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.

Gonzo: Examining possible Jahlil Okafor trade destinations

052316_colangelo_sot_webbestvideo3_1920x1080_691483715839.jpg

Gonzo: Examining possible Jahlil Okafor trade destinations

The lottery is over. The NBA Draft is still roughly a month away. The playoffs are funneling toward the finals. Free agency hasn’t begun. That means it’s trade speculation season for hoop heads.

Not surprisingly, the 76ers have been mentioned as potential trade partners for sundry teams. That’s what happens when you have the first overall pick in the upcoming draft, a bunch of picks in subsequent seasons, and a clogged frontcourt with too many ill-fitting but tradable pieces. The Sixers are said to “covet” an additional high pick in this year’s draft. Add that to the belief that the Sixers are high on Nerlens Noel for assorted reasons, and it’s easy to understand why Jahlil Okafor’s name keeps popping up these days.

Okafor was second among all rookies in scoring and he led the Sixers in that category. He was also a liability on defense and, too often, a ball-movement killer on offense. Still, he’s worth something on the trade market. He’s the rare expendable frontcourt redundancy that could return real value. In theory. The potential problem is identifying a team that wants Okafor and has something the Sixers desire in exchange.

Let’s go through the NBA. We can eliminate some teams right away for various reasons: because they’re at the top of the NBA food chain and wouldn’t want a young guy when they’re trying to win now; because they already have a big man or big men; because they don’t play a style suited to Okafor’s game; because they don’t have much to give the Sixers in return. You could apply one or several of those to the following organizations: Cleveland, Toronto, Miami, Charlotte, Washington, Indiana, Detroit, New York, Brooklyn, Golden State, OKC, San Antonio, Clippers, Memphis, Houston, Utah, Sacramento, New Orleans and Minnesota.

Anything is possible. This isn’t scientific. Crazy/unexpected/lopsided trades happen. (Shouts to Vlade and Vivek.) Perhaps a trade materializes with one of those teams, it’s just that those destinations don’t seem likely. Moving on.

In the maybe category, we have teams that are rebuilding, teams that need a shakeup, teams that are still on the rise, teams that love to tinker and teams that are wholly unpredictable. They include Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando, Milwaukee, Portland, and Dallas. We’ll take them in order.

The Hawks are in danger of losing Al Horford in free agency this summer, and Paul Millsap is a free agent next year. Maybe there’s a deal variation that lands the Sixers Jeff Teague (UFA in 2017) or Dennis Schroder (RFA in 2017). Chicago is a mess. The Bulls really need a makeover, but beyond Jimmy Butler, who would be tough (if not impossible to pry away), not sure what they have that might make the Sixers weak in the knees. Orlando has potential in its backcourt, which the Sixers need. Victor Oladipo or Mario Hezonja would look excellent in a Sixers uniform, but would Okafor fit with Nikola Vucevic? Probably not. Not sure Okafor fits in Milwaukee, either. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the guy there, and they have Jabari Parker. Plus adding Okafor means somehow getting rid of Greg Monroe (he’s not a free agent until next offseason). Portland made the playoffs this year in surprising fashion. They’re on the rise again. They could use an upgrade in the paint for sure, but it doesn’t appear they have the picks/players to offer in return. (No, they’re not giving up CJ McCollum.) Dallas is a wild card. Mark Cuban is unknowable.

That leaves four teams that might be the best bets: Boston, Lakers, Phoenix and Denver. According to excellent long-time NBA reporter David Aldridge, who wrote the piece about the Sixers' coveting thy neighbor’s high first-rounder, “trading Okafor would be the easiest and best way for Philly to get another high first-round pick.” He’s right about that. The Lakers pick second. Boston picks third (along with 16 and 23). Phoenix is fourth (along with 13 and 28). Denver is seventh (along with 15 and 19).

As Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak admitted in the aforementioned Aldridge piece, the Lakers “need a player in the frontcourt.” Meanwhile, they have Jordan Clarkson (RFA) in the backcourt, along with D’Angelo Russell and Lou Williams. Would they be willing to flip Russell for Okafor? Or the second pick for Okafor? Those deals make sense for the Sixers. They make somewhat less sense for the Lakers considering the L.A. could just stay put at two and plug in whichever player the Sixers don’t take. Much simpler for them. Smarter, too.

Denver and Phoenix both have multiple first-round picks in this draft and rosters that need alteration. But both also have big men in place that might make those maneuvers complicated. Like Okafor, Nikola Jokic was named All-Rookie first team for the Nuggets. Alex Len hasn’t been nearly as good for Phoenix, but he was a first-round pick a few years ago. Okafor wouldn’t fit very well with either of them, which probably means getting creative to work with those teams.

That brings us to the most popular theory: Okafor to Boston. There were rumors that the Celtics wanted him at the trade deadline. Even without additional parts, the third pick might be enough for the Sixers to do a deal. Boston also has a cache of other current and future picks to work with, along with some players they could throw in as sweeteners. I get why dealing with Boston makes sense for the Sixers, but does Okafor make the Celtics legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference? He’s not a rim protector or a monster rebounder, he needs the ball on offense to make an impact, and his defense would probably make Brad Steven’s head explode. I’m not so sure it’s as obvious from Boston’s end as it is from Philly’s view. And yet the Celtics have to do something. Maybe they talk themselves into Okafor.

Admittedly, that’s a super-simplified, cursory look at the situation. The Sixers only need to find one taker. With the draft and free agency approaching and the salary cap set to jump significantly, it’s about to be NBA silly season. There’s always lots of movement. The guess here is that the Sixers unload Okafor during the pending madness. It makes too much sense from their perspective, though maybe there aren’t as many clear-cut potential trade partners as it seemed.

Last night's Union game against Orlando was pretty crazy

052516_union_orlando_hl_webrefframe_1.jpg

Last night's Union game against Orlando was pretty crazy

When the Union played in Orlando last year, the game was a relatively dull scoreless draw.

And for most of Wednesday’s game between the two teams in the same venue, it looked like history was going to repeat itself.

That’s when the Kaká hit the fan.

Here’s a quick recap of all the craziness that happened in the second half of the if-you-turned-away-you-probably-missed-something2-2 draw:

  • Tranquillo Barnetta, inspired by a story I wrote about him a day earlier, scored his second goal this season -- both of which have come against Orlando

  • Warren Creavalle was taken down from behind in the box but no penalty kick was given and no red card was shown, leading head coach Jim Curtin to call the sequence “embarrassing”

  • Orlando City responded with two rapid-fire semi-controversial goals, scoring the first after Philly goalie Andre Blake was wiped out and the second on a shot Blake appeared to make the save on but the ref ruled was in (where’s goal-line technology when you need it??)

  • Ken Tribbett, the pride of Drexel, scored his first MLS goal after early collecting his first MLS assist -- after only being called into the game because of an injury to Josh Yaro

  • Orlando’s David Mateos was shown a straight red card in the final minute but Barnetta couldn’t convert a close-range free kick to win it

  • Fabinho killed a guy with a trident

To think all but one of those things happened in one half is pretty wild -- and that doesn’t even factor in several other cards, calls, no-calls and a pretty cool set piece the Union ran.


Oh, and almost lost in all the commotion, was the fact that Andre Blake gave us another memorable moment in a season full of them when he saved a first-half penalty kick from freaking Kaká.


In the end, Curtin couldn’t get over some of the refereeing decisions, particularly the no-call on Creavalle -- which, as you can see, was in fact quite bad.


Still, the fact that the Union escaped a tough place like Orlando despite the ref and while playing without three of their top playmakers (Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueria and Ilsinho) is quite a nice achievement that you would never have seen with past Philly teams.

It also moved their unbeaten streak to six heading into Saturday’s showdown between the first-place team in the East (your Philadelphia Union) and the first-place team in the West (the Colorado Rapids) -- who you might recall were two of the worst teams in MLS last season.

See ya in the rockies.

Opportunity with Eagles, talk with Le'Veon Bell has Kenjon Barner hungry

052516-reich-comments-webbestvideo3_1920x1080_692990531733.jpg

Opportunity with Eagles, talk with Le'Veon Bell has Kenjon Barner hungry

Kenjon Barner is hungry, literally and figuratively.

After spending 2014 on the Eagles' practice squad and getting just 37 offensive touches in a crowded backfield last season, the running back is looking to carve out a bigger role with the Birds in 2016. DeMarco Murray is gone, and with Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles away from the team earlier this week at practice, it was Barner getting the first-team reps. 

Mathews missed Tuesday's practice with an illness, and Sproles hasn't reported to the Eagles' voluntary workouts, which become mandatory from June 7-9.

So Barner, the 27-year-old RB Chip Kelly coached in college and traded for prior to the 2014 season, has had some opportunities to impress new head coach Doug Pederson. And Barner wants to make clear that despite his Oregon ties — he's one of three remaining players from Oregon that Kelly brought to the Eagles, along with Josh Huff and Taylor Hart — he's not only here because of the coach he outlasted.

"It's a great opportunity," Barner said, "just a fresh start. Go out there and continue to show what you can do, continue to make plays and constantly have your name in the coaches' minds.

"For anybody who says, 'Oh, that's Chip Kelly's guy,' no, I'm a football player. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't a football player. I wouldn't have gotten drafted if I wasn't a football player.

"It's not a chip on my shoulder. Yes I went to Oregon, yes I played under Chip, I love Chip to death, but I'm a football player. I create my own lane. I'm not gonna let anybody place me in a box and tell me what I am."

At 5-9/195, Barner doesn't fit perfectly into the box of a classic bell cow back. He's more of a Sproles-lite, a shifty back who can catch passes out of the backfield. He showed that last preseason, when he rushed 13 times for 91 yards and a touchdown and also caught four passes for 72 yards, including a 50-yarder.

That kind of backfield versatility is necessary in the offense Pederson brings over from the Chiefs, the offense Andy Reid ran for many years here. In Kansas City, Pederson and Reid utilized their running backs often in the passing game, just as they did with the Eagles. Even when Jamaal Charles went down for the year after five games last season, that trend continued with Charcandrick West catching 20 passes and DeAnthony Thomas getting some grabs out of the backfield.

"I fit whatever role they want me to fit," Barner said. "Whether it's catching balls out of the backfield or whatever it is. Jamaal Charles is a great back and if I can do half of what he's done throughout his career I'd be lucky."

Barner has patiently waited three years for this kind of opportunity. Mathews and Sproles are expected to be the Eagles' top-two ball-carriers, but both are getting older and neither is an every-down back, Mathews because of all the injuries and Sproles because he's more of a situational matchup nightmare. So even with the addition of fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood, there should be some opportunities for Barner, who has done all he can to further his own development.

"Just older, more mature, more professional than I've been in the past," Barner said. "Understanding the offense, really going home and studying, really knowing what my responsibility is.

"For me, man, it's just about being mature, growing. I feel like if you're not growing, what are you doing? You constantly have to grow, have to evolve, not only physically but mentally. That's kind of where I'm at.

"I did take it seriously last year, but having the opportunity to go through what I've been through, go home and be with my family, have guys like (Chris) Maragos, I talk to him on a daily basis about football, about life. Sproles constantly being in my ear still — he may not be here but he's still in my ear. It's a lot of things coming together."

One change Barner made this offseason was to his diet. It came from a conversation with the NFL's best all-around running back, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell.

"I had a talk with Le'Veon Bell back in January," Barner said. "I spoke with him and we were just talking about eating. I'm the type of guy that if I see somebody and I see a change in them and I see it's positive, I have no problem telling you, 'I like what you're doing, tell me how you did it.' I reached out to him because I've been seeing pictures of him and I've seen his body change. We came in the draft together and he's always been a big guy, but he hasn't been that cut, that ripped. So I reached out to him like, 'Yo, what did you do, what's your diet, what have you been taking, what are you doing and what are you not doing?' Just really trying to pick his brain. 

"I'm trying to be great. And if I see you doing something that's pushing you to the next level I'm gonna ask you how you did it. 

"I'm not gonna say I've been perfect. I'm just really big on sweets, I have a sweet tooth like no other and I can thank my dad for that — growing up he always had candy and snacks by his bed so I would always sneak in his room and eat them. That's the hardest thing, that's like my kryptonite."

Sweets weren't a part of the Chip Kelly regimen, that's for sure. But with the coach who brought Barner to the Eagles now in San Francisco, it's more on the players to keep themselves on track, both in the kitchen and with their sleep schedule.

"It's different, a lot slower, obviously," Barner said of practices under Pederson. "Is that good? I mean, you don't get as tired. But you're not in as good of shape as you were in Chip's offense. Chip's offense, you have to be in tip-top shape. So we're still getting there, still certain times when we're tired, times when you shouldn't be tired. So you have to do a lot of the conditioning on your own outside of here.

"Today, [Pederson] asked us who's getting eight hours of sleep. Everybody cares about it because you want your players to be at their best and you can't be at your best if you're not getting enough sleep, (but they're) two completely different people."