After all the disappointments, is June Mar Fajardo still a legit MVP choice?

June Mar Fajardo is arguably the best PBA player right now, but
is that enough to make him MVP?
(image by Paul Ryan Tan/Sports 5)

The Boosters/Beermen started the season with a lot potential. Arwind Santos, last year’s MVP, was bound to continue being a solid contributor. Marcio Lassiter was due to break out. Chris Ross was in the roster to improve the Boosters’ playmaking. And, of course, June Mar Fajardo, after his experience in the 2013 FIBA Asia Tournament and improvement in the 2013 Governors’ Cup, had everybody salivating about his upside.

The Boosters started the season like a house on fire, winning their first seven games and racing to the top of the team standings in the 2013-2014 Philippine Cup. But then an overtime loss to the Elasto-Painters started a slump from which the then Petron Blaze club wouldn’t be able to recover. They lost 4 of their last 7 elims games, dropping to third in the standings. They swept lowly Barako Bull in the quarterfinals, but got emphatically knocked out by an undersized Rain or Shine quintet in the semifinals. Nevertheless, the hulking June Mar Fajardo, who was practically unstoppable in the low block, was named the Best Player of the Conference (BPC).

The man called “The Kraken” averaged 16.4 points, 14.9 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks in the season’s first conference.

In the next conference, Fajardo continued to do well, leading the Beermen to a 7-2 win-loss slate, which was good for second overall behind the undefeated Talk N Text Tropang Texters. Things were looking promising for San Miguel as they entered the quarterfinals with a twice-to-beat advantage and had to leapfrog just the unheralded Air 21 Express. Air 21, however, proved to be more than a match for the ballyhooed Beermen, beating SMB twice, 92-79 and 101-95. Once again, San Miguel’s potential went out the window as they were handed the boot by the conference’s seventh-seeded club.

TNT’s Jayson Castro was named the Best Player of this particular conference, while Fajardo was left watching sister team San Mig Coffee annex its third straight conference crown. The Kraken normed 12.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per contest in the Commish Cup.

The Cebu product has posted solid double-double numbers
all season long.
(image by Paolo Papa/Sports 5)

In the current conference, San Miguel blew hot and cold anew, winning just 5 of its 9 elims games to finish at fifth place and qualify for the quarterfinals. Their opponents? The Grand-Slam-seeking San Mig Super Coffee Mixers, who were coming off back-to-back losses to Talk N Text and Rain or Shine. This time, the Beermen were on the short end of a twice-to-beat, which meant that they had to beat SMC two times to qualify for the semis.

Early in their quarterfinal match, it seemed like things would go SMB’s way as PJ Simon, the leading local scorer of the Mixers, couldn’t even dress for the game due to back issues. Coach Cone’s starting backcourt of Mark Barroca and James Yap were shooting blanks, too. The time seemed right for San Miguel to hijack San Mig Coffee and force a rubber match. It was not to be, however, as SMC import Marqus Blakely was practically unstoppable. The reigning Best Import of the 2013 Govs’ Cup unloaded 25 points, 18 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots on the Beermen. He was also backstopped by a troika of bench players stepping up — Justin Melton, Allein Maliksi, and Ian Sangalang. That trio combined for 33 markers off the pine as the Mixers eliminated San Miguel Beer, 97-90.

Needless to say, it was a bitter pill to swallow for SMB, which, again, couldn’t capitalize on its depth and, worse, couldn’t meet its lofty expectations.

The fallout from this fall from grace was, as can be expected, quite toxic. Much of the blame was pinned on consultant-cum-coach Todd Purves, who couldn’t seem to duplicate the success he had with the ABL’s Indonesia Warriors in the more competitive (read: high pressure) atmosphere of the PBA. Despite having, arguably, the league’s deepest roster and the country’s best local big man, Purves couldn’t even steer San Miguel to a single Finals appearance this season. They made the semifinals once and got bounced in the quarterfinals twice. For a team as loaded (and heavily bankrolled) as San Miguel, those results just won’t make the cut.

Purves attributed the Beermen’s woes to his wards’ inconsistency on the defensive end of the floor.

“We got to get back to some fundamental defense, which we didn’t carry this entire conference,” he said in an interview with Richard Dy of “I think we’re looking at getting our defensive identity back and the pressure defense we like to play, getting to the mental perspective of playing good defense on full 48 minutes.”

Some people, though, have a very different view, most notably former PBAer and San Miguel Beerman Nelson “The Bull” Asaytono, who didn’t mince words in criticizing Purves’s results.

“Hindi na ako nag-eenjoy manood sa kanila ngayon, hindi kagaya nung dati,” said Asaytono in an interview with Snow Badua of “Hindi ako happy sa kanya (Purves), una may mga local na nawawalan ng pwesto, tapos pangalawa hindi naman maganda performance niya.”

One guy who has relatively escaped the flak, however, is Fajardo, who, by virtue of his numbers alone, cannot really be faulted for his team’s deficiencies.

The Cebuano find, after all, averaged 16.8 points, 14.2 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks while shooting 56% from the field for the entire 2013-2014 season. He is the number one player on the statistical points list with 37.6 SPs, ahead of Air 21’s Asi Taulava, TNT’s Jayson Castro, Ginebra rookie Greg Slaughter, and SMB teammate Arwind Santos (Only the top three players, in terms of SPs, after the Govs’ Cup semis, along with the three BPCs may be considered for season MVP).

It’s clear that, by the numbers alone, Fajardo was the best (or at least most productive) local player in the league throughout the season, but, and this is where the conflict lies, is that really all there is to being Most Valuable Player? Shouldn’t the MVP actually be able to tow his team to a title, or at least a Finals appearance?

Despite all of his strides this season, Fajardo wasn't able to lead his team to
any of the Conference Finals.
(image by Pranz Kaeno Billones/Sports 5)

San Miguel’s cumulative win-loss record for the season is 25 victories against 17 defeats. That gives us a respectable 60% win rate, which is pretty much the same as what the Dallas Mavericks had this past NBA season (The Mavs won 49 of 82 regular season games for the eighth seed in the West). That’s impressive, of course, but it’s overshadowed by the fact that the Beermen just couldn’t win the games that counted the most.

And even if Fajardo isn’t necessarily the elder statesman in this squad, he is certainly one of its leaders. Shouldn’t he be held accountable for SMB’s failings as much as the next guy? I mean, this is a TEAM the last time I checked, right? One for all, all for one, and all that jazz? Iba ang may pinagsamahan?

To put things in the proper perspective, though, if one looks at the top five SP guys again, the only player there who has even reached a Conference Finals this season is Castro, who also won the BPC in the Commish Cup. Asi’s Express reached as far as the semis in the second conference, while Greg’s Gin Kings made as deep as the final four of the Philippine Cup. By virtue of this, does Castro have the automatic inside track to the elusive MVP plum?

For some added reference, let’s look at the recent past.

In 2009, Ginebra’s Jayjay Helterbrand was named MVP. His team won 28 of 51 games for a 55% win rate. Ginebra didn’t win a title but made the Finals of the Fiesta Conference.

In 2010, James Yap copped his second MVP trophy. His team won the Philippine Cup and had a cumulative win-loss record of 41 victories against 23 losses for a 64% win rate.

In 2011, TNT’s Jimmy Alapag pocketed the MVP, leading the Tropang Texters to three Finals appearances and two conference titles. TNT nearly won the Grand Slam this season. They won 47 of 64 games for a 73% win percentage.

In 2012, it was another Gin King, the iconic Mark Caguioa, who reached the MVP summit. Now what makes this interesting is, like Fajardo, Caguioa’s team never reached any of the Conference Finals. Ginebra was eliminated in the Philippine Cup quarterfinals, Commish Cup semifinals, and Govs’ Cup via a Finals berth playoff game loss (by 2 points) to B-Meg. The Kings’ cumulative record was just 25-19, which was good for a win rate of 57%.

Last season, Petron Blaze Booster Arwind Santos was awarded the MVP trophy, but it wasn’t without controversy. Some quarters felt that perhaps someone like LA Tenorio (or even Rookie of the Year Calvin Abueva) would have been a tad more deserving. Ultimately, though, Santos’s winning the Govs’ Cup BPC and his leading Petron to the Govs’ Cup Finals cemented his MVP win (It was close, however, as Tenorio lost by just 21 points — mainly because of the SPs and media votes — in the final tally).

And so there it is. Out of the five most recent PBA MVPs, only Mark Caguioa was unable to lead his team to at least a Conference Finals in the same season he won the MVP.

Will Fajardo be the same? Should he be named season MVP in spite of his team’s perpetual shortcomings?

The short answer is yes.

Note: I feel bad about not including even one SMC Mixer in the mix for the MVP, but the bitter truth is nobody on that team, statistically speaking, has a legitimate shot of putting up a fight. Marc Pingris, as of this writing, has the highest SPs at 24.7 and even then he’s just #12 in the league. Even if SMC wins the Grand Slam and Ping gets named BPC of the Govs’ Cup, I’d find it difficult to believe he could possibly get a lion’s share of the player and media votes that would make up for the ocean of disparity in the stats. This is sad, of course, but this is the way the system works.

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