April 10, 2012

Satisfying season, but Red Claws still hungry

The Red Claws drew plenty of interest from fans, but missing the playoffs for the third time is a sore spot.

By Mike Lowe mlowe@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Once again, the Maine Red Claws failed to qualify for the NBA Development League's playoffs. But the men who run the team and those who played for it view the Red Claws' third season as a pretty good one.

click image to enlarge

Point guard Kenny Hayes raised his points-per game average from seven in 2010-11 to 17.1 this year. “We were better players at the end of the year than we were at the beginning,” he said.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Press Herald file

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Team President and General Manager Jon Jennings says he’s already starting to put together next year’s Red Claws team.

Gregory Rec/Press Herald file

THE GOOD AND THE BAD FROM THE CLAWS' SEASON

The Maine Red Claws finished their third season with a pair of back-to-back last-second wins over the Tulsa 66ers last weekend. But it wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs, as Maine finished with a 21-29 record. We asked Jon Jennings, the team’s president and general manager, to list three things that he felt the organization did well this season, and three things it needs to improve upon. Here’s what he said:

ON THE PLUS SIDE:

1. “We continue to do very well on the business side, and that’s a direct reflection of all the fans that come out to our games. So from a business perspective, we continue to do exceedingly well. We’re one, two or three in every statistical category in the league.’’

2. “We did an OK job of replacing players in that chaotic time (when the NBA lockout ended). Guys like (Dominic) Calegari and (Courtney) Pigram were very instrumental in keeping us competitive.’’

3. “Honestly, I think we drafted well. We had a terrific first-round pick (Chris Wright) who was the only rookie signed for the entire year by an NBA team (Golden State). Unfortunately, he didn’t play as long with us as I hoped.’’

ON THE IMPROVEMENT SIDE

1. “We’ve got to focus exclusively, from a basketball perspective, on the playoffs. Three years into this, and I’m a basketball guy, never in my dreams did I think three years into this we wouldn’t be in the playoffs.’’

2. “We’ve got to continue to develop players. We take a lot of pride in our ability to develop players.’’

3. “We’ve got to continue to get even better on the experience that our fans have at our games. I’m not a person who has ever believed in complacency. Just because we’ve done very well, I want to be even better. That’s going to be part of the mission this summer, to further improve what we do for our fans.’’

– Mike Lowe

They point to the number of fans who attended the team's home games at the Portland Expo and the amount of team merchandise sold throughout the year as evidence that the team continues to be popular.

Maine ranked fifth in the NBA D-League in attendance this year, averaging 2,969 fans in the 24 games at the Expo. (League figures list the Red Claws at 2,850, but that includes a "home" game at the Showcase, which draws no fans). Only Texas, Rio Grande Valley, Iowa and Erie (by 13 fans per game) drew more than the Red Claws.

After selling out every home game in the team's first two seasons, the Red Claws sold out 15 games this season, including the final two, when playoff hopes were already dashed.

"We have a very highly educated fan base when it comes to basketball," said Jon Jennings, president and general manager of the Red Claws. "You go to a lot of other cities, and fans just come out for the experience. We've got a lot of fans who come out for the basketball.

"They understand and appreciate seeing guys out there that play hard every night. Sometimes we've been overmatched by talent, but we haven't given up."

Although the Red Claws suffered a few blowout losses, they were in most games. Their opponents averaged 103.7 points per game, the Red Claws 99.3.

"Our season definitely was not a failure," said point guard Kenny Hayes. "We wanted to make the playoffs, and we didn't. But this league is about developing players. And I definitely feel we were better players at the end of the year than we were at the beginning."

Hayes is prime example No.1. He was a bench player a year ago, averaging just over seven points a game. This year he took a leadership role and averaged 17.1 points per game -- second on the team to Morris Almond's 23.4 -- and scored a franchise-record 52 points in a March game against Springfield.

"When I first met Kenny last July, he had a confident innocence about him," said Dave Leitao, the first-year head coach.

"He wanted to be good, he wanted the team to be good. I think he appreciated being in Portland. And he really became somebody, more than just an NBA prospect. I think it's meant a lot to his personal life being here, seeing him developing not just as a player, but as a man."

But everyone also realizes the franchise has to take that next step: to make the playoffs.

"I'm a basketball guy," said Jennings. "And never in my dreams would I have thought, three years into this, we wouldn't have made the playoffs. So that is something that is my motivation for next season to make sure we're in a competitive position to make the playoffs."

Off the court, Bill Ryan Jr., a principal owner and chairman of the Red Claws, said the staff will have to work harder now that the honeymoon period is over.

"We need to continue to do what we've done the last three years, stay as involved in the community as we can and continue to tell people about our product," he said.

On the court, team officials talk about maintaining a core group of players. Hayes was the only returning player from last year, and the team's inexperience showed at the start of the season.

(Continued on page 2)

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