The pandemic is like a major injury to a team. It has robbed the world of so many luxuries. Right now, it’s become increasingly difficult to travel, meet up with friends, or even just to work out safely in a gym. We’ve all been forced to rethink the things that are important to us. More than ever, we’ve had to adjust and prioritize our needs versus our wants. This is the new reality that all of us face as we continue to battle this pandemic.
The San Miguel Beermen will be facing their own new reality once the PBA restarts this October 11 in Clark, Pampanga. The major injury they’ve been dealt with is the loss of June Mar Fajardo due to a fractured tibia he suffered during practice eight months ago. The Beermen have lost their ultimate trump card; a huge reason why they’ve become the dynasty of the modern PBA. It’s a painful loss, but that doesn’t mean that a championship is suddenly out of the question. All San Miguel needs to do is adjust and work with the pieces that they have.
The other members of their championship core – Arwind Santos, Alex Cabagnot, Chris Ross, Marcio Lassiter, and Terrence Romeo – are expected to still produce at a high level, even without the six-time MVP. But the difference maker for San Miguel will be Mo Tautuaa, the big man is now expected to be the one to own the paint while Fajardo recovers from his injury.
For most of his PBA career, Tautuaa has been considered as a disappointment in the league. He wasn’t a bust, there’s a very thin line between those distinctions, but he didn’t meet expectations of being a top pick either. He wasn’t the Fajardo stopper he was branded as coming into the draft. In reality, he wasn’t anywhere close to the level of the Kraken.
Granted, that’s quite an unfair bar that was given to Tautuaa, considering Fajardo’s arguably the greatest PBA player of all time. But even while he was flourishing with the Northport Batang Pier as Stanley Pringle and Robert Bolick’s pick and roll buddy, he still wasn’t considered as a must-have big man. It’s important to consider, however, how most big men in the PBA aren’t actually have must-have in the first place.
Even before the NBA began embracing playmakers as the center of its championship teams, the PBA was already a guard-heavy league. From Mark Caguioa, James Yap, Jimmy Alapag, Jayson Castro, and LA Tenorio, the PBA has been run by court generals and wing scorers. It hasn’t felt that way because of San Miguel’s recent run but consider that to be a testament to how great Fajardo is rather than it being a changing of the tide. The Kraken is the outlier; the biggest outlier at that. For the most part, if you wanted to build a championship team, you had to go around your guards.
So where do big men enter the conversation? If Fajardo is the outlier, then what role of importance do bigs have for the title hopes of a team? As cliché as it may be, their value lies in the little things.
Take for instance the most-recent Finals MVP, Japeth Aguilar. He was never the center of the Ginebra offense. Despite their system running a lot of Triangle principles, Aguilar was never given in the ball at Shaq-rates. He was able to bag that award by filling the holes Ginebra was lacking. His energy for offensive boards was infectious. He was a weakside menace that allowed Ginebra’s guards to gamble more than they’re allowed.
If you’re looking for a model for Tautuaa to follow, it’s that. It would unreasonable to expect him to dominate in the post just like the Kraken. That’s not Tautuaa’s game. What he’s best at is serving as an elite pick and roll partner beside a great playmaker. San Miguel just so happens to have THREE of them. He’s going to be delivered the ball a lot. As a matter of fact, we were already witness to that during San Miguel’s first game this conference against Magnolia, where Tautuaa finished with an impressive 20-11 line against Ian Sangalang and Jackson Corpuz.
Tautuaa will arguably be San Miguel’s most consistent scorer this conference, unless Terrence Romeo decides to have a 2015-2016 Steph Curry-like bubble run (How fun would that be?) That’s how good he is and that’s expected out of him. But if San Miguel wants to increase their chances of raising the trophy this year, they’ll need Tautuaa to do more.
His energy in rebounding the basketball needs to be even more evident and consistent than ever. A lot is expected out of him on defense considering how he’ll be defending the rim a lot while trying to stay home on switches. Just providing consistent effort on the defensive end the entire game would be huge for San Miguel.
Big men in the Philippines today may not hold the same value as they did before. But their importance lies with how much of a damn they’re willing to give to match their skills on the floor. Tautuaa is clearly a talented individual. If he’s able to provide consistent effort, that’s already a big leap from where he was before. It’s those things that make a difference between a productive player and a championship-level piece. Tautuaa has the chance to make that jump while also rewriting the narrative that’s currently placed on him.
The new reality is tough. If you were to ask San Miguel, of course they’d want that vaccine to arrive already; June Mar Fajardo, their franchise’s most valuable piece. But they can’t cry over losing that luxury of theirs. You can’t move forward by putting your effort in the past.
This is San Miguel’s new reality. They better wash their hands, wear a mask, and hope Mo Tautuaa is able to make that leap from productive to championship-level. If he’s able to flip the script, San Miguel’s reign of dominance over the PBA may just continue.