Reminder: At least one of the top three picks in this NBA draft will probably be a miss

Reminder: At least one of the top three picks in this NBA draft will probably be a miss

Sixers fans were told exactly what they wanted to hear yesterday with the new draft workout roundup from ESPN's draft guru Chad
Ford, who was privileged to attend workout sessions by the year's likely top three selections: Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. Amazingly, all three appear to have helped their draft stock with their performances--Embiid looked healthy and measured well, Wiggins had improved his fundamentals and appeared more explosive than ever, and Parker dismissed notions that he was overweight by showing up in good shape and going harder in the workout than anyone Ford had seen since Damian Lillard.

"All three players are worthy of the No. 1 pick in the draft," concludes Ford at the column's end. "It seems there will be no losers on draft night."

This is all pretty nice for the Sixers, especially if primary target Wiggins ends up falling to them at #3. (Ford now views this as a distinct possibility, saying that one source told him that it's between Parker and Embiid for Cleveland at #1, and that he thinks Wiggins isn't in Milwaukee's top two a spot later.) It seems like no matter what happens, all three teams in the draft's top tier should be walking away with an All-Star caliber player they can build their team around for the rest of the 2010s.

Sounds cool. But in the NBA, things don't usually turn out like that.

If you look back at the last 20 or so years of draft history, focusing on just the top threes, there's almost always at least one selection that stands out as a disappointment of some degree. It's exceedingly rare that all three players pan out the way the teams that originally drafted them hoped. In fact, this millennium, we've yet to have a single top three that produced three All-Stars--you have to go back to '99 with Elton Brand, Steve Francis and Baron Davis for that, and of those three, Davis was the only one who made the All-Star squad with the team that originally drafted him. ('94, with Glenn Robinson, Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, was the last time all three players made All-Star with their original club, and even then, behind-the-scenes turmoil with the Mavs forced Kidd to be traded the next summer.)

For whatever reason, it's just hard for teams to go three-for-three up top. You had Blake Griffin and James Harden go #1 and #3 in 2009, but in between them was Hasheem Thabeet. 2008 produced the best class in recent memory, including Derrick Rose, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook, but Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo still dragged down the average at #2 and #3. Kevin Durant and Al Horford both became franchise players from 2007, but the man drafted above them, Greg Oden, barely cracked triple-digits in games played. Four future Hall-of-Famers went in the top five in 2003, but loitering in their midst at #2 was Darko Milicic. And our old friend Kwame Brown went first overall ahead of Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol in 2001.

There's probably some logical reasoning of mathematical variance as to why this has so long been the case, but the simpler explanation is just that there's just very, very few sure things in the draft, often not a single one in a year, and never as many as three. Nobody picking in the top three thinks that their guy is gonna be the guy who busts or underwhelms, but every year, there's a player who ends up struggling to adjust to the pro level, or who gets hurt early in his career, or who never matures and develops as a player and/or person, or who just wasn't really ever as good as the team who drafted him hoped he would be.

And so this year, we have Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. From these workout reports, from what we've seen of them in college, and what we hope to see of them in the pros, right now we're feeling like we can't miss with any of them. But time and time again throughout the history of pro basketball, we've been shown that one of the top guys always ends up disappointing, and this year is not likely to be an exception.

Maybe Embiid's back will flare up early in his pro career, and he'll end up suffering through an Oden-like injury history that leaves him unable to ever be a real contributor of any importance on the NBA level. Maybe Wiggins will turn out to be the next Marvin Williams (#2, 2005), seemingly gifted with the body and all the skills needed to reach NBA stardom, but never figuring out (or caring enough to figure out) how to maximize them to reach his highest ceiling. Maybe Parker will be the reincarnation of our dearly departed Evan Turner (#2, 2010), an extremely talented offensive player in college who just can't figure out how to translate his game to be similarly effective in the pros.

There's obvious precedent for all of them, enough to scare Sixers fans into wondering if putting all our eggs in the lottery basket was really even the way to go in the first place. But that's just how the draft works, and Sam Hinkie is probably more acutely aware of this than anyone. All he can do is put the maximum amount of research into all three players--as well as potential reach candidates like Dante Exum, Noah Vonleh and Aaron Gordon--and minimize his chances that the player he takes is the one of the three who never reaches his potential with the team that drafted him.

The truth of the situation is that Ford is basically right: There will be no losers on draft night. Every team in the top three will walk away with a player that they have cause to be very excited about adding to their team. The loser will come three or four years from now, when one of those players has, in all likelihood, gotten badly injured, or failed to improve their numbers from their rookie campaign, or feuded with their coach and teammates and implicitly or explicitly demanded a trade. We hope it won't be us with our guy, but we won't know until then, and we definitely won't know on June 27th.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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