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.

Vince Velasquez is subject of serious trade talks between Phillies, Rangers

Vince Velasquez is subject of serious trade talks between Phillies, Rangers

ATLANTA — Seven months after he was acquired from the Houston Astros and anointed a key piece in the Phillies’ rebuild, pitcher Vince Velasquez could be on the move again.

The Phillies and Texas Rangers are “pretty deep” in trade discussions involving Velasquez, a major league source told CSNPhilly.com on Friday night (see story).

The Rangers’ interest in Velasquez was reported by Jon Morosi of MLB Network earlier in the week and essentially confirmed when three Rangers scouts, including Scott Littlefield, one of that club’s top talent evaluators, showed up at Turner Field for Velasquez’s start against the Atlanta Braves on Friday night.

Velasquez delivered a solid but unspectacular performance in a 2-1 loss to the Braves, but he still has the qualities that attracted the Phillies to him last winter. He’s just 24 years old and has a power arm that has produced a 3.32 ERA in 18 starts. He has the upside to pitch at or near the top of a rotation if his development goes in the right direction and he stays healthy. That is a legitimate concern because he had Tommy John surgery as a young minor leaguer and spent time on the disabled list earlier this season with a biceps strain.

The question now is: where will Velasquez continue his development? Philadelphia? Texas? Somewhere else?

Clearly, the Phillies’ big wintertime acquisition is in play as Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline approaches.

Manager Pete Mackanin said he knows nothing of the front office’s trade plans, but he offered his opinion on trading a young pitcher like Velasquez.

“Our whole goal was to get young pitchers because they’re the most expensive commodity and if you can develop young pitchers like him and have four or five of those guys, then you’re ahead of the game,” Mackanin said. “But at the same time, at least as far as I’m concerned, I’ll listen to any offers. If you get three guys that are really good looking prospects because pitching is such a commodity, I’m sure you have to consider it.”

With the Rangers' scouts looking on, Velasquez pitched six innings and gave up seven hits and two runs. He walked two and struck out five. His fastball reached 96 mph, proving that his stuff is good. Mackanin, however, said he thought Velasquez relied too much on his off-speed stuff instead of his power fastball.

“It was unusual to me the way he pitched,” Mackanin said. “It was almost like a finesse pitcher instead of a power pitcher. I’m not arguing with it because he did a good job, but he made me a little nervous here and there. I like the 16 strikeouts.”

That, of course, was a reference to Velasquez’s 16-strikeout complete game win over the Padres on April 14. Could anyone have imagined that he'd be the subject of trade talks 3½ months later?

Velasquez said he was aware of the trade buzz surrounding him and unbothered by it. He’s been down this road before. He said he would not be disappointed if he were traded because he understands baseball is a business.

“At first when I got traded from the Astros it was kind of tough for me, but you have to move on and make the best of what you've got,” Velasquez said. “If things happen, just let it happen. If I go to another team, then I've got to make the best of what I've got there. There's a lot of things that are in the future. I don't know what to expect is what I'm saying. Again, all I can do is live in the present and live another day tomorrow. If something happens, something happens. I've got to make the best of what you've got today.

“It's just one of those things I can't control. I had to fight, had to battle for a spot here in Philadelphia and I'm very thankful for the opportunity and everything. Again, I've still got to keep working hard and make the best of what I've got.”

Any team looking to acquire Velasquez would have to pay a steep price. In addition to having talent and upside, he won’t be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2018 season and free agency until after the 2021 season.

The Phillies have a good knowledge of Texas’ deep farm system having scouted it extensively — and plucked from it — in making the deal for Cole Hamels a year ago. Are the Phillies about to fuel their rebuild with more talent from the Texas system? Stay tuned.

Velasquez isn’t the only Phillies starter who could move. Several teams remain interested in Jeremy Hellickson (see story), who is scheduled to pitch against Atlanta on Saturday night. The Rangers, in fact, have some interest in Hellickson as a fallback option if they don’t get a pitcher elsewhere. Velasquez is not the only pitcher the Rangers have on their radar, but from a Phillies’ perspective, he is certainly the most interesting.

Best of MLB: Rougned Odor homers twice for Rangers in 8-3 win over Royals

Best of MLB: Rougned Odor homers twice for Rangers in 8-3 win over Royals

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Rougned Odor homered twice, A.J. Griffin pitched into the sixth inning and the Texas Rangers beat the Kansas City Royals 8-3 on Friday night.

Jurickson Profar also went deep for the Rangers, and scored three runs.

Odor hit a solo homer in the first that put AL West-leading Texas up 3-0 against Edinson Volquez (8-9). That 443-foot drive into the second deck of seats in right field came a night after Odor's 465-footer that is the longest in his career. He had another solo shot in the seventh, his 21st of the season barely clearing the 8-foot wall in right.

Eric Hosmer homered for the defending World Series champion Royals, who dropped to 10 games behind Cleveland in the AL Central.

Griffin (4-1) had his longest outing in seven starts in just over a month since coming off the disabled list because of right shoulder stiffness. The right-hander struck out one and walked two while throwing 66 of 98 pitches for strikes in 5 2-3 innings (see full recap)

Chatwood, Gonzalez lead Rockies over Mets for 4th win in row
NEW YORK -- Tyler Chatwood kept winning on the road, Carlos Gonzalez homered and drove in four runs and the Colorado Rockies defeated the New York Mets 6-1 Friday night for their fourth straight victory.

Mark Reynolds also homered for the surging Rockies, who are 11-4 since the All-Star break and have moved within four games of Miami for the second NL wild-card spot.

Chatwood (10-6) improved to 6-0 with a 1.30 ERA away from Coors Field this season. The 26-year-old is 4-6 with a 5.69 ERA at home.

Gonzalez matched a season-high hitting streak of 11 games with an RBI double in the first. He hit a 448-foot, three-run drive in the ninth for his 21st homer.

Steven Matz (8-7) gave up two runs and 10 hits in six innings (see full recap)

Lester recovers from rut of bad starts, Cubs rout Mariners
CHICAGO -- Jon Lester recovered from a rut of bad starts, pitching six shutout innings that led the Chicago Cubs over the Seattle Mariners 12-1 Friday for their third straight win.

Jason Heyward and David Ross homered as the NL Central leaders improved to 9-5 since the All-Star break following a 1-9 slump. Seattle lost in its first trip to Wrigley Field since 2007.

Lester (11-4) had lasted just 16 innings over his previous four starts, going 1-1 with a 10.13 ERA. That skid came after he had gone 9-3 with a 2.03 ERA in his first 16 starts.

Lester gave up four hits, struck out seven and walked two. He was already done when there was a 74-minute rain delay in the seventh.

Mike Montgomery, traded last week from Seattle to the Cubs, pitched the final two innings. He gave up a single to Shawn O'Malley in the ninth for the Mariners' run.

Hisashi Iwakuma (11-7) had won his last five starts, but gave up five runs and eight hits in three innings (see full recap).

Source: Phillies, Rangers in 'pretty deep' trade talks about Vince Velasquez

Source: Phillies, Rangers in 'pretty deep' trade talks about Vince Velasquez

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies lost, 2-1, to the Atlanta Braves on Friday night.

The big news from this game, however, was that Vince Velasquez might have made his last start with the Phillies. A major league source told CSNPhilly.com that the Phillies and Texas Rangers are “pretty deep” in trade discussions involving Velasquez. The Rangers, the source said, also have some interest in Jeremy Hellickson, who pitches for the Phillies on Saturday night, but he appears to be a secondary target (see story).

It would take top talent to get Velasquez, a 24-year-old right-hander with a power arm. The Phillies acquired him over the winter from Houston as the centerpiece in the deal that sent Ken Giles to the Astros.

The Rangers had several scouts at the game, including Scott Littlefield, one of their top talent evaluators.

The Rangers’ interest in Velasquez was reported earlier in the week by Jon Morosi of MLB Network.

Apparently there’s more than just interest (see story). Stay tuned as Monday’s trade deadline approaches.

Starting pitching report
Velasquez scattered seven hits and two runs over six innings. He walked two and struck out five. Velasquez battled some command issues and needed 91 pitches to complete the six innings.

He is 8-3 with a 3.32 ERA in 18 starts. He has a 2.75 ERA in six starts since a brief stint on the disabled list with a right biceps strain.

Braves right-hander Tyrell Jenkins gave up just one unearned run over six innings.

Bullpen report
Both bullpens pitched scoreless ball.

At the plate
Phillies leadoff man Cesar Hernandez reached base in his first three at-bats and scored the Phillies’ only run on an error in the third inning. 

The Braves scored two runs in the third inning on three singles, a sacrifice bunt and a walk against Velasquez. Gordon Beckham and Nick Markakis drove in the runs with base hits.

Up next
Hellickson (7-7, 3.65) makes perhaps his final start with the Phillies on Saturday night. He will face Braves right-hander Julio Teheran (3-8, 2.71).