Exit Interviews: Evaluating the 2011-'12 Philadelphia 76ers

Exit Interviews: Evaluating the 2011-'12 Philadelphia 76ers

There's not much more to say about the 2011-'12 Philadelphia 76ers on
the whole—they simultaneously far exceeded and fell well short of
expectations, giving us hope for the future and reminding us just how
far we have left to go. Their story is written and their season is over,
and now all that remains before the off-season is taking a cold, hard
look at the names on the roster and evaluating who exactly did what, and
where we can expect them to go from here.

So before we send the boys on their way to a summer of hitting the gym and tweeting about Madagascar 3, it's performance review time. Alphabetical by name, with some non-players at the bottom:

Lavoy Allen:

Nobody would have anticipated
that Mr. 500 would have cracked the Sixers' rotation this season, let
alone started 15 games and played big minutes as perhaps their most
reliable big man in the second round against the Celtics. He's probably
not a starting center, and he's a little redundant on a team that
already has two back-up bigs that can (ostensibly) play the
pick-and-pop, but he's shown a toughness that neither Thaddeus Young or
Nikola Vucevic oft display, and he's certainly won the heart of Coach
Collins with his play this post-season. ESPN has apologized for doubting
him, and so should most of us.

Grade: B+

For Next Year: Thanks to some
contract-drawing laziness / poor foresight when Allen was selected in
the second round, he becomes a restricted free agent this off-season,
rather than serving us for a couple years on a cheap rookie deal. He
won't command eight digits a year or anything on the open market, but
the Sixers will probably have to match up to four or five a year for the
fan favorite. I imagine they'll do it, though I'm not sure they
should—it's four or five million they can't spend elsewhere, and it's
never a great idea to overreact to one good round of post-season play.
Besides, we're already paying Thad eight a year, and paying a combined
$12 or $13 million on back-up big men is rarely the route to a
championship.

Still, the guy was fun to root for, and I'd certainly enjoy the
chance to do it again, provided he isn't over-extended in terms of
dollars or minutes to do so.

Tony Battie:

It
probably says something that as bad as the Sixers' interior defense and
rebounding situation got this post-season, that Coach Collins never
once turned to Battie on the bench for answers. Yes, Battie had another
regular season of being the Sixers' emergency valve at the pivot, and
even started a cool 11 games, but his days even as a reliable short-term
defensive anchor and jump-shot drainer appear to be over, as he shot
37% from the field and registered only six blocks the whole season. Nice
of Tony to show up for another year, and he did provide us with one classic reaction shot on the bench this post-season, but that should be about it for T-Batts in Philly.

Grade: D+

For Next Year: Time for Tony to start
checking Craigslist for assistant coach vacancies. Unless the Juwan
Howard slot for "Old guy to provide locker-room leadership and
occasionally mix it up with the other team's young'ns" on the Miami Heat
suddenly becomes available.

Craig Brackins:

Nobody was like more
disappointed about the Sixers' cooling off after blowing out half their
games in January than Craig Brackins, who suddenly found his Garbage
Time PT cut to shreds after the Liberty Ballers started actually having
to play all 48 minutes of games. Still, he did get 33 minutes in an
entire Garbage Time game against Detroit—as many minutes as he played
his entire rookie season, incidentally—and scored ten points (on 2-4
shooting from deep) with six rebounds. Progress!

Grade: C

For Next Year: It remains something of
a mystery to me why Craig Brackins never really got a shot on this team
after we traded two rotation guys in Willie Green and Jason Smith for
him. (Not that both of those guys shouldn't have been traded for peanuts
anyway, but still.) Nevertheless, with a team option for his third
season, it seems unlikely that Brackins will be retained so the Sixers
can have the privilege of paying him $1.5 million to be the team's Best
Supporting Tweeter, so this'll probably be the end of Brack City at the
WFC. Craig, we hardly knew ye.

Elton Brand:

The Old School Chevy seemed to
finally be running on empty in the playoffs, where he went eight
consecutive games with single-digit scoring and gradually lost more and
more playing time to Thaddeus Young and Lavoy Allen. But Elton did have a
throwback end to the playoffs, averaging nearly 16 and six in his final
three games against Boston, and playing tough (though ultimately
futile) defense on Celtics big Kevin Garnett. Brand wasn't the team MVP
this season like he was last year, with his scoring, minutes and field
goal percentage all down, but he was still a crucial part to whatever
success the team had, hitting the open jumper, battling for boards
underneath, playing lockdown D at the other end (even occasionally on
bigs like Dwight Howard) and leading by example with his toughness,
playing through an injured and swollen hand nearly all year.

Grade: B-

For Next Year: With one hefty year
($18 million) left on his contract and his age really starting to show,
many will call for the Sixers to use their amnesty clause on Brand this
off-season. I doubt they will, and they probably shouldn't—with just a
year left, it's hardly worth it just for the privilege of being turned
down by Roy Hibbert or whoever else. I'd rather see them hold on to
Brand, and if the team finds a worthwhile deal for his sexy expiring
deal at the trade deadline, move him then, but otherwise, let him finish
out his Sixer tenure with dignity. Amnestying his Sugar Bear would make
Coach Collins cry, anyway, and we don't want that on our conscience.

Spencer Hawes:

Oh, Spencer. You started off
the season like the league's Most Improved Player, hitting jumpers with
impunity, showing nice touch around the basket, crashing the boards like
a beast and passing like a Gasol bro. Then, you turned back into
Spencer Hawes, soft big man with unreliable range, questionable
decision-making and generously-described-as- "uncommitted" defense.
We should probably thank you for showing your true colors before we
committed $50 mil to you in the off-season, though it would've really
been nice to have the first guy against the C's this post-season, when
you were so bad that Coach Collins' eyes kept wandering to Tony Battie
on the bench, before Michael Curry would stop him and yell "NO DOUG
DON'T DO IT IT'S NOT WORTH IT!!"

Incidentally, on average this was still by far Spence's best regular
season statistically, as he posted Per 36 minutes averages of 13.9
points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Probably worth noting.

Grade: C+

For Next Year: Well, with his no-show in the Celtics series,
Spencer probably signed his walking papers, and anyone willing to spend
four or five million a year on Hawes at this point is probably welcome
to have him. It's a shame, because we'll probably never know who exactly
that masked center was that posted double-doubles in four of the first
six games of the season, and led the league in FG% for a solid month or
so, before going to the bench with back and Achilles issues and never
really returning to form afterwards. Was it the injuries that slowed him
down, or just a particularly nasty case of regression to the mean? Can
he be that guy again? Whatever the answers to those questions, it'll
probably be on another team to find them.

Jrue Holiday:

Nobody on this team needed a
strong post-season more than Jrue Holiday. (Well, no one under contract
next year, anyway.) Jrue had a regular season that could best be
described as "underwhelming," where his numbers sagged in most relevant
categories from his breakout sophomore season—points, assists, FG%, FT%,
even trips to the line. His inconsistent, often tentative play
frequently resulted in him getting yanked by Coach Collins early in
games, and it was Lou Williams who Collins trusted to be out there
handling the ball at the end of games. It led a lot of people to wonder
if maybe we had misplaced our faith in Jrue being one of the building
blocks, if not the biggest key, for the Sixers' future.

His post-season performance, however, totally reversed the
trajectory of his career. He was by far the Sixers' most reliable scorer
in their 13 post-season games, shooting and driving the ball
aggressively against a couple great defenses in Boston and Chicago, and
averaging nearly 16 points a game for the playoffs. His FG% was low, a
scant 41%, but no one was shooting particularly well in either series,
and Jrue compensated by hitting a high rate of his 3s (again, about
41%), drawing free throws (nearly 3.5 attempts a game after less than
two a game in the regular season) and converting more regularly once at
the line (86%, after 78% in the regular season). Most importantly, he
came through when it really mattered, hitting big shots (and free
throws) all post-season and putting the team on his back for Game Six of
the Boston series. His overall numbers weren't superstar numbers, but
they were in line with the progression we expected and hoped for from
The Damaja, and that's all that really matters for our 21-year-old PG.

Of course, the disappointing regular season means that this overall
grade isn't as high as it could be—but it's still at least a letter
higher than it would've been after Game 66.

Grade: B

For Next Year: Keep that confidence up, boy-o. You're gonna
be here for a while, and we need you feeling good and feeling
aggressive, attacking the basket, rocking your peers and putting suckers
in fear.

Andre Iguodala:

Here's what I wrote about Andre Iguodala in my Exit Interviews piece from last season:

As always, it was a year of good and bad with 'Dre. Looking on the
bright side, he was the team's primary playmaker and finest all-around
player, picking his spots on offense, shutting down the opponent's best
wing player on defense, and even posting triple-doubles in consecutive
games in March (both wins). But he also posted his lowest ppg average
(14.1) since 2006, and repeatedly came up short when relied upon to be
the go-to guy in the game's waning minutes.

 Well,
inconsistency certainly isn't the problem with AI9. Nix that
triple-double detail and lower that scoring average from 14.1 to 12.4
and you pretty much have the wrap on 'Dre's regular season this year as
well. He made his first All-Star team, but that was more a reflection on
the team than on Iguodala himself, and any credit he initially got for
leading the team early in the season had long dissipated by the time of
the team's disastrous March and April, and the poorly timed SI interview
where 'Dre called out Lou Williams for being a crappy defender and
claimed Philly fans would be OK with rooting for a murderer as long as
they've already won a championship. (He meant it as a compliment,
probably.)

But as with Jrue, the story with 'Dre changed some in the
post-season. His numbers were down pretty well across the board from the
regular season, but he did something he hadn't done in three years—he
actually came through some in the clutch. He hit a couple key jumpers
late against the Celtics to seal Game Four for Philly, and of course, he
hit those two free throws with three seconds left against the Bulls to
ensure that Philly got to play Boston in the second round at all. Never
mind that 'Dre missed any number of key FTs elsewhere, shooting just 59%
(!!!) from the stripe for the post-season—he finally did the one thing
he'd seemingly never been able to do for this team, and the narrative of
his time as a Sixer has been forever altered as a result.

'Dre's season being so virtually identical to his '10-'11, I should
probably give him the exact same grade, a B-. But considering the last
sentence of my AI9 review was this:

We don't make the playoffs without Iguodala, but as we all know by now, we don't get further than the first round with him.

It looks like I gotta bump it up just a little.

Grade: B

For Next Year: Again, last year: "Trade. Trade. Dear God, a
trade." Let this be the high note that 'Dre's Sixers tenure ends on, as
we clear minutes for Evan Turner at his more natural small forward
position and (hopefully, eventually) find a for-real scoring guard that
can actually, y'know, score. The Warriors want a small forward upgrade
and are allegedly shopping a lottery pick for the privilege—if Rod Thorn
isn't on the phone with Joe Lacob and Larry Riley right now as I write
this, then shame on him. Lakers, Clippers, Pacers...hit us up. We are
open for Andre Iguodala business.

Jodie Meeks:

Ahh, Jodie. We asked you to do
one thing and you didn't do it. Our designated three-point shooter and
floor-spacer shot just 36.5% from beyond for the season—lower than Jrue
Holiday, Andre Iguodala, even Nikola Vucevic's 3 for 8 (though about 14%
higher than the team's other nominal shooting guard, Evan Turner)—and
did just about nothing else of note. He certainly had the ability to get
hot from time to time—he'll go down in the annals of '11-'12 Sixers
history as the single-game high-scorer for the 31 on 11-16 shooting he
posted against the Cavs in March—but he also went entire weeks without
being useful, including a mid-April stretch where he went six games
without hitting a single trey. He barely played at all in the playoffs
and didn't make much of a claim for PT when he did.

It's hard to make the case that Jodie's much more than eighth or
ninth man at this point, and if he's starting again for the Sixers at
some point next year, it almost certainly means we did something wrong.

Grade: C-

For Next Year: With Jodie a free
agent, it's entirely possible that he'll be warming the bench for a new
squad next year—though given Jodie's young age and the dearth of
knockdown shooters on the Sixers' roster, I wouldn't be surprised if
they brought him back at a near-minimum salary. If some team wants to
give him two years and $8 million, though, they can certainly be our
guest.

Xavier Silas:

Maine Red Claws immortal Xavier
Silas shot just 27% from the field in his two Garbage Time end-of-season
games as a 76er, but made up for it with his dominant 1-1 performance
from the field in Game Three of the Celtics season, starting (and likely
ending) his career as a Sixer as a 1.000% FG shooter. You're part of
history, X-Man!

Grade: Meh (Or, A++++)

For Next Year: We still have to fill 12 slots on the roster, yeah? Oh, OK, right. Just checking.

Evan Turner:

No
basketball player defies easy evaluation quite like the
Extraterrestrial, as evidenced by the fact that he was included on both
ESPN's list of breakout playoff performers and their list of playoff performance decliners. Undoubtedly his regular season was superior to his disastrous rookie campaign, although every time it looked like he had really
turned a corner and was now on his way to being the guy we thought we
drafted with the second overall pick, he'd go 2-14 with four turnovers.
For a four-game stretch after being inserted into the starting lineup,
he seemed for all the world to be the answer to the Sixers' prayers, and
then by the end of the season Coach Collins was starting Jodie Meeks
again. "Up-and-down" doesn't even begin to describe the rollercoaster of
emotions that was following Evan Turner this season.

The playoffs only made things tougher. Going by numbers, his
post-season was a veritable disaster, as ET shot a miserable 36% from
the field (and a subpar 69% from the line), and posted an overall PER of
just 9.3, a full eight points lower than his mark in the Heat series
last year. But he also won a couple games for the Sixers with his
late-game aggressiveness, drawing fouls at a much greater rate (nearly
four a game, about double from his regular-season mark) and hitting the
FTs when it mattered. He also rebounded at his typically insane rate,
averaging a team-high (!!!) 7.5 boards a game for the post-season, and
the rest of the team really seemed to feed off his thoughtless
confidence and near-hyperactive energy.

So what's the deal with Evan? We may never totally know for sure,
though hopefully it'll become a little bit clearer with each passing
year. In the meantime, we'll split the difference.

Grade: C+/B-

For Next Year: Boy, would it be nice if he could hone that
jumper a little—Evan's getting way more of the shots he wants this
season, but he's still not hitting them at nearly a high enough
rate—though if a long summer with Hall-of-Fame shot doctor Herb McGee
couldn't really help him out, who knows what another off-season will do
for the Extraterrestrial's stroke. Here's hoping Evan's playing more of
the three next year anyway, and isn't relied on to be the floor spacer
that he never really was to begin with.

Nikola Vucevic:

Rookie Nikola Vucevic started
off the season looking like a real late-first-round draft steal, and
ended it looking like...actually, we have no idea what Nik looks like
these days, since we haven't seen him in about a month, when he fell out
of favor with Doug Collins for reasons unknown and never worked his way
back into the fold. Seriously—he started at center for the Sixers in a
late-April game against the Nets, but was yanked two minutes in, and
never played another relevant minute for the Sixers. True, he hadn't
played well in a while, but Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen were nearly as
miserable at the end of the season, and it was weird to see our
once-promising rook so completely written off as a lost cause.

There's still promise there, especially if his Republican
doppleganger Spencer Hawes is not retained next season, but you have to
wonder if it wasn't a more deep-seated issue that so soured Coach
Collins on the Vooch.

Grade: C-

For Next Year: Learning to be more of
a defensive presence would undoubtedly help earn him more of Coach
Collins' trust, and if Nik's slumping jumper in the second half of the
season could be blamed on poor first-year conditioning (the "rookie
wall," as it were), you'd hope he'd improve that as well in his second
season. If not...say hi to Xavier Silas for us, Nik.

Lou Williams:

He finished as the team's
high-scorer and was a James Harden breakout year away from winning his
first Sixth Man of the Year trophy, but the good still came dangerously
close to being outweighed by the bad with Lou Williams this year. Sour
Patch Lou's numbers were consistent with last year, and he posted the
team's highest PER for the season (a staggering 20.2, which either
teaches us that we can't always trust our eyes, or that advanced stats
still have a ways to go), but his poor late-game (and late-quarter)
decision-making cost this team at least a handful of games, as did his
lousy (hey, 'Dre said it, not me) perimeter defense. What's more, he
saved his worst stretch of the year for the playoffs, scoring just 11.5
ppg on 35% shooting. (For whatever it's worth, in 30 career playoff
games, Lou's PER of 13.3 is over four points lower than his
regular-season career PER.)

As always, I probably don't give Lou enough credit this year for the things he does
do well—drawing fouls (a team-high 4.6 FTAs a game), taking care of the
ball (just 1.1 per game, an insanely low number for someone with a
usage rating as high as Lou's) and making insane shots that nobody else
on the team would ever dream of hitting. And as much as I hate Lou's
late-game (and late-quarter) tendencies, half the blame for his
scattershot play must go to Coach Collins for continually putting him in
the situation and giving him the freedom to pull up for a 25-foot three
from across his body with the shot clock running out. Still, if Lou
Williams was the second-most-valuable bench player in the NBA this
season...maybe there really is an argument to be made for contraction
after all.

Grade: C+

For Next Year: Lou, don't go away mad
/ Lou, just go away. The career Sixer has expressed his desire to opt
out of his contract this off-season, and will undoubtedly test the open
market to see if he can starters' money, if not necessarily a starter's
role. I pray that some near-contending (or totally rebuilding) team in
need of a scoring punch does so, and the Sixers have the good sense not
to match. Seven years with this guy has been plenty, if we don't cut
ties now, he might still be taking contested late-shot-clock threes for
us when he's 47. I'm worried he'll still end up back with the Sixers,
though—the market may have dried up some for him after his shitty end to
the season, and ultimately comfort and loyalty might win out, to the
detriment of everyone.

Sam Young:

We got him for nothing, and he gave
us nothing. It wasn't Sam Young's fault, really—I believe he could've
given us solid minutes if needed at some point during the season, we
just ended up not really needing him. Still, shooting 29% in his 14
games since coming over from Memphis (for a second-rounder we drafted
five years ago and might not ever play in the NBA) didn't exactly have
him knocking down the door of our playing rotation, and unlike most of
the other Philly bench scrubs, he hasn't even kept us entertained with
his Twitter account. Pass.

Grade: D+

For Next Year: Hope you land somewhere, Sam, but it's probably not gonna be with this team.

Thaddeus Young:

We
gave him five years and over $40 million because we thought he could
develop into something more than a bench scorer, but as good a year as
Thad had—13 and 5 off the bench, over 50% shooting, a career-high 18.9
PER—he didn't really show that further development, giving us pause
about the length and size of his new contract. He did extend his range a
little, but the jumper that had proven so reliable for Thad in the
first 3/4 of the season deserted him for the last quarter and the
playoffs, and Young all but disappeared in the playoffs, averaging just
7.7 points and 5.2 rebounds on 43% shooting while getting eaten alive by
the likes of Kevin Garnett and Taj Gibson. More concerning, it was
Thad's third straight bust of a post-season—like Lou Williams, his
career playoff PER (13.8) is well short of his career regular-season PER
(16.5). Not a great sign.

Grade: C+

For Next Year: Another summer's work
on that jumper would certainly be advantageous, though the fundamental
problems that Thad has—not having the range of a small forward or the
size and rebounding ability of a power forward—mean that, a few tinkers
aside, what he is now is probably who he's going to be long-term as a
player. Not that that's such a bad thing, since he's still one of the
league's best bench guys, but for the contract we're giving him...it
seems unlikely we won't have at least a bit of regret by year four or
five of that one.

Rod Thorn:

Finally freed from the suffocating
presence of Ed Stefanski, Rod Thorn at long last had room to move—and,
instead, spent yet another year not making any big moves for the Sixers.
Thorn's pre-season strategy of getting the band back together
(retaining Hawes and Thad, not moving 'Dre or Lou) in the hopes that
their young legs and already-in-place chemistry would give them an
advantage over the old and/or hastily assembled teams was at first
validated, then debunked, and then validated again as the Sixers were
able to come one game short of the Eastern Conference Finals just by
virtue of being competent and being healthy. It's not a repeatable
strategy, and one that in a long-term sense, did little for the Sixers
except buy time—but it's certainly more than Stefanski ever did for us.

Grade: B

For Next Year: The real test for Thorn comes this off-season. After years of treading
water, this franchise has the chance to make the bold moves—letting Lou
Wiliams and Spencer Hawes walk, trading Andre Iguodala, possibly
amnestying Elton Brand—that might have them taking it on the chin for
the next year or so, but puts them in the position to build long term
around guys like Evan and Jrue, and possibly attract another Brand-sized
trade or free agency target in the process (though hopefully this one
will give us the Brand-sized production we were expecting with EB as
well.) This post-season run was great, but it doesn't change anything,
and we desperately need our GM to see the light on that one and not get
fooled by the mirage of a bit of injury-predicated playoff success.

Otherwise, we're looking at a best-case scenario of being the Atlanta
Hawks of the next five years. And that's not a particularly good case.

Doug Collins:

It
wasn't quite the dream season for Dougie that was '10-'11, when the
team came devoid of expectations and even making the playoffs seemed
like a tremendous accomplishment. Collins looked like a frontrunner for
Coach of the Year when the team started out 20-9, but when the team
started slipping, and reports surfaced of Coach grating on some of the
young guys (in particular by shuttling Evan Turner in and out of his
doghouse like the Phils do a Quad-A reliever), the bloom came well off
the rose, and by the end of the season, many Sixer fans had already
started to call for Collins' head. He gained a lot of that good will
back with the Sixers' post-season performance, but given his history,
it's hard not to feel like we might already be closer to the end of
Doug's time with the Sixers than the beginning.

Still, even without the Coach of the Year votes, Collins deserves a
good deal of credit for the Sixers' hot start, their consistent team
identity of playing hard-nosed defense and taking care of the ball, and
for not being too stubborn to finally shift the balance of power on the
team from Lou, Dre and Elton to Jrue, Evan and, uh, Lavoy when the
situation dictated. He's not perfect, and he won't be around forever,
but I'm still glad this team goes into next season with Doug Collins as
their coach.

Grade: B+

For Next Year: Can Doug continue to
put his faith in Evan and Jrue to take this team into the future, or
will he revert (as he has numerous times already) to trusting Lou, 'Dre
and Elton in the most important late-game situations? Well, a lot
obviously depends on how many of the three are even around next season,
and in some ways, Thorn can do Collins the biggest favor of saving him
from himself if he lets some of those guys go, and forces Collins into
letting Jrue and Evan grow into the team leaders this squad so
desperately needs. Otherwise, it will be a trying 82 games for just
about all concerned.

Adam Aron:

If the only move our new
franchise CEO made in his first season was to bring back "Here Come the
Sixers," the team theme song of the '70s and '80s, it would have been a
year well spent. But Aron went above and beyond in his efforts to
reconnect the city to the Sixers franchise, cutting ticket prices,
improve in-game presentation, engaging with the fanbase over Twitter
(occasionally getting a little over-sharey),
even bringing the two most beloved living players in franchise history
(Julius Erving and Allen Iverson) back into the fold. Fan attendance and
interest improved across the board, and though that's largely due to
the team's hot start, the moves of Aron and new majority owner Joshua
Harris had a good deal to do with that as well.

They weren't all successes—the Revolutionaries fan group was cute at
first but quickly became overbearing and obnoxious, and the mascot vote
was a bit of a debacle (#FREEBFRANKLINDOGG)—but the effort and
enthusiasm was never questioned, and the good far outweighed the bad.
Kudos, Adam.

Grade: A-

For Next Year: Will the powers that
be with the Sixers be able to stomach cutting ties with some of their
most reliable and longest-tenured players, or will they pressure the
front office to maintain the status quo in the interest of not losing
the fans they've worked so hard to bring in? We'd like to give Aron the
benefit of the doubt, but this being our first off-season with our new
management, we'll just have to wait and see.

Malik Rose:

Of all the many moves this team
made (or didn't make) in the off-season, by far the best was giving E
Snow the boot and bringing in Malik. The Drexel grad and San Antonio
two-time champ was just the bantering partner that Marc Zumoff needed,
and the cheesy-but-endearing chemistry between the two was undeniable
from the first broadcast. Like Zumoff, has proven to be a bit of a
homer, but he doesn't hesitate to call out the guys (or the refs) for
what they're doing wrong, and unlike Snow, who would figuratively (and
at least once, literally)
sleep through games, you could tell that Malik was as emotionally
invested in the outcome as anyone at the WFC. Watching games with him
and Zumoff on the call was like watching with two friends whose
over-enthusiasm about the game was occasionally eye-roll-worthy, but
which swept you up a little bit just the same.

Plus, he stole an idea for a hilariously groan-worthy pun from our guy Rev. How can you not love him for that?

Grade: A

For Next Year: Just keep doin' you, Malik. And keep pounding those Five-Hour Energy Drinks.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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