No one can escape the end, not even dynasties. They can rise again but they will be buried eventually. The San Miguel Beermen are no exception. For five strong years, they’ve enjoyed a dominant reign at the top of the All-Filipino conference to the tune of five straight championships, a feat no other team in PBA history has accomplished. But that might just come to an end this season.
Is the End Nigh?
There are a ton of reasons why they could be looking at the end of their run at the top. Of course, June Mar Fajardo’s season-ending injury is the biggest part. But even dating back to last season, they’ve had some well-documented issues. Most notably, the fallout from their internal brawl that ended their Grand Slam bid is still fresh on their minds. Kelly Nabong and Ronald Tubid have already been jettisoned from the squad but Arwind Santos is still going strong. There’s enough there to question how his presence will impact chemistry.
As much as they would like to deny it, the members of the Death Five are getting up there in age and mileage. That has been especially apparent the last two seasons with how they’ve sometimes struggled with the wear and tear of long playoff runs. Heck, the Magnolia Hotshots almost unseated them just because of a younger, faster back court. Compounding the issue is they don’t really have the players to effectively replace that strong five. They did retool in the off-season but the new recruits are a combination of rookies, journeymen, and fringe rotation players. Not exactly the type of home-run deals they could theoretically make.
Going back to Fajardo’s injury, not only did it mean losing their best player, it also meant losing their big man depth. Aside from mainstays Mo Tautuaa and Arwind Santos, they feature bench warmer Billy Mamaril and the unproven Russel Escoto. That’s pretty much it. There will be a ton of heavy lifting for those two starters.
Over time, teams have slowly but surely found more and more ways to not only slow down Fajardo and the Beermen, but outright neutralize him at some point. Ginebra and Magnolia in particular have presented those problems with their size and length up front. Despite that, he still remained their biggest strength and walking mismatch. Without him, they may find it easier to match up, especially since SMB isn’t actually that big outside of June Mar.
Refusing to go into the Good Night
It’s easy to forget the Beermen still won two out of the three conferences last season, both in spectacular fashion. In the Philippine Cup, despite their struggles with Magnolia’s speed and fresher legs, they battled through a tough seven game series. In the Commissioner’s Cup, they looked like dead men walking as they were off to a sluggish start thanks to the short layoff. But they managed to find a way to climb back into the playoffs and knock off conference-long favorites TNT. It’s so cliche but no less true: they have the heart and experience of champions, they always seem to find a way to succeed no matter the odds.
The remaining members of the Death Five will stand to prove that they can still go strong but more than them, there are two more players who will probably have chips on their shoulders: Mo Tautuaa and Terrence Romeo. Tautuaa still has a lot to prove after swapping places with Christian Standhardinger. Despite issues with fit and playing time, Standhardinger was always reliable to cover for Fajardo when he was off or out. There will be a ton of pressure for Mo to do the same. He’s not the same dominating inside presence as those two but his unique inside-outside game should help tremendously. Luckily for them, he has had his best performances in the All-Filipino tourney.
As for Romeo, he’ll have to build on his amazing redemption arc from last season. He played the obedient soldier coming off the bench and running point with SMB’s second unit. It might be high time for him to take his place among the starters. He WAS scoring champ a few years ago and it’s not a stretch to say the Beermen’s hopes probably hinge on him regaining that form. Especially now that he’s learned how to organize an offense and impact the game on the defensive end.
This might be a bit of a reach but losing their de-facto number one option could also turn into a strength. As mentioned earlier, teams have increasingly been more prepared for Fajardo in the post. Without that option, San Miguel will likely look like a much different team. Look for them to just run a lot more and rely on screen and roll action in the half court. That is only justified with their recent additions – a lot of unknowns that could prove to be a double-edged sword.
The silver lining to Fajardo’s injury is that it happened almost a month before the season opener and provided them ample time to prepare for his absence. It’s going to be the toughest season yet but it feels like the same was said about their two previous seasons (and we know how those turned out). They’re not strangers to doubt and hardship. It’s undeniable that they’re on borrowed time but the question is will they rise up again to defend their undefeated streak or finally stay down for the count?