The 2019 season marked the second time in three years that San Miguel Beer failed to win a second PBA Grand Slam in franchise history.
In 2017, SMB ruled the All-Filipino conference after conquering sister team Barangay Ginebra, 4-1 in the championship series. The Beermen, then rode on the beastly performance of Best Import Charles Rhodes to roll past the TNT KaTropa, 4-2, en route to winning their first Commissioner's Cup title since the 2000 season.
San Miguel was determined to complete its mission in the Governors' Cup that season. But a quarterfinal pairing with Ginebra proved to be the game changer. With Justin Brownlee at the forefront of Ginebra's title drive, the Kings clobbered the Beermen in the quarterfinals to dash SMB's Grand Slam bid.
In a season marked by slow starts in each of the first two conferences, the Beermen managed to come from behind both times to rule the 2019 Philippine and Commissioner's Cups. Title romps in the first two conferences renewed San Miguel's dream of winning a second Triple Crown.
With five-time league MVP June Mar Fajardo doing his usual damage, and Arwind Santos, Chris Ross, Alex Cabagnot, Terrence Romeo and Marcio Lassiter all providing the solid support, equalizing the Crispa Redmanizers' two Grand Slam conquests became a realistic goal.
The Beermen continued rewriting history by winning a precedent-smashing fifth straight Philippine Cup crown behind their 4-3 Finals win against the Magnolia Pambansang Manok. San Miguel then, followed that up with a strong surge in the 2019 Commissioner's Cup playoffs.
Coach Leo Austria's wards bucked a twice-to-beat disadvantage when they defeated second seed NorthPort Batang Pier twice in the quarterfinals to advance to the semis. San Miguel, then manhandled Rain or Shine in the Final Four, 3-1, before finally overcoming the Terrence Jones-led TNT side, 4-2, in the Finals to rule the 2019 Commissioner's Cup.
Weeks after that, SMB joined the 2019 East Asia Super League Terrific 12 in Macau as part of its preparation for the Governors' Cup buildup. The Beermen benefitted from that international tourney as they got off to a flying start in the 2019 Governors' Cup, winning its first four matches.
But an ankle injury suffered by prolific import Dez Wells provided the first chink in San Miguel's seeming invincible armor. John Holland came in to replace Wells, who just a few weeks after his ankle injury, unfortunately figured in a fight with teammate Arwind Santos and Ronald Tubid in practice. Backup big man Kelly Nabong also joined the fray. The internal turmoil practically erased whatever San Miguel built this season.
After carefully evaluating things, the SMB team management made the hard, but important decision to slap indefinite suspensions on Santos, Tubid and Nabong. Wells left the country as SMB stuck with Holland.
The Beermen lost their last two games in the eliminations, including a crucial 114-109 loss to the TNT KaTropa in the final elimination round playdate, relegating them to fifth spot and into an early playoff collision course with fourth-seeded sister team Ginebra.
The undermanned San Miguel Beer engaged a stacked-up Ginebra side, which held a twice-to-beat edge, in a neck-and-neck battle in the quarterfinals. Behind import Justin Brownlee's 41-point effort and the game-long brilliance of Stanley Pringle, Ginebra scored a pulsating 100-97, putting an emphatic end to SMB's Grand Slam chase.
What they need
Talent-wise, San Miguel remains the yardstick in the league. The Beermen have dominated the PBA in the last four years, winning eight league titles under Austria.
But if there are two major things SMB need to address in order to extend its PBA reign, the Beermen will have to fix their team chemistry. And as team management tackles that issue this offseason, an even pressing matter is the succession plan of SMB considering some of its stars are ageing.
Santos, a key contributor in San Miguel's numerous PBA championships, is now 38. Lethal guard Alex Cabagnot is already 36, while Chris Ross will turn 35 by March 2020. But looking at the team's recent player movements, it seems that San Miguel's management is pressing the right button.
Terrence Romeo has been a good fit for the team since his arrival in December 2018. Even Paul Zamar, Von Pessumal and Matt Ganuelas-Rosser have stepped up well when their numbers are called. On the other hand, Nabong has contributed his own fair share, at least when he keeps his emotions in check.
But it would be interesting to see how big man Mo Tautuaa can thrive under Austria's system when he plays his first full season for San Miguel. Tautuaa had to learn everything on the fly since the trade.
Looking at the overall picture, San Miguel has the assets to engage in trades with any PBA team this offseason. And for sure, PBA fans can expect some serious wheeling and dealing by the Beermen, who are looking to add to more titles next season.