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 repeating pattern of digging first-quarter hole in defeats

Eagles repeating pattern of digging first-quarter hole in defeats

It’s a pattern that keeps repeating itself. And it’s not a winning pattern.

Week after week, the Eagles are digging themselves a first-quarter hole. And week after week, they’re too far behind to catch up.

They trailed the Lions 14-0 in the first quarter. They trailed the Redskins 14-0 a minute into the second quarter. They fell behind the Cowboys 10-3 early in the second. The Giants jumped up on them 14-0 just six minutes in. And on Sunday, the Bengals led 10-0 before the first quarter was over.

If football games began at the start of the second quarter? This would be a different season. The Eagles would be 7-4-1.

The Eagles has actually outscored their opponents in the second, third and fourth quarters.

But the first quarter has been fatal.

The Eagles have been outscored by 32 points in the first quarter – 65 to 33. That’s their fourth-worst first-quarter scoring margin in the last 25 years, behind only three other nightmarish seasons – 1998 (minus-52), 2005 (minus-51) and 2012 (minus-75).

It’s also fourth-worst of any NFL team this year, ahead of only the Jets (minus-36), Broncos (minus-37) and Dolphins (minus-56).

Some teams – like the Broncos and Dolphins – have enough firepower to fight from behind.

The Eagles don’t.

They’re 4-0 when leading after the first quarter, 1-1 when tied after the first quarter and 0-6 when trailing after the first quarter.

At 0-6, they share the second-worst record in the NFL when trailing after 15 minutes with the Jaguars and 49ers. The Browns are 0-8 when trailing after the first quarter.

Last time the Eagles didn’t win a game all year when trailing after the first quarter was 1998. Before that 1977.

“It’s tough, especially in this league, to dig yourself a hole,” Carson Wentz said. “Whether the defense is struggling or the offense giving them points with turnovers and different things, it’s been a variation of a lot of those things. 

“It’s tough to dig yourself a hole against anybody, especially against good teams. So we’ve got to avoid that and we’ve got to come out swinging a little better early in games.”

The last time the Eagles won after trailing following the first quarter was the Dallas game last year, when they trailed 7-0 and won 33-27 in overtime.

What does it say about a team when it’s allowed twice as many points as it’s scored in the first quarter?

It sure seems like the Eagles several times this year simply haven’t been ready to play.

“The start to games, it's a mindset,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “It's truly a mindset. It's one of those things where as a team you want to come out and you want to kind of make the first punch, so to speak, or swing first. 

“We did it against Green Bay. We went down and scored, we matched touchdown for touchdown there. And we've done it throughout the course of the season. We've got to be a little more consistent offensively, too. That can also help. And then defensively it's just a matter of working to get off the field.

“It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the game if you can do that early in a football game.”

The Eagles have scored just three first-quarter touchdowns all year (only the Broncos have fewer) and haven’t scored more than seven points in any of their 12 first quarters.

They’ve allowed nine first-quarter touchdowns, and only one team has allowed more – the Dolphins with 10.

Wentz has completed 67 percent of his first-quarter passes but with just one TD pass and four interceptions.

Incredibly, the Eagles have only five plays all year of more than 20 yards in the first quarter – just one in the last four games. Only the Saints, Jaguars and Broncos have fewer.

Why are the Eagles so bad early in games?

“There is no other answer than to execute one play at a time,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “There's no magic formula. I think we've had good energy at practice. I like the way we practice. I feel like we are putting together good plans.

“We're showing flashes of being a good football team. We need to be more consistent. We need to make more big plays. It's hard to sustain 14-play drives. We've missed a few plays here and there. We just all – coaches, players together – need to make it work one play at a time.”

The only teams to outscore the Eagles in the second half are the Cowboys (13-10), Seahawks (10-8) and Packers (13-3).

When a team has outscored its opponents by 61 points in the second, third and fourth quarters combined and it’s 5-7, the focus has to be on the first quarter.

That means preparation. That means being mentally and physically ready. 

“Yeah, I do look at all of that, and that's part of my job is the (pregame) schedule and all,” Pederson said. “But these guys are in a great frame of mind on game day. They're loose; they're energetic; they're ready to go. They're focused. 

“You see it in pregame. It's been unfortunate, but it's something we've got to focus in on a little bit more … and try to strike first.”

The Eagles will try to end their three-game losing streak at 1 p.m. Sunday when they face the Redskins at the Linc.

The Redskins, 6-5-1 but with a two-game losing streak, beat the Eagles 27-20 in Landover, Md., in October.

“I think it just comes down to being focus and locking in,” Wentz said. “You’ve seen us. There’ve been games where we’ve come out and we’re rolling right away.

"We just have to find a way to maintain that and be consistent with that. The goal is to come out swinging right away.”

Flyers-Oilers 5 things: Winning streak meets Connor McDavid

Flyers-Oilers 5 things: Winning streak meets Connor McDavid

Flyers (15-10-3) vs. Oilers (14-10-4)
7 p.m. on CSN and CSNPhilly.com, Pregame Live at 6:30

The hottest team in the NHL will meet the hottest young star on Thursday night when the Flyers host the Edmonton Oilers at the Wells Fargo Center.

Here are five things you need to know for the matchup:

1. McDavid and Co.
The Flyers are going for their seventh consecutive victory, which would tie their longest winning streak since Dec. 2-15, 2011, when they also won seven in a row.

In order to do so, they’ll have to slow down transcendent talent Connor McDavid and the prolific but streaky Oilers.

McDavid, a generational player, has thus far lived up to all the hype surrounding him as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. In just his second NHL season — and first with a healthy start after an injured-shortened rookie year (45 games) — the 19-year-old leads all of hockey in points with 36, while no other player has yet to eclipse 30.

His 25 assists also rank atop the NHL, while his 11 goals are among the top 22 and his plus-8 rating is tied for ninth best between all centers.

“He’s one of the best players in the world,” Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said Wednesday. “It’s tough not to be excited when playing against a guy who plays like this. He competes every second he is on the ice.”

And he has help.

Linemates Leon Draisaitl (11 goals, 11 assists) and Milan Lucic (eight goals, 12 assists) can do damage, as can Jordan Eberle (eight goals, 13 assists).

2. Defense wins games
The Flyers are playing better and cleaner in front of their goaltender — who has been great (see below) — and the results are showing.

The orange and black have gone five straight games of allowing two or fewer goals.

Why were they so up and down before this run? Well, they had surrendered two or fewer goals in just five of their previous 23 games.

“That’s unbelievable for us,” Wayne Simmonds said after Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Panthers. “At the beginning of the year, to say we’d have five straight without giving up more than two would be a stretch.
 
“We’ve locked it down defensively and Mase has played unbelievable. We’ve been pretty good as five-man units.”

3. Mase the man
A confident Steve Mason is a dangerous Steve Mason.

Right now, Mason has the net and is gaining steam by the game.

Over his past five outings, the 28-year-old is 5-0-0 with a 1.74 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.

Just as impressive, since Nov. 12, Mason is 8-3-1 with a 2.11 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

“I've said it numerous times, I want to be playing lots of hockey,” Mason said Tuesday. “This is a position that I'm used to being in and where I'm most comfortable. So just have to keep continuing to put my work in and whenever [head coach Dave Hakstol] calls my name, be ready."

4. Keep an eye on ...
Flyers: You always have to watch Simmonds, but especially now with the winger coming off back-to-back two-goal games. Simmonds leads the NHL with eight power-play goals and is second in man-advantage points (13) to only teammate Claude Giroux (14).

Oilers: With all the attention zeroed in on McDavid, we’ll go with the 21-year-old Draisaitl, who has seven goals in his last nine games and 14 points in his past 12. The No. 3 overall pick in 2014 is an intelligent playmaker capable of hurting you.

5. This and that
• Mason is 8-4-0 with just a 3.49 goals-against average and .872 save percentage in 13 career games against Edmonton.

• Oilers goalie Jonas Gustavsson will make his fourth start of the season. He’s 1-1-1 on the year with 84 saves on 91 shots faced, but is 0-4-1 lifetime against the Flyers with a 3.57 goals-against average and .865 save percentage.

• The Flyers are fourth in the NHL in goals per game (3.11), while Edmonton is seventh (2.93).

• The Oilers have lost 10 of their last 15 games (5-7-3).