Same Old Sixers? Five Ways This Year's Team is Different Than the Last Few

Same Old Sixers? Five Ways This Year's Team is Different Than the Last Few

The script feels awfully familiar, it's true. The Philadelphia 76ers
have gotten off to a fairly good start this season, going 10-7 in their
first 17 games, but have done so mostly at home and mostly against
fairly weak teams, and it feels like only a matter of time until they
start falling back and end up about where they've ended up in four of
the last five seasons—with a seventh and eighth-seed in the playoffs and
an all-but-certain first-round exit. The Sixers aren't a bad team, but
they're not an elite team, and they will probably be exposed for their
mediocrity sooner or later, just as they have been every other year. 


However, even though the overall story arc is a retread, the season
doesn't feel quite like a repeat. That's because a number of the
details—including some of the cast and characters—have been different
enough from past years, last year especially, to keep things
interesting. Here are some of the changed subplots for the Sixers this
year:


1. They're winning in close games, not blowouts. When the Sixers
got off to their hot start last year, John Hollinger briefly had them
listed at the top of his Power Rankings. This year, they're in the 20s.
Why the huge disparity, despite the similar records? Scoring
differential. Last year, the Sixers were 12-5 after 17 games, but they
had an incredible +209 scoring margin, including eight wins of 20 points
or more against lottery-bound teams like the Raptors, Warriors, Pistons
and Wizards. The inflated wins, explained largely by the Sixers having
the advantage of a consistent roster from the year before in a
strike-shortened, training-campless season, made the team seem more
dominant than they actually were, and masked the fact that they still
had no idea how to win close games, an inability that would haunt them
later in the season when the rest of the league started to catch up to
them.


This year, the Sixers aren't blowing out anybody. Their biggest win
this season was a 15-point victory in New Orleans, and their nine other
W's have been by ten points or less—in fact, for the season, the Sixers
have a negative scoring differential, having been outscored by opponents
by a total of 14 points. Most statistical analysts would point to this
decreased scoring differential as a sign that this Sixers team is weaker
than last year's, and rightly so, though on the other hand, you could
at least say that this marks some sort of progress, that the fact that
the Sixers are now able to close in close games against mediocre
opponents, where their record last year in one-possession games was
abysmal. It's a change of pace anyway.


2. They don't fast break anymore. Whether a conscious
strategic decision by Coach Collins or a matter of changes in
personnel—the departed Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams were two of the
team's best fast-breakers and most aggressive playmakers—the team
doesn't really run anymore. After finishing in the top five in the
league in fast-break scoring each of the last five years (except for
last year, when they finished eighth), the team ranks only 19th this
season, with about 13 points a game.


With Jrue Holiday as the team's primary ball-handler, the team runs a
much more precise, orchestrated half-court offense that doesn't rely on
scoring in transition. Watching Holiday in transition, he rarely looks
to be bolting for the basket, instead just steadily advancing towards
the hoop, looking for easy-score opportunities to present themselves,
and running a play if none do. Given the improved half-court option the
team has acquired (Jason Richardson, Nick Young) or developed (Evan
Turner, Thaddeus Young) this year, this makes sense, though it results
in a lot fewer highlight dunks and such as we had with 'Dre and Sweet
Lou running the team at 60 MPH.


3. They can shoot the three-ball. The primary half-court
weapon the team has added to their arsenal this year is the
three-pointer. The team averaged a solid 36.2% from three last year, but
they barely shot the long-ball, averaging about 14.6 attempts a game,
the sixth-lowest rate in the league. This year, they're shooting more
from deep—about 18.5 attempts a game—and converting at a higher rate,
38.2%, good for sixth in the league. Thanks to the recently acquired
trio of Nick Young, Dorell Wright and Jason Richardson (particularly
Richardson, averaging 2.5 treys a game on 43% shooting) and internal
improvement from Jrue Holiday (39%) and to the surprise of many, Evan
Turner (42%), teams now need to honor the Sixers' three-point shooting,
giving Jrue Holiday more options when penetrating and Thaddeus Young
more freedom to operate on the post.


4. Their starters are their scorers. For the first two years
of the Doug Collins era, our Coach seemed obsessed with keeping scoring
balance between the starting lineup in bench, with two of the team's
three best scorers—including Lou Williams, who became the first player
in nearly 20 years to lead his team in scoring as a sixth man—coming off
the bench. Well, not this year—our top four scorers all start this
year, and they're the only four players on the team averaging
double-digits in points per game. Even the odd man out in the starting
lineup—Lavoy Allen, eighth in team scoring with 6.2 points a game—has
started to pick it up, going for double-digits in three of his last four
games after only doing so three times in the team's first 13 games.


This disparity might not exactly have been by design for Coach
Collins—he's probably still hoping to get more scoring out of Nick Young
(9.6 ppg, 38% FG), Spencer Hawes (7.2 ppg, 44% FG) and Dorell Wright
(7.9 ppg, 33% FG)—but it does sort of illustrate that the team's
strengths might not be in its depth, as it was last year, but rather
that our good players area really getting good. Which brings us to...


5. They have room for improvement. Under the guidance of
veterans Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Elton Brand, the team was
probably better at the beginning of last season than it has been this
season. But that team was never going to be better than it was during
that first month of the season—its core guys had already become who they
were, and the team's ceiling was correspondingly low. This year,
though, it's all about potential, which the team is only starting to
realize. Two of the team's core players, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young,
seem to be getting better with every game, and a third, Jrue Holiday,
seems like a front-runner for the Most Improved Player award with his
play all season. The chemistry is improving, a team identity is
emerging, and the unit on a whole just seems a lot stronger than it did
when the season began a month ago—with the potential to get even
stronger as the season goes on.


Oh yeah, and there's still that other guy, the world's most
controversial seven-foot Trina superfan, healing on IR, hopefully to
join the team before season's end. Maybe he makes the Sixers a whole lot
better with his return, maybe he proves toxic upon his return and
actually makes the team worse, maybe he doesn't return at all. But the
prospect of his return, however unlikely it might appear at this point,
means you can't close the book on this Sixers season just yet, since if
he actually does join the tam at some point, they instantly go
from being one of the most predictable teams in the league to one of the
most unpredictable. After years of knowing the ending in the first
couple chapters, we'll gladly take the promise of an uncertain ending.

Jimmy Rollins salutes former Phillies teammate Ryan Howard

Jimmy Rollins salutes former Phillies teammate Ryan Howard

Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley were all drafted and developed by the Phillies. They came to the majors and became the best first baseman, shortstop and second baseman in franchise history.
 
And, of course, they were a huge part of the core of the team that won the 2008 World Series.
 
Time moves on and so do great players.
 
Rollins was traded in December 2014 as the team began a rebuild. Utley was traded in August 2015. On Sunday, Howard, the last piece from that championship season, will play his last game with the Phillies.
 
Rollins took some time Saturday to pass along some thoughts on his friend’s time in red pinstripes.
 
“When Ryan first arrived in Philadelphia, he was merely filling in for Jim Thome in the eyes of many, but he did not let that opportunity to shine pass him by,” Rollins wrote. “He quickly became feared as he won Rookie of the Year and MVP in consecutive years and reached 200 home runs quicker than anyone in the history of the game. He loved the pressure and wanted to be the man at the plate when the game mattered most.”
 
The Phillies won five division titles from 2007 to 2011. Howard led the majors in homers twice and RBIs three times.
 
“During our run, we leaned on him many times for big hits and clutch home runs and he found ways to deliver,” Rollins said. “Ryan never stopped working to better himself and his craft, whether it was getting to the field early for extra defensive work or finding that sweet home run stroke. Although he hit a lot of them, he was more than just a power hitter -- he was a great teammate.
 
“We all hoped to bring more than one championship to Philadelphia, but without Ryan that one may not have been possible. So, many thanks to 'Big Piece' for being such a big piece of the best years of my career in the City of Brotherly Love!”

Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Playoff implications as Union visit Red Bulls

Union-Red Bulls 5 things: Playoff implications as Union visit Red Bulls

Union vs. New York Red Bulls
7:00 p.m. on TCN

Riding a four-game winless run and with just three matches remaining in the season, Alejandro Bedoya and the Union (11-11-9) look to alter their recent misfortune when they take on the powerful New York Red Bulls (13-9-9) on Saturday (7:00 p.m., TCN) at Red Bull Arena, in an Eastern Conference showdown with playoff implications.

Here are five things to know.

1. Playing for Position
With three games left in the season and currently sitting fourth in the East, the Union are closing in on the organization’s second-ever playoff berth.

“Every point matters,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “We need to take care of business and get as many points as possible down the stretch. We know we have a good team, we know our fans deserve to be back in the playoffs and that is our singular focus at this point."

Though making the playoffs is the club’s singular focus, the Union have their eye on positioning. In MLS, the third and fourth seeds earn home-field advantage in a play-in game against the fifth and sixth seeds. Prior to Saturday, the Union, who have 42 points, are just two points ahead of D.C. United and one point ahead of the Montreal Impact.

All three clubs have played 31 games.

“We recognize it’s going to be a tough task but at the same time, we’ve set ourselves up nice where we control our own destiny,”Curtin said. “That hasn’t been the case in past years.”

But while you’d expect the Union to simply be satisfied making the playoffs and even hosting a game, the club isn’t content with a play-in game -- they want a top-three finish. The Red Bulls are second in the East with 48 points -- six more than the Union, who play them twice, including Saturday.

“It’s certainly realistic,” said Curtin, about claiming a top-three seed in the East. “The fact that we play Red Bull twice, you control your own destiny. But it’s going to be difficult.”

2. Bedoya and Barnetta
Earlier in the week, Tranquillo Barnetta made headlines when the the Union announced that the potent midfielder, who is out of contract after this season, will not return to the club next year.

That news overshadowed the fact that Barnetta might not play a major role on Saturday, after missing last week’s match with an injured knee suffered against the Portland Timbers.

“His injury is one that is manageable,” Curtin said. “We hoped to have him back for [Toronto FC last Saturday] but it just didn’t feel right, so we decided to hold him. I think he’ll play a role in the New York game, whether that’s as a starter or off the bench still remains to be seen.”

With five goals and four assists this season, Barnetta has been the engine that has the Union propelling toward the post-season. And with knee issues, that sidelined him early in the season, now bothering him again, the Union want to be extra careful.

“We have to have an eye on what’s best for him, his body and the club,” Curtin said. “Obviously, getting the most points we can and using him the best way.”

But if Barnetta can’t go on Saturday, the Union will be in decent hands. Last week, while filling in at the center attacking midfield spot for Barnetta, Bedoya scored his first MLS goal, when he chipped a beauty past the goalkeeper. The Union ended up tying the match, 1-1.

“It was a special goal,” Curtin said. “It was a special play from a very talented individual and a heck of a way to open your goal-scoring account for the club.”

3. Streaking Red Bull
The Union take on the Red Bulls in two of their final three matches of the season. And the way the Red Bulls are playing, that’s not a good thing for the Union. Saturday’s hosts are on a 13-game unbeaten streak.

“Red Bull hasn’t lost since early July so to think that you’re just going to take two games from them, there’s no guarantee in that,” Curtin said. “It’s going to be difficult.”

Even while riding the streak, the Red Bulls are still pushing. The club is three points behind New York City FC for tops in the East, with a game in hand.

“We’re full throttle right now,” said Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch. “It’s exciting and it’s at the right time.”

That poses a tougher challenge for the Union, who weren’t the dominant team in a 2-2 draw with the Red Bulls earlier in the season. But if Curtin’s club learned anything, it’s that they have to beat the Red Bulls’ energetic press, if they want a result on the road.

“We have to bypass their press,” Bedoya said. “We need to be calm on the ball, don’t panic and play through it. We can be a high energy, high press team as well, we have great players. Hopefully, we go there and take it to them.”

But the Red Bulls will be ready.

“They’ve done well breaking our pressure at times and establishing themselves as the game has gone on,” Marsch said. “We know the game will be different at Red Bull Arena, we can put it on our terms. This is a rivalry game, it’s a playoff team. We’re going to get their best and we’ll be ready for them.

4. Keep an eye on
• Sacha Kljestian: One of the better playmakers in MLS, Kljestian leads the league with 16 assists. And while it doesn’t hurt that he’s passing to MLS scoring leader, Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has 20 goals, the Union need to stop Kljestian if they want to stop the Red Bulls.

• Fabian Herbers: The rookie has three assists in his last three games for a team-leading seven helpers on the season. As long as Ilsinho is sidelined with a foot injury, the Union will look to Herbers, at right attack midfield, for consistent production. There’s no reason to believe he won’t deliver it.

5. This and that
• For the first time in 2016, Maurice Edu was on a Union game roster last week against Toronto FC. He didn’t play, though Curtin said that day isn’t far off. “He’s getting up closer to the numbers that we want him to get to each day,” the coach said. Mo is working toward getting to those numbers that we see fit for that position in MLS, and what it takes to play a game.”

• While Josh Yaro was suspended last weekend for earning a red card against the Timbers, he also suffered a concussion. He has fully recorded, but still might not make the start at center back after Ken Tribbett’s strong game on Saturday in Yaro’s place. “He was cleared this morning so he’s a good option to  have back in the lineup. It needs to be said that Ken did a really great job for us.”

• The Union are 5-9-3 against the Red Bulls all-time, but are 0-0-1 this season.