San Miguel's pursuit of a Grand Slam took a turn on Monday when it traded former PBA top pick Christian Standhardinger to NorthPort, effectively ending the big man's year-long tumultuous ride with the Beermen.
The trade is an admission that the controversial 2017 move for Standhardinger, which undoubtedly solidified an already-stacked roster, turned out to be better on paper than what materialized on the floor.
The issue boiled down to fit as the Beermen struggled to get both perennial MVP candidate June Mar Fajardo and Standhardinger on the floor. As mobile and adept as Standhardinger is around the basket, pairing him alongside Fajardo caused spacing issues. Standhardinger could extend his offense to the mid-range, but he was still more effective when closer to the rim. Having them both diminished their touches, which meant that one of them had to concede time and come off the pine.
But as Standhardinger took a backseat, his minutes slowly dipped: from a robust 35.4 minutes per game in a featured role during last year's season-ending conference to 27.03 a night once he settled for a timeshare with the returning Fajardo to start the 2019 season. That dwindled some more in the midseason tournament as he saw the floor for an average of only 17 minutes with import Chris McCullough in the fold.
"It's tough to back up a June Mar, five-time MVP. It's like being a backup to Michael Jordan. No one knows who you are, nobody really cares," Gilas Pilipinas coach Tim Cone said hours after news of the trade broke.
Make no mistake, though, Standhardinger's no slouch. His reserved demeanor belies a big man who holds a lot of sway over the tides of power in the PBA.
His out-sized influence was reflected before he even arrived in the league, as SMB and TNT engaged in a bidding war for his services. San Miguel eventually won the first overall pick from Kia Picanto by packaging Jay-R Reyes, Rashawn McCarthy, Ronald Tubid and a 2019 draft pick -- in what was seen as a lopsided trade mainly by the TNT franchise. The transaction eventually led to resistance from a majority bloc of TNT, Meralco, NLEX, Alaska, Rain or Shine, Blackwater and Phoenix which denounced then-commissioner Chito Narvasa who resigned right before the 2018 season opened.
All the squabbling proved to be worth it for San Miguel. Standhardinger helped San Miguel to a runner-up finish in his first conference with the team during the 2018 Commissioner's Cup and kept them afloat when Fajardo missed lengthy time due to injury in the following tournament. He continued to play a key role as SMB steamrolled its way to two straight title runs -- first in the 2019 Philippine Cup, when he held down the fort as he routinely came off the bench, and once more last conference, where he often closed out games as an import-stopper on the team's way to its second championship of the season.
While his pairing with Fajardo never blossomed into what San Miguel envisioned, everyone was happy because they kept winning.
Standhardinger showed flashes of being an elite center. He averaged "only" 17.5 points and 7.0 rebounds on 52 percent shooting to open this year. While those further declined to 7.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in the Commissioner's Cup, Standhardinger showed he was still a cut above the rest -- especially on defense. The big man managed to put on a conference-long show, culminating in his performance against TNT import Terrence Jones in Game 5 of their finals showdown to shift the momentum and the title chances to the Beermen's side.
One couldn't really blame San Miguel for trying making it work. But at the end of the day, having a "good problem" in possessing the two best big men in the league was nonetheless still a problem.
With NorthPort, Standhardinger could see a spike in his averages. On offense, he could form a lethal pick-and-roll combination with star rookie Robert Bolick. Both instinctively play their roles very well; Bolick is effective and unselfish as a passer (6.0 assists on just 2.5 turnovers in six games) who'll mesh well with Standhardinger, an effective rim roller who could also pop out for jumpers if he can't muscle his way inside. The 6-foot-7 center's affinity for moving and running often will also be a boon in coach Pido Jarencio's fast-paced system, and his strength and agility against opposing big men, locals and imports alike, should finally give the Batang Pier a steady and dominant presence on the defensive end.
Standhardinger could make his NorthPort debut against his former team on Wednesday, October 23 at the Cuneta Astrodome. There's no way to know how he'll look for the first time with the Batang Pier, but no one is counting out the possibility of him coming out strong to send a message.
"Hopefully we can come up with a game plan to kind of slow them down. I know he's going to go all out and be ready for that game like everyone else [who] gets traded," Beermen guard Chris Ross said. "It will be fun. I know he's excited to play against us. I don't know if he's excited that the trade happened because what competitor wouldn't want to be a part of a Grand Slam attempt, right?"
This is all assuming that he stays in NorthPort, since the Batang Pier could still deal him to another team. Ultimately, that won't matter: Standhardinger will own the spotlight at the five wherever he goes, and he's surely going to show up day in and night out for his encore.