How the Sixers Swept a Three-Game Road Trip and Turned Their Young Season Around

How the Sixers Swept a Three-Game Road Trip and Turned Their Young Season Around

OK, so maybe it's way too early to talk about any kind of season
"turnaround" with the Philadelphia 76ers. But after the Sixers got
smashed in a home-and-home by the Atlantic Division rival New York
Knicks with a combined 36-point margin of loss, it did quash a good deal
of the enthusiasm surrounding this team in the off-season, and
demonstrated that maybe the Sixers missed Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams
and Elton Brand more than we had previously expected they would—and that
maybe they needed Andrew Bynum's return to the lineup a little more
desperately, too.


But now here we are a week and three road games later, and things
are looking a whole lot sunnier. The Sixers grinded (ground?) out a
77-62 win in New Orleans on Wednesday, outplayed the division-favorite
Celtics to the tune of 106-100 on Friday, and then held off the Raptors
93-83 in Toronto. Now the Liberty Ballers sit at 4-2 on the season,
fourth in the East and behind only the Knicks in the Atlantic, with five
very winnable home games (against the Bucks, Pistons, Jazz, Cavaliers
and Raptors) coming up on their schedule. The dread is gone, and the
Sixers appear to be back where they were at the beginning of last year—a
very solid unit that beats up on lesser teams and gets clobbered by the
league's elite.


How did we get back here? Well, let's look at the five biggest factors that keyed the three-game surge:

1. Jrue's aggressiveness. Michael Levin of Liberty Ballers had an excellent post about this yesterday (given the appropriately exaggerated title "The Jrue Holiday Revolution"),
which can simply be summarized that Jrue is being a lot more assertive
with his play and decision-making, with predominantly excellent results.
Mike breaks down how Jrue is getting to the rim more and converting
more once there, shooting and making more threes, doubling his assist
rate and drawing more fouls—all without sacrificing any of his excellent
numbers in man defense. If you were looking for a team MVP throughout
the three-game win streak—or the entirety of the six-game season—it
would unquestionably be The Damaja.


It's worth pointing out that as much as the team's decisions to
trade Iguodala and let Sweet Lou walk in the off-season were about
clearing cap space and bringing in players like Andrew Bynum and Nick
Young, the real reason why we at the 700 Level believed it was
imperative to cut ties with those two guys was so we could finally let
our young guys, Jrue especially, take the reins with the team and see
what they could do with them. Based on his play so far, not only does
that appear to have been the right move for the team's future, but the
four-year, $41 million deal he signed after the season opener seems like
it could be a real bargain. If he can keep up this level of play, and
especially if he can cut down his sky-high turnover rate (5.6 a game, on
pace to break the all-time record), expect Holiday's name to be
mentioned in All-Star consideration.


2. Evan's rebounding (and freebie shooting). The
Extraterrestrial has been typically erratic on offense so far this year,
shooting a combined 7-25 through the team's first three games, then
matching those seven field goals in one game in New Orleans and
exploding for a team-high 25 against the Celtics. What has been
consistent with Evan Turner has been his spectacular rebounding,
particularly on the defensive end. His rebound totals for the six games
so far this season are 6, 11, 9, 8, 11 and 12, leading the team three
times and pacing the squad with his overall average of 9.5 a game. In
fact, his 8.2 defensive rebounds a game currently rate as seventh in the entire league.


This would be impressive for anyone, naturally, but coming from a
player like Turner, it's absolutely stunning. Only a handful of players
post rebounding numbers like that from a wing position (and none of them
do from the 2, which Evan has been playing with Jason Richardson out),
and those that do are typically athletic freaks like LeBron James or
sneaky-tall "small forwards" like Kevin Durant and Paul George. Evan is
listed at 6'7", and isn't particularly athletic or physically imposing
for his size, but he just has an incredible nose (and an irrepressible
motor) for rebounding, and given the minutes to do so, he's a threat to
pull down double-digits basically every night. So even on nights when
his shot isn't falling—which is probably gonna happen more often than
we'd like—E.T. is still gonna contribute with his rebounding, at the
very least.


Also worth monitoring with Evan so far this season: His free-throw
shooting. Turner was rather subpar for a wing player from the free-throw
line last year, shooting just 67.6% from the stripe, lower than just
about every frontcourt player the team had. The only reason he didn't
take more flak for his lousy line performance was that he barely ever
got there, averaging just over two attempts per 36 minutes. This season,
not only is Evan getting to the line more—up to 4.2 attempts per
36—he's converting at a beastly 87.5% clip once there, a team-best,
including going 15-15 to start the season.


Turner's charity-stripe excellence has been rewarded by Coach
Collins, as Collins now allows Turner to shoot the team's technical-foul
shots, even with Holiday (a career 80% from the line) and Nick Young
(career 83%) on the floor. Whether the improved free-throw shooting is a
result of off-season practice or simply increased confidence (no doubt
helped by the trust Collins now shows in him) is unclear, but both
trends will be important towards increasing Turner's offensive
efficiency this season—tellingly, even though he's shooting a career-low
37.9% from the field this season, his PER is also at a career-best
13.8.


3. Nick Young and Dorell Wright's reacquired swag. It's hard
to put into words just how bad Nick Young was on offense throughout the
team's first four games—though one number, a PER of 0.2, certainly gets
us at least part of the way there. Young just wasn't hitting from
anywhere in any situation, and as a player who doesn't fill out many
non-shooting columns in the box score, all we could do was hope that his
shooting being this streaky in one direction would eventually be
balanced by it being equally streaky in the other direction. Swagy P
hasn't been quite as good in the last two games as he was bad in the
first four, but he's getting closer, going a combined 11-21 and 3-7 from
deep, providing the bench scoring from the perimeter the team so
desperately needed.


Meanwhile, Dorell Wright wasn't quite so miserable in the team's
first four games, but he certainly wasn't all that good. Along with the
soon-injured Jason Richardson, we went into this season relying on
Wright to provide the three-point shooting that was to be a crucial
element of this team's offensive attack, but through the first four he
was shooting just 7-27 from deep, a lousy 26% clip. He's regained the
stroke in the last two, though, shooting a combined 6-11, including four
triples last night that helped amend for off nights on offense from
Jrue and Evan.


In fact, last night's game was a great all-around demonstration of
the second-unit boost Nick and Dorell can give this team—not just on
offense, but on defense, where the two helped lock down Toronto's
perimeter game, and helped hold the Raptors to just seven points in the
second quarter, getting the Sixers out to a 20-point lead that the
Raptors were able to cut into but could never quite overcome. Both
players might be streaky and inconsistent throughout the season, but
it's just good to see that the potential for both to be real
contributors is definitely there.


4. Thaddeus Young's consistency. Look at these game-by-game-numbers for Thad so far:

Vs. DEN: 13 points on 6-12 shooting, 5 rebounds
Vs. NYK: 16 points on 7-14 shooting, 6 rebounds
Vs. NYK: 14 points on 7-12 shooting, 10 rebounds

Vs. NOR: 12 points on 6-8 shooting, 10 rebounds
Vs. BOS: 15 points on 7-13 shooting, 5 rebounds
Vs. TOR: 16 points on 5-11 shooting, 8 rebounds

You
getting the general idea yet? On a team seemingly stocked entirely with
feast-or-famine-type players, Thaddeus Young has been an absolute rock
for this team, similar to how Elton Brand was as the team's starting
power forward back in '10-'11. You know nearly exactly what you're gonna
get with Thad every night—he's gonna score between 12-18 points on
around 50% shooting, and grab you 5-10 rebounds. He'll miss at least one
bunny and he'll get screwed out of at least one whistle, but he'll also
get you a steal or two, make a smart interior pass or two, and he won't
turn the ball over much.


It seems unlikely at this point that Thaddeus is ever gonna develop
into a star, like we hoped he might when he signed his five-year, $42
million contract a couple off-seasons ago, but if he keeps giving us
that kind of night-in, night-out production (and doesn't get matched up
with Carmelo Anthony too often on the other end), he'll be a legit
starter in this league for a long time.


5. Royal Ivey's...Royal Iveyness. All right, so the
Cheesburger probably won't end up playing a big part in this season or
any general part of Philadelphia 76ers history, but you gotta respect
Royal's contributions through four games as the team's primary backup
point guard. He's not doing too much—making smart reads, playing good
defense and hitting open shots, absolutely none of which were being done
by our backup point to start the season, Malik Wayns, still yet to
register a point this season.


I wouldn't be surprised if Wayns figures it out a little bit and
ends up taking the backup PG slot back from Ivey before season's end,
but for now, all we really need is Ivey to be solid enough to spell Jrue
for a handful of minutes a half and and give them another playmaking
option in the back court. He's more than done that so far, especially
with his eight points, five assists and zero turnovers against the
Raptors last night. Good looking out, Royal.


Honorable mention to Spencer Hawes and his 10 points and
eight boards a game off the bench over the three-game stretch, and to
the team's overall defense, which held the Hornets to a franchise-low 62
points on Wednesday and has the second-lowest opponents points-per-game
average in the league (88.7) thusfar.

Flyers returning from World Cup enjoyed playoff-like atmosphere

Flyers returning from World Cup enjoyed playoff-like atmosphere

VOORHEES, N.J. – It’s as if the season began right where it left off for the handful of Flyers players that participated in the World Cup of Hockey. 

Five months removed from their first round series with Washington, the group that played in the international tournament says it was nearly identical to the tempo they saw in the NHL playoffs.

“Our division was really tight so right from the get-go you couldn’t afford to lose a game,” said Sean Couturier, who suited up for North America. “It definitely felt like playoffs, and it definitely didn’t feel like September.”

Couturier was joined by his World Cup teammate Shayne Gostisbehere, along with Team Czech Republic’s Jake Voracek and Michael Neuvirth, in their return to Voorhees for their first practice with the Flyers on Monday. Team Canada’s Claude Giroux and the Team Europe duo of Mark Streit and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare will be competing in the finals this week.

While it may have been an early exit for the first wave of Flyers who reported back, the experience of playing in a tournament with that high of intensity has left them more confident than they’ve ever felt at this time of the year, particularly for Gostisbehere. 

The Calder Trophy runner-up underwent offseason hip surgery following his 46-point season. Having missed a season two years ago because of a torn ACL, Gostisbehere is thankful for how much the World Cup prepared him for his second year. He says he feels better now than he ever has in his career after picking up four assists in the tournament.

“You don’t play in those games in September normally so it was pretty cool to do,” Gostisbehere said. “I think the tournament was a good stepping stone for me and to branch off my injury and give yourself the confidence that you’re feeling good for the year.”

Like Couturier and Gostisbehere, Voracek said the World Cup gameplay mirrored that of the NHL postseason. 

“When I look at the season for the Flyers, it was the best thing that could have happened for me,” Voracek said. “The World Cup was high level… I’m six games in before training camp even starts.”

After what he calls a “good offseason” of training, Voracek saw this opportunity as almost a saving grace – a chance to regain form before embarking on his sixth season in Philadelphia. The winger had one goal and one assist in three games that “felt like I was playing in the playoffs.”

Had this tournament occurred in 2015, the mindset coming back may have been different. Dave Hakstol was coaching his first professional season and as evidenced by their record to start the year and the comments made throughout, things took a little longer than expected when it came to picking up the new coach’s system.

That process is behind the Flyers, and it makes missing the first weekend of camp and possibly the first week of preseason games an easier obstacle to overcome.

“It’s always better when you know the system and what Hak wants in you,” Voracek said. “It’s obviously going to get better and better.”

The best-of-three World Cup finals will begin on Tuesday with the third game (if needed) commencing on Saturday. If the teams go the full distance, the remaining three Flyers involved would likely not play their first preseason game until October 6 if not October 8, the final exhibition game. 

Carson Wentz By the Numbers: Not much precedent for this success

Carson Wentz By the Numbers: Not much precedent for this success

The way Carson Wentz is playing, we may have to make this a regular feature.

Generally, when an Eagles quarterback plays lights out, we pull out the [Insert Name Here] By the Numbers.

We did it for Nick Foles after his seven-touchdown game against the Raiders, we did it for Sam Bradford a couple times late last year, we did it for Michael Vick a couple times during his hot 2010 season.

With Wentz? This might have to happen every week.

He's been that good.

So here is this week's Carson Wentz By the Numbers. Don't be surprised if you see it again very soon.

• Wentz is the first rookie in NFL history to have a game in which he completed 74 percent of his passes with 300 yards, two or more touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s also only the fourth Eagle to have such a game. Randall Cunningham did it against the Giants in 1988, Donovan did it four times (in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007) and Nick Foles did it against the Raiders with his historic seven-TD game in 2013.

• Wentz is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 or more passes with no interceptions in each of his first three career games.

• Wentz’s 73-yard TD pass to Darren Sproles was the longest touchdown pass by an Eagles rookie since John Reaves' 77-yarder to Harold Carmichael against the Giants at Yankee Stadium in 1972.

• Wentz is only the second quarterback in NFL history to be 3-0 three games into his rookie year. The other one is former Eagle and current Cowboy Mark Sanchez, who opened his career in 2009 with wins over the Texans, Patriots and Titans. Sanchez then lost six of his next seven starts.

• Wentz is the fourth quarterback to win his first three NFL starts (not necessarily as rookies). That list includes Wentz, Sanchez, 35-year-old Dieter Brock of the Rams in 1985 (who had played a decade in the CFL) and Marc Bulger of the Rams in 2002 (in his third NFL season).

• Among quarterbacks who’ve thrown at least 100 passes in their career, Wentz now has the second-highest passer rating in NFL history at 103.8. He trails only Aaron Rodgers’ 104.0 figure. The only other quarterback over 100 is Russell Wilson, at 101.1.

• Wentz’s 125.9 passer rating Sunday against the Steelers is highest ever by an Eagles rookie. The previous high was A.J. Feeley’s 114.0 mark against Tampa in 2001. But Feeley didn’t start that game. So the previous high by a rookie Eagles starter was John Reaves’ 105.7 rating against the Browns in 1972.

• Wentz has already tied Mike Boryla’s franchise record for most wins by a rookie quarterback. Boryla won three games in 1974. Since then, Eagles rookie quarterbacks were a combined 5-21.  

• Wentz’s 102 pass attempts without an interception are the most in NFL history by a rookie in his first three games. Second-most are Dak Prescott’s current streak of 99 attempts. The record before Wentz and Prescott came along was 86 by Chad Hutchinson of the Cowboys in 2002.

• It was widely reported that Wentz had broken the NFL record for most pass attempts without an interception to begin a career at 102. But he actually has the second-longest streak. Tom Brady began his career with 147 attempts without an interception before getting picked off by safety Eric Brown of the Broncos in his seventh career game.  

• Wentz's 103.8 passer rating is third-highest in NFL history by a quarterback three games into his rookie year. His trails only Greg Cook of the Bengals (111.9 in 1969) and Marcus Mariota of the Titans (110.3 last year). Robert Griffin III (103.5 with the Redskins in 2012) and Jacky Lee (102.5 with the Oilers in 1960) are the only other quarterbacks over 100 after Week 3 of their rookie season (based on a minimum of 50 attempts).

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