San Miguel coach Leo Austria hopeful Beermen can stay healthy in 2021 season

San Miguel head coach Leo Austria believes his Beermen have won and played long enough together to be able to put up a good fight against a playing field that has upped the ante in the PBA offseason.

But in order to consistently compete for more titles, the eight-time champion coach understands that his top stars -- and the entire team, for that matter -- need to remain healthy throughout the course of a long campaign.

"Teams right now are really strong. It's very exciting," Austria said in Filipino on the Power & Play radio show hosted by former commissioner Noli Eala. "But if our team is healthy, we'll give them a good fight. That's my primary concern."

SMB's core has mostly been durable throughout eight title runs in the last six seasons, but injuries to June Mar Fajardo and Terrence Romeo last year prevented the team from continuing its stretch of winning at least one title since 2014. Austria, however, is optimistic that both stars will enter the 2021 season with a relatively clean bill of health.

Romeo, who played only three games in the 2020 Philippine Cup before exiting the bubble with a dislocated shoulder, has been healthy since December, according to the 63-year-old coach. Fajardo, on the other hand, is well on his way to game shape after experiencing a bit of trouble in his rehabilitation process.

"June Mar experienced a setback, but he was able to recover due to the delays in the 2021 season," he added.

Austria revealed last March that the six-time Most Valuable Player winner underwent a minor procedure late December to clean up some infection on the right tibia he injured early in 2020. Since then, the coach said Fajardo has made tremendous progress.

"Before the lockdown last April, he was already starting on-court drills," he said. "He was supposed to join 5-on-0 basketball drills the following week, but we were all forced to rest because of the rising number of cases."

Asked whether Fajardo will be placed under some sort of minutes restriction once he gets back to action, Austria said it's a situation the team will continue to monitor throughout the season.

"I think at the start of the season, we'll need to study that," he said. "I'm sure after a 15-month lay-off, there will be a period of adjustment. What we want for him to do is to play and be back in his old form. It will take time, but I'm sure it will be easy for June Mar because of his discipline."

In the meantime, San Miguel will rely a lot on CJ Perez, the team's prized acquisition in a blockbuster trade last February. Austria described the 2019 Rookie of the Year awardee as an "observant" star who is willing to defer to his more decorated teammates.

"You could really see how he became CJ Perez and how he made the lineup of Gilas Pilipinas. He's really one of the best in the PBA. But he's joining a team whose players have great pedigree," he said. "What's good about him is he's taking the backseat and he's really adjusting."

The arrival of the 27-year-old Perez is a welcome shot in the arm for a successful but busy Beermen core that has gathered a lot of mileage in recent seasons.

"We always try to pace ourselves because we're always in the playoffs or in the finals, and the players get exhausted. His arrival is very much welcome because he brings a different type of energy. And he wants to win a title. You know he surely won't relax," said Austria.

The Beermen coach, however, reiterated that the high-flying guard will still have to compete for his playing time.

"The good thing here is he won't have to carry the entire team on his shoulders," Austria said. "In terms of his playing time, it will always depend on how the players are playing. It's healthy competition. If you're playing well, you'll get to stay on the floor. If not, someone will relieve you of your spot."

He also refused to pin any hopes of a title run -- or a Grand Slam -- on Perez and said he wants his players to take it "one game at a time."

"We've tried a lot of times with great lineups, but we didn't get that," he commented. "If a Grand Slam is for us, it will happen. But what I want from our players is to focus on the game, on the practices."

Austria hopes that single-minded focus on the task at hand will bode well for the Beermen, especially given how the path to success is blocked by teams trying to find their way to the top of the PBA as well.

"We can't be sure of anything because every team is trying to be a contender. Every team is confident because they filled the missing pieces in their roster in the offseason," he said. "We can't be complacent, and we have to work hard to stay competitive. And that's a good thing, because it's a challenge for me and everybody since we all know you can't take other teams for granted."

Added Austria: "Our advantage is these guys have been playing together for quite some time now. They know how to win and they know how to lose. We have that championship experience, too. I think if they're hungry and if they're not thinking as individuals, we will achieve many things this season."