Let’s (Not) Play the Blame Game With SJ Belangel

Does Gilas Pilipinas point guard SJ Belangel deserve all the blame and criticisms recently thrown at him? To come up with an answer, Ryan Alba (@_alba_ at Twitter) digs into the film to analyze SJ’s performance in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

After a “disappointing” Gilas Pilipinas performance (relative to the Serbia loss) against the Dominican Republic, many people looked for reasons to blame for the defeat. There was a hunt for a scapegoat by many observers, and this time, the finger landed on the point guard, SJ Belangel. There were accusations of pounding the air out of the ball, ball-hoggery, and general incompetence thrown at the 22-year-old floor general. 

To summarize it, one player — in a game where 10 people are on the floor at every moment — is being blamed for a 28-point loss. But despite a large number of people saying the same thing on every available social media platform, is there any truth to the assertion? 

In one word, no. In multiple words, no, and read the rest of the article.

Why do we play the blame game?

Sj Belangel warms up for Gilas' match against Dominican Republic
SJ Belangel warms up for Gilas' match against Dominican Republic (Photo via FIBA)

Before anything, we have to examine why we blame players. The easiest answer is that it’s simple and doesn’t require careful examination. Our minds love to simplify, but this makes us prone to oversimplification. Instead of factoring in the multiple reasons why a team could have lost, it takes much less time to recall a few bad possessions and say that the game was lost there. We crave a fast and simple explanation for everything when everything is more complicated than that. But we can simplify without relying on flimsy narratives that don’t hold any weight.  

In playing the blame game, we create overly simple arguments that disregard context and, well, reality itself. If we pinpoint the loss on one person, we neglect his teammates and their shortcomings. Not only that, but we also neglect what the other team did entirely. In essence, we’re saying that we lost because one of our guys screwed up and not because the other team was better. It’s not hard to give credit to the winning team. I think we should try it sometimes. 

In coming up with who to blame, we rely on memories. Memories are often unreliable. We fail to account for every single possession of the game and instead nitpick the ones that stand out. We end up condensing hundreds of possessions into the ones that we remember and nothing else. In doing so, we “find” an answer in a tiny portion of the game and simply ignore the rest. We rely on memories that stand out based on feelings or emotions, and this usually leads us to terrible conclusions.

Basketball is a team sport spread over more than a hundred possessions every game. Multiple players share these possessions and create on-court interactions over a pretty large amount of time. It’s really unfair to blame one person and assign to them the burden of losing. In watching the sport, it’s important to keep in mind that a team wins as a team and loses as a team.

But SJ was terrible. Why can’t we blame him?

Was he? In Gilas’ loss to the Dominican Republic, Belangel had six points and 10 assists in his 26 minutes on the floor and committed only 1 turnover. He took nine shots and made three of them. The stat line alone doesn’t really tell much. The assists, though aplenty, can be deceiving. These things require context, and to do that, we have to go back to the film.

SJ routinely took care of the ball and found our open shooters. He routinely made good and safe passes, and this was huge for the team in the first half. They held the lead after two quarters because of his steady playmaking, which resulted in seven assists. The only turnover that SJ committed the whole game was because of an offensive foul. Every pass he made in this game went to the hands of his teammates. This is incredibly crucial because the Dominican Republic had 26 points from our 23 turnovers. 

He had seven assists in the first half, which resulted in 19 points. Gilas had 41 points in the half. Simple math shows us that almost half of our points in the first half came from Belangel’s passes. If we include his points scored, we can see that SJ had a hand in more than half of our total offensive output in the first half. Blaming him for the second-half collapse completely ignores the fact that we probably would not have been in a position to collapse without his quality of play in the first. 

One of the talking points commonly thrown around was that he was a ball hog who shot too much. Let’s rewatch his missed shots on the video above. At least to my eye, all of the misses were good shots except the fourth one. In the fourth shot, SJ looked like he was trying to fish for a foul, but the call did not come. For the rest, these look like the shots he usually takes, and they all came in the flow of the offense. With the exception of the first shot, where a lob to Kai was probably available, they were all relatively open and there was no clear better option. The results were off, but the process was fine. They honestly don’t look different from the makes in terms of shot quality (openness and makeability).

The streets have awoken and bestowed upon the nickname “Boy Dribble” upon the same person who they were praising days ago for making a buzzer-beater against South Korea. The common claim is that SJ pounded the air out of the ball and took up too much time. Again, that is a terrible oversimplification of what actually happened.

If you only watched the ball, this play would have you thinking that he over-dribbled. In my opinion, this was a broken play wherein everyone on the floor played a role in its failure. The action begins with SJ rejecting a Kai Sotto screen. The team sets up for Jordan Heading to curl off of a Carl Tamayo screen. This action doesn’t materialize because Heading took time setting the off-ball action up and Tamayo not making contact on the screen and providing separation for Heading. 

After the curl failed to materialize into anything, SJ had no passing options. The Dominican Republic played terrific denial defense the whole game, and this play was no exception. They were ready for bad passes that they could convert for easy dunks and layups in transition. Instead of throwing a risky pass, SJ seemed to be calling Sotto over for a screen, but there seemed to be a lag in their communication.

The screen came late, and given that all options were exhausted and no opening could be found, there was no choice but to shoot a tough deep ball. It’s at least better than a turnover. 

This is another play that is interpreted as Belangel holding the ball too long. Again, I don’t think that that was exactly the case. This was just great off-ball defense by the Dominicans. Carl calls for the ball in the post, but Michael Torres (#33) is in prime position to pick off an entry pass. To prevent this, he tells Nieto to go to the weak side corner to make the pass safer. Victor Liz (#5) denies and eventually fronts Carl Tamayo to prevent the pass. 

He begins to look for other options, but every pass he could throw is risky and could result in easy turnovers. Carl eventually manages to change the angle in his post-up and provides SJ an easy passing valve, but he ends up missing the shot.

We can see in all of these clips that the statement “SJ Belangel is a ball hog who dribbles too much” is patently false. He made good contributions to the team and was an important cog in the success in the first half. Without SJ, the game could have been worse for the team. What’s clear now is that the problem or reason for the loss was not an individual player, but a combination of superior basketball from the Dominican Republic and poor execution from Gilas as a team. Yes, SJ missed some openings and he did shoot at a bad rate, but an individual doesn’t lose a game. A team does.

Why did we lose?

There are tons of things we can point to as the reason we lost, but to keep this short, we can boil it down to two: Gilas couldn’t slow down the opposition enough, and the Dominican Republic played great defense to force Gilas into committing 23 turnovers.

Notice the shot clock in all of these possessions. The team managed to whittle the clock down to single digits and performed well defensively. The defense in the half court when the game slowed down was pretty good and the team managed to force the Dominican Republic to take tough shots. The problem is that we weren’t able to consistently slow the tempo down and create late clock situations consistently.

The defense on the perimeter occasionally felt paper thin and the opposing guards could blow-by their defenders seemingly at will. Despite our height advantage, our rim protectors couldn’t do much to deter them from going inside nor could they regularly send back the shots taken at the rim (Gilas only had one block in total). The constant blow-bys in the perimeter resulted in an overwhelmed interior. and the Dominican Republic took full advantage of it, scoring 20 of their 34 made field goals at the rim.  

Remember when I mentioned the 23 turnovers? A lot of them came from poor passing and bad ball handling. The Dominican defense was characterized by strong off-ball denials that closed passing lanes or made the openings terribly risky for our guards. They used their strength to make ball handlers uncomfortable and force dribbling errors for easy shots. Every player on the team (except Geo Chiu who played for less than two minutes) had at least one turnover. Of the Dominican Republic’s 94 points, 26 of them (or 28 percent of the total) came from turnovers by Gilas. Each turnover was costly, as they produced easy points for the Dominican Republic and deprived Gilas of a chance to score. Safe passing was a commodity that was sorely needed by the team on offense. 

Basketball is not so simple as to be able to pinpoint one thing as the reason for a loss. It’s possible, but highly unlikely. It’s even more unlikely in a game that was lost by this much of a margin. The team was overwhelmed by the Dominican defense in the second half and couldn’t match their pace on the other end of the floor. If you want a reason, that’s it. 

Narratives like pinning a loss solely on a player should be thrown away and forgotten. There really is no place for that anymore. It never really should have had a place in discourse in the first place. They’re flimsy and usually baseless assertions that don’t provide anything substantial to both the other viewers or the player being criticized.

Basketball in the country has come a pretty long way and it is still in the process of growing. We, as viewers of the sport, should grow along with it.

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1 thought on “Let’s (Not) Play the Blame Game With SJ Belangel”

  1. Thank you so much for the run down explanation why Gilas lost the game. At first, I was thinking that way (blame game pointing at SJ) but it’s clear now that we need to be working more on ball handling whilst fighting back the opposing team’s physicality. Nevertheless, the young Gilas guns did everything they could and at this point, my apology to SJ for thinking otherwise. Thank you Gilas for everything. The lesson we got from each experience will eventually make the team more mature and be up for a higher level of competition against stronger team so that through this, everyone in Gilas we will rise up a more stronger team than before.

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