five percentage points below the league average, per 'Stats by Ryan' on Tiebreaker Times -- though he did average a career-high 6.4 assists to go with 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals.

As a team, a Phoenix offense turned in the second-best offensive rating (106.7) inside the Pampanga bubble managed to churn out just 99.4 points per 100 possessions last year, good for ninth among 12 squads.

"I think we just caught everybody by surprise. Prior to the first bubble, nobody really counted on us to end up where we ended up," Robinson said. "Nasabi ko nga sa kanila na we are not going to be treated the way that we were treated a year or two years ago. So how can we grow from that? We have to find a way."

But where does the path back to winning begin?

Well aside from hoping Wright regains his 2020 form in his final hurrah for Phoenix, the hope is that the entire core rises to the challenge and takes a much-needed step towards fulfilling their potential.

For the coming season, the Fuel Masters are bolstered by the return of the rejuvenated 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Sean Anthony and the addition of second-rounder rookies Tyler Tio, Chris Lalata, and Encho Serrano.

"I expect us to do well," Wright bluntly answered when asked about his expectations for the coming All-Filipino Conference. "Sean Anthony is finally back. He's almost 100 percent. I think that will be a big help 'cause we lost a few key guys in the offseason. Sean will definitely come in and help us, give points, rebounds, assists, toughness, versatility, and veteran leadership.

"We're hoping the young guys that we drafted [perform well, too] -- the rookies like Tyler and Encho. Some of those guys who slid in the draft were expected to be higher but we ended up taking them, and we're grateful for that. These guys are great players. They really work hard in practice and they're promising," he added.

More importantly, the onus is also on big man Jason Perkins to put the franchise firmly on his back.

"One of the things that Wright is helping us out with is that he's pretty much aware that the chances of him going to Japan are there. So as early as now, he's helping not only the young guys but even 'Perk'," shared Robinson. "Sinasabihan na niya na, 'This might be you [leading the team] in the next few months.'"

If his recent production through four seasons is any indication, then Phoenix's future might not be in a terrible spot. Perkins, a 6-4 forward capable of creating his own offense through a vast array of play types from all ends of the floor, averaged an efficient 14.8 points on 56.9 TS% along with 7.7 boards and 2.1 assists in 25 games. He also made 42.0 percent of his triples, second behind just Marcio Lassiter among players who fired over 4.0 3s a game.

"Sabi nga ni Matt na we're blessed to have Jason dahil siya na lang ang hindi nakakaalam na he's a superstar. And that's what I love about him -- he's so hungry, yet he's so humble. He's really a blessing," Robinson remarked about Perkins.

Perkins' growth as a vocal leader may also prove to be a timely shot in the arm for a Phoenix team that stands to lose the candor, confidence, and passion of Wright.

"The thing about Jason now is that he's really grown to be vocal. 'Yun 'yung wala siya during the first few years," Robinson observed. "Before when he had issues with certain players or coaches, he just kept quiet.

"Now what I love about him is that he's being vocal now. But he also understands he needs to better. He says, 'Hindi pwedeng puro lang ako salita.' That's what I admire about him now, the fact that he's taking the cudgels and stepping up to be the leader of the team. I'm very excited for him."

Now whether or not all the aforementioned factors will be enough to keep Wright in Phoenix remains to be seen, as the player wants to maintain all focus on the task at hand and push the negotiations on the backburner.

"I've given everything I possibly could to this franchise and no one can say otherwise," he commented. "The season is still going on, negotiations are still going on, so I think it's going to be a matter of us meeting halfway. That's how it is. I go high, they go low, we meet in the middle. That's probably how all negotiations go in the business aspect. I didn't reach an agreement now with the season about to start. I don't want any distractions right now. We can figure it out at the end of the season."

But whatever route Wright decides to take regarding his future, Robinson said he'll always, always back him up.

"Oh yeah, no hard feelings," Robinson said. "I love Matt, and Matt knows this. I will do everything for my players. I've proven that time and time [especially during the departures of] Calvin (Abueva) and Chris Banchero. If there's a brighter future elsewhere, management will always support them."