The San Miguel Beermen have been the class of the PBA since Leo Austria was inserted as head coach, and June Mar Fajardo began his ascent as the top dog in the league. With five titles in nine conferences, the Beermen proved that the formula of surrounding Fajardo with tremendous talent in players like Arwind Santos, Alex Cabagnot, Marcio Lassiter and Chris Ross would lead to a potential dynasty in the making.
And in a shocking turn of events even before the season began, the Beermen got even stronger, as they swung a blockbuster trade that allowed them to select Christian Standhardinger as the top overall pick in the 2017 PBA Draft. That gave the Beermen an overwhelming advantage in the middle as Fajardo would be paired together with the Filipino-German to create a devastating frontcourt.
Surely this would spell a grand slam, or at least multiple titles this season, right? Not exactly.
San Miguel began the season on the right track, dominating the Philippine Cup despite not having Standhardinger, who was committed to playing in the ABL. With the championship core looking fresh and playing at peak condition, the Beermen dominated all the way until the finals, disposing of the Magnolia Hotshots, 4-1, to win an unprecedented fourth straight Philippine Cup title.
The title was a reminder of how great San Miguel was, and their dominance amongst the elite of the PBA. Things looked to be even tougher for the field, as Standhardinger made his debut in the midst of the Commissioner's Cup. Only the reality was far different from what everyone expected. The talented rookie struggled to find his role with the team, and to co-exist with Fajardo on the floor at the same time.
However, the Beermen turned their conference around, with the arrival of controversial import Re-naldo Balkman. Fresh from a title with Alab Pilipinas in the ABL, Balkman exorcised all the demons, as he led San Miguel back to the Finals, this time going up against Barangay Ginebra and Justin Brownlee.
On paper, the Beermen had the advantage. But Ginebra played with an edge, and an added weapon- Greg Slaughter. With the big man able to hold his own and defend Fajardo, Ginebra's defense shut down the Beermen's shooters. As a result, San Miguel fell to Ginebra, the first time the Beermen and Austria tasted defeat in a Finals series.
Things would only get worse in the beginning of the Governors' Cup, as news broke that June Mar Fajardo would miss time due to a stress fracture. With Standhardinger, Alex Cabagnot and Marcio Lassiter also out of the lineup due to Gilas Pilipinas duty in the Asian Games as well as the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers, San Miguel was unable to find enough time to develop chemistry and a rhythm even though they had an excellent import in Kevin Murphy replacing AZ Reid.
The end of San Miguel's season came in unceremonious fashion, as the Alaska Aces dumped the Beermen in the quarterfinals. However, despite the ending, the Beermen still have a lot to be proud about. One championship, another Finals appearance and a fifth straight MVP in the offing for Fajardo shows that San Miguel will still be top contenders for years to come.
What they need
What does a team like San Miguel need? They have Fajardo, and if he's healthy coming into next season, the Beermen will always be the favorites.
But Ginebra has shown the rest of the league the Beermen are vulnerable, if there's a player that can hold his own in single coverage versus the Kraken. Unfortunately for the 10 other teams in the PBA, Greg Slaughter doesn't have nine other identical twins. That means that the Beermen still have an overwhelming advantage against the rest of the field.
But despite that, San Miguel should be looking at developing players that could give relief to their championship core. Alex Cabagnot and Arwind Santos are in their mid-30s, while Lassiter, Ross and Fajardo play a ton of minutes. It's not an issue in the Philippine Cup, but the wear and tear of the load that they carry weighs heavily on them in the Commissioner's Cup and Governors' Cup.
A whole offseason with Standhardinger in the fold would help the team tremendously. The big challenge will be finding a way for CS and June Mar to co-exist and play on the floor together. The Draft is secondary for San Miguel. With no picks in the first round, it's going to be a challenge finding a rookie who will be ready to carve out a role on the stacked.
Therefore, the key will be Standhardinger, and if he can lower the usage of everyone on the team by shouldering a bigger load. He's on track to be named Best Player of the Conference in the Governors' Cup, which shows that the talent is there. Now it's just a matter of harnessing it to keep everyone fresh, as they look to win their fifth straight Philippine Cup next season.