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: Mets win in 10th on Yoenis Cespedes' walk-off HR

Best of MLB: Mets win in 10th on Yoenis Cespedes' walk-off HR

NEW YORK -- Yoenis Cespedes homered with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning to give the New York Mets a 2-1 victory over the Miami Marlins in the first game of a pivotal series between National League playoff contenders Monday night.

Jose Reyes dashed home to score the tying run in the eighth on a dangerous collision at the plate, and the Mets pulled even with Miami for second place in the NL East. With its seventh victory in nine games, New York remained 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the league's second wild card.

It was an exhilarating win for the Mets, who appeared to be at a major disadvantage on the mound in the opener of a four-game set. New York was shut out for six innings by Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, but Mets starter Rafael Montero also put up zeros in his first major league start since April 2015 (see full recap).

Martinez's 13 K's, throwing error give Cards win
MILWAUKEE -- Stephen Piscotty scored on a throwing error in the ninth inning after Carlos Martinez struck out a career-high 13, leading the St. Louis Cardinals over the Milwaukee Brewers 6-5 on Monday night.

With two on and nobody out in the ninth, Yadier Molina dropped down a bunt. Reliever Tyler Thornburg (5-5) threw to third base for a force out, but Jonathan Villar's throw to first was wild, allowing Piscotty to score.

After Martinez held Milwaukee to one run over six innings, the Brewers scored four runs in the seventh to take a 5-3 lead. St. Louis tied it in the eighth on a two-run homer by Randal Grichuk off Corey Knebel.

Seung Hwan Oh pitched a perfect ninth for his 14th save. Miguel Socolovich (1-0) pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings to pick up his first win.

Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong each hit solo home runs for the Cardinals (see full recap).

Royals keep rolling, take down Yankees
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Dillon Gee kept the Royals' momentum going with six sharp innings, Alcides Escobar hit a three-run homer and Kansas City beat the New York Yankees 8-5 on Monday night to open their three-game set.

Gee (6-7) allowed only four hits and a run in the latest impressive start by the Royals' staff, helping the reigning World Series champions win for the 18th time in 22 games.

Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales and Alex Gordon drove in runs off Michael Pineda (6-11) during a five-hit salvo in the first inning. Pineda then retired 15 straight before getting into a two-on, no-outs jam in the seventh that led to Escobar's homer off reliever Blake Parker.

Starlin Castro drove in two runs for the Yankees, the second in a four-run eighth inning that forced Kansas City manager Ned Yost to summon fill-in closer Kelvin Herrera (see full recap).

Jake Thompson tweaks delivery, offers ray of light on a dark night for Phillies

Jake Thompson tweaks delivery, offers ray of light on a dark night for Phillies

BOX SCORE

On the surface, this was not a very positive night at the ballpark for the Phillies. They had just four hits and lost, 4-0, to the Washington Nationals in front of the smallest crowd of the season – 16,056, announced – at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay).
 
But lest we forget, this is a rebuilding season and in a rebuilding season the final score isn’t always paramount. So on an otherwise dark Monday night there was a ray of light for the Phillies.
 
Jake Thompson had the kind of start those who traded for him a year ago and those who watched him pitch this season in Triple A said he was capable of having.
 
“It was great to see,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “That’s just what he needed. He needed a real positive outing. I think this will do wonders for him down the road.”
 
Thompson held the NL East-leading Nationals to two runs over seven innings, his longest of five outings in the majors.
 
“He looked like the pitcher that was advertised,” Mackanin said.
 
Thompson’s first four outings in the majors were poor. He was tagged for 22 hits and 21 earned runs in 19 1/3 innings. He walked 13 and struck out 13. Those results were starkly different than his last 11 starts in Triple A. He went 8-0 in those 11 starts and recorded a 1.21 ERA while allowing just 10 earned runs in 74 1/3 innings. He gave up just 52 hits and 18 walks over that span while striking out 42.
 
After watching Thompson for four starts, pitching coach Bob McClure decided to suggest some delivery changes to the 22-year-old right-hander.
 
Players are often receptive to making adjustments when they are struggling. Thompson incorporated the changes McClure suggested and found success Monday night.
 
“We just tried to simplify his delivery so he could make better quality pitches,” McClure said.
 
In his old delivery, Thompson started off facing home plate. He pulled his arms over his head, turned and lifted his front leg before delivering the ball. McClure eliminated many of the moving parts. No more lifting the arms above the head. No more body turn. Thompson started his delivery with his body already turned, like a modified stretch. He simply lifted his leg, let his body go down the slope and fired. The new delivery slowed everything down for him. He looked poised, especially after the first couple of innings, and started attacking hitters with first-pitch strikes like a confident pitcher does.
 
Considering he only worked on the new delivery in two short bullpen sessions Saturday and Sunday in New York, Thompson was a pretty quick study.
 
“It was huge,” he said of the new delivery. “Just on the physical side of things, I’m in a better position to make pitches. I took away some moving parts to make it easier on myself.”
 
Thompson allowed seven hits, walked one and struck out three. All three strikeouts came in his final inning of work. He struck out leadoff man Trea Turner with two men on base with a slider to end the inning.
 
That’s another adjustment McClure made. He had Thompson stop throwing his curveball and focus on his fastball, slider, cutter and changeup.
 
Both of the runs that Thompson allowed came in the first inning on a solo homer by Jayson Werth and an RBI single by Anthony Rendon. After that, Thompson recorded six straight shutout innings. His teammates didn’t support him offensively. Washington right-hander Tanner Roark pitched seven shutout innings. He is 3-0 and has allowed just two runs in 28 innings in four starts against the Phils this season.
 
Thompson needed a start like this for a couple of reasons. First, if he had been pounded again, Phillies officials might have had to consider taking him out of the rotation just so his confidence didn’t get ruined.
 
And second, with Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin out with injuries, the team needed to know something was going right for one of the young pitchers being groomed for the future. Vince Velasquez, another young arm, had three poor outings before pitching well in New York on Sunday.
 
“This will help his confidence a lot,” McClure said.
 
McClure then offered a little glimpse into Thompson’s competitive character.
 
“He seemed pissed that he wasn't pitching well,” McClure said. “But he wasn't deflated. We felt like we should keep starting him because he didn't seem beaten. He seems like a tough kid mentally. We felt like once he started making better quality pitches, he'd get better results.”
 
It happened Monday, a ray of light on an otherwise dark night.

Instant Replay: Nationals 4, Phillies 0

Instant Replay: Nationals 4, Phillies 0

BOX SCORE

The Phillies were beaten, 4-0, by the Washington Nationals on Monday night, but wins and losses don’t matter as much as development in a rebuilding season, so there was a bright spot: Rookie right-hander Jake Thompson finally broke through with a good start in holding the Nats to two runs over seven innings.
 
The Phillies’ offense was not good. It produced just four hits on the night.
 
Washington got all the offense it needed when Jayson Werth, the second batter of the game, homered off Thompson in the first inning.

The Nats lead the NL East at 76-55. The Phils are 60-71.
 
The crowd of 16,056 was the smallest of the season at Citizens Bank Park.
 
Starting pitching report
Thompson had struggled in four starts — 9.78 ERA — since arriving from Triple A and there were questions whether he’d even make this start. But he put together a nice outing. After giving up two runs in the first inning, he pitched six straight scoreless innings, finishing his outing with three strikeouts, the last of which came on his 111th pitch when he froze Trea Turner with a breaking ball with two men on base. Thompson allowed seven hits — four in the first three innings — and walked one.
 
Washington right-hander Tanner Roark pitched seven shutout innings to improve to 14-7. He held the Phils to four hits and a walk and struck out five.

Roark is 3-0 with a 0.64 ERA (two earned runs in 28 innings) in four starts against the Phillies this season. The Nats are 15-4 in his last 19 starts.

Bullpen report
Frank Herrmann gave up two runs in the ninth.
 
At the plate
Odubel Herrera had two of the Phillies’ four hits.
 
Werth’s homer in the top of the first was his 19th. Anthony Rendon drove in a run with a two-out single in that inning. Clint Robinson and Turner had RBI singles in the ninth to push the Nats’ lead to 4-0.
 
ICYMI
Herrera is staying in center field for the remainder of the season, Pete Mackanin said (see story).
 
Up next
The series continues on Tuesday night. Jerad Eickhoff (9-12, 3.87) pitches against Washington right-hander Max Scherzer (14-7, 2.92).