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-Braves 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff approaches 200-inning mark

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff approaches 200-inning mark

Phillies (70-86) at Braves (63-92)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

After losing by three possessions on Sunday and getting an off day Monday to think about it, the Phillies are back in action Tuesday night to begin their final road series of 2016.

Let's take a look:

1. The finish line nears
Forty-nine down, two to go. The Phillies have just two series left this season, a three-gamer in Atlanta and then a set with the Mets at home to close it out. 

The Phils have a series record of 18-25-6. They have just six series wins in 21 tries since the All-Star break (6-12-3). 

The Phillies and Braves have played seven times in the second half and the Phils are 2-7 — they split a four-game series July 28-31 in Atlanta and were swept at home Sept. 2-4.

With 70 wins, the Phillies have already beaten their over-under by four victories. If they manage to split these final six games, they'll finish 10 games better than they did in 2015.

The Braves, meanwhile, will avoid 100 losses. That didn't look possible when they were 33-66 and on pace for 109 losses. But Atlanta has been much better the last six weeks, especially offensively.

2. Freeman's monstrous year
Whether it was the addition of Matt Kemp or just regression to his true talent level, Freddie Freeman has been a force of nature this summer.

Freeman started slowly. Through June 12, he was hitting .242 with a .750 OPS in 61 games. Since then? He's hit .347/.445/.673 with 33 doubles, five triples, 23 homers and 69 RBIs in 91 games. The Braves are just three games under .500 over that span at 44-47.

It's pretty amazing that Freeman has had an MVP-caliber season in a lineup that offers so little protection. This has been the best year of his seven-year career. In 669 plate appearances, he's hit .305/.402/.570 with 43 doubles, six triples, 32 homers and 87 RBIs. He's also walked 86 times. 

Freeman's best work this year has come against the Phillies. In 16 games, he's gone 22 for 60 (.367) with a .449 OBP, five doubles, five homers and 10 RBIs.

3. The push toward 200
Jerad Eickhoff makes his 32nd start of the season tonight and will likely have one more on the final day. He enters tonight's game with 187⅓ innings pitched, 12⅔ shy of the 200-inning benchmark every pitcher seeks.

Eickhoff said early in the summer that 200 innings would be meaningful for him and acknowledged it just sounds different than 195. It's taken health, stamina and consistency for Eickhoff to get to this point at age 26 in his first full big-league season.

Eickhoff (11-14, 3.75 ERA) has made six consecutive quality starts. He's steadied the Phillies' rotation for four months now. Since May 22, Eickhoff is 10-8 with a 3.52 ERA, but if you remove the one dreadful outing at hitter-friendly Coors Field, his ERA over that span is 3.13. He very well could be the opening day starter in 2017.

Eickhoff has faced the Braves five times in his career and gone 2-1 with a 1.45 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. 

Freeman is 5 for 14 against him with a double and a homer, but all other active Braves have hit a combined .209 with no extra-base hits in more than 75 plate appearances.

4. Last look at Teheran
The Phillies take on talented Braves right-hander Julio Teheran for the third time this season and 15th time in his six-year career.

Could it be their last time seeing him in an Atlanta uniform? That's always a possibility for the rebuilding Braves with Teheran, who has long been an intriguing trade candidate. A 25-year-old with a 3.37 career ERA, Teheran figures to have immense trade value this offseason. He's on one of the more team-friendly contracts in baseball, due $31 million over the next three seasons.

If Teheran is eventually dealt for a package of prospects, the Phillies won't be sad to see him go. He's 7-4 with a 2.31 ERA and has allowed just five home runs to them in 89⅔ career innings. His starts against the Phillies the last three years have been even better: 6-2, 1.39 ERA, 56 strikeouts, 13 walks, one homer allowed in 71 innings.

His last time out, Teheran allowed just one run over seven innings to the Mets, but struck out only one batter. He hasn't missed many bats lately, generating just three swings-and-misses in his last start and six two outings before that.

Teheran has five pitches but mostly uses a four-seam fastball/slider combination. When he last faced the Phillies on Sept. 4, 90 of his 119 pitches were four-seamers or sliders.

Current Phillies have hit .219 collectively against Teheran in 169 at-bats. Freddy Galvis has seen him the best, going 7 for 18 (all singles) with three walks. Ryan Howard has two doubles and two solo homers off Teheran in 26 ABs.

5. This and that
• File this one under stats nobody would have predicted: The Braves have the highest on-base percentage in the majors since the All-Star break at .346. The Phillies are fifth-worst at .306.

• In games with Atlanta, Kemp has hit .287/.341/.508 with 13 doubles, 10 homers and 35 RBIs. He had 16 walks in 100 games with the Padres and has 18 in half as many games with the Braves. His poor defense has still made him a net negative player this season, if you believe in WAR. The Braves are 26-24 since acquiring him.

• If the season ended today, the Phillies would have the ninth pick in next June's draft. Based on the records of the teams around them, they are a near lock to pick either 8th, 9th or 10th.

If Donald Trump were the GM of the Sixers

donald-trump-sixers.jpg
AP Photos

If Donald Trump were the GM of the Sixers

-Calls Sam Hinkie's three years in charge a disgrace, and the concept of losing to win "totally un-American." 

-Decries Brett Brown for instilling a Losing Culture in Philadelphia, and points to his 47-199 overall record as incontrovertible evidence of this.

-Talks a lot about making a big splash in free agency, but blanches at dipping into the luxury tax.

-Values Jahlil Okafor over Nerlens Noel because he can actually see Okafor's contributions in the box score, and because Okafor's off-court mishaps show that he's a "fighter," while Noel's recent discontent makes him a "quitter." 

-Doesn't get why fans were so excited about us trading for a Canadian last summer. 

-Spends his most productive office hours trying to squeeze Wells Fargo over the building sponsorship rights. 

-Denies ever publicly supporting the Andrew Bynum trade. 

-Ardently refuses to waive or buy out Carl Landry, repeatedly pronouncing that paying veterans to not play for the team is part of what has impressed a "small-market mentality" upon this franchise. 

-Publicly dares the Lakers to remove the protection on their top-three pick, if they've really gotten so much better this summer. 

-Regularly inserts himself into player intros. 

-Answers questions about Joel Embiid's nagging health issues with shrugging, smirking "I'm just saying, you get what you pay for" type comments. 

-Trades two future first-rounders to Chicago for point guard and proven winner Rajon Rondo, responds to criticism by promising that the Sixers' current state of crisis is so great that if we don't make changes now, we might not even still have a team in 2020. 

-Mispronounces Dario Saric's name a different way at every press conference. 

-Speaks politely, if unenthusiastically, of Josh Harris, but calls James Dolan "the last of the great NBA owners." 

-Chortles at voiced concerns about the team's lack of perimeter play and poor floor balance, declaring that the Sixers' big-heavy lineup "just means that we're finally not going to get pushed around anymore."

-Awkwardly attempts to establish kinship with Allen Iverson, joking he "didn't need the practice either." 

-Insists that Ben Simmons could have shot and made three-pointers at LSU if he'd wanted to.

-Tries to make "Trump the Process" a thing.