Sixers 2013-14 Season Preview: Frequently Asked Questions

Sixers 2013-14 Season Preview: Frequently Asked Questions

The unforgettable journey that will be the Philadelphia 76ers' 2013-14 season tips off tomorrow night against the Miami Heat, to what should be a packed house of bandwagon LeBron fans and homeless people trying to get in from the cold. It's going to be that kind of season, and while tomorrow will likely be the first national embarrassment the team suffers, it certainly won't be the last. That's OK, though--the terrible season will not be without purpose, and we are promised great reward for our tremendous suffering once the season passes.

Anyway, that's the really short version of our Sixers season preview, but there won't be anything short about this season, so here's the long version, in the form of a Q&A session (with myself, natch) that should address the most pressing questions (and maybe a couple of the least pressing, too) concerning Sixers fans about these upcoming 82 games of basketball and the scrappy group of ragtag misfits that are going to play them. Read on, get pumped, and see you guys at the Wells Fargo Center tomorrow night.

So, uh, who exactly is gonna be playing on this team come opening night?

Well, our depth chart to start the season looks something like this:

PG: Michael Carter-Williams, Darius Morris
SG: James Anderson, Tony Wroten
SF: Evan Turner, Hollis Thompson
PF: Thaddeus Young, Lavoy Allen
C: Spencer Hawes, Daniel Orton

The Sixers also just picked up Brandon Davies, a 6'9" rookie forward out of BYU who failed to make the Clippers' final cut.

Not included on the Sixers' final roster are training camp invitees Gani Lawal, Rodney Williams, Mac Kowshal, Vander Blue, Khalif Wyatt and Royce White, all of whom were waived before the deadline.

Wait, Royce White got waived? Wasn't he supposed to be good eventually? Why'd we let him go?

It's a little tough to say. There are a couple reasons Royce would've been given the axe--too out of shape, too much of a behind-the-scenes headache, too unpolished on both sides of the ball to contribute--but none of them are totally satisfying. White still seems to me like exactly the kind of player the Sixers should be rolling the dice on this year--high-upside, but needing a good deal of attention and development to reach his potential, and not too likely to help the team actually win games in the meantime.

Of course, you could say that the Sixers took an extended look at Royce in the pre-season and just determined he wasn't ever going to be that good. I don't really buy that either. True, his overall play could generously be described as erratic--he fouled at a totally unsustainable rate, turned the ball over far too much for a big man, and had an outside shot to make Thaddeus Young shudder--but there were moments of real promise. On one possession against the Timberwolves, he backed down Kevin Love on a drive with such ease that it looked like he was posting up a point guard on a mismatch. In transition against the Nets, he dribbled around one defender, sucked in another and dished to an open Thaddeus Young for an easy layup.

These moments were admittedly few and far between across five pre-season games for the Sixers, but they were there, and that was more than could be said for most of the team's other training camp departees--or, for that matter, of newer acquisition Brandon Davies in the handful of Clippers pre-season games I watched. It's been pointed out that it's still possible for the Sixers to bring Royce back on a D-League deal to play with the Delaware 87ers, and personally, I really hope they do--he was an entertaining distraction if nothing else, and we can certainly use a handful of those this season.

So what about the other guys we let go--anyone worth shedding tears over losing?

Not really, though Vander Blue showed some nice athleticism and shooting, and Khalif Wyatt had potential as a shot-creator off the bench. It was never likely that more than one of Blue, Wyatt and Hollis Thompson would make the roster, however, and Thompson probably got the edge for his size and ability to play multiple positions. None of the other guys really had much of a prayer, and I'd be surprised if any of them ended up on another NBA roster this season.

How about Daniel Orton and Darius Morris, who actually made the final team? What can they do for us this year?

Not a ton. Morris is basically there to just buy Michael Carter-Williams 10-15 minutes a game on the bench--he's a pretty solid defender, and there might be nights where he's called on to match up with Derrick Rose or Brandon Jennings in extended stints, but his offensive upside is limited to the point where it's hard to see him even being a rotation player in this league in a couple years, much less a starter.

Orton is the more interesting of the two, with a big, unmovable NBA body (6'10" with a 7'4" wingspan, about 275 pounds) and some minor skills around the basket--think of him like a Kwame Brown who can actually catch the ball and possibly even finish with it.  He's a presence for sure, but he's also a little too out of shape to get big minutes in a system like Coach Brown's, and still a little too raw to produce much on either end. As one of the Sixers' only available back-up bigs, he'll get minutes to hopefully play himself into shape and into usefulness, but he's a threat to be replaced at a moment's notice if/when a better option comes along.

Didn't we also pick up a couple international guys in the summer? Where are they at now?

Arsalan Kazemi, the Iranian rebounding machine we picked up from Oregon in the second round of last year's draft, signed with an Iranian team after playing decently for the Sixers' summer league squad, out of fear that he wouldn't get the minutes to expand his game on this year's Sixers team. Furkan Aldemir, the Turkish big man the Sixers picked up from the Rockets along with Royce White, signed with a team in the Turkish League. The Sixers retain the NBA rights to both players, and if both team and player are so inclined, can bring one or both over next year to see if they can contribute to the roster.

OK, so our roster's not that great right now. But we have some dudes coming back from injury at some point this season, right?

Maybe? Of the 15 players on the Sixers' current roster, four are currently inactive: Kwame Brown, Arnett Moultrie, Jason Richardson and Nerlens Noel. It's unclear when, or if, any of these guys are going to suit up for the Sixers this year. Kwame is currently out with a hamstring strain, which shouldn't be too severe, but even if he can make it back at some point this season, it's unclear Coach Brett Brown will even give him any playing time, and Hinkie might only be keeping him around to potentially use his contract as filler in some bigger mid-season trade.

Arnett had ankle surgery a month ago and is expected some point in the new year, but exactly when is pretty vague, and the Sixers have no real reason to rush him back. It's the same sort of deal for Jason Richardson, who had knee surgery back in February, and won't be ready until at least the new year. The Sixers have a little motivation to try to prove J-Rich can still walk and shoot threes, since he could be a veteran trade target for a contender at the deadline, but it's a long-shot that he'll be ready by then, and once the deadline passes, the Sixers have no reason to play him over a younger, healthier wing that might have a shot at being part of the team's future.

As for Nerlens, we already talked about Coach Brown's comments suggesting that the team will likely play it super-safe with the rookie big man after his ACL tear back in February, and keep him out the entire season. It's still possible he'll make a late-late-season cameo, but most likely, his first game with the Sixers won't come until 2014-15.

Wait, another high-upside big man who we traded our best player for and is gonna be out for the whole year now? This is Andrew Bynum all over again, isn't it?

Understandable reaction, but not really true. The Sixers likely knew going into the trade with New Orleans that Noel was probably going to miss the whole '12-'13 season, and as I previously mentioned, that was probably the main reason they were able to get him through the #6 pick at all. Meanwhile, Bynum's condition was degenerative, while Noel's was due to a fluke accident--a devastating one, but not an unprecedented or an irreparable one--and while Bynum became a free agent immediately following his one non-season in Philly, we still have Noel under team control for a reasonable price for at least three more seasons.

It's more patience than a fanbase who just spent a season waiting for a payoff that never came should be asked to show, but there's every indication that Noel will still be worth waiting for, and that he's trying his damnedest to get back in the best possible playing condition as soon as possible. So let's not go calling him Bynum Pt. II just yet.

Speaking of Bynum, what's he up to now? When do we get to boo him at the WFC?

As you probably know, Bynum signed an incentive-laden deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers that could be worth as much as two years, $25 million or as little as one year, $6 million, depending on how much he has to offer the team in the first year. The last reports had Bynum suiting up for five-on-five team practice, though without much reporting on how he's looked thusfar, and without him getting cleared by team doctors to play in actual game action. (Coach Mike Brown ruled him out for the Cavs' season opener yesterday.)

Andrew will be making his first return visit to Philly just about a week into the season, on Friday, November 8th, but my bet is that he'll still be aways from actually playing at that point. If he suits up in Philly this season, it probably won't be until the Cavs' second visit to Wells Fargo, on Feb. 18th. Even that may end up being too soon to expect a healthy Bynum return, however, and Sixers fans should probably feel fortunate that this is all some other fanbase's headache and heartache now.

So Noel's out, but the other guy we got in the first round should play, right? Is he gonna be any good this year?

Probably not very, but that's not too important. Michael Carter-Williams, the point guard the Sixers selected out of Syracuse with the #11 pick in the draft, will undoubtedly get all the minutes in the world this season to prove himself as the floor general of the future for the Liberty Ballers, but the returns aren't likely to be immediately positive. On a team with limited offensive options, MCW will be called on to score as well as to create for others, and while he's already pretty good at the latter, he's got a long, long way to go on the former.

It's not that Carter-Williams can't shoot, precisely--his stroke actually looks pretty decent from a formalist standpoint, and when he got clean, open catch-and-shoot looks in the pre-season, he knocked them down at a decent rate--it's that he doesn't seem to really know how or when to shoot. He seems over-confident in his ability to hit pull-up threes, which has already resulted in some pretty ugly bricks this pre-season, and when turns the corner on the pick-and-roll, he has no one-handed floater in his arsenal, instead shooting some kind of weird two-handed fadeaway that looks terrible and rarely finds twine.

Personally, I won't be paying much attention to Carter-Williams' scoring or shooting averages this year, none of which project to be all that encouraging. I'll be looking at the kind of shots he's taking--whether he learns to stay within himself from the perimeter, to only take the outside shots the defense essentially forces him to take, and whether he can put in enough work with Coach Brown and his staff to expand his arsenal near the basket, and hopefully start to develop a runner in the lane--like, say, the one that Brown helped Tony Parker master during his San Antonio days.

In the meantime, MCW should be able to contribute to the Sixers in other ways. He's shown a fine eye for distributing in the pre-season, registering 16 assists and just one turnover across his first three pre-season games, though those numbers evened out a little towards the end. He's also shown the potential to be a truly stifling on-ball defender, and to create turnovers with his long arms and strong instincts for disrupting passing lines, and he's been a very solid rebounder for his position, grabbing nearly five boards a game. You can easily see Carter-Williams becoming a prized fantasy commodity a couple years down the road for his ability to fill up the box score, though in his rookie season at least, his lousy shooting percentages should tank that a bit.

There's been some talk comparing MCW's pre-season struggles to find the basket to those experienced by Evan Turner before his first NBA season, and that the likeness does not bode well for Michael's pro career. I don't see the comparison as a fair one, though--the reason Turner's early scoring struggles were so alarming were because scoring was supposed to be his primary asset as a pro, and because the reason he flailed was because he seemed to lack the athleticism to separate himself at the next level. Neither are true of Carter-Williams--he's a pass-first point guard by nature, and his struggles are a matter of an extreme lack of refinement, rather than a lack of proper physicality.

Plus, let's not forget that MCW was just the 11th pick in a weak draft, and shouldn't be expected by anyone to come around and contend for All-Star honors right away. If he can show enough progress in his rookie season to make us think he might get to an acceptable pro starter level a couple years from now, that should be good enough for us for now.

What about that Tony Wroten guy, though? He looked good in the pre-season, any chance he takes the starter's job from MCW?

Nah. Wroten did have a lot of good moments in the pre-season--a couple 20-point games, some highlight plays on the fast break, a whole lot of free-throw attempts--but putting him in the starting lineup, especially at the point guard position, would likely be disastrous. As questionable as MCW's decision-making can be at times, it's nothing compared to Wroten's recklessness with the ball (T-Wrote finished the pre-season with 24 turnovers and just 19 assists), and his outside shooting is just as bad (6-24 from deep across seven games). His defense is still inconsistent, and he can be kind of a ball-stopper in the half-court.

There's little question that the Sixers stole a real asset in Wroten this off-season, since he's a terror in the open court and is physically imposing and relentless enough for his position to get to the line seemingly at will. There's a chance that he'll be a part of the next good Sixers team, but if so, it'll probably be as a change-of-pace sixth man--he's not quite talented enough to have a starting unit geared around him, and he doesn't seem to blend in well enough with others to be a useful cog in a high-level team offense.

Of course, Wroten's also still just 20 years old--two years younger than MCW--and still has room to grow, as well as the playing time in which to do so. Wroten should bring some real excitement to the WFC before the year's over, but like Carter-Williams, he's still a ways off from actually helping a young team win ball games.

Carter-Williams won't help us this year, Wroten won't help us this year--did we get anybody in the off-season who might actually help us get some damn W's this season?

Yes. Well, maybe, anyway. James Anderson, the fourth-year wing the Sixers plucked from the Rockets after three seasons of bouncing around between Houston and San Antonio, had perhaps the most encouraging pre-season of anyone on the Sixers roster. He won't ever be the high-volume scorer or offensive first option in the pros that he was at Oklahoma State, but he's proven that he has an ability that is critical to today's NBA--and with J-Rich still ailing, otherwise totally lacking on the Sixers roster--he can hit an open three.

That might not sound like too tremendous an asset, since it's something most non-centers in the NBA are basically expected to be able to do, but it can hard to find players who can do so consistently. "Consistent" basically defines Anderson's production from deep in the pre-season, however, where he sunk at least two treys in all seven games, and shot 17-35 total from downtown. His performance from inside the arc has been a bit more of an adventure, but he's proved to be a weapon in transition, and managed to average nearly 14 points a game on incredibly impressive 57% shooting.

Those numbers obviously won't last, and the pre-season has been known to produce a mirage or two, so let's not write down James Anderson as the Sixers' shooting guard of the future just yet. Still, it was a strong enough audition that Anderson should be penned in as the team's unquestioned starter at the two-guard--not like they really have any other good choices--with an eye towards either locking him up at a reasonable price for the Sixers' future, or trying to sell high on him at the trade deadline if Hinkie and company think he won't stick. In the meantime, if he can win a game or two for us with his outside shooting, and give MCW somebody reliable to kick out to when he goes traipsing down the lane, that's not such a bad thing.

So if Anderson's at the two, that means Evan's back to playing the three. How's that going to work?

Well, based on Evan's first handful of pre-season games, it might work pretty well for him. Going against bigger, often slower defenders means that it's easier for Evan to get himself a little space for his array of turnaround and step-back jumpers, and it's more likely that he'll be able to gain a step on them on drives to the basket, which could help explain why his free throw rate (nearly eight FTAs a game) was so much higher this pre-season than it has been for most of his Sixers career, where he's been largely forced to play shooting guard. It also takes a little of the pressure off him to be a threat from deep, which is good, considering ET's long-range stroke has remained in late-season form this October (just 2-14 over six games).

The downside to this, of course, is on the boards. With Evan at the three, the rebounding advantage he had at shooting guard is largely neutralized, and with neither Thaddeus Young or Spencer Hawes a particular monster on the glass, this team is going to get out-rebounded a lot--as they were in four of the six pre-season games in which they played their starting unit, including a game in Brooklyn where they were out-boarded 54-31. The Sixers will need help from everyone, including Turner and plus-sized point Michael Carter-Williams, to crash the glass, and immediately trigger the break in the other direction, considering scoring in transition will be crucial to the team scoring enough at all to stay in games this season.

Where else besides Evan can we reasonably expect this team to get offense from?

Good question, and one without a lot of easy answers. Thad averaged about 15 points a game last year, which isn't awful for a secondary scorer, but I expect that number to go down this year--he needs a point guard to get him the ball (watching him try to score on isos can be a truly gut-wrenching experience), and it seems like he and MCW aren't on anywhere near the same level of chemistry yet that he was with Jrue last season. Spence can exploit certain matchups in the post, and two or three times a season he'll get hot with his jumper for a couple games, but relying on him as a regular third option is a pretty insecure policy. Tony Wroten will score 20-plus points with a dozen free throw attempts some nights, and he'll score four on 1-10 shooting others. Lavoy Allen...well, never mind.

Bottom line is that this team is not going to score a lot of points. Evan Turner can lead the way some nights, and I expect him to finally hit the 30-point plateau for the first time this year--maybe even more than once--but he's always be prone to the occasional night where absolutely nothing goes down, as was the case in the Sixers' final pre-season game in Minnesota, where he went 2-15 from the field. When that happens, it's going to be really hard for the Ballers to outscore anyone, even in a 1/3-crappy Eastern conference. And that will result in a lot of losses.

But that's good, right? Don't we kind of want to lose as much as possible this year?

Yup. For better or worse, this entire Sixers season is essentially just a prelude to June 26th of next year, when the Sixers will likely have two first-round picks--one from the Pelicans as part of the Holiday/Noel deal, one our own--in what is being billed as the best draft class since the 2003 set that produced LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh.

As any fan of the modern NBA knows, the more games the Sixers lose, the higher their own pick is likely to be. Without much in the way of free-agency sway or particularly sexy trade assets, this might be the best chance the 76ers get all decade to add a true franchise talent to their roster--arguably their first since picking Allen Iverson with the #1 pick 18 years earlier.

And that's okay? There aren't any rules against intentionally losing as many games as possible to help your draft positioning?

Not yet, not really--though the Sixers and some other teams are really pushing the limits this year with their transparency in not even attempting to field a competitive roster. Some people in the know have speculated that the tankfest going on across the NBA this year in advance of the 2014 draft will spur the NBA's new commissioner, Adam Silver, to action in devising measures to punish or otherwise disincentivize teams from bottoming out in such a manner, a step that will probably need to be taken sooner or later. But for now, the Sixers' strategy appears to be the safe-and-sound one, and will likely pay dividends come June.

Who do we want to get in the draft? Everyone loves that Wiggins kid, right?

Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated (Wiggins); Rich Clarkson (Chamberlain); Andy Hayt/Sports Illustrated (Manning); Photo Illustration by SI Premedia

Indeed, Kansas freshman forward Andrew Wiggins is being toted as the likely first-overall pick of the draft, a small forward who scouts say possess a combination of athleticism, skill and all-around potential not seen since LeBron came out of high school 11 years earlier. Wiggins might be the top prize, but he won't be the only one available--there's freak athletes like Kentucky big man Julius Randle, who looks like Zach Randolph with hops, and Arizona forward Aaron Gordon, who scouts compare to a mini-Blake Griffin, as well as do-everything players like Duke wing Jabari Parker, who was talented enough in High School for Sports Illustrated to put him on the cover, and Australian guard Dante Exum, a long-armed, 6'7" scorer with enough ball-handling skills to play the point.

Any one of those guys could end up being just as good as Wiggins, and if one of them excels at college or internationally while Wiggins fails to quite live up to billing at Kansas, I wouldn't be surprised who to take with the #1 overall pick becomes a debate that rages among basketball fans all year long. And those guys are just the tip of the iceberg--the 2014 draft goes deep enough that there might be potential All-Stars even towards the low end of the lottery, starters late in the first round, and rotation guys in the high second. Teams aren't gearing their entire future around this draft for no reason.

Who's the Sixers' primary competition in the race to the bottom, then?

Well, the Suns officially established themselves as worthy adversaries for the Sixers by trading center Marcin Gortat--the only half-decent post scorer on the roster--to the Wizards for the injured Emeka Okafor, some scrubs and a draft pick, making an already lousy team downright terrible. The Celtics are also in full-on rebuild mode, having dealt franchising-defining players Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, with the currently injured Rajon Rondo possibly to follow. The Magic were the league's worst team last year, and don't seem to be in a rush to get better anytime soon. And you have to bet on history with perennially terrible teams like the Bobcats and Kings, even though both actually made moves in the off-season to get better.

Another team that nobody mentions as a possible Tankapalooza contender but who I feel might be a force to be reckoned with is the Milwaukee Bucks. They made as many moves in the off-season as anyone, but ended up with a roster full of average players and no real point guard, which is a pretty solid two-point plan for being absolutely awful. The Sixers still have a pretty good claim to pole position for the draft sweepstakes, but it's gonna be a race to the finish with some of these teams for sure.

But what if the Sixers turn out to be too good at the start of the season? Will Sam Hinkie trade our better players before the deadline to ensure a league-worst record?

USA Today Images

Well, luckily for us, there's not too much risk of that happening--the Sixers start their season with six of their first ten games coming against playoff teams from last year, and the other four coming again the much-improved Cavaliers and Wizards. Of their first 15 games, I imagine game #14 at home against Milwaukee would be the only one they might actually be favored in. The chances of the Sixers outperforming their skill level at season's start--with a rookie point guard, a first-year coach and absolutely no bench depth--is not great.

Regardless, though, the team's healthy veterans---all three of them--will all be at risk to be traded before season's end, should a deal present itself that's worth Hinkie's while. Of the three, imagine that Spence is the most likely to be traded--teams always need big men, and some contender might take a rental on Spence's expiring deal as a backup or replacement if he plays decently to start the season--and that Thad is the least, since he's still under team control for another season (with a player option for '15-'16) at a reasonable rate, and best fits the young, athletic, defensive-minded roster that Hinkie and company appear to be molding with this Sixers team.

The biggest question will be whether Evan finishes the season a Liberty Baller. He doesn't seem to fit Hinkie's mold at all, and pretty much all advanced metrics say that his numbers don't justify his usage rate on the court. That said, it might be tough to get value for a player like Turner in the trade market--his unique set of skills makes him an awkward fit on most playoff-bound rosters, and a rebuilding team might be reluctant to relinquish much in the way of future assets for a largely unproven player.

Largely, ET's future depends on how he plays this season as the team's primary scorer. If Evan can show enough improvement to get a rebuilding team to roll the dice on him, he very well might be dealt, espsecially if Hinkie can find a team willing to fork over a first round pick in next year's draft--after all, Phoenix already has a max of four picks in '14's first round, while the Sixers only have a measly two. But I'd bet Evan plays just well enough to stay the first option on one of the league's worst teams, and finishes the season as a Sixer.

Oh right, what about that second first-round pick? Where's that gonna fall?

Well, Sixer fans with dreams of going into next year's lottery with two top ten picks might be wise to temper their expectations a little after watching New Orleans this pre-season. The Pelicans went 7-1 in October play, with their only loss coming to the defending-champion Heat. Generally, pre-season records are meaningless, but watching the Pelicans, they really looked like a team ready to take the next step, with Jrue filling in the last piece of the puzzle for a team already loaded with an improved Anthony Davis, a (finally) healthy Eric Gordon, and an always-deadly Ryan Anderson.

Not saying the Pelicans are championship contenders just yet--even if they're as improved as they looked in the pre-season, their ceiling is still probably the sixth or seventh seed in the crowded West--just that I don't think it's likely their pick will be a particularly high one this year. In a way, though that's good for us--their pick is top-five protected anyway, so we probably wouldn't want to risk things totally falling apart for New Orleans and the pick rolling over to next year or another future, lesser draft.

Plus, there would still be plenty of potential quality players available in the mid-teens of this year's draft, and Hinkie will probably spend the great majority of the season scouting every one of them. It'll be more entertaining than watching his own team, certainly.

So that's it, then? Just close your eyes and pretend this season isn't actually happening while we count the days until June 26th? Is there any reason to, y'know, actually watch this team this season?

Oh sure, there's reasons to watch--just not ones related to wins and losses. It'll be fun, if often frustrating, to watch Michael Carter-Williams' development throughout his rookie season, as he (hopefully) starts to adjust to the pro game, figures out what he can and can't do and how he can best help his team win. It'll be amusing to see Evan go nuts for his stats in a contract year, finally free of all Doug Collins-related shackles and free to fire away. And Tony Wroten will probably be good for at least one highlight play a month that sends an absolute electrical current through the Wells Fargo Center--assuming there's anyone there to see it. And speaking of Wroten: You never know when the first Team WHOP video, mixtape or Kendrick Lamar diss is gonna drop, so gotta keep one eye out for that.

Meanwhile, Sam Hinkie will likely remain the Hardest Working GM in Show Business, shuttling misunderstood, high-ceilinged young'ns backwards and forwards across the waiver wire, throwing all kinds of once-and-future prospects at the court to see which, if any, stick. When Kendall Marshall, a 2012 lottery pick, was traded to Washington in the Gortat deal and then waived, he was on Hinkie's radar almost instantly--a scenario that should repeat itself dozens of times throughout the '13-'14 season, as various "fallen angels" around the NBA become unexpectedly available. By the end of the season, the Sixers might institute a mandatory nametag policy at practices and shootarounds. It'll keep things from getting too static, at least.

This season will at times be enthralling, and at far more times will be infuriating. But it won't ever be boring, and it certainly won't ever be as depressing as the end of last season, as a team with legitimate playoff aspirations went in the tank, with an extremely cloudy-looking future, and even screwed up that tank job by playing just well enough in a series of totally meaningless games to ensure a middling draft slot, all while Andrew Bynum cackled evilly from the sidelines.

This year, we know who we are: We're one of the worst teams in the NBA, and we're damn pleased with it, knowing that it's all for a purpose, and that it won't last too much longer. We have no expectations, so there's no way to disappoint. It's kind of liberating, isn't it? Personally, I've never been more pumped for a 15-20-win season before in my life.

New York team brings home Little League World Series championship

usa-new-york-little-league-world-series.jpg
USA Today Images

New York team brings home Little League World Series championship

SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- As Ryan Harlost stepped to the mound on Sunday, he took it all in.

Chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A!" droned over his left shoulder as he dipped it to deliver a warm-up pitch. South Korean arms and flags waved furiously to his right. Little kids who asked for his autograph earlier in the week used makeshift sleds to slide down the hill toward most of the 22,000-plus fans who packed Lamade Stadium.

The Endwell, New York, pitcher admitted it made him uneasy. He sure didn't show it.

Harlost led New York to the Little League World Series title, striking out eight and limiting South Korea to five hits in six innings in a 2-1 victory. He scored the deciding run on a passed ball in the fourth inning.

"I was a little nervous at first in front of a lot of people but it's just another game and I felt confident going in," Harlost said.

But it was more than just another game.

Endwell snapped a five-year championship drought for U.S. teams on Little League's biggest stage and gave New York its first title since 1964. Huntington Beach, California, won in 2011 and Mid Island from Staten Island won New York's last World Series championship.

Conner Rush had the New York team's only RBI to give Endwell a lead it wouldn't relinquish in the bottom of the fourth. Harlost (2-0) scored the deciding run on a passed ball a batter later.

"I was just thinking get it in play any way you can," Rush said. "Once that happens, you never know what can happen."

For a while, it didn't look like New York hitters would be able to hit anything.

Junho Jeong (1-2) gave up two runs on four hits and struck out nine for South Korea (4-2). He was unflappable for most of the afternoon, working the outside of the plate masterfully for 3 1/3 innings of no-hit ball before Jude Abbadessa broke through in the fourth.

Waking to the plate as Endwell fans along the first base side bellowed "Juuude!" Abbadessa broke up the righty's no-hit bid with a single to center. Harlost followed with a liner to the same spot and Rush plated the go-ahead run with a hit that fell in behind the shortstop. Harlost raced home to give New York a 2-0 lead one batter later.

"It's just been amazing," Abbadessa said. "Just coming here would be amazing and then our team doing well is even more amazing. It's been fun the whole week and we're glad that it turned out this way."

Yoomin Lee homered for the Asia-Pacific champs from Seoul to halve New York's lead in the fifth. Harlost's precision and a stingy New York defense prevented further damage.

In the second, right fielder James Fellows made a running grab at the warning track to rob Sangheon Park of an extra base hit. With a runner on first an inning later, Harlost snagged a hard-hit liner at the mound, tossed to first to get the putout and escape the third unscathed.

Later in the fifth after Yoomin's blast halved the score, Abbadessa scooped up a grounder that took an awkward bounce and threw to first for final out of the inning.

"The Mid-Atlantic team is a really good defensive team," South Korean manager Heesu Ji said. "I'm really proud of my team."

Minho Choi struck out with runners on first and second to end the game.

Harlost turned toward his dugout on the first-base side but didn't make it there as his teammates rushed out to dogpile on him near the base line.

Most of New York's players had been on other teams together before. More than half of them were on the team that fell to last year's World Series runner-up Red Land in the Mid-Atlantic Region Championship, leaving them one win shy of qualifying for a trip to South Williamsport.

"It was all of our last years of Little League," Rush said. "So it's just awesome to know that we all came together to be the best team in the world."

Best of NFL: Vikings open new stadium with victory over Chargers

Best of NFL: Vikings open new stadium with victory over Chargers

MINNEAPOLIS -- Teddy Bridgewater was sharp in his return from a sore shoulder, completing 12 of 16 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown in the first half for the Minnesota Vikings in a 23-10 exhibition victory Sunday over the San Diego Chargers in the official unveiling their new stadium.

After sitting out last week at Seattle, Bridgewater found Kyle Rudolph for a 27-yard score and led the Vikings to points on three of five possessions. Bridgewater even put a slick juke on strong safety Adrian Phillips to further a 22-yard run that set up one of three short field goals by Blair Walsh.

Melvin Gordon, aiming to rebound from a rough rookie season, cruised through the middle of Minnesota's starting defense for a 39-yard touchdown run. San Diego lost running back Branden Oliver, though, to an Achilles tendon injury on his right leg that required a cart to take him off. Oliver is the primary kickoff returner and a contributing backup behind Gordon and Danny Woodhead.

With sunlight streaming in from the floor-to-ceiling glass on the west side and through the translucent, space-age roof, the Vikings enjoyed a gleaming debut for U.S. Bank Stadium. The sold-out crowd of 66,143 was the largest at home in franchise history.

The Chargers undoubtedly felt some envy, with their decade-and-a-half quest to replace 49-year-old Qualcomm Stadium still unfulfilled and a move to Los Angeles still a possibility. This game was conveniently scheduled for national broadcast on Fox, in case folks in San Diego were still on the fence about public funding.

Philip Rivers went 5 for 9 for 54 yards and an interception, one of three by the Vikings. Rookies Jayron Kearse and Mackensie Alexander picked off Chargers third-stringer Mike Bercovici, who's competing with Zach Mettenberger for a roster spot.

Bercovici threw three straight passes into the end zone in the fourth quarter that the Vikings had their hands on, the last one finally intercepted by second-round draft pick Alexander.

With Adrian Peterson resting on the sideline, backup Jerick McKinnon rushed eight times for 56 yards. Stefon Diggs caught five passes for 71 yards, all in the first half. Cordarrelle Patterson recovered Mycole Pruitt's fumble, one of two lost by the Vikings, in the end zone for a touchdown (see full recap).

Osweiler sharp in Texans' win over Cardinals
HOUSTON -- Brock Osweiler threw for 146 yards and a touchdown and Houston intercepted two of Carson Palmer's passes in the Texans' 34-24 exhibition victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

Osweiler led the Texans to scores on three of his four drives. He connected with first-round pick Will Fuller on a 26-yard touchdown pass that extended Houston's lead to 24-10 before sitting down with about three minutes left in the first half.

It was Osweiler's second successful outing after he and Houston's starting offense struggled in the team's first preseason game. The expectations for Osweiler are high after the Texans signed Peyton Manning's former backup to a $72 million contract this offseason.

While Osweiler was solid, Houston's starting defense starred. Andre Hal intercepted Palmer's second pass of the day to set up Houston's first score, a 1-yard touchdown run by new running back Lamar Miller.

Palmer's second drive was his only clean one, and it ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by David Johnson.

On Arizona's next possession, linebacker John Simon tipped a pass by Palmer, intercepted it and returned it 59 yards for a touchdown. It was the second straight game in which Palmer had an interception returned for a touchdown after Brandon Flowers did it in last week in a 9-3 loss at San Diego.

Palmer attempted to tackle Simon after the interception and was tackled by 305-pound defensive end Devon Still, a hit that knocked the quarterback's helmet off. Coach Bruce Arians had seen enough after that hit, and Palmer was replaced by Drew Stanton.

Fuller finished with 67 yards receiving and fellow rookie Braxton Miller, the former Ohio State star quarterback, added three receptions for 29 yards. The Texans chose Fuller in the first round this year to take pressure off Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins, who was third in the NFL with 1,521 yards receiving last season despite facing near constant double teams (see full recap).

Bengals' 1st-team offense impresses in win over Jags
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Cincinnati Bengals were so sharp against Jacksonville that Andy Dalton and several teammates were done long before halftime.

Dalton led the Bengals to two touchdowns in three possessions, earning him a little extra rest in a 26-21 loss to the Jaguars in the preseason Sunday night.

"It was a good outing for us," Dalton said. "Two touchdowns in the first half of a preseason game is pretty good, and we got them both ways. ... It's a good feeling to do it both ways."

The Bengals (2-1) felt good on both sides of the ball, too. Dalton found Giovani Bernard for a 19-yard score on a third-down play, and then Jeremy Hill capped a 9-minute drive with a 1-yard scramble to the pylon. Defensively, the Bengals held Jacksonville to just 90 yards in the first half. Jacksonville's first three drives: turnover, three-and-out and three-and-out.

Cincy's only concern in the regular-season dress rehearsal was the health of three Pro Bowlers.

Receiver A.J. Green left in the first quarter with a bruised right knee, but the team said it was nothing serious and he should be fine for the opener. Cornerback Adam Jones strained a calf in preseason warmups and did not play. And special teams ace Cedric Peerman broke his left forearm and could be sidelined for the season.

Safety Tashaun Gipson (bruised knee) was Jacksonville's only injured starter.

The Jaguars (0-3) had bigger problems -- the offense and defense both failed to show -- that raised questions about what's supposed to the franchise's most talented team in nearly a decade (see full recap).

Wideouts Rueben Randle, Chris Givens among 8 players cut by Eagles Sunday

Wideouts Rueben Randle, Chris Givens among 8 players cut by Eagles Sunday

The Eagles released Rueben Randle and Chris Givens on Sunday, ending the brief and disappointing Eagles careers of both veteran wide receivers.

The two receivers were among eight players released by the team on Sunday evening.

Randle caught five passes for 26 yards in the preseason and Givens caught one for 19 yards.

The Eagles tried to bolster their receiver corps by adding the two receivers this offseason, signing Randle to a one-year, $1,025,000 contract and Givens to a one-year $760,000 deal.

Randle got $500,000 guaranteed and Givens $180,000 guaranteed, so the two moves will count $680,000 against the Eagles’ 2016 adjusted salary cap of $161,570,362.

The moves leave the Eagles with eight wide receivers: Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, Josh Huff, Paul Turner, Marcus Johnson, Cayleb Jones and David Watford.

Barring any other personnel moves, Matthews, Agholor, Green-Beckham, Huff and Turner appear headed for the final 53-man roster.

Randle’s decline is fairly astonishing.

Two years ago with the Giants, he caught 71 passes for 938 yards, and last year he caught 57 passes for 797 yards and eight touchdowns. He had four catches of 40 yards or more in 2015, fourth-most in the NFL. In four seasons in New York, he caught 188 passes for 2,644 yards and 20 TDs.

Yet the Giants had no interest in re-signing him. Now the former second-round pick’s career is in jeopardy at the age of 25.

Givens, a fourth-round pick of the Rams in 2012, was with his third team in two years this summer. His once-promising career could be over at the age of 26.

Most notable among the six other players released was offensive tackle Andrew Gardner, who started 11 games in an Eagles uniform.

Gardner, who had also spent time with the Dolphins and Texans, started eight games at right guard and right tackle for the Eagles in 2014 and was the Eagles’ opening-day starter last year at right guard. He suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot during a Week 3 game against the Jets at the Meadowlands and missed the rest of the season.

Also released was a member of last year’s draft class, sixth-round pick Randall Evans out of Kansas State. Evans spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad but was activated for the Pat Shurmur season finale against the Giants at the Meadowlands and got into the game on special teams.

The Eagles also released veteran defensive tackle Mike Martin, who played in 46 games for the Titans the last four years, including five starts. Also released were long snapper John DePalma and cornerback Denzel Rice, the latter of who played in five games last year and got 20 defensive snaps in the season finale against the Giants last year.

The Eagles also placed linebacker Joe Walker (knee) and defensive end Alex McCalister (calf), two rookie seventh-round picks, on season-ending Injured Reserve.

Teams have until Tuesday to reduce rosters to 75. The Eagles’ roster is currently at 73, and they have to reduce it to 53 by 4 p.m. next Sunday.

The Eagles finish the preseason on Thursday night at the Linc against the Jets.