The Maine Red Claws fell short of their ultimate goal: to make the playoffs and contend for an NBA Development League championship in their first season.
The Red Claws lost their final six games, including the last two at home. Needing a win last Saturday night, they lost to Erie — a team they had beaten all six previous times this season.
But it would be difficult to label this inaugural season anything less than a success. Maine sold out every home game at the Portland Expo, a cozy barn of a basketball building where the fans literally lined the court and provided one of the best atmospheres in the D-League.
Red Claws’ T-shirts, hats or sweatshirts were seen everywhere in Portland. The team had one player called up to the NBA (Mario West), five NBA players assigned to it during the season and featured two former No.1 draft picks.
“If you had told us we were going to wind up the season 27-23 at the beginning of the season, I would have said, ‘Absolutely, I’ll take that, no problem,’ ” said Bill Ryan Jr., chairman and owner of the Red Claws. “And also, given everything else on the business side, it’s been huge.”
Jon Jennings, the president and general manager of the Red Claws and a man who values on-court success as integral to a team’s long-term success, said that despite the obvious letdown of not making the playoffs, the season was largely successful.
“I think for us, when we take a step back from it, this season was an overwhelming success,” said Jennings. “Certainly on the business side of the ledger. And the thing that inspires us the most is the reaction of the fans.
“Even the other night, they knew we had to win and they stayed till the end, cheering us on and doing everything they possibly could. That was something very comforting to us as we head into our second season.”
What wasn’t comforting, Jennings said, was how the team finished. And he won’t use the ever-changing nature of the D-League rosters as an excuse. “We had the entire second half of the season to bring the team together,” said Jennings. “It’s just a crutch for anyone to say (the roster changes) affected our play, especially at the end.”
Maine had just two players in the season finale that began the season with the Red Claws: forwards Darnell Lazare and Billy Thomas. Jennings and Coach Austin Ainge brought in such key players as Morris Almond, Maurice Ager, Russell Robinson, Kurt Looby, Paul Davis and T.J. Cummings for the second half of the season.
While they were all gifted — especially offensively — they never seemed quite comfortable as a unit.
“We just weren’t playing real well down the stretch,” said Ainge. “We had some chemistry issues, some effort issues and some injury issues. All those things combined to hurt us down the stretch.”
Ainge added, “There were a lot of successes this year, a lot of things we’re proud of and a couple of things we regret. I think we left some things on the table.”
Ainge, a rookie head coach, said he will spend some time in Boston, watching the Celtics gear up for the playoffs. “I’ll just go down, watch them prepare and learn to be a better coach,” he said. “I learned a lot this year, but there’s a laundry list of things I can do better.”
For Jennings and Ryan, the work in Portland continues. They will reach out to their sponsors and season ticket holders. And, said Ryan, “we will definitely look for ways to make the Expo more comfortable. We’ll try to enhance the fan experience any way we can.”
Jennings said several new businesses have approached the Red Claws to become sponsors. The team sold nearly 1,500 season tickets last year — tops in the D-League — and will look to sell even more. Maine was at the top of the D-League in merchandise sales and sponsorships.
“The thing about us is that we’re never content, we’re always looking for ways to improve,” said Jennings. “There are a lot of things that we think we can get better at. I know we certainly made our share of mistakes in Year One. But overall, I think we did pretty well.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: [email protected]