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.

Best of MLB: Dodgers deny Cubs' Jake Arrieta 21st straight win

053116-pgp-webbestvideo3_1920x1080_696384067601.jpg

Best of MLB: Dodgers deny Cubs' Jake Arrieta 21st straight win

CHICAGO -- Scott Kazmir and two relievers combined on a one-hitter, matching zeros with Cubs ace Jake Arrieta before the Los Angeles Dodgers got to Chicago's bullpen for a 5-0 victory Tuesday night.

Arrieta went seven scoreless innings, but was denied his 21st consecutive victory. The Cubs had won in Arrieta's last 23 starts.

Cubs left-hander Clayton Richard (0-1) gave up three straight singles to lefties in the eighth, the last Adrian Gonzalez's liner to left that scored Chase Utley and ended the Dodgers' 16-inning scoreless streak.

Corey Seager hit a three-run homer off Trevor Cahill in the ninth.

Joe Blanton (3-2) struck out three in two perfect innings as the Dodgers snapped the Cubs' six-game winning streak.

Kazmir allowed a single and a walk with seven strikeouts in six innings. Adam Liberatore struck out one in a perfect ninth (see full recap).

Betts hits trio of homers in Red Sox win
BALTIMORE -- Mookie Betts hit a career-high three homers and drove in five runs, and the Boston Red Sox cruised past the Baltimore Orioles 6-2 on Tuesday night to open a three-game lead in the AL East.

Betts led off the game with a shot to center and added a three-run drive to left in the second inning. After lining out to second base in the fourth, Betts hit a bases-empty homer to right in the seventh.

Batting in the ninth inning with a chance to tie the major league record of four homers in a game, Betts grounded out to second against rookie Ashur Tolliver.

Still, he's the first Boston player to hit three homers in a game since Will Middlebrooks against Toronto on April 7, 2013. Betts' 12 home runs rank second on the team behind David Ortiz, who has 14.

Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts stretched his career-best hitting streak to 24 games with a single in the seventh inning (see full recap).

Rockies tie franchise record with 7 HRs
DENVER -- Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon each hit two of Colorado's team record-tying seven homers, powering the Rockies to a 17-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night.

Blackmon became the first player in Rockies history to hit leadoff homers in back-to-back games and added his first career grand slam in the seventh. Carlos Gonzalez homered for a fourth straight game, while DJ LeMahieu and Gerardo Parra also went deep.

It was the first time Colorado hit seven homers at Coors Field. The team also had seven on April 5, 1997, in Montreal.

Rockies right-hander Jon Gray (3-2) allowed three runs in six solid innings.

Jon Moscot (0-3) was hit hard in his return from the disabled list. He surrendered seven runs and four homers in two innings. Moscot also was grazed in the right ear in the third while bunting. Moscot stayed down for a moment before taking his base (see full recap).

Difference in talent, power glaring as Phillies continue to lose to top teams

053116-mackanin-webrefframe_1.jpg

Difference in talent, power glaring as Phillies continue to lose to top teams

BOX SCORE

The gap in talent level that exists between the Phillies and some of the top teams in the majors has really been evident over the last eight games.
 
The Phillies have lost seven of those eight games to the Tigers, Cubs and Nationals. Tuesday night brought the latest defeat, a 5-1 loss to the National League East-leading Nats at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay). The Nats have won the first two games of the series and go for the sweep on Wednesday night.
 
While losing seven of their last eight, the Phillies have seen their feel-good story turn to dust. Their record has gone from 25-19 to 26-26 and their deficit in the NL East from two games to 5½.
 
“We had a good month and a half,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “When things are going good, they snowball. When things are going bad, they snowball. We’ve got to keep that snowball from rolling. We’ve got to get out of it.”
 
There are a number of reasons the Phillies have hit hard times. Poor offense is a big one. They have been held to two or fewer runs five times in their last seven losses and 20 times for the season. They are now averaging 3.15 runs per game, the lowest mark in the majors. Offense like that is the reason why Aaron Nola can pitch six innings of two-run ball and lose on two mistake pitches as he did Tuesday night. These pitchers have no margin for error.
 
One of the offensive’s big shortcomings is the lack of power. The Phils have been out-homered 15-7 in the last eight games. Washington hit four longballs on Tuesday night; the Phillies hit none. In fact, the Phillies had just four hits – period.
 
“We’re just getting out-homered every night,” Mackanin said. “We’re not hitting home runs. I feel like it’s a broken record. We’re not hitting.”
 
For the season, the Phillies have 39 homers. Only Atlanta has hit fewer.
 
And it doesn’t appear as if things are going to get all that much better any time soon. Management would consider trading for a bat close to the July trading deadline – if the team is in the race. With reality striking hard lately, it’s tough to see this team being in the race for anything but a top-10 pick in next year’s draft. In the short term, the Phils could soon have Cody Asche back on the roster.
 
“Our pitching overall has been very good,” Mackanin said. “We’ve just got to hit.”
 
The Nationals won this game with power and good starting pitching.
 
Right-hander Joe Ross held the Phils to a run over seven innings – an RBI triple by Cesar Hernandez.
 
Meanwhile, Jayson Werth capitalized on a poorly located fastball by Nola and homered two batters into the game. Daniel Murphy got Nola in the sixth to break a 1-1 tie.
 
Nola would like to have had both pitches back.
 
“The pitch to Werth was right down the chute,” he said. “With Murphy, I wanted to get it in a little further and I didn’t.”
 
Other than that, Nola was pretty good. He pitched out of trouble in the second inning and was supported by a double play started nicely at second by Hernandez and a nice catch by Odubel Herrera in center field.
 
“We’re doing some things right but not enough of them,” Mackanin said.
 
“That’s baseball,” Nola said of the lack of run support. “Sometimes we pitch bad and get a lot of run support. The guys are battling. I feel like we’re going to bounce back the next couple of games.”
 
The Nationals blew the game open with three runs in the ninth against reliever Colton Murray. Danny Espinosa smacked a two-run homer and Stephen Drew followed with an inside-the-park homer.
 
The two home runs deprived Nats closer Jonathan Papelbon a chance at a save as he recorded the final three outs against his old team.

Instant Replay: Nationals 5, Phillies 1

053116-sound-webrefframe_1.jpg

Instant Replay: Nationals 5, Phillies 1

BOX SCORE

The Phillies' late-May slide continued in a 5-1 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night.
 
Aaron Nola delivered a solid start, but got poor run support. The Phillies entered the game averaging 3.2 runs per game, lowest in the majors.
 
The Nationals scored all their runs on home runs.
 
The Phillies have lost nine of their last 11 games. They are 1-7 in their last eight and have gone from 25-19 and two games back in the NL East to 26-26 and 5½ games back.
  
Starting pitching report
Nola went six innings and allowed two runs, both on solo homers. He walked one and struck out six. He is 4-4 with a 2.88 ERA.
 
Washington right-hander Joe Ross (5-4) pitched a strong game. He gave up just three hits and a run over seven innings. He walked two and struck out five. Ross has given up just two runs over 14 innings in his last two starts.
 
Bullpen report
Jonathan Papelbon closed it out for the Nats in a non-save situation.
 
At the plate
The Phillies had just four hits. They have been held to two or fewer runs 20 times in their 52 games.

Cesar Hernandez tripled home the Phillies' only run.

Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy accounted for the Nationals’ first two runs pair of solo homers against Nola. Danny Espinosa smacked a two-run homer off Colton Murray in the ninth and Stephen Drew followed with an inside-the-park homer.
 
Murphy also singled in the game. He had 47 hits in the month of May, tying a Washington/Montreal franchise record that had previously been shared by Al Oliver and Marquis Grissom.

Lineup stuff
Mackanin was trying to send Hernandez a message by batting him eighth (see story).
 
Bryce Harper did not play for Washington. He was hit on the right leg by a pitch in Monday night’s game.
 
Slumping Ryan Howard started at first base and went hitless in three at-bats to fall to .154. He hit .101 (7 for 69) in the month of May.
 
Howard will not start Wednesday night against Max Scherzer. He is 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts against Scherzer. Tommy Joseph will start that game.
 
Minor matters
Cody Asche’s minor-league rehab stint expires Wednesday. He could rejoin the team at any time.
 
Up next
 The series concludes on Wednesday night. Lefty Adam Morgan (1-3, 6.67) pitches against Washington right-hander Scherzer (5-4, 4.05).