The final conference of the PBA's 2022-23 season, the Governors' Cup, kicks off on Jan. 22 with a double-header featuring Meralco Bolts taking on Rain or Shine Elasto Painters and Converge FiberXers faing NorthPort Batang Pier.
The conference will feature imports below 6-foot-6 in height and will run until late April as the league tries to finish its season before the 2023 Southeast Asian Games in Phnom Penh in May.
The cast of imports looks impressive and with only a short break between last Sunday's Commissioner's Cup Game 7, the teams are all in good shape.
That said, here are three storylines to watch this conference.
Continued Ginebra dominance or SMB breakthrough?
This is the 11th staging of the Governors' Cup since the first one was held nearly 30 years ago.
San Miguel Beermen have won the most -- five -- but none since the 2014-15 season. Not coincidentally, their drought began the following season when Barangay Ginebra brought in a certain Justin Brownlee as its replacement import.
Since then, Ginebra has won four of the last five (no tournament was held in 2020) to close in on the Beermen.
Will the Kings win their third straight and tie the Beermen for most titles in league history or will SMB end its eight-year dry spell? Or will perhaps another team outside the SMC group win it for the first time since Rain or Shine did it in 2012 and break Brownlee and Ginebra's stranglehold?
Curiously, San Miguel and Ginebra split the season's first two championships, with SMB taking the Philippine Cup and Ginebra annexing the Commissioner's Cup. So if one of those two wins the Governors' Cup, it would also be crowned the unofficial season champion.
SMC-affiliated teams have also won 20 of the last 23 league titles, including 13 of the last 14. Only TNT Tropang Giga have won more than one title during that stretch, so that's another dominant run that's worth watching.
Milestones to watch
There are a few milestones worth watching in the Governors' Cup.
James Yap, who sat out the previous two conferences due to injuries and a political run, has signed a one-conference deal with Rain or Shine.
Yap last saw action in the 2021 Philippine Cup, appearing in just seven games and averaging only 7.9 points. It's not clear yet if the short-term is contract will be the two-time MVP's swansong, but if it is, does he still have enough juice in his shooting hands to reach 1,200 career three-point shots?
As it stands, Yap is in fourth place on the all-time list with 1,178 triples made. It's not likely he will surpass the guy in third, Barangay Ginebra's LA Tenorio, who's at exactly 1,200 and still active. But 'Big Game James' has a chance to join Tenorio, Allan Caidic and Jimmy Alapag as the only PBA players to make 1,200 career three-point shots.
For his career, which began in 2004, Yap has averaged around 1.6 three-point makes per game. That number, though, has shrunk to just 0.8 over the last two conferences that he played in.
If he continues this trend, that means Rain or Shine will have to play around 28 games this conference for Yap to reach the 1,200 plateau. That would be statistically impossible even if the Elasto Painters play a knockout game, reach the finals and have each of their playoff series go the distance. So to even have a chance, Yap has to up his per-game output and approximate his career average.
There's also no telling what shape 'Big Game James' will be in considering he hasn't played in over a year. But if this is really it for him, it would be neat if he could leave us with one last vintage performance.
Another player on milestone watch is Ginebra import Justin Brownlee, who is zeroing in on fourth place in the imports' all-time scoring list and fifth and fourth places in total games played. And unlike Yap, Brownlee has a pretty good chance of making it.
After Sunday's Game 7 win over the Bay Area Dragons, Brownlee is now fifth in scoring with 5,268 points, or 118 points behind the late great scoring machine Lew Massey. With his PBA career average of 28.9ppg, Brownlee should overtake Massey by Ginebra's fifth or 6th game.
The other milestone within reach for Brownlee is the 200-game mark, a level that's only been attained by guys named Chambers, Parks and Black. Brownlee is currently at 182, and he can reach 200 if Ginebra advances to the semifinals and plays a couple of long series along the way. Another finals run would seal it.
Brownlee will almost certainly pass Billy Ray Robinson (185) for fifth place during the elimination round, and if the Kings go deep into the playoffs, he can also overtake Byron 'Snake' Jones (198) for fourth. Catching up with Parks (220) for third will have to wait until another conference.
Changes on the sidelines
There were a few notable movements in the coaching staff of some teams.
NorthPort have elevated Bonnie Tan, who recently led the Letran Knights to an NCAA three-peat, to head coach while kicking Pido Jarencio upstairs to position of team manager.
Jarencio returned as head coach in 2017 and, since then, the Batang Pier have failed to make it to a single semifinal. The closest they would get was in the 2019-20 Commissioner's Cup, where -- as the no. 2 seed -- they blew a twice-to-beat advantage over SMB.
Tan, a longtime assistant, will be taking the reins of a Batang Pier team that just recently acquired 2021 top overall pick Joshua Munzon and last year's no. 8 pick in the PBA draft Javi Gomez de Liano.
Over at TNT, Chot Reyes has taken leave to concentrate solely on Gilas Pilipinas' preparations for the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
In his place, team manager Jojo Lastimosa will be calling the shots, assisted by newly-hired active consultant Slavoljub Gorunovic of Serbia. The Tropa have long had a history of hiring foreign coaches in various capacities, dating back to Bill Bayno in 2002, but this is the first time that they've hired a coach of European lineage.
Meanwhile, Meralco are bringing back Nenad Vucinic as team consultant.
Vucinic coached Gilas Pilipinas for one window of the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers and was with the Bolts for their Philippine Cup semifinal run.
After Meralco was eliminated in August, he resigned from both Meralco and the Gilas Pilipinas coaching staff and returned to New Zealand. But after a disappointing Commissioner's Cup campaign, the Bolts probably figured they needed Vucinic's presence again.