Nerlens and MCW, But No More Jrue: Some Thoughts on What It All Means for the Sixers

Nerlens and MCW, But No More Jrue: Some Thoughts on What It All Means for the Sixers

First of all, and this will certainly be far from the last gushing eulogy I write for his time on the Sixers, let me just say one more time for the record: I LOVE Jrue Holiday. He was, without a doubt, the best thing about watching the Sixers the last four years, from his days toiling for minutes under Eddie Jordan to his first triple-double to coming alive in the Boston series in '12 to him repping Philly at the All-Star team last season. He was a joy to watch on the court, an absolute sweetheart off the court, and I would have loved to watch him develop over the next five to ten years, as he filled out the holes in his game and hopefully grew from a fringe All-Star into a legitimate franchise player.

I will miss him terribly, and I will probably sob myself to sleep in my #11 Holiday jersey I purchased before Game Four of the Miami series two years ago. But I can't really fault Sam Hinkie's logic in making him available. By trading Jrue, he sends the clearest message possible to the league, to the fanbase, and to the team itself: The Sixers aren't that good, and have to get considerably worse before hopefully getting a whole lot better. And everyone--absolutely everyone--is expendable.

Jrue Holiday was the closest thing we had to an untouchable player on the roster, an All-Star point guard with room to grow and an imminently reasonable contract. But if we're attempting to be reasonable here, Jrue wasn't Kyrie Irving, or even John Wall, nor was he likely to reach those guys' level. He's achieved a ton for a 22-year-old, but as superficially excellent as his stats were last year, his numbers came rather inefficiently--his lack of free-throw shooting and high turnover rate meant that his PER was a good-but-far-from-elite 16.7, and according to advanced stats, he was worth just 3.3 Win Shares last year, fewer than even Spencer Hawes or Dorell Wright. He also occasionally lacked discipline on defense, and was prone to the sporadic playmaking mental lapse in late-game situations.

Of course, nearly all Jrue's flaws could have been correctable, and at just 22 with a notoriously conservative head coach, it wouldn't be reasonable for him to expect him to do any better just yet. But does he have the ability, the athleticism, the supernatural talent to be the guy that the Sixers build around? Probably not. Preferably, Jrue would have been a second or third option on a contending team. Trading him will very likely haunt the Sixers in the short term, but it wouldn't be shocking if he stayed his whole career at that kind of borderline all-star level, always top ten at his position but never top five. That's a great player to have, but it's not one who you hoard at all costs.

So once we write off Jrue, we have to turn to the new guys we now have in his stead: Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams. Noel, a power forward from Kentucky, was pegged before the year as the likely #1 overall pick, and though he didn't get a tremendous amount done in his Freshman year at UK --about 11 points and ten boards a game, going 17-7 in his 24 games--he put up very good peripherals and defensive numbers, shooting nearly 60% from the floor averaging not only an incredible 4.4 blocks a game, but 2.1 steals a game as well, a rare-to-find combination in a big man. Consequently, analytics guys love Noel's potential--ESPN's Kevin Pelton ranked him #1 in projected WARP among rookies next year, and he only turned 19 in April.

Pretty cool, right? So why was he taken at #6 by the Pelicans, and not first overall? Well, he tore his ACL in February in a gruesome in-game incident that will knock him out of game action until at least December, if not longer. (When last reported, Noel was targeting a Christmas return.) This is no small thing for NBA teams drafting in the top five, since even if he does come back promptly, there's no telling if his athleticism will still be 100% in tact, and as any team (and particularly the Sixers with their recent experience) will tell you, when you start messing with big men's knees, there's no telling what kind of long-term fallout will result.

What's more, Noel is still very raw offensively. He won't be able to score in the pick-and-pop like so many Sixers men of years past have been, and even in the low post with his 7'4" wingspan, scoring against elite NBA defenses will be a challenge for young Nerlens, especially at first. Defensively, he should be able to contribute pretty immediately, but even his Kentucky big man predecessor Anthony Davis wasn't particularly prodigious in his scoring his rookie year, and he was far more offensively versatile than Noel. He's gonna take a while for sure.

Meanwhile, there's Michael Carter-Williams, who, pending some moves in free agency, will likely waltz in unopposed as the Sixers' starting point guard. Carter-Williams is also a favorite among the analytics set, ranking ninth in Pelton's rankings, and had a much more obviously productive college career at Syracuse, averaging 12 points, seven boards and five assists (as well as almost three steals a game), while leading the Orange and their crappy offensive attack to the final four. With MCW and Noel, the Sixers will now have two long, range-y, defensively minded athletes at their respective positions, and high IQ guys to boot.

However, as you might have guessed from him being available to the Sixers at #11, there's a catch with all this, and it's this: Shooting has been a bit of an issue for Carter-Williams. Last year, MCW shot a painful 39% from the field, including 29% from deep.He also turned the ball over 3.5 times a game, which, when combined with the bad shooting, is undoubtedly going to cause problems in Philadelphia's already low-efficiency attack. Still, unlike our other tall ball-handler with a successful college career, MCW is seen as a pure point, and he has the athleticism to compete and grow at the NBA level, rather than hitting the pro ceiling the way the Extraterrestrial did.

If it seems like neither of these guys are going to come in and contribute a ton to the Sixers winning right away...well, they probably won't. But therein lies the grand plan of our new GM Sam Hinkie. As we suspected he would, Hinkie has taken a look at the Liberty Ballers' roster and concluded--rightly--that it's nowhere near contention. He has thus decided that rather than try to augment the existing pieces on the roster and push to make the playoffs again next year, the Sixers are in a full-on rebuild, going even younger and stripping the club of all inessential pieces--which, in this case, would appear to be everyone.

Basically, the plan is this: Rebuild around youth, and lose a lot. By shedding the Sixers' most productive offensive player and adding two guys that aren't going to be contributing a ton next year (one of whom might not even be playing at all), they're basically guaranteeing a losing season, and a dramatic one--by the time Hinkie is done, the Sixers might most closely resemble last year's Orlando Magic in terms of roster strength. But that's where the plan really kicks in: Not only will the Sixers likely have a high pick in next year's draft--said by many to be one of the strongest in recent memory, and capped by Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins, on pace to be the most coveted prospect since LeBron--but they'll have a pick of secondary value from the Hornets as well, which is reportedly top-five protected, but might still be a lottery pick in a stacked draft.

Needless to say, this also gives us a pretty clear plan of what the team's off-season strategy from here will be. I wouldn't call this the death knell on a Bynum signing necessarily--if the Sixers are confident in his recovery and feel they can get him for below market value, I believe they still will, though that's such a big if it almost doesn't matter--but you can basically throw out any visions you might have of the team going after an Al Jefferson or J.J. Redick or any other veteran to "put us over the top." And in the meantime, expect more roster-shredding trades to come--by opening night, I would be surprised if Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young were all still on the roster; it wouldn't be hugely shocking if none of them were.

Bottom line: This was the Sixers' best chance to jump-start the rebuilding process, to immediately put us on a five-year path rather than waiting another year or two (or five) to tap out this core and hit rock bottom, and damned if Hinkie didn't grab it with both hands. It's going to be a rough year of Sixer basketball, and Hinkie is going to catch hell from a lot of Philly fans who (understandably) don't want to part with the one unreservedly good thing the Sixers have had going for them the last few years. But even though I'm devastated to see Jrue go, and though the next season will undoubtedly be a soul-crushing slog at times, it is nice to feel that our front office has a long-term plan, and is willing to stick with it, even through tough times such as this.

And in the meantime, MCW and Noel aren't two bad pieces to start building around. I know I'll be on YouTube for pretty much the next 24 hours, gorging on highlights and convincing myself that we just drafted the next Penny Hardaway and Tim Duncan. It won't be quite like that, but it's a start, and for the first time in a long time, I really do like where our basketball team is going.

Eagles-Steelers: Roob's 10 observations

Eagles-Steelers: Roob's 10 observations

BOX SCORE

We could probably fill 100 points tonight after this wipeout of the Steelers.

Fifty of them might just be: Wow.

The Eagles on Sunday handed the Steelers' their worst loss in 27 years, walloping everybody's AFC favorite 34-3 and extending their streak to a game and a half without allowing a touchdown (see Instant Replay).

New coach, new quarterback, but you could make an argument the Eagles are the best team in the NFL.

Three games in, the Eagles have won three blowouts. Sunday's was the most impressive.

1. What Carson Wentz is doing simply defies belief. He isn’t playing at an insanely high level for a rookie, he’s playing at an insanely high level for a quarterback. It’s not about him being a rookie anymore. There’s nothing rookie about him. Wentz has managed to put together one of the finest three-game stretches in Eagles history, not just by a rookie but by any quarterback. And this after missing all of training camp and getting promoted to the starting spot exactly one month ago? It’s scary how good this kid is playing. His ability to recognize and diagnose what a defense is doing is off the charts, and he’s so accurate that as soon as he realizes who’s going to be open, the ball is on the way. He can fire it, he can float it, and he can do it all in mistake-free fashion. That’s what’s most impressive about all of this. Zero turnovers playing in his NFL debut, on a Monday night at Soldier Field and against a hot pick to win the AFC.

2. We all knew this defensive line was talented. But this? This group has played out of its mind so far. In all three games the opposing quarterback really had no chance by the second half. They are simply wearing people out, getting stronger and stronger as the game goes on and taking over in the second half. The Eagles still haven’t allowed a second-half touchdown this year. Look at net passing yards against the Eagles this year:

                                 1H                  2H

Browns                    118                  50

Bears                       145                  75

Steelers                   138                  84

They’ve been OK in the first half, but they are just destroying people in the second half. They have yet to allow 100 net passing yards in a second half. And that’s when teams that are trailing by double digits generally pad their passing stats. Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl winner, and by the second half, the Eagles’ defensive line was just teeing off on him, giving him very little opportunity to get the ball down the field. This has been an astonishing stretch from the entire defense, but the defensive line in particular has been playing at a breathtaking level.

3. There was no announcement in the press box about Ryan Mathews, but we’re assuming his sore ankle, originally injured on opening day, was bothering him. Mathews had minus-five yards on two early carries, then didn’t play the rest of the game. In his place, we saw a real emergence from the Eagles’ two young backs. Rookie Wendell Smallwood ran 17 times for 79 yards and Kenjon Barner was 8 for 42, both career highs. Mathews has looked sluggish running the ball all year, and Darren Sproles – as electrifying as he is in all other facets of the game – really isn’t a runner anymore. Smallwood and Barner both hit the hole decisively and have wheels once they get into open space. Sunday, they combined for 25 carries for 121 yards. Very promising start for both backs.

4. One thing the Eagles did throughout this game was tackle exceptionally well, something that’s been a problem around here for a while. The Steelers, unable to run the ball, and with Roethlisberger under tremendous pressure, tried snap after snap to get the short passing game going, trying to get 1-on-1 matchups and then break tackles for big gains. But time after time, the Eagles swarmed the receiver as soon as he caught the ball, quickly limiting the damage. Fourteen of Roethlisberger’s 24 completions went for six yards or less, and this is a quarterback who is as good as anybody getting the ball down the field.

5. Malcolm Jenkins in particular was exceptional Sunday, both in coverage, stopping the run and tackling in the open field. Jenkins has been playing at such a high level since he got here in 2014 it’s easy to take him for granted. But he’s playing as well right now as any safety we’ve seen here. This is Brian Dawkins-level stuff right now.

6. A few words about Brandon Graham. This guy was so vilified early in his career for not being Earl Thomas, and all he’s done for seven years is work hard in practice, play as hard as he can on gameday, and hope to finally get an opportunity to show that he can play. Graham hasn’t been bad. He had 23½ sacks coming into this year, including 12 the last two years. But he’s been playing his best football ever this year, not just pressuring the quarterback, getting sacks and being around the ball — he’s got a forced fumble and a fumble recovery to go with three sacks this year — but also playing very stout against the run. Graham has played under three head coaches and five defensive coordinators, and he’s finally in a scheme that really suits his strengths. Graham has perservered, he’s overcome a lot, and you might notice nobody ever talks about Earl Thomas around here anymore.

7. As impressive as the offense and defense have been, Doug Pederson has been just dazzling so far. His ability to call a game, to keep defenses off-balance, to establish the pass early and then start pounding the run … all of this is remarkable for a first-time head coach who’s never called plays before. Pederson has guided this team masterfully through a difficult few months, with the starting quarterback disappearing and then getting traded, two players in legal trouble, another player likely to get suspended and several players protesting during the national anthem. And here they are 3-0. Pederson has been astounding.

8. And how about the Eagles’ rush defense. The Steelers managed just 29 yards on 10 carries, and that includes a seven-yard Roethlisberger scramble. Their backs had just 22 yards. Nobody’s been able to run on the Eagles yet, and that makes this defense even scarier.

9. Seeing Cody Parkey miss two field goals for the Browns in their overtime loss to the Dolphins Sunday, including a 31-yarder as time ran out in the fourth quarter, and seeing Caleb Sturgis continue to boot all his attempts through the uprights is a good reminder of how a difficult roster decision has really paid dividends for the Eagles. Maybe it didn’t seem like a tough decision, since Sturgis outplayed Parkey throughout the preseason, but getting rid of a Pro Bowl kicker, who two years ago broke the NFL rookie scoring record, can’t be easy. Sturgis has been solid, making both his field goal attempts Sunday and seven of eight so far this year.

10. A couple quick stats to put this all in perspective:

• The last time the Steelers lost a game by 31 or more points, their quarterback was Bubby Brister. It was 1989 and a 41-10 loss to Boomer Esiason and the Bengals at Riverfront Stadium.

•  Wentz’s 102 pass attempts are the most in NFL history by any quarterback in his first three games. Dak Prescott is at 75 going into the Cowboys’ game Sunday night.

•  Wentz is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 or more passes with no interceptions in each of his first three games. Only three others had done it twice.

• The Eagles are the 23rd team in NFL history to open a season with three straight wins by 15 or more points. Of the first 22, 18 went to the playoffs.

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Instant Replay: Eagles 34, Steelers 3

Instant Replay: Eagles 34, Steelers 3

BOX SCORE

It was just the Browns and the Bears, right? The Eagles hadn’t beaten anybody yet, right? We don’t know what this team is yet, right?
 
That all changed Sunday.
 
Big time.
 
Led by rookie phenom Carson Wentz and an absolutely stifling defense, the Eagles took down a Super Bowl contender at the Linc, demolishing the cross-state Steelers, 34-3.
 
With the win, the Eagles are 3-0. And thanks to the Giants’ loss, they’re all alone in first place in the NFC East.
 
After taking a 10-point lead into halftime, the Eagles absolutely poured it on in the second half.
 
They scored early in the third quarter on a special play from Wentz to Darren Sproles. Wentz avoided pressure, stepped up and hit Sproles in stride. The veteran running back did the rest, going 73 yards for a touchdown to put the Eagles up 20-3. They added a couple more scores after that.
 
As impressive as the Eagles’ offense was, the defense might have been more impressive.
 
The Eagles’ defense held a future Hall of Fame quarterback, the NFL’s leading rusher after two weeks and the NFL’s best receiver to three points.
 
Sunday was the worst loss the Steelers suffered since Sept. 17, 1989, when they lost to the Bengals, 41-10.
 
Turning point
The Steelers got off to a hot start, but Markus Wheaton dropped a touchdown pass and then the ensuing field goal was blocked. On the next drive, the Eagles put up the first points of the game. That was a huge swing and the Eagles never looked back.
 
Key stat
Wentz has now thrown 102 passes without an interception to start his career.
 
The Eagles’ defense, which had allowed 17 points coming in, gave up just three to the Steelers on Sunday afternoon. In total, the Eagles have given up just 27 points through three games. That’s the fewest points they’ve given up through three games since 1992.
 
First half
The Eagles had an impressive first half, taking a 13-3 lead into the locker room after two quarters.
 
The Steelers actually got the ball first and put together an impressive drive. Ben Roethlisberger hit Wheaton in the back of the end zone for what should have been a touchdown, but Wheaton dropped it. So the Steelers settled for a 36-yard field goal attempt, but it was blocked by Bennie Logan.
 
The Eagles responded with a field goal drive that went 63 yards on seven plays. The Eagles have now scored on their first drive in each of the first three games of the season. On those first-possession drives, Wentz has completed 16 of 19 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown.
 
A Wentz to Jordan Matthews touchdown early in the second quarter put the Eagles up 10-0. That touchdown capped an 82-yard drive.
 
The teams traded field goals later in the second quarter to keep the Eagles up 10.
 
Offensive stud
Wentz takes the honor yet again. The rookie has been unreal. On Sunday, he completed 23 of 31 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating was 125.9. He became the third rookie in Eagles history to throw for 300-plus yards with two touchdowns in a game.

Sproles also had a huge day in the passing game. The Sproles' touchdown was the 16th 73-yard-plus passing touchdown in Eagles history and was the longest for an Eagles running back since Herschel Walker's 93-yarder in 1994.

Offensive dud
Ryan Mathews never really got it going Sunday. He has been dealing with an ankle injury, which might have limited him. He finished with minus-five yards on two carries that came in the first quarter.  
 
Defensive stud
We’ll give this to the whole unit. Just an all-around incredible performance.
 
Defensive dud
Rookie Jalen Mills got beat a couple times and had a defensive pass interference called against him. Overall, not a terrible day, it’s just that there wasn’t much to pick on with the Eagles’ defense.
 
Injuries
The Eagles entered Sunday’s game without Zach Ertz (ribs), Leodis McKelvin (hamstring) and Isaac Seumalo (pec). Pederson said he expects all three back after the bye week.
 
Up next
The Eagles have an early Week 4 bye so they’ll have an extra week to prepare for the Detroit Lions. Players will be at the NovaCare Complex on Monday, then go their separate ways. The Eagles will play again on Oct. 9 at 1 p.m. in Detroit, as they try to keep their perfect record intact.

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