Once again, the PBA’s oldest remaining pioneer franchise presses the reset button at the end of a PBA conference.
After less than a year as Petron head coach, Gee Abanilla has been “promoted” to team manager. Photo by Mark Cristino for ABS-CBNnews.com
Since winning its most recent championship in the 2011 Commissioner’s Cup, the Petron Blaze Boosters has been trading away players and changing coaches at an alarming pace. Not even the announcement of their return to being called the San Miguel Beermen has stopped the shuffling of both the roster and the braintrust.
You would think that this team would be the model of stability because of its longevity in the league and its being a cornerstone of Philippine basketball for almost four decades. But out of the three teams owned by the San Miguel Corp., nobody has underperformed and had as many sweeping changes as San Miguel Beer.
The Racela-Toroman experiment
Perhaps there has been too much pressure placed on this roster because of its stellar history and its penchant for winning titles over the years.
In 2013, at the start of the season-opening Philippine Cup, hopes were high for the Petron camp as they drafted first overall and nabbed prized center June Mar Fajardo from their Asian Basketball League (ABL) squad. Fajardo was soon placed under the mentorship of former PBA MVP Danny Ildefonso, then viewed as still a valuable team resource even as his playing years neared their end for the only team he had ever played for.
Former star point guard Olsen Racela was tabbed as Petron coach replacing Ato Agustin, with former Gilas-Pilipinas coach Rajko Toroman as “coaching consultant.” The vague nature of Toroman’s duties as well as Racela’s lack of head coaching experience was evident from the onset as Toroman often mapped out plays during huddles, seemingly going over the popular Racela’s head. It wasn’t long before Toroman was relieved of his duties but the Boosters were eliminated from playoff contention.
In the Commissioner’s Cup, former New York Knick and Denver Nugget Renaldo Balkman was chosen as the Petron import and he quickly got the team on a winning streak. But adding to the woes of this squad was one of the most bizarre things ever seen in PBA history. When Petron was on its way to losing its streak at the hands of Alaska, Balkman kept complaining to the referees about uncalled fouls. When teammate and Petron superstar Arwind Santos tried pacifying the import, Balkman instead attacked his teammate by choking Santos and refusing to listen to Petron coaches. Balkman was immediately banned by PBA Commissioner Chito Salud, and Petron would once again bow out of contention, beaten by Talk ‘N Text in the quarterfinals.
Turning to Abanilla
Racela would serve as the team’s scapegoat as he was removed from the head coaching position before the season-ending Governors Cup and assigned to Petron’s sister team, San Mig Coffee, as one of Tim Cone’s assistants.
Former La Salle head coach Gee Abanilla was promoted to head coach and Todd Purves, an American who won an ABL championship with the Indonesia Warriors, was brought in as a consultant. Abanilla seemed to have finally stabilized what ailed the Boosters, as Fajardo showed remarkable improvements in just his first season in the league.
Meanwhile, Santos’ points, rebounds and hustle often carried Petron on a nightly basis. With Elijah Millsap almost winning Best Import honors, Petron finally returned to the Finals to clash with San Mig Coffee. While Santos earned his first Most Valuable Player award in 2013, the Blaze Boosters still wanted to bring home the championship and end the so-called “Petron-ovela.” The series went the full seven games, however, and Mixers import Marqus Blakely joined Marc Pingris in willing San Mig Coffee to the title.
The 2014 Philippine Cup saw Petron go to Fajardo in the paint more as the big man was slowly being touted as the face of the franchise. It worked for the most part as the Boosters began their campaign with a 7-0 mark. Eventually finishing 10-4, Petron was still viewed as a favorite in their semifinal duel with Rain or Shine because of their bench. However, RoS coach Yeng Guiao had an equally deep bench, with a core that’s been playing together for almost three seasons, and they easily dispatched of the Boosters, 4-1, as the Petron era ended with a whimper.
Upheaval with a name change
Now reborn with the historic San Miguel Beer name, it would seem the franchise has once again elected to reboot rather than stay patient with the manpower they already have. Abanilla doesn’t even get a year as head coach and has been “promoted” to team manager. Former San Miguel guard and longtime assistant coach Melchor “Biboy” Ravanes is now the head coach while Purves is an “active consultant.” This setup will be similar to the powersharing deal between Racela and Toroman, but will supposedly be more cooperative.
This left assistant coach Leo Austria jobless after he turned down the opportunity to return as head coach at Adamson because he believed the San Miguel franchise would take care of him. Former San Miguel and Ginebra head coach Siot Tanquingcen, who had been serving as Petron team manager, was released from that post and emerged as new coaching consultant of Barako Bull.
As sweeping as those coaching changes were, there were even more shakeups done to the San Miguel Beer roster. Alex Cabagnot, often turned to in the dying seconds for his penchant to deliver in the clutch, was traded to GlobalPort for bullstrong Sol Mercado. Part of that complex four-team deal saw the Beermen give up little used Jason Deutchman, a 2016 second-round draft pick, and a 2017 second-round draft pick to Barako Bull while also taking on former Rookie of the Year Rico Maierhofer. Bonbon Custodio moved from Air21 to GlobalPort, Leo Najorda moved from GlobalPort to Barako Bull, while Jonas Villanueva went from Barako Bull to Air21.
Cabagnot, once a hero for Petron when Ato Agustin was still head coach in 2011, was being picked apart by fans for his overdribbling and penchant for playing “hero ball” as the shot clock wound down, as well as not getting the ball to Fajardo when he demanded it. Mercado will be playing both point and shooting guard for the Beermen, joining a crowded backcourt with Chris Ross, Marcio Lassiter, Chris Lutz, and Ronald Tubid. Maierhofer is supposed to bring some scoring punch when Fajardo and Santos aren’t on the court as he comes off the bench with Doug Kramer.
Return to glory?
This is truly a time of upheaval for the San Miguel Beer squad. With management obviously not keen on slowly building a team that will compete for championships and instead going for broke with trades and coaching shuffles, there is greater pressure than ever for this roster to win and to win now.
Whereas recent PBA champions like Talk ‘N Text, Alaska, San Mig Coffee and Rain or Shine have meticulously built their rosters via trades, free agency, and the draft while keeping their cores intact for a few years, San Miguel Beer has shown little patience in demanding instant results, namely championships.
Ravanes was largely viewed as a career assistant since his retirement in the '90s, but his loyalty to the franchise has finally earned him the head coaching job of the team he once played for.
However, few doubt that the real coach of this once mighty franchise will be the former Sacramento Kings scout who is constantly seen wearing a suit on the bench. Though given the title of “consultant” because of a Supreme Court ruling preventing non-residents from holding the post of head coach, Purves will be the man who is expected to deliver the franchise’s first championship in three years and resurrect the proud San Miguel Beer name to its former glory.