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: Curtis Granderson homers twice off bench in Mets' win

Best of MLB: Curtis Granderson homers twice off bench in Mets' win

NEW YORK -- Curtis Granderson came off the bench and homered twice, Jose Reyes had four hits and the surging New York Mets beat the Miami Marlins 7-4 on Tuesday night.

Asdrubal Cabrera extended his recent tear at the plate, hitting a two-run homer in his return to the lineup after missing one start due to a sore left knee. Rookie right-hander Seth Lugo (2-2) gave up two runs in the first inning but recovered nicely as the Mets won for the eighth time in 10 games.

By winning the first two games of the four-game series, New York (68-64) moved ahead of slumping Miami for second place in the NL East. Both teams began the day 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the league's second wild card (see full recap).

Cardinals edge Brewers in 10 innings
MILWAUKEE -- Zach Duke stranded the bases loaded with a strikeout in the 10th inning after Randal Grichuk hit an RBI single in the top half of the inning, lifting the St. Louis Cardinals over the Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 on Tuesday night.

Seung Hwan Oh (4-2) pitched out of a jam in the ninth to get the win. Duke got his first save with the Cardinals by striking out pinch-hitter Manny Pina after Matt Bowman walked three batters.

The Cardinals' Jhonny Peralta led off the 10th with a single off Corey Knebel (0-2) and moved to third on Yadier Molina's ground-rule double. Jeremy Hazelbaker, who pinch ran for Peralta, scored the winning run on Grichuk's flare to right.

St. Louis' Adam Wainwright and Milwaukee's Wily Peralta dueled for seven innings, leaving a 1-1 game for the bullpens (see full recap).

Wieters lifts Orioles over Blue Jays
BALTIMORE -- Matt Wieters hit a go-ahead, two-run homer off Jason Grilli in the eighth inning to lead the Baltimore Orioles to a 5-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night.

The Orioles pulled within three games of the first-place Blue Jays, who had a four-game winning streak snapped. After losing the opener 5-1, the Orioles will look to gain more ground in the series finale Wednesday.

Michael Saunders drilled a two-run shot off Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez that tied the game 3-3 in the seventh.

In the eighth, Jonathan Schoop walked and Wieters homered off Grilli (4-2), his 12th of the season.

Brad Brach (8-2) picked up the win with 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Zach Britton got his league-leading 39th save (see full recap).

Phillies' bats dominated by Max Scherzer again in loss to Nationals

Phillies' bats dominated by Max Scherzer again in loss to Nationals

BOX SCORE

The Phillies entered Tuesday night’s game with the worst on-base percentage in the majors – a paltry .297 – and they were facing one of the top pitchers in the game.
 
The results were, uh, predictable.
 
The Phillies were dominated by Max Scherzer in a 3-2 loss to the NL East-leading Washington Nationals (see Instant Replay). The final score was deceiving. The only thing that kept the game close was a solid start from Jerad Eickhoff and good work from Phillies relievers Michael Mariot, Hector Neris and Edubray Ramos.
 
Scherzer (15-7, 2.89) held the Phillies to three hits and a walk over eight innings. He struck out 11, marking the 12th time he has reached double digits in K's this season.
 
Since signing a seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals before the 2015 season, Scherzer has faced the Phillies eight times. He is 6-0 with a 1.98 ERA in those games. (And you thought Bartolo Colon owned the Phillies.)
 
Scherzer opened this game with five no-hit innings. It was the ninth time he’d carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning in 61 starts with the club.

Scherzer has twice taken no-hitters into the sixth inning against the Phillies. Freddy Galvis broke up a Scherzer no-hitter with a double in the sixth inning June 26, 2015. He did it again Tuesday night with another sixth-inning double.
 
“He’s a thorn in my side,” Scherzer joked after the game.
 
Galvis didn’t stay on the bases long. He made a boneheaded base running play after the double and Scherzer wheeled and picked him off.
 
The Phillies’ three-hit effort left manager Peter Mackanin a little frustrated. The Phils had just four hits in losing to the Nats, 4-0, on Monday night. They are hitting just .239 as a team. Only the San Diego Padres (.237) are worse in the majors.
 
“Gotta hit,” Mackanin said quietly. “Once again, I mentioned it before, we need to improve our plate discipline. We’re just not getting hits. We had chances to win the game. But Scherzer was tough. You have to give him credit. He’s got what, 60 less hits than innings pitched? He’s a tough cookie.”
 
Scherzer has given up just 128 hits in 190 innings.
 
The Phillies made a run at Scherzer in the seventh inning. Odubel Herrera reached base on an infield hit and Ryan Howard followed with a line drive two-run homer into the left-field seats. He hit a 94 mph fastball on an 0-1 count.
 
Howard had struck out in both of his previous at-bats against Scherzer and was 1 for 20 with 13 strikeouts in his career against the Washington fireballer before the homer.
 
Given Howard’s career struggles against Scherzer, it was actually a little surprising to see him in the lineup. But Mackanin reasoned that no one on the team had good numbers against Scherzer and Howard was just as likely to run into a big hit as anyone.
 
He was right.
 
Mackanin also said he’s going to start cutting into Howard’s playing time and get Tommy Joseph more looks as the season winds down. Howard, however, could force his way into the lineup with more big hits.
 
Howard was asked about his approach against Scherzer.
 
“Put the ball in play,” he said. “Simple.”
 
Howard’s homer was his 20th of the season. He has reached 20 homers 10 times. Only Mike Schmidt (14) did it more as a Phillie. Howard has 377 homers, tying him with Norm Cash and Jeff Kent for 73rd all time.
 
Howard was asked what makes Scherzer so tough against the Phillies.
 
“That’s Scherzer, man,” Howard said. “I mean, he’s one of the best pitchers in the game for a reason. He’s got basically four-plus pitches that he can throw anytime in any count, throw them for strikes, and he does a great job of keeping hitters off balance, mixing it up really, really well. He’s kind of got a pit bull’s mentality on the mound just going out there wanting to shove it to the other team. He had it going tonight.”
 
Scherzer also drove home the Nats’ third run of the night with a safety squeeze. It proved to be a huge run after Howard’s homer.
 
Eickhoff was solid. He gave up a couple of softly hit balls for hits in the first inning and that helped the Nats score two runs out of the gate.
 
The Phillies just didn't have enough hitting to ever get the lead.

Some of that is just who they are – one of the poorest hitting teams in the majors.

Some of it was the guy they were facing.

'Stronger, bigger, better' Ivan Provorov hoping to follow Shayne Gostisbehere's path

'Stronger, bigger, better' Ivan Provorov hoping to follow Shayne Gostisbehere's path

TORONTO — At training camp last year, Ivan Provorov roomed with Shayne Gostisbehere. This year, he’s hoping to follow the young blueliner’s footsteps and earn a roster spot on the Flyers' blue line. 

After playing two games with the Flyers during the 2014-15 season, Gostisbehere joined the Flyers last November and appeared in 64 games, scoring 17 goals and tallying 29 assists. The 23-year-old’s 46 points led all Flyers defensemen and the Florida native finished second to only Chicago’s Artemi Panarin in Calder Trophy voting as the league’s Rookie of the Year. 

“He had an unbelievable season [and] he helped the Flyers a lot,” Provorov said this week at the annual NHLPA rookie showcase in Toronto. “I saw him at development camp and main camp — thought he was a great player. He got his chance when he got called up, and he used it well and played his game.”

Provorov, the Flyers’ first selection (seventh overall) in the 2015 NHL draft, has only one option this year: make the Flyers' roster out of camp. Otherwise, because of his age, he’ll have to return to junior and the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings. 

This past season, Provorov scored 21 goals and 73 points in 62 regular-season games with Brandon. He added three goals and 10 assists in 21 postseason games, helping the Wheat Kings win the WHL title and reach the Memorial Cup. However, Brandon struggled at the four-team tournament, losing all three games.

For his solid second season in the WHL, Provorov was named the recipient of the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.

“[Memorial Cup] didn’t really turn out the way that we were hoping to, but still a great experience,” Provorov said. “It was a different atmosphere and different tournament, where you have to win one game to get into the playoffs. It’s not like a seven-game series.”

With a second WHL season under his belt, Provorov feels he’s better prepared than he was a year ago to make the leap to the NHL game. 

“I should be a little bit more comfortable, I know what to expect,” he said. “I had a great summer and I think I'm a better player than I was a year ago: stronger, bigger, better in all areas of my game. Just looking forward to getting to Philly and starting camp.”

The Flyers currently have seven defensemen under contract for the upcoming season, but Provorov’s combination of size and skill could push a veteran such as Andrew MacDonald, who already spent most of last season with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms, out of a job. 

Despite his abilities, Provorov knows bumping a veteran for a roster spot won’t be an easy task.

“Of course when you move on from a level to another level the speed increases, the players are stronger [and] bigger,” he said. “I think, for me I'll just try to play my game and compete as hard as I can.”

Provorov grew up idolizing Nicklas Lidstrom and has tried to model his game after the Hall of Famer. At 6-foot, 200 pounds, Provorov has spent his two seasons in Brandon developing into a two-way blueliner, who can put up numbers on the offensive side, but at the same time be counted on in a shutdown role. 

The 19-year-old credits his decision to come to North America at such a young age for helping him adjust to the differences in lifestyle. By the time he was 16, Provorov was playing for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in Iowa prior to being selected by the Wheat Kings in the Canadian Hockey League import draft.

“I came here when I was really young, so it wasn't that hard of a transition,” Provorov said. “Probably the most weird [adjustment] was probably food 'cause, I mean, food is really different from back home, but now I'm used to both.”

If he does wind up back in the WHL, Provorov has the annual World Junior Hockey Championship to look forward to. At last year’s tournament, Provorov, a native of Yaroslavl, Russia, registered eight assists in seven games, winning a second consecutive silver medal at the under-20 tournament.

“World Juniors is a great tournament, good experience,” he said. “It's always great to represent your country and, this time, if I get a chance to play, hopefully we'll win gold.”