Are we tanking yet? Sixers start key stretch of season against league's creamy middle

Are we tanking yet? Sixers start key stretch of season against league's creamy middle

As we speak, the Philadelphia 76ers sit at 6-9, with a nice long four-day break after their Saturday loss to the Indiana Pacers. The record isn't very good in an objective sense, but it's light years ahead of where most Sixers fans expected the team to be at this point in the year, and it's good enough in the entirely underwhelming Eastern Conference that up until the Washington Wizards beat the Los Angeles Lakers last night to move to 6-8 on the season, they were still somehow in the playoff picture.

Needless to say, the middle is not where this team wants to be--the entire point of this season was supposed to be avoiding the middle. If Hinkie and company believed this team legitimately good enough to go for the top, perhaps we would, but far more hospitable to this team would be the very bottom, where of course we would be in prime position to jump-start the team's rebuilding process by adding one of the many increasingly tantalizing-looking top prospects likely to be ripe for the plucking in next year's draft. It's something everyone who roots for this team made peace with well before the season started, and something that's made the team's overachieving start somewhat controversial among its more ardent fans.

Still, a lot of this isn't the Sixers' fault--it's not just that the Sixers haven't been bad enough, it's that the rest of the East has been terrrrrrible. Of the 15 teams that make up the Eastern Conference, only the Heat and Pacers are unambigiously good--everyone else is some shade of mediocre or terrible, including such much-hyped teams as the Bulls, Knicks and Nets, who through a combination of injuries and underperformance have gotten off to absolutely disastrous starts to the season. A stunning 12 Eastern teams have losing records, and six of those are worse than that of the Sixers.

But starting tonight, the Sixers can help themselves achieve a little clarity. Over the next 11 days, the team will play six games against teams whose records are all within a game or two of their own--the Magic (twice), Hornets, Pistons, Bobcats and Nuggets. These are, except for maybe the Bobcats and mayyyybe the Magic, all teams we expected would be better than the Sixers this year, and ones we really don't want to have to worry about taking up our elbow room on the journey to the lottery in May. The Sixers could make things a lot easier on themselves in both directions by piling up the L's over this stretch.

Conversely, though, if the Sixers actually are good-ish--if this hasn't all been a fluke, but rather the handiwork of brilliant coaching, a strong team culture and some undervalued player personnel--then now would be the time for them to prove it. None of these teams are considerably better than the Sixers, but none are considerably worse, either. If they take care of business against this middling bunch--going 4-2 or better--we might have to finally admit that the Sixers are actually pretty OK, and not likely to tumble into the East cellar without jettisoning some of their better players first.

Either way, we should have a less murky picture of the Sixers and the NBA at large after this stretch, and considering how confusing this first month of the season has been, we could really use a little fog-clearing. It's hard to know which direction to root for--obviously the idea of adding a Wiggins, Parkle or Randle (or Exum or Gordon or Smart) next summer remains enticing enough that it's hard to give up on the original tanking plan, but it has been unspeakably entertaining watching this team play the type of ball they have been for the season's first four weeks--the good games, anyway. It'd be sad to say goodbye to that.

7:00 against the Magic from Amway Center. The Magic are just a half-game in back of the Sixers, meaning that losing to them tonight would drop Philly one rung further in the standings. Is Philly ready to start sliding? Are we ready for them to do so? Let's get some answers tonight.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Just pitch.
 
Don’t worry about the role.
 
Just pitch.
 
That’s Adam Morgan’s mindset this spring.
 
“I’m just trying to show whoever needs to see it that I can be an asset to this team,” the left-hander said after his spring debut against the New York Yankees on Saturday (see story). “I’m just keeping it simple that way. I’m not trying to go out for that fifth (starting) spot. If the fifth spot opens up, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want to put me in the bullpen, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want me to be the backup catcher, I’ll be the backup catcher.”
 
The Phillies have plenty of candidates for backup catcher.
 
And the top five spots in their starting rotation, barring an unforeseen development, are accounted for.
 
But there is a way for Morgan to make this team.
 
“He’s definitely a bullpen candidate,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
Mackanin is on record as saying he’d like to have two lefties in what likely will be a seven-man bullpen. It might not work out that way, but that would be Mackanin’s preference.
 
Morgan is one of what appears to be four candidates along with Joely Rodriguez, Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett. Ramos and Burnett are experienced major-league veterans in camp on minor-league contracts. Rodriguez is the only pure lefty reliever on the 40-man roster. Morgan, of course, is on the 40-man roster, but he’s mainly been a starter in his career.

There’s a long way to go in spring training and it would not be surprising to see general manager Matt Klentak add to the list of lefty relief candidates with some type of pickup before the end of camp.
 
But for now, it’s just these four.
 
Morgan, who turns 27 on Monday, started and pitched two scoreless innings against the Yankees on Saturday and will likely continue to have his innings stretched out throughout the Grapefruit League season, just in case he’s needed as a starter.

Ramos and Rodriguez both pitched an inning Saturday. Ramos allowed a hit and a run. Rodriguez had a clean inning. Burnett was tagged for two hits and two runs on Friday.
 
Morgan made 21 starts for the Phillies last season. He also made two relief appearances and finished the season with a 6.04 ERA. He was sent to Triple A in July and returned in mid-August. He made nine starts after returning and pitched at least six innings and gave up two or fewer earned runs in four of them.
 
During his time in Triple A, Morgan started throwing a two-seam fastball or sinker. He’s continued to throw it this spring and believes it will help him.
 
“I learned to trust the two-seamer last year and that’s what I hope to keep moving forward with,” he said.
 
Will it take him to the Phillies’ bullpen?
 
He hopes so. He got a taste of relieving last season and liked it.
 
“Oh, yeah, I loved it,” he said. “Every time the phone rang down there, I was on high alert. It was awesome. It’s a rush.
 
“But wherever I land, I land. I’d be willing to play anywhere on this team.”

Instant Replay: Villanova topples Creighton, clinches Big East title outright

Instant Replay: Villanova topples Creighton, clinches Big East title outright

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Sophomore transfer Eric Paschall scored a team-high 19 points -- including five dunks -- and Kris Jenkins added 15, as No. 2 Villanova pulled away late to beat No. 23 Creighton, 79-63, and clinch the 2017 Big East Conference regular-season title outright.

Paschall, starting during Darryll Reynolds’ injury absence, shot 8 for 12 from the field and added six rebounds.

Creighton’s last lead was 45-43 six minutes into the second half, but a Paschall slam and Jenkins’ first three after five misses sparked a 16-4 run that gave the Wildcats a 59-49 lead with 8½ minutes left. Creighton got no closer than seven the rest of the way.

Paschall’s career high is a 31-point game for Fordham against NYIT on Nov. 14, 2014.

Villanova again struggled from three-point range but had tremendous success attacking the basket, especially in the second half of the final game at the Pavilion for two years.

The Wildcats shot just 17 percent from three (3 for 18) but 69 percent from two (24 for 35) and repeatedly got to the foul line in the second half, when they were 14 for 18.

Jenkins again struggled from three (1 for 7) yet still finished with 15 points to go with four rebounds and three assists.

Josh Hart shot 7 for 11 for 16 points and added seven rebounds and three assists.

Villanova opened a streaky first half by taking a 7-0 lead, but Creighton hit four straight threes in less than two minutes and led by three. Villanova then went on a 17-2 run and led by as many as 10 points before Creighton finished the half on a 13-3 run to tie the game at 33.

There were seven lead changes in the first seven minutes of the second half, but Villanova finally pulled away and outscored Creighton 36-18 over the last 14 minutes.

Mikal Bridges added 11 points and eight rebounds for Villanova, while Jalen Brunson had nine points and three assists.

Freshman Dante DiVincenzo came off the bench to contribute nine points and four rebounds for Villanova.

What it means
Villanova improved to 27-3 overall and 14-3 in the Big East, clinching the conference title outright. Entering play Saturday, only Villanova or Butler was in position to win the conference title, with Villanova holding a magic number of one.

Villanova, which lost to Butler on Wednesday, has now won 12 straight games immediately following losses (15 if you carry over to the next year).

The Wildcats last lost consecutive games at the end of the 2012-2013 season, when they fell to Louisville in the Big East quarterfinals and to North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Creighton fell to 22-7 overall and 9-7 in the Big East. The Bluejays are 4-6 since an 18-1 start.

Stat of the day
Marcus Foster had 25 points and eight assists, becoming the first player with 25 points and five assists against Villanova since Ben Hansbrough of Notre Dame, who had 30 points and 10 rebounds (and five steals) in a 93-72 win over Villanova on Feb. 28, 2011, at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Indiana.

Turning point 
Villanova led by one at 48-47 when Jenkins finally buried a three for a four-point lead.

Moving out
This was Villanova’s last game at the Pavilion for about 20 months. Villanova will play most of its home games at the Wells Fargo Center next year while renovations are made to the Pavilion.

Villanova is 293-62 all-time at the Pavilion, which opened in 1985. That includes a 131-12 mark since the start of the 2004-2005 season.

By the numbers
Khyri Thomas scored 17 points for the Bluejays … Creighton was 7 for 14 from three in the first half but 4 for 13 in the second half … Villanova has won six straight against Creighton since a 101-80 loss in February 2014 when Doug McDermott scored 39 … Reynolds, Villanova’s second-leading rebounder at 5.5 per game, sat out a fifth straight game with a rib injury.  

What's next
Villanova has a week off before facing Georgetown at the Verizon Center in Washington at noon Saturday. Georgetown is 14-15 overall and 5-11 in the Big East.