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.

Late goal lifts Penguins over Sharks in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

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Late goal lifts Penguins over Sharks in Game 1 of Stanley Cup Final

PITTSBURGH -- To their credit, the Sharks regrouped after a miserable first period at Consol Energy Center in which it looked like they might get run out of the building.

It wasn’t enough, though, as Nick Bonino’s late third period goal pushed the Penguins to a 3-2 win in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

On the game-winner, Brent Burns lost his stick and couldn’t prevent Kris Letang from finding Bonino in front of the net with Paul Martin defending the slot. Bonino flipped it through Martin Jones at 17:27 of the final frame.

The Sharks went to the power play with 2:09 to go, but couldn’t tie it up.

Game 2 is in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

The Penguins dominated the first period, only to have the Sharks completely turn the tables in the second, resulting in a 2-2 tie after 40 minutes.

The Penguins had the Sharks on their heels for virtually the entire opening frame, outshooting San Jose 15-4 and scoring a pair.

The first came at 12:46 of the first. On a rush, Justin Schultz’s shot from the high slot hit the glove of Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and rookie Bryan Rust was there to smack in the loose puck.

Just one minute and two seconds later, the Penguins upped their cushion. Sidney Crosby tracked down a loose puck in the corner ahead of Justin Braun, calmly played the puck off his backhand and whipped a cross-ice pass to Conor Sheary. Another rookie, Sheary whizzed a wrist shot past Jones’ far shoulder.

It was evident early in the second, though, that San Jose had regrouped, as Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski both had good looks at the net. They broke through on an early power play courtesy of Tomas Hertl, who curled in a pass from down low off of Olli Maatta at 3:02.

Pittsburgh withstood a continual push from the Sharks for much of the period until Marleau’s late score. After Couture outworked Maatta deep in the offensive zone and pushed the puck to the point to Burns, Marleau secured Burns’ rebound and wrapped it around at 18:12.

Burns had two assists, and made a strong defensive play with about three minutes left in the first, backchecking hard and lifting up Carl Hagelin’s stick on a breakaway.

Special teams

The Sharks were 1-for-2 on the power play, on Hertl’s second man advantage goal of the playoffs. They are 18-for-65 in the postseason (27.6 percent).

Pittsburgh went 0-for-3, generating five shots on goal. The Pens are 15-for-67 overall (22.3 percent).

Marleau was whistled for an illegal check to the head of Rust in the third period, sending the 24-year-old to the dressing room for a brief stretch.

In goal

Jones and Murray were each making their first career starts in the Stanley Cup Final. Jones took the loss with 38 saves, while Murray stopped 24 San Jose shots.

Lineup

Sharks forward Matt Nieto remained out with an upper body injury.

Pavelski saw his seven-game point streak (5g, 5a) come to an end. Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz increased his point streak to six games (3g, 4a).

Up next

The Sharks are 5-11 all-time when losing Game 1 of a playoff series, but 1-0 this year as they came back to defeat the Blues in the Western Conference Final.

Teams that win Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final have gone on to win the championship 78 percent of the time (59-18). The last team to win the Cup after losing Game 1 was the 2011 Bruins.

NL East Wrap: Matt Harvey gets back on track in Mets' win over White Sox

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NL East Wrap: Matt Harvey gets back on track in Mets' win over White Sox

NEW YORK -- On the mound in the seventh inning for the first time this season, Matt Harvey gave up his first walk of the game and his second hit, leading to a sacrifice bunt and a second-and-third jam.

"You kind of think about the worst at that point," he said. "You start getting some negative thoughts that creep in your head."

But 11 days after disappointed fans at Citi Field booed him like a villain, the Dark Knight was back - at least for one afternoon.

Harvey retired Todd Frazier on a foulout and J.B. Shuck on a grounder to escape trouble, Neil Walker homered off Jose Quintana on the second pitch of the bottom half and the New York Mets beat Chicago 1-0 Monday to send the reeling White Sox to their seventh straight loss.

"Today's a big first step," Mets manager Terry Collins said.

Addison Reed and Jeurys Familia got six straight outs to complete the two-hitter, preserving Harvey's first win since May 8. Harvey struck out six, walked two and threw four pitches of 98-98.5 mph after not topping 97.5 mph previously this season. He threw 61 of 87 pitches for strikes (see full recap).

Mallex Smith's 3-run triple powers Braves past Giants
ATLANTA -- Mike Foltynewicz is showing he can be more than just a fastball pitcher - and that he can be part of the Braves' long-term rotation.

Foltynewicz continued his recent upswing by allowing only three hits and one run in six-plus innings, Mallex Smith hit a three-run triple and Atlanta beat Jeff Samardzija and the San Francisco Giants 5-3 on Monday.

The Braves survived San Francisco's two-run, ninth-inning rally. They have won three of four and are 5-21 at home, still easily the worst in the majors.

Foltynewicz (2-2) gave up a leadoff homer to Brandon Belt in the second inning, but allowed only one other runner to advance to second.

Foltynewicz, 24, has had other recent strong starts, including eight scoreless innings in a 5-0 win at Kansas City on May 14. His start on Monday may have been his most impressive demonstration of altering the speeds of his fastball while mixing in a curveball and slider (see full recap).

Locke tosses three-hit shutout against Marlins
MIAMI -- Jeff Locke tossed a three-hitter and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Miami Marlins 10-0 on Monday night.

Gregory Polanco's grand slam, Sean Rodriguez's two-run homer, and David Freese's four hits helped power the offense for the Pirates, who won the first of a four-game series in Miami. The first two games were originally scheduled to be played in Puerto Rico, but were moved due to concerns of the Zika virus.

Locke (4-3) struck out one and did not walk a batter while throwing 67 of 105 pitches for strikes. It was his first complete game in 101 career starts. Locke retired 19 straight at one point and needed just six pitches to get through the seventh inning.

The announced crowd of 10,856 was a season-low for the Marlins, who entered the day averaging just under 20,000 (see full recap).

Pete Mackanin on deciding Ryan Howard's playing time: 'I think about it all the time'

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Pete Mackanin on deciding Ryan Howard's playing time: 'I think about it all the time'

A day after he made comments in Chicago that alluded to the trimming of Ryan Howard’s playing time against right-handed pitchers, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin sat at his desk, surrounded by reporters, and was pressed for 10 minutes on the issue of his declining, expensive and struggling first baseman and franchise icon.

Howard, of course, was penciled into the lineup in the cleanup spot against righty Tanner Roark for Monday’s 4-3 loss to the visiting Washington Nationals (see game recap).

A question of was barely out of a reporter’s mouth when Mackanin quickly interjected a “hell yes.”

It’s the hardest decision - what to do with the struggling Howard - he’s had to make in his brief time managing the Philadelphia Phillies.

“I think about it all the time,” Mackanin said.

“That’s the hard part of this job. It’s not just running the game, it’s handling the players.”

For now, Mackanin said, he hasn’t felt the need to talk to Howard about it. Howard, who sat Sunday for the second time in eight days against a righty, said Sunday he was unaware his manager was intending on reducing his playing time against righties (see story).

Once a platoon situation at first base, it appears the Phillies are going to take a longer look at rookie Tommy Joseph against right-handed pitchers in the near future.

“If I was going to sit (Howard) on the bench and he wasn’t going to play anymore, I’d have that conversation,” Mackanin said. “I think what I said was pretty obvious.”

“I didn’t say I was going to bench Howard.”

He didn’t Monday. Howard had good numbers against Roark, something he didn’t have against Sunday’s starter for the Cubs, John Lackey. So it looks like Mackanin’s decision will be based on matchups.

In his second at-bat Monday, a second straight strikeout on the night and 12th in his last 22 at-bats, Howard was way late on a 93-mph fastball on the outer half of the plate.

But he looked much better in his final two at-bats of the night.

In the bottom of the sixth, he drove a Roark changeup to the warning track deep in right-center, but Ben Revere closed quickly and made the catch.

In his last at-bat, after Maikel Franco led off the ninth inning with a double, Howard jumped on a first-pitch fastball from Jonathan Papelbon and drove a double to the gap in left-centerfield, scoring Franco and putting the tying run in scoring position with no outs.

Those two swings were the ones Mackanin said Monday afternoon he “knew” were there. He later corrected himself and said it was more of a situation of “hope.”

Howard went 1 for 4 on the night. His May average is now .106.

“He needed to come through with a big hit and that was a huge hit, put the tying run at second base,” Mackanin said. “It was good to see.”

The Phillies are slated to face a righty in their next six games before facing Jon Lester and the Cubs at home next Monday. Joseph, who is hitting .278 with three home runs in his first 36 Major League at-bats, figures to get the start in the majority of those.

It’s a decision Mackanin says he’s going to make on a day-by-day basis.

He was asked if the front office, which is also in a tough spot and may have to do something soon, gave him any input on what to do.

“They don’t tell me who to play and when to play them,” Mackanin said. “I know that they want me to mix in Joseph against right-handers so that he doesn’t stagnate. That’s pretty much all I go by right now.”

A suggestion from upstairs isn’t unprecedented. It has already happened before during the young 2016 season.

“They asked me to - as bad as (Tyler) Goeddel looked early in the season - they asked me if I could try to mix him in a little more,” Mackanin said. “I said sure. I did, and he started hitting better. So now he’s playing more. Here we go, if you want to play more than you gotta hit.

“There’s nothing set in stone.”