Five Practical Goals For the Second Half of the Sixers Season

Five Practical Goals For the Second Half of the Sixers Season

The Philadelphia 76ers are not going to win a championship this season.
They are pretty far away from winning a playoff series, and in all
likelihood—at four games back of the eighth seed and having already lost
the tiebreaker with the last-one-in Bucks—are not even going to make
the post-season. With all the expectation that this season began with,
we're probably headed for the lottery for just the second time in the
last six seasons.


All that depressing stuff said, we still do have 31 games to play
this year. There's still an ostensible playoff race to be run—even as
far back as the Sixers are, they're still the ninth seed, and within
striking distance of the top eight if things break right—but personally,
I don't think it's one worth making much of a push for, especially if
it comes at any potential cost to the team's long-term future, whether
that means returning players quickly from injury or making short-sighted
deals for veteran talent to help steal a couple wins between now and
May.


Rather, here's five things I'd like to see the team try to do
between now and then. Some may happen, some not, but all are at least
reasonably attainable goals, which could help the Sixers in either the
short or long-term.


1. Try to trade an expendable role player for a young prospect or future draft pick. This
might be tough to do, as the Sixers are a little short-handed on
movable assets at the moment, especially with shooting guard Jason
Richardson—an overpaid commodity, but a reliable one that a contending
team could make use for—out for the year. Still, the Sixers have two
decent role players on short contracts in Spencer Hawes (two years, $13
million) and Nick Young (expiring, $6 million), who are hardly bargains
but could be good low-leverage pickups for a team in need of size or
shooting off the bench, respectively.



The Sixers have been notoriously inactive at the trade deadline in
recent years—I think dealing a second-rounder for Jodie Meeks a couple
off-seasons ago was the only real in-season trade of consequence made by
Philly since the Iverson deal—and most reports concerning the team have
them standing pat between now and the deadline on Thursday. Still, if
DiLeo and company can do their due diligence and at least see if there's
a late first-rounder to be had, or a project big or wing we can snag
for Hawes or Young (neither of whom are really in the team's long-term
plans), it'd be a nice chip to have while rebuilding over the next
couple years.



2. Continue to develop Arnett Moultrie. The project big man
already on the Sixers' roster has shown some flashes over the last few
weeks, moving well without the ball and fighting for rebounds down low.
But he's badly in need of more reps to find himself in the flow of the
offense (or occasional lack thereof), and that means more minutes,
especially as Thaddeus Young continues to rehab from injury. I'd like to
see him get more PT with Jrue and some of the first-unit guys, though
with Thad returning at the starting four before too long, perhaps it
makes sense to get him acclimated to playing with Evan Turner, Jeremy
Pargo and the rest of the bench unit. At the very least, let's get him
entrenched in the rotation, comfortable and confident and not worried
about Doug yanking his minutes in favor of Damien Wilkins or the ghost
of Tony Battie or whoever.



3. Stick with Evan. Yes, he's struggled lately. Yes, he very
well might continue struggle for the rest of the season. But they're
probably not going to trade him before the deadline, and he has more of a
chance of being a key, long-term part of the team than any other wing
player (not counting Jrue) on their roster. If Coach Collins starts
futzing with his PT now, trying to teach him "lessons" and further
undermining his occasionally fragile confidence, he might alienate or
ruin him entirely. If Turner proves that he just just can't be relied
upon long-term, then we'll figure out what to do about him in the
off-season, but in the meantime, there's no real upside to doing
anything but giving him as much of a chance as possible to prove that he
can be.


4. Keep on driving. Even if Evan's final stat line from his
pre-All-Star Break performance against the Bucks ended a mediocre one—20
points on 8-19 shooting, though that was still his best scoring night
in two weeks—the way he was consistently taking the ball to the basket
was heartening, looking for foul calls that weren't quite materializing.
He did still get four shots at the line, above his season average, and
the team shot 24 times at the charity stripe for the game, the most the
team had in nearly two months. 


If Evan and company keep it up, you have to think eventually he'll
get those calls, and maybe so will Jrue and the rest of the Sixers, who
have been pathetic (though not surprisingly so, given that the team has
been bottom-five in FTAs the last few seasons) in getting to the line
this season. It's the first step in the long process of getting this
offense back to efficiency, but it's a necessary one, and it'd be a nice
precedent to start over the last few months of the year.


5. Try to get at least...what, ten games in with Andrew Bynum and a full roster?
Hoping for just about any amount of time spent on the court for Andrew
Bynum this season seems arrogant and naive at this point. Is ten games
too much to ask for? Very possibly, but boy would even that be huge for
this team—to get some sense of playing with one another, to hopefully
pitch Bynum on his future with the Sixers (and the organization on the
idea that he has a future with the Sixers), to give the team something
to build on when hopefully the whole roster is returned for the
following year. If we can't get even that, it's going to be a long and
emotionally trying off-season, for sure.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.