Now What? A Simultaneously Premature and Overdue Eulogy For the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers

Now What? A Simultaneously Premature and Overdue Eulogy For the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers

Tonight, the Philadelphia 76ers face off against the New Jersey Nets in their tenth-to-last game of the regular season. The questions for the Sixers going this game are many: How will the club handle Nets star point guard Deron Williams after he expoded for 34 and 11 in the first matchup between the teams? Will there be changes to the starting lineup, which Coach Collins threatened if the team couldn't get it together on Sunday against the Celtics? Will Nik Vucevic, who saw extended game action in Boston for the first time in two weeks, continue to get minutes?

All worthwhile questions. But another, more urgent, and significantly more depressing question looms over all: Who cares?

The Sixers have now lost four straight games, and ten of their last 14, in the midst of the most critical stretch of their season. They've fallen all the way to the eighth seed, three behind the surging Boston Celtics, with their first Atlantic Division crown in a decade basically out of reach. They'll have even more difficulty catching Orlando for the sixth seed (four games up on Philly), and they're just one game up on ninth-seeded Milwaukee, so now the only real question facing the team is whether they push for the seventh seed (and face a likely quick slaughter by Miami), try to hang in the eight seed (and face a likely more extended slaughter by Chicago), or drop out of the race altogether (and likely get another middling draft prospect).

If you're not holding your breath in anticipation of which of the three paths the teams ends up taking, you will not be faulted by this blog.

When the Sixers started the 2011-12 season with a 20-9 record, including wins over the Hawks, Magic, Pacers, Lakers and Bulls, people actually did care. There was a buzz around this team like there hadn't been since the Iverson era, not just in Philadelphia, but around the league, where the Sixers were finally being talked about in columns by national publications, topping ESPN stat expert John Hollinger's early Power Rankings and getting some long-overdue games on ESPN and NBA TV. It looked like even if they couldn't push Miami or Chicago for the conference championship, they'd at least be able to contend for a bit in the post-season, maybe even get that first playoff series win since 2003. At the very least, the prospect of meaningful post-season games was exciting.

Now, all that is over. The Sixers have bottomed out, and even though their late-blooming version of bottoming out isn't as miserable as the season-long bottoming out of the Bobcats and Wizards, it's arguably even worse, since there's no light of a top-flight draft pick at the end of the tunnel for the Sixers this year. Hollinger, once the Sixers' biggest proponent, just wrote a column about how real (though once unlikely) the possibility is of them missing the playoffs. The guys over at The Basketball Jones spent much of their last podcast talking about how they hope the team misses the playoffs because they're depressing to watch now, and they even suggested that Sixers fans probably feel the same way.

They might be right. I mean, I'm not sure I want to watch this team in the post-season, are you? I definitely don't want to see them face the Heat again—I already re-watched that movie over the course of their four-game season-series this year, and I liked the ending even less the second time around. If we faced the Bulls at eight, that might be preferable, since this team has played the Bulls tough (even winning an early-season game) and might be able to push them to five or six games, but how much do we really want another moral-but-not-actual post-season victory these playoffs? Wasn't this supposed to be the year that we actually played to, you know, actually win a series or two?

Really, at this point, maybe it would be best for the team to let the Bucks have the last spot in the East. At least then, not only would our draft slot be higher, but the embarrassment of missing the playoffs just a couple months after it looked like they would cruise to the Atlantic Division title would force the team's front office to make the hard decisions that it's delayed making for the last two seasons of surprise almost-contention. That includes: Finally finding a trade partner for Andre Iguodala and/or Elton Brand, re-evaluating Lou Williams' role on a rebuilding team and possibly letting him walk if he opts out of his contract in the off-season, and assessing Jure Holiday and Evan Turner's ability to co-exist as team fixtures in the backcourt, and looking to move one of them if they are deemed incompatible.

Tall order. But as so many Sixers fans and writers have cried over the years, this team has to do something to avoid spending the next five years where (with the exception of the dismal '09-'10 season) they've spent the last five—in the middle. Cutting ties with the team's expensive veterans and handing the keys to Jrue and Evan would likely result in the team missing the playoffs next year, and it might also frustrate Coach Collins to the point where his position becomes untenable, but it's what the team has to do. They've not close enough to contending, and they probably won't ever be with this core—the last 14 games have proven that. It's time to rip it up and start again.

The thing that's really so disappointing about all this is that for a minute there, it looked like we were on our way to experiencing what all sports fans dream about—getting to watch a young, largely homegrown team take that collective leap to realized potential. Even better, we did it without a superstar, proving all sorts of basketball truisms about being unselfish, playing together as a unit and allowing the team to become something more than the sum of its parts. It felt unreal, and that's because ultimately, it was unreal—the team wasn't as good as it looked then, they were just better-prepared for the 66-game season than a lot of other teams, and they were building momentum against a lot of really messy, subpar competition. We always knew that was true to some extent, only now do we realize how true the full extent really is.

Does that mean that I'm rooting for them to tank the rest of the season? Nah. I still refuse to root against my team from game to game, and never will advocate doing so. I wish the team the best over the final ten games, and if they can get some momentum going into the playoffs and clinch the team's first winning season in seven years in the meantime...I don't think it'll end up resulting in much, but good for them. I can't really blame the team for the season ending up so disappointing—this is just how good a team they really are—and really, I can't even blame the front office for seeing the shortened season and trying to gain an advantage by returning all last year's team players, hoping their pre-established chemistry and young legs would be enough to separate from the pack while everyone else struggled with new lineups, out-of-shape veterans and a lack of practice time. Hell, it almost worked.

What matters now isn't what happens in the final ten games, or in the playoffs, or even on draft night in June. What matters is what happens the rest of this off-season, and whether the front office starts to take the difficult-but-necessary steps to get this team out of the middle class—first in one direction, then hopefully in the other. And that means not passing on trade offers for Andre Iguodala, regardless of how much of an immediate negative they are for the team, and that means probably not giving Spencer Hawes a long, cap-clogging extension (though with his awful play these last few weeks, it's doubtful our one-time MIP candidate could really get that much on the open market no
w anyway), and that means definitely NOT re-signing or extending Lou Williams if he decides he wants out.

Most importantly, it means acknowledging, in some way, shape and/or form, that this team at its core always will be what it always has been—a middle-of-the-pack, totally directionless basketball team, simultaneously too good and not good enough. I'm not saying that we have to bottom out Wizards/Bobcats-style, even—though it would hurt without Iguodala, Brand and/or Williams, the team does have enough young talent that it could theoretically stay competitive—but as people at this blog and elsewhere have been saying for years, we need to get as young and cheap as possible to either grow through the draft, or have the flexibility to acquire one of those first-option-type scorers the Sixers have lacked since AI, or a big-man anchor they haven't had since Mutombo. (Eric Gordon and Roy Hibbert, possible respective examples of each, are both restricted free agents this off-season. Neither are necessarily the answer for Philly, and I doubt the club will actively pursue either, but they're the type of players the team should be looking at.)

It was a fun season, all told. And theoretically, it's possible that something will happen over the next ten games to add a little more spice to the team's playoff run—maybe Evan Turner will rip off another four-game stretch like the one he had a month ago that'll make him a player of interest in the post-season, or maybe Spencer Hawes will end his contract year by healthening up and regaining the stroke he had at season's beginning, or maybe Lou Williams will decide "F--- it, these losers have been holding me back all year" and go off for 57 points on 53 shots one game. But while I'll probably write another eulogy for this team once it's officially eliminated from the post-season, the season really died Sunday night in Boston when the team desperately needed a win to and couldn't even come close. Let's just hope the season didn't die in vain.

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Carson Wentz takes pride in not letting plays die easily. 

In Sunday’s 34-3 win over the Steelers, one play he didn’t let die ended up being the back-breaker in the blowout. 

We’re, of course, talking about the 73-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles at the 13:08 mark in the third quarter. Coming into the second half, the Eagles had a 10-point lead, but this touchdown pushed it to a 20-3 advantage and the rout was on. This play was a tone-setter (see story)

“That’s something that we talk about a lot,” Wentz said after the game. “We always say that a play is never dead. I like to make plays when we need to and everyone just does a great job of getting open in those situations.”

This was the first big off-schedule play Wentz has hit during his three weeks as the team’s starter, but the signs were there. In the Chicago game, there were several times where he showed his ability to extend plays. We broke them down in a film review last week (see story).

Throughout the week, Wentz had been compared to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. One of the reasons was their shared ability to extend plays and make something happen. Big Ben showed his ability in the first quarter and almost connected on a huge touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton in the back of the end zone, but the receiver couldn’t pull it in. 

When Wentz got his shot later in the game, Sproles was able to pull it in, then make something happen with his feet. 

“I saw Carson scrambling this way,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Darren was literally right in front of me and when I saw him wheel, my first reaction was to find the sideline to see if he stepped out to be quite honest.  He hadn’t, and Carson just — it was like in slow motion — floated that ball up the sideline and Darren did the rest from there. It was a tremendous play from those two individuals. I guess the last thing I did is I always look back to make sure there are no flags on the ground on those long plays.”

There were no flags. Touchdown. Game. 

Let’s take a closer look at the play: 

Wentz is in shotgun with Sproles in the backfield with him. The Eagles come out with three-wide on the far side of the field and a lot of space on the near side. 

Stephon Tuitt, who actually had a pretty good game against the Eagles, takes this route to the quarterback. When he gets to left guard Allen Barbre, Barbre either didn’t see him or didn’t react quickly enough. 

While Sproles is still running his short out, Wentz feels the pressure and is able to step up through the hole created by Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks. As soon as he makes it through, Wentz still has his eyes downfield. 

Now Wentz is through the hole and sees Sproles finishing his out-route. This is when Wentz, on the run, motions to Sproles to take off. This is something we’ve seen Wentz do a few times during his three weeks as Eagles quarterback. 

Wentz was left with a tough decision here. He could have run for 10, maybe even 15 yards. It was wide open, but he decided to try to make a play with his arm instead. 

“I always want to be a thrower first,” he said. “Even when a play breaks down, I’m always looking [to throw] because that’s where the big plays are happening. If I scramble I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, but I’m not that fast. I always want to get it to the guys that can make plays. We always want to make plays when they’re there, and that’s what happened.”

With the line of scrimmage at the 27, Wentz has enough awareness to run horizontally to make sure he didn’t cross. And as soon as Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell takes that first step toward him, Wentz sees how much room Sproles has to work with. 

Ryan Shazier, who was covering Sproles on the play, froze and then started to step toward Wentz too. He said he thought the quarterback crossed the line of scrimmage, but Wentz was aware enough to stay behind.  

Once Sproles catches the ball in open space, he begins to do Sproles things. Defensive back Sean Davis took a bad angle on him and once he gets close, the veteran turns it inside. Davis said he was trying to buy time for the rest of his defense to get there and stop Sproles. It didn’t work. 

“Man, it’s Sproles!” receiver Nelson Agholor said. “Did you think he was going to get tackled?”

While he’s blocking downfield, Dorial Green-Beckham actually trips himself up and does a somersault. But it didn’t matter — Sproles didn’t need a great block. He pretty much did it himself. 

“Anytime that you can put it in the hands of [Sproles] something special can happen on any play, and he did the rest of it,” Wentz said. 

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Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Michael Raffl had just finished playing alongside Travis Konecny, the 19-year-old kid that has Flyers fans abuzz about the now and future.

Yet for Raffl, he wasn’t thinking forward. Instead, he was looking back.

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t do that when I was 19, that’s for sure,” the 27-year-old said smiling, eyes wide open. “No, it’s impressive, he’s a really, really good hockey player.”

Konecny had that resounding affect Wednesday night at the PPL Center, recording a goal and an assist while leading the Flyers to a 2-0 preseason win over the Devils (see 10 observations).

He dazzled with speed and shiftiness.

He showed off vision and smarts.

When he touched the puck, he had everyone’s attention.

Paired with Raffl and Brayden Schenn in a game featuring mostly prospects, the 2015 first-round pick made the molding of Ron Hextall’s roster that much more difficult. With the general manager looking on, the highly touted winger started fast before making his imprint during a span of just four minutes and 34 seconds in the second period.

First, he redirected a blast by Andrew MacDonald to hand the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Not long after, the 5-foot-10, 184-pounder deceived the defense to find Raffl right in front off a backdoor pass for a 2-0 advantage.

“We had a cycle play going and he had a nice fake up top there and I was just going to the net,” Raffl said. “Somehow I was all by myself and he saw me, put a perfect pass on my tape and I just went around the goalie and put it in.”

Following his first goal, Konecny nearly tacked on another less than a minute later when he appeared to hit the crossbar on a shot. He also flirted with a few more assists.

“I think I just played relaxed,” Konecny said. “I came into the game tonight trying not to do too much and just keep things simple. The main thing for me was getting pucks out of the zone, so I think I did that well tonight and hopefully I can keep building on it.”

Relieving pucks from the zone isn’t a real problem when you possess the speed and skill of Konecny, who racked up 101 points last season at the junior level.

At just 19, that’s where he’ll have to return if he doesn’t crack the Flyers’ roster.

With cuts already made and more coming, that sometimes is on Konecny’s mind.

“It weighs on you a little bit. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it and it’s definitely the time I need to step up and make sure I’m playing good hockey,” Konecny said. “And just earning another day — that’s just the way I’m looking at it. Every day I wake up and just work hard and move forward from there.

“I think everyone comes into camp and tries to give them (management) a reason not to send you back and make it hard on them.”

Wednesday night didn’t hurt his chances.

“He played a good hockey game,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “Had an impact offensively. He did a pretty good job. There’s some youthful mistakes in there, but overall, he had a real good night tonight playing with Raf and Schenner.”

Placing Konecny with two capable NHL forwards offered the Canadian an opportunity to prove what he could do if he was in fact on the big club.

“We played well together,” Konecny said. “I think from the start we just had a lot of communication, we talked in the room, in warmups, we all knew what we were going to do throughout the game and in certain scenarios.”

If anything, Konecny left an impression on Raffl.

“He’s a very smart player,” Raffl said. “Once he has the puck, he makes smart decisions with it. It was very easy to play with him out there. He plays a mature game and I really enjoyed it.”

Time will tell if more enjoyment is in store come Oct. 14.

Loose pucks
Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon combined for the shutout. Stolarz started and made 11 saves over 29:23, while Lyon played 30:37 and stopped seven shots. “I like both of our guys tonight,” Hakstol said. “Stolie did a good job, he made a difference in this game in the first 10 minutes, those two or three really good saves there. Then Alex came in halfway through, which isn’t an easy thing to do and was ready to go and did his job.” … Schenn, MacDonald and defensive prospect Robert Hagg finished with an assist apiece. … With the roster currently standing at 49, the Flyers expect to make 15 cuts on Thursday. … Defenseman Nick Schultz is out four to seven days with a lower-body injury suffered in Tuesday night’s preseason game. ... The Flyers are off Thursday before likely practicing Friday ahead of Saturday's preseason game at 7 p.m. against the Bruins at the Wells Fargo Center.