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.

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.

Then the NBA lockout ended and the roster shuffling began. The Red Claws lost their No.1 draft pick, forward Chris Wright, who signed with Golden State for the season, and never were able to maintain any roster consistency. For the season, they used 29 players.

Even in a league where player movement is almost an everyday occurrence, that’s a lot.

So they want a core group that will be not only familiar faces to the fans, but keep the team chemistry together. Guys like Hayes — who, off his breakout season will surely have other options but said he would “love to be back in Maine” — forward DeShawn Sims, forward Cedric Bozeman.

“We’ve got to begin very early the process of determining who we want to come back,” said Leitao.

He and Jennings are attending this week’s Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational, a camp for NBA wannabees and many D-League probables.

“We’re going to start scouting on Wednesday and start putting together a team for next year,” Jennings said.

The problem will be convincing many of those young men to stay in the D-League, where they stand to make about $25,000, or go overseas for four times that amount.

Leitao said it should be easier now. The D-League had a record 49 call-ups to the NBA, involving 34 players this year.

“It’s about opportunity,” he said. “This is now a clear-cut picture.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH