Critically Acclaimed Sixers Face Different Form of Test with Visiting Kings

Critically Acclaimed Sixers Face Different Form of Test with Visiting Kings

So we're all agreed that yesterday was a test for the Sixers, right?
They'd beaten some lousy road teams, they'd absolutely destroyed the
subpar competition at home, but with the 6-2 Pacers visiting, they
finally had the chance to prove themselves against a legitimately good
team—albeit one who was missing a couple key players, and had padded
their stats against some subpar competition themselves. And by all
accounts, they passed the test—they didn't run the Pacers out of the WFC
the way they did the Pistons and Raptors, but they still won soundly,
and kept their win streak and its accompanying momentum alive and
kicking.

All good, then. Tonight, however, the Sixers face a very different, but
equally important and perhaps more dangerous test. They will be playing
host to the 3-6 Sacramento Kings, a team which, if not for the existence
of the Washington Wizards, would define the word "dysfunctional" in the
NBA, already having fired coach Paul Westphal amidst a PR scrape
between he and budding-star big man DeMarcus Cousins, and having some
definite issues sharing the ball against the team's many formidable
scorers (including Cousins, bruising combo guard Tyreke Evans, one-time
Sixer swingman John Salmons and hyped college gunner Jimmer Fredette).

Meanwhile, the Sixers are suddenly among the toast of the league. Four
out of five ESPN pundits labeled them the fifth best team in the league
right now, while stat guru John Hollinger has done the unthinkable by
placing them atop his Power Rankings—which are derived via scientific
formula and thus don't carry the weight of him actually calling the
Sixers the best team in the league, but still. They are now being viewed
as a team legitimately on the rise, and almost unarguably, they are a
team that is fundamentally sound in all the ways that the Kings are not.

So, common sense says that they should murder this Kings team, and be
well into Garbage Time by the start of the fourth quarter. But in the
NBA, as in all pro sports, it's never that simple. The Kings have beaten
the Lakers at home already, and recently came from 21 back to steal
what looked to be a sure Bucks win. If the Sixers are as rock-solid a
unit as we're starting to think they are, they should still win this
game handily, but if the Kings are still hanging late, it'll be
interesting to see if this team has the stuff to put them away without
getting caught in an Andy Reid-style trap game. Regardless of how they
do it, a true top five team wins this game—so needless to say, we'd like
the Sixers to prove all the critics right and extend their winning
streak to six games with this one.

7:00 tip from the WFC. No Marcus Thornton tonight for the Kings, as the
team's leading scorer is out with a knee contusion. Not like it's a
catastrophic loss for the Kings—they have so many one-on-one scorers
that the loss might actually simplify things for Sac-Town—but it's a
little weird how the Ballers seem to keep facing teams temporarily down a
key member, as they did with the Warriors (Stephen Curry), the Pistons
(Rodney Stuckey and Ben Gordon), and of course, last night's Pacers
(Danny Granger and George Hill). Makes you grateful for our health
thusfar this season—knock on everything—and makes you hope Spencer
Hawes' back doesn't cause any more trouble than it already has.

Jim Schwartz already gushing about Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod

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Jim Schwartz already gushing about Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod

Anyone who follows the NFL knows to avoid reading too much into spring workouts. You don't gain valuable insight into a player's game-day ability by observing his speed in shorts or run-stuffing technique when tackles aren't being made.

First-year Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz sidestepped several questions after Tuesday's OTA about how specific players are fitting into his defensive scheme, but he made an exception for one position group in particular: his starting safeties.

The Eagles this offseason spent $35 million apiece to extend Malcolm Jenkins and sign Rodney McLeod away from the Rams. Jenkins got $21 million guaranteed, McLeod got $17 million, and they rank fifth and ninth among NFL safeties, respectively, in annual average salary.

"That was money well spent," Schwartz said Tuesday. "I'm sort of violating my rule of judging too much into this time of year — saying linemen need the pads on before we can judge, rookies let's not judge yet — but both [Jenkins and McLeod] are veteran players. And you can see that right away that both are multi-dimensional. They communicate very well, cover a lot of ground. They can blitz, they can play man (coverage), they can play zone. I'd be very surprised as the year went along if they're not one of the better safety tandems in the NFL. They've been very impressive so far."

Jenkins, who has emerged as the Eagles' most vocal leader, is coming off two terrific seasons. He set career-highs last year in tackles (109) and forced fumbles (three), intercepted two passes and returned one 99 yards for a touchdown. He graded out as the best safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. 

McLeod ranked 10th, eight spots ahead of Walter Thurmond, Jenkins' partner last season.

"I think we all believe that," Jenkins said when asked about the safety duo's chances of being one of the NFL's best. "The way that practice has been going so far and just what Rodney adds to the secondary, I think we're real excited about that tandem and what we'll be able to do. Both of us are very versatile, both of us know the defense and can get guys lined up and can problem-solve. All the rest of it we can do, but when you have guys that can quarterback the defense and problem-solve, it gets you out of a lot of bad looks."

Jenkins had watched McLeod on tape so he knew the type of player the Eagles were adding. What stood out most to him was how "violent" McLeod played in St. Louis, how he played much bigger than his 5-10/195-pound frame. But what's impressed Jenkins most in OTAs with McLeod is how he sees the field and reads situations. Those instincts are what Jenkins thinks can make the pairing special.

"Now playing next to him, you really start to see the smarts and his football IQ, knowing different defenses, ways to adjust things, having the ability to use tools for different situations," Jenkins said of McLeod. "He's an extension of a coach on the field. Talk about a guy being able to quarterback your defense on the field, he's somebody who understands the totality of the defense and has that ability to communicate and get guys lined up. It's just good to have two guys back there now that can do that.

"I think from what he brings to the table and what I bring to the table from a football standpoint, I think our talent level can put us in that conversation (of the NFL's top safety tandems). But once we really get in tune with each other as far as calls, tools that we can use ... when you got two guys with high football IQs, you can really be special."

Jenkins and McLeod have been playing left and right safety interchangeably so far in practice. McLeod says that this voluntary workout period for the safeties has been about figuring out which of them does what better. He'll have a better idea of their specific roles once training camp comes.

Jenkins and McLeod were in constant communication on the sidelines after coming off the field for certain plays at Tuesday's practice. Jenkins was doing a lot of the talking and McLeod a lot of the listening. McLeod would explain what he saw and why he broke the way he did, and Jenkins would coach him up and advise him what to do next time they see a certain look. 

"Big competitor, man. Just from Day 1, offseason drills and things like that when we compete, even in the weight room you can just see how he gets after it," McLeod said of Jenkins. "It carries over into the field, big trash talker. He carries a swagger about him. Very smart and instinctive player.

"Me and Malcolm, I think we're gonna build something great here and you can see glimpses of it in practice now."

Tonight's lineup: After benching, Odubel Herrera back in leadoff spot

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Tonight's lineup: After benching, Odubel Herrera back in leadoff spot

It seems like Phillies manager Pete Mackanin has decided pulling Odubel Herrera in the seventh inning of a tied game on Monday is enough punishment for failing to run out a ground ball.

The centerfielder will be back in his customary leadoff spot when the Phillies take on Justin Verlander and the Tigers tonight at Comerica Park (see game notes).

Much of the talk surrounding the Phillies in the last 24 hours has centered on Herrera after Mackanin yanked him from the game Monday (see story). After all, Herrera's .335 batting average leads an offense-starved team that averages just 3.24 runs per game, second-worst in the majors. Before he was pulled on Monday, Herrera was 3 for 4 with an RBI and had a 15-pitch at-bat against starter Mike Pelfrey to start the game.

Tommy Joseph will start again at first base after clobbering his second homer of the season on Monday. Despite another night of immense struggles (see story), Ryan Howard is again in the lineup as the designated hitter in the American League park.

The only change to to the lineup from Monday see Carlos Ruiz starting behind the plate to catch Jeremy Hellickson.

Star outfielder Justin Upton will sit again for Detroit as he nurses a quad injury. Mike Aviles will start in his place in left.

Both teams' lineups can be found below.

Phillies
1. Odubel Herrera CF
2. Freddy Galvis SS
3. Maikel Franco 3B
4. Tommy Joseph 1B
5. Ryan Howard DH
6. Carlos Ruiz C
7. Cesar Hernandez 2B
8. Tyler Goedell LF
9. Peter Bourjos RF

Tigers
1. Ian Kinsler 2B
2. J.D. Martinez RF
3. Miguel Cabrera 1B
4. Victor Martinez RF
5. Nick Castellanos 3B
6. Cameron Maybin CF
7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia C
8. Mike Aviles LF
9. Jose Iglesias SS 

Sixers reportedly covet additional high first-round pick in 2016

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Sixers reportedly covet additional high first-round pick in 2016

The Philadelphia 76ers haven't found themselves in a position of power much on the hardwood over the past few seasons, but when it comes to the 2016 NBA Draft, the Sixers are in the driver's seat.

As longtime NBA reporter David Aldridge put it in a column on Monday, the Sixers are one of four teams that will "run the show" on draft night. The Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, and Phoenix Suns are all poised for a big draft night as well.

Not only do the Sixers have the first gigantic decision of the evening but they have a handful of assets, in the form of additional picks as well as moveable players, to make another big splash on draft night (Thanks, Sam Hinkie).

The first debate in Philly will clearly be Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. Once that decision is made though, things could still be very interesting for Bryan Colangelo.

Aldridge goes on to discuss the logjam in the Sixers frontcourt that Sixers' observers have been talking about forever, but he also adds that, "There is strong support within the organization for Nerlens Noel, who provides defense and rebounding that none of Philly's other bigs provide."

Not only does Aldridge state that there is strong support for Noel, he also says that the team would like to get back up into the early portion of the draft.

Yet the Sixers already have Okafor at the four, and possibly Saric next year. Taking Simmons wouldn't make sense unless they were determined to trade Okafor, whose up and down rookie season hasn't adversely affected his value around the league. And trading Okafor would be the easiest and best way for Philly to get another high first-round pick, which the Sixers covet.

Coveting another high first-round pick and actually obtaining it are clearly different things. Unless the front office finds a way to put a package together involving the 24th or 26th picks this year and some sort of future considerations, the player who can certainly get you back near the front of this year's draft is clearly Jahlil Okafor.

The Sixers fan base is mixed on the idea of trading Jahlil Okafor. Boston seems like an obvious fit with their No. 3 overall pick being the prized target.

June 23rd will be a very interesting night to see how Bryan Colangelo, his father, Josh Harris, and his co-owners feel about such a deal.