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.

Sources: Eagles to sign former Villanova LB Don Cherry and former Alabama S Nick Perry

ap-don-cherry.png
The Associated Press

Sources: Eagles to sign former Villanova LB Don Cherry and former Alabama S Nick Perry

The Eagles have a serious depth problem at linebacker, and they're looking at a local prospect to try to fix it. 

The team will sign former Villanova linebacker Don Cherry on Sunday, pending a physical, a league source told CSNPhilly.com. ESPN's Adam Caplan first reported the deal.

Cherry, 21, first signed with the Bears after going undrafted in the spring, but was cut by Chicago in June. 

The 6-1, 240-pound Cherry was an All-CAA selection as a sophomore, junior and senior. During his time on the Main Line, he was credited with 331 tackles, 46 1/2 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. 

Even with Cherry, the Eagles are still light in the depth department at linebacker. After starters Mychal Kendricks, Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham, the team has Najee Goode, Deontae Skinner, seventh-rounder Joe Walker and a couple of other undrafted free agents. 

After cutting wideout Jonathan Krause on Friday, the Eagles had three vacancies on their 90-man roster. They're filling another of those openings with former Alabama safety Nick Perry, according to a league source. The perry deal was first reported by Al.com's Matt Zenitz. The 6-1, 211-pound Perry spent last season on the Ravens' practice squad after going undrafted in 2015. 

Eagles training camp kicks off Monday, and the first full-team practice is Thursday. 

Union-Impact 5 things: Back to MLS grind after Open Cup ouster

Union-Impact 5 things: Back to MLS grind after Open Cup ouster

Philadelphia Union at Montreal Impact
7:30 p.m. on TCN

After getting eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup in crushing fashion Wednesday night in Boston, the Union (8-6-6) remain on the road for an MLS clash with the Montreal Impact (6-5-8) on Saturday. Here are five things to know about the Eastern Conference matchup north of the border:

1) Bouncing back
There’s no denying that missing out on the chance to win the 2016 U.S. Open Cup will sting. The Union have come so close to winning the trophy, getting knocked out in each of the last two finals, including a shootout loss in the 2015 title game. And on Wednesday against the New England Revolution, the Union once again suffered through the cruelty of losing in a shootout — an especially difficult result after they battled back to send the game to extra time with a dramatic 90th-minute equalizer from rookie Fabian Herbers.

But if there’s good news it’s that the Union no longer need to worry about the tricky endeavor of navigating through the Open Cup while also preparing for regular-season games. And unlike in the past two seasons, where they needed a deep Open Cup run to validate a year where they struggled in MLS play, this season’s team is right in the thick of the playoff race, currently sitting in second place in the East — four points up on fourth-place Montreal.

“There’s obviously disappointment but the silver lining is we can focus on the league and what we want to achieve at the end of the year — and that’s winning the MLS Cup,” rookie right back Keegan Rosenberry said. “So hopefully we can put more of our focus on that and it will pay off for us.”

2) Road woes
Although the Union have the second best record in their conference, they’ve done most of their damage at home. In fact, the team has only won once on the road in 2016 — in the second game of the season.

That’s something the Union are working to correct with head coach Jim Curtin saying earlier in the week that they’ve talked about “improving our road mentality.” At the same time, the team has had a few good draws away from home, including one at league-leading Colorado and another the last time they went to Montreal back in May.

That gives the Union confidence for their return trip.

“If you look at it, we haven’t won on the road since Columbus in Week 2,” Rosenberry said. “For us, that’s something of a challenge. Can we do better than that? We’ve been so good at home but it really shouldn’t change how we play when we go on the road. I think we put in a decent performance in Montreal the last time we played there and we were unlucky to give up a goal early. We’ll do our best to prevent that this time and hopefully we’ll come away with a result.”

3) Hey now, you’re an All-Star
The quick turnaround will naturally be a challenge for the Union, who will be playing their third game in seven days and 11th in 39 days leading into Thursday’s MLS All-Star Game. But the good news it that Rosenberry, who will be playing in that All-Star Game, was rested for all of Philly’s 120-minute affair vs. New England on Wednesday.

After returning from Montreal, Rosenberry will then quickly fly to San Jose to meet up with his fellow All-Stars, a group that includes teammate Andre Blake, who’s coming off a sensational game vs. New England.

“He’s playing in top form,” Curtin said of Blake. “There’s no surprise that he is an All-Star this year and will be starting against Arsenal. I’m happy for him, obviously.”

Before he goes to San Jose to begin preparations for Arsenal, Blake will need to be in top form again vs. Montreal, which boasts an attack that features Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti, both of whom will join Impact defender Laurent Ciman in the All-Star Game.

Yes, that’s five total All-Stars that will potentially be playing in Saturday’s game.

4) Keep an eye on
Union: Sebastien Le Toux: Ilsinho will have to miss Saturday’s game due to a red-card suspension, which is perhaps not the worst thing in the world considering he put in a grueling 120-minute shift Wednesday. But that still puts some pressure on Le Toux, the franchise stalwart who will likely be inserted into the starting lineup as he looks to put a PK miss in the Open Cup shootout behind him.

Impact: Harry Shipp: While the Impact have a lot of star power, including one of the most well-known players in the world in Didier Drogba, they also have a very talented young player in Shipp. Traded from Chicago in the offseason, Shipp got off to somewhat of a slow start in Montreal but has now scored goals in two of the Impact’s last three games.

5) This and that

  • Before Montreal’s 3-1 loss to New York City FC this past Sunday, they were unbeaten in their last six games
  • In the last Union-Impact game, Drogba and C.J. Sapong both scored first-half goals in a 1-1 draw at Stade Saputo on May 14.

  • The visiting team has only won once all-time in the series — a 1-0 Union win last August. Le Toux scored the only goal of that game to spoil Drogba’s MLS debut.

  • Piatti is second in the Golden Boot race with 11 goals (behind only New York City’s David Villa). The Union’s Chris Pontius is currently tied for 11th in the scoring lead with seven goals.

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Star Andrew McCutchen struggling in 2016

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Star Andrew McCutchen struggling in 2016

Phillies (45-53) vs. Pirates (49-47)
4:05 p.m. on CSN

After Zach Eflin threw his second complete game of his young career on Friday (see game story), Aaron Nola will look to follow it up with a strong start of his own. Opposing him will be the Pirates' top prospect, Tyler Glasnow, in a mid-afternoon matchup with the Phillies

Here's what you should look out for on Saturday.

1. McCutchen in a down season
There is no doubt who is the face of the Pirates' franchise right now. It's Andrew McCutchen.

The 29-year-old outfielder is a five-time All Star, four-time Silver Slugger, the 2013 National League MVP, and led the team that broke a 21-year playoff drought. He's one of the most marketable athletes in baseball right now and the type of player any team would want to build around.

But is he on the decline?

It's a legitimate question to ask. From 2012-2014, McCutchen was arguably the top position player in the National League, posting an average of at least .314, an on-base percentage of at least .400 and a slugging percentage of at least .911 each year.

But 2015 and 2016 have been different. He still hit 23 home runs in 2015 (his peak was 31 in 2012), but his stolen bases went down to 11, a career low, and he posted his lowest average, OBP and slugging percentages since 2011. He was still well above league average of course and the heart of the Pirates' lineup.

Yet 2016 has been possibly his worst yet. He is batting .244/.316/.408 and has an OPS+ of 93, seven worse than league average. He's already struck out 100 times in just 90 games after 133 strikeouts in 157 games last year. He has stolen just three bases and has been caught five times.

Quite simply, the numbers are troubling. He'll need to be a completely different player in the second half, starting very soon, to match his numbers from the past.

2. No runs Nola?
Nola's last start was a long time coming.

After a June in which nothing seemed to work for the righty, he finally seemed to figure things out after a 16-day layoff. He shut down the Marlins for six innings. He allowed just three base runners and no runs, striking out five.

Nola looked better than even his numbers indicate. He was cruising through five innings, having faced the minimum, but had to leave after six after taking a line drive off his throwing shoulder. Nothing to worry, as his exit was merely precautionary.

When the 23-year-old starter is on his game, it's thanks to a dynamite curveball that can produce swings and misses at a high rate. For all the talk of his opponent on Monday (Jose Fernandez), Nola's curve is one of the best in baseball and he used it to strike out five Marlins hitters. 

Where does he go from here? Well, it's tough to expect another shutout-type start, but Nola could be well-suited to face a righty-laden lineup like the Pirates. To truly shake off his bad June and worries about that liner to the arm, a second straight strong start would stave off any doubters.

3. Scouting Glasnow
Glasnow was the No. 10 prospect in all of baseball going into this year, according to MLB.com, so expectations are high for the 22-year-old making his second career start.

His MLB debut wasn't much to write home about. The 6-foot-8 righty took a loss while allowing four runs in 5 1/3 innings. He did strike out five St. Louis Cardinals in that start two weeks ago and two of the runs were let in by a reliever. He did surrender a home run, however.

So what does Glasnow offer in his repertoire that got him such a high prospect rating? Well, a mid-to-upper 90s fastball for one. His four-seamer is his calling card, already displaying an ability to blow hitters away with big league-esque stuff. 

Off-speed, he goes to a curveball and a changeup. Scouts believe his curve will be the better pitch in the long term, but he hasn't mastered either quite yet.

What Glasnow needs to live up to his billing as a top talent is command. It's unsurprising that a pitcher that tall would struggle with command early in his career, as many pitchers like Randy Johnson, Dellin Betances or others have done so as well. 

However, there are plenty of cautionary tales of tall pitchers who never quite figured out all the parts of their motion and couldn't cut it in the majors. Glasnow gets his second chance to stick in the MLB after a couple weeks in the minors. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: Odubel Herrera isn't hitting .300 like he was to start the year, but his 3 for 5 night on Friday propelled the Phils to a much-needed victory. Can he keep up the same momentum against a rookie like Glasnow?

Pirates: Starling Marte this year has been, well, a star. His .311 batting average leads the Pirates and his .459 slugging percentage has made him an active part in the Buccos' middle of the order.

5. This and that
• Nola is much better away from Citzens Bank Park. He is 2-6 and allows an opposing OPS of .771 at home while he is 3-2 and allows just a .607 OPS on the road. He's allowed nine home runs at CBP as opposed to just one on the road, in an equal number of starts.

• Neither Nola nor Glasnow have faced the opposing team before Saturday.

• McCutchen hits the Phillies well historically. He has a .301/.371/5.14 triple slash against the Phillies to go with seven home runs and 10 doubles. 

• In 107 at-bats over 32 games at PNC Park, Ryan Howard is batting just .187 with just three extra base hits (two home runs and a double).