Notes from a week of losing Sixers basketball

Notes from a week of losing Sixers basketball

While you were out tryptophanning it up this Thanksgiving season, the Philadelphia 76ers played a trio of basketball games, and like a good little bottoming-out basketball team, they lost all three of them. As I wrote earlier, this was the start to a pretty key stretch of the season for the 76ers, one that saw them playing a good number of teams they'll be in competition with for lottery balls come late May, and it was important for them to start to gain some separation from them in the race to the bottom. They've done that now--at 6-12, they now have the seventh-worst record in the league, with plenty of opportunity to sink even further--and though it's not always fun to watch, it's unquestionably important for the team's future.

Anyway, for a variety of reasons, it'd be pretty understandable if you took this last week off from Sixers basketball. If you did, here's a handful of things you missed that are of minor significance to the team's short-or-long-term outlook.

1. Defense is becoming increasingly come-as-you-are. In the three L's, the Sixers gave up an average of about 114 points per to the Magic, Pelicans and Pistons, and currently rank dead last in the league in terms of points, assists, blocks, steals, and three-pointers given up per game. That's due to a certain extent to the team playing at the top-rated pace in the league, leading to bigger totals in just about everything, but the Sixers are also giving up the fourth-worst three-point field-goal percentage and the eighth-worst two-point field-goal percentage on that gargantuan number of attempts, leading to predictably disastrous results.

The team's lassez-faire attitude in defending the three-point arc has always struck me as particularly egregious, to the point where I wondered if it was somehow Coach Brown's strategy to let other teams fire away from three, and just hope to get long rebounds off misses that they could take off the other way with. Given how furious Brown looked on the sideline as Brandon Davies repeatedly failed to switch onto Pelicans sharpshooter Ryan Anderson behind the arc off pick-and-pops on Friday night, I'm guessing that's probably not actually the case. Get it together, guys.

2. Thad's back. In the literal sense, Thad has returned to the team after three games missed while he was with his family after the tragic death of his nephew. In the less literal sense, however, Thad has also returned to form in the past week, averaging 21 and eight on 51% shooting over last week's three outings. He's also hitting from three again, draining six triples in 13 tries after going just 2-10 in his nine previous contests, and playing with the kind of energy and activity we've come to expect from Thad, especially over last season. It's not enough to help the team win games when nobody else seems to be giving a damn on the defensive end, but that's fine for now.

3. Evan is hitting from three again. After an absolutely brutal start to the season from range--an incomprehensible 6-39 over his first 15 games--Evan Turner drained a much more reasonable six of ten tries from deep this week, including a 3-3 night from beyond against the Pelicans. Evan gave good offensive efforts in all three games, keeping up his season-long consistency with an average of 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists on 56% shooting in the three L's. The defense comes and goes (mostly goes) with the Extraterrestrial, but as long as he can keep those offensive numbers up, and if he starts to hit the three with any degree of consistency he'll have some serious trade value when the new year rolls around.

4. Hollis Thompson has taken over from James Anderson in the starting lineup. Not guaranteed to stick, but on Sunday, Coach Brown tinkered with his starting five for non-injury-related reasons for the first time all season, inserting Hollis Thompson at the three, sliding Evan to the two and moving James Anderson to the bench. Thompson had been playing better off the bench, and it's been a season-long struggle for Anderson to find consistency, so the move wasn't terribly surprising, though Brown remarked that the switch was for defensive purposes against the sizeable Pistons, and is not necessarily something to be read into much.

I'm fine with the lineup switch on a per-matchup basis, but I still like Anderson more in the starting five--mostly because I don't like Turner at the two so much for this team, and I still believe in Anderson developing into something resembling a starting two-guard in this league. Anyway, Thompson's performance against Detroit (Six points, six rebounds, three assists, four fouls) was mostly middling, and Anderson had 11 points off the bench, so it seems pretty likely that the adjustment will be reversed in time for tomorrow night's game against the Magic. Worth keeping an eye on, though.

5. Anthony Davis went down. This is obviously related to the Sixers only tangentially, but New Orleans (and the NBA community in general) took a big hit in yesterday's Pelicans-Knicks game when Anthony Davis left with what turns out to have been a fracture in his left hand. Davis could miss about a month or longer with the injury, which is a really bad break for a team that was just starting to find its groove, crawling their way back up to .500. They were able to hold on to beat the ailing Knicks last night without their star forward, but their schedule doesn't have a lot of cupcake games on it the rest of the calendar year, and Davis--owner of the league's second-best PER--will certainly be missed.

This news is of note to the Sixers because of the draft pick owed to them by New Orleans in next year's draft, which the Pelicans get to keep if it lands in the top five. Losing Davis for a month or so won't likely put the Pelicans in danger of dropping that far in the standings, but it might keep at least them in the lottery, which is good news for the Sixers. Still, AD is one of the league's great young stars, and no side benefit to the Sixers would really be worth any threat to his long-term greatness, so we here at the Level wish him a thorough recovery.

Oh, and Tony Wroten's back. He did this the other night, which was cool:

Sixers return to action tomorrow night at home to the Magic. As my father would say, hope you all had a happy Tanksgiving.

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

Phillie Phodder: Aaron Nola's health, Roman Quinn's status, closer job

READING, Pa. — Perhaps the most important issue facing the Phillies as they get set to open spring training is the health of pitcher Aaron Nola.

It won’t be possible to fully gauge the right-hander’s condition until he starts firing pitches against hitters in a competitive situation in February and March.

But less than a month before camp opens, Nola is optimistic that the elbow problems that forced him to miss the final two months of the 2016 season are resolved.

“I feel like the injury is past me,” he said during a Phillies winter caravan stop sponsored by the Double A Reading Fightin Phils on Tuesday night. “I feel back to normal.

“My arm is all good. One-hundred percent.”

Nola, 23, did not pitch after July 28 last season after being diagnosed with a pair of injuries near his elbow — a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a strained flexor tendon.

Nola and the team opted for a conservative treatment plan that included rest, rehab and a PRP injection. The pitcher spent much of the fall on a rehab program in Clearwater that included his throwing from a bullpen mound. He took a couple of months off and recently began throwing again near his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“All through the rehab, I had no pain,” Nola said. “Probably in the middle of the rehab, I started feeling really good. Towards the end, I started upping the intensity a little bit. I knew after I took two months off I was going to be good. I started back up, throwing after Christmas and it felt really good when I cranked up. I’ve been throwing for a few weeks now. No pain, no hesitation. Not any of it.”

The Phillies selected Nola with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 draft with the hopes that he would be a foundation piece in the rotation for many years. Nola ascended to the majors in the summer of 2015 and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts before hitting severe turbulence last summer. He had a 9.82 ERA in his final eight starts of 2016 before injuring his elbow during his final start.

Nola said he would report to Clearwater on Feb. 1. He does not expect to have any limitations in camp.

Manager Pete Mackanin is eager to see what Nola looks like in Clearwater.

“There's a part of me that’s concerned,” Mackanin said. “When guys don't have surgery and they mend with just rest, that makes me a little nervous. I don't want that to crop up again because then you lose a couple years instead of one year. But I defer to the medical people and believe in what they say and how he feels.”

Mackanin said he expected Nola to be in the five-man rotation along with Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz and Vince Velasquez to open the season. Mackanin also mentioned Zach Eflin and others as being in the mix. The Phillies have some starting pitching depth and that’s a plus because pitchers' arms are fragile. Nola was the latest example of that last season. He said he’s healthy now, but he'll still be a center of attention in spring training.

More seasoning for Quinn
Mackanin acknowledged that the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Saunders probably means that Roman Quinn will open the season in Triple A.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest or [Quinn’s] to be a part-time player at the big-league level, so I would think if things stay the way they are and if Saunders is on the team, I think it would behoove Quinn to play a full year of Triple A,” Mackanin said. “We have to find out if he can play 120 or 140 games, which he hasn’t done up to this point. We hope he can because, to me, he’s a potential game changer.”

Morgan to the bullpen?
Mackanin suggested that lefty Adam Morgan could be used as a reliever in camp. The Phillies have just one lefty reliever (Joely Rodriguez) on their 40-man roster. If Morgan pitches well out of the bullpen, he could be a candidate to make the club. Non-roster lefties Sean Burnett and Cesar Ramos could also be in the mix.

Another chance for Gomez
Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games in 2016 before struggling down the stretch and losing the closer’s job. Hector Neris finished up in the role.

So how will competition for the job shake out in Clearwater?

“I wouldn’t say it’s wide open,” Mackanin said. “I’m going to give Gomez every opportunity to show that he’s the guy that pitched the first five months and not the guy that pitched in September.”

PFF ranks Eagles' front seven as the second best in NFL

PFF ranks Eagles' front seven as the second best in NFL

At times during the 2016 season, the Eagles' defense looked like the best unit in the league. And at other times … it didn't. 

By the end of the season, the Eagles averaged out to be a middle-of-the-road defense. And the way ProFootballFocus ranked it makes sense.

PFF ranked the Eagles' secondary as the absolute worst in the league, but in it's list of front sevens, released on Tuesday, the Eagles came in at No. 2 behind just Seattle. 

Here's what PFF said about the Eagles' front seven: 

"It was a difficult decision between the Eagles and the Seahawks for the No. 1 spot, as this front-seven propped up a hodge-podge secondary to form one of the league’s most effective defenses for a good portion of the season. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox finished with the third- and fourth-highest pass-rushing productivity marks at their respective positions. Philadelphia’s front-seven also features a budding star in second-year linebacker Jordan Hicks, who led all players at the position with five interceptions."

Graham received the highest grade among the Eagles' front seven with a 93.3, while Connor Barwin received the worst at 42.1. Graham was the only Eagles player to make the PFF All-Pro team this year. To prove that stats don't always tell the full story, Graham finished with a half sack more than Barwin (6 1/2 to 6). 

While the Eagles' cornerback trio of Leodis McKelvin, Nolan Carroll and Jalen Mills ranked 79th, 107th and 120th out of 120, respectively, their players across the front seven were much, much better. 

Hicks was ranked as the seventh-best middle linebacker and Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks were both top-10 outside linebackers in 4-3 defenses. Graham was the top-ranked 4-3 defensive end and Cox was the fifth-best interior lineman.