Sixers at the Break: The Five Pleasant Surprises and Ten Crushing Disappointments of the '12-'13 Season So Far

Sixers at the Break: The Five Pleasant Surprises and Ten Crushing Disappointments of the '12-'13 Season So Far

Suffice to say, this season hasn't gone to plan for the Philadelphia
76ers. After a blockbuster trade in the off-season, the team was
supposed to retool around their new franchise center, with our other
young players stepping up to fill the shoes of our recently departed
core pieces and our newly acquired veterans filling in nicely around
them as complementary role players. At first, everything went as
anticipated—with one very large exception, as the centerpiece of the
team's future showed up late to the party, and then showed up really
late, and then maybe decided he wasn't gonna come at all. Things
unraveled from there.

This season hasn't been without its nice moments, its unanticipated
gains, so as we recap the Sixers' season at the impending All-Star Break
we'll give those their fair due first. But obviously, this season has
primarily characterized by its many, many letdowns, so we'll be sure to
run those down in excruciating, voluminous detail as well shortly after.
As they say over at Liberty Ballers, Sixers Gonna Sixer.

THE FIVE PLEASANT SURPRISES:

1. Jrue Holiday.
Obviously any discussion about what's gone right for the Sixers this
year has to be keyed around our fourth-year point guard Jrue Holiday,
who despite some recent struggles—shooting around 36% for his last five
games—has still obviously taken The Leap this season. 19 points and nine
assists a game, shooting a career-high 45% from the field, basically
serving as the Sixers' entire offense on some nights, providing solid
on-ball defense—Jrue's just about done it all this season, cementing
himself as one of the best point guards (and best young players at any
position) in the East, and a rightful first-time All-Star this coming
weekend, the youngest . All-Star in Sixers history. We all knew (or at
least hoped) he would be capable of this someday, but I don't think many
of us expected him to get there quite so quickly.

2. Thaddeus Young. It's funny now to think about how at the
beginning of the season, the question about Thad was "Is he a starter in
this league?" Not only has he proven himself as a starting power
forward, excelling as one of the Sixers' most productive players on both
sides of the ball, he's proven to be the very heart and soul of this
team, and Philly's 1-3 record since he went down a few weeks ago (with
the one win against the pathetic Bobcats) just a small indication of
just how important he's been to any degree of success the Sixers have
had this season. Not long ago viewed as a potential stumbling block
towards the team building towards success, the five-year, $42 million
contract he signed two off-seasons ago now seems like a fairly sizable
bargain.

3. Nick Young. I have enjoyed the Nick Young experience more
than I thought I would, but for totally different reasons than I'd have
thought. As much as I prepared myself to expect the unexpected with
Swaggy, there's one thing I couldn't have anticipated—he's actually a
good basketball player. Yeah, you think of him and you think him
chucking up that falling-out-of-bounds three against the Knicks, or
wearing ridiculous shoes or whatever. But he's been a really solid
player for the Sixers this season. His FG% is never gonna be great, but
he's shooting a respectable 36% from deep, and he's getting to the line
at a better clip per 36 minutes than any of the team's other regulars,
hitting 83% from the stripe. He's taking care of the ball—a career low
in turnover rate—and he's even passing it decently, with a career high
in assist rate. (Still just 1.5 a game—hey, Swaggy's not a distributor
by nature.) And perhaps most surprisingly, he's actually playing pretty
good individual and team defense.

Young was brought in to replace the team's departed sixth man Lou
Williams, and while Lou was a more prolific and (if you believe the
advanced stats, though I'm still not sure I do) efficient scorer, I much
prefer having Swaggy. And that's because as much of a reputation as
Young might have as a gunner or a ballhog, he never really steps out of
line. He doesn't demand the ball and jack up contested threes in crunch
time. He might take some less-than-great shots, but you never really go "What the hell was he thinking?"
(Well, except that time against the Knicks.) He just plays his part,
serves as a good last-ditch option for the half-court offense, takes his
shots where he gets them, and stays out of the way when he doesn't.
Really, I couldn't have asked for more from the Swagness then he's given
us this year, and PER be damned, I'd take him over Lou Williams any
day.

4. Arnett Moultrie. Up until last week, Arnett would be yet
another tally for our Crushing Disappointments counter. But the more I
see of this guy—and with Thad out, we're all seeing much more of him
than previously expected—the more I feel like he can really be a small
part, if not necessarily an integral one, of the Sixers' future. The key
word with Arnett is activity—with Thad out, all our other bigs (Kwame,
Lavoy, Spencer) are all kinda lumbering and flat-footed, and when they
get to their spots, they tend to stay there. But Arnett, with his young
legs and sleek build, can actually get from point A to point B when
called on to do so, and has earned himself countless offensive boards
and easy buckets in his week-plus of heavy action just by figuring out
what spots to get to, and then getting there.

Of course, a lot with Arnett remains to be seen. I'd like to see him
be more of a force on defense, where he too often seems out of sorts
and a step slow—only three blocked shots in 144 minutes doesn't seem
nearly enough for a big as long and athletic as Moultrie—and his range
and touch on offense appears to still be largely a work in progress. But
in year one, after being acquired for a future first-rounder at the
draft, all we really needed to see from the rookie out of Mississippi
State was the occasional flash of potential. We've gotten that from him
now, and even if he turns out to be Marreese Speights 2.0, at least he
probably won't be the next Craig Brackins.

5. Royal Ivey. You could question what he was doing in the
game for the final possession last night in Milwaukee—which he blew up
with a bad pass that cost the Sixers a game they probably wouldn't have
won anyway—but generally speaking, Royal's been nice for the Sixers as a
minutes-sopper off the bench. He doesn't do much, but the things he
does—give opposing guards trouble with his length and lateral quickness,
hit threes when left open—he's done well, and done consistently. On a
better team he probably wouldn't get more than emergency minutes, but at
one year for the veteran's minimum, I have no complaints with the
season Royal Ivey has had.

THE TEN CRUSHING DISAPPOINTMENTS:

1. Andrew Bynum.
It seems naive, almost quaint to think that as recently as mid-October,
we actually thought we'd get a full season out of the Funny-Looking Kid
With the Big Hair—or at the least, a full season minus the 15 games he
always seemed to miss on the Lakers with mid-year injuries. In all the
emotional bargaining I did with myself and/or my lord, I never
anticipated a worst-case scenario that included Bynum still being out at
the All-Star Break, without even so much as a return date in sight. And
that's the thing that really kills us as Sixer fans, because if we
don't know for sure when he's coming back, then there's always the
possibility that he just doesn't come back, and that possibility is looking like a heartbreakingly real one at the moment.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. Maybe the fact that Orlando
asked for a couple non-lottery picks rather than Bynum in exchange for
their own All-NBA center was, in retrospect, a sign that all with this
guy was not on the up-and-up. Maybe Philly's own tragic history with
high-profile big-man acquisitions since Moses Malone was traded for Jeff
Ruland should've been a portent. But man...even by Sixers standards,
this one hurts, and continues to hurt. All we can do is wait, and pray
that somehow, someway, it doesn't turn out to all be for naught. What
choice do we have, really?

2. Evan Turner. This isn't totally fair to the
extraterrestrial, since he did spend a lot of the season in "pleasant
surprise" territory. But the worse things get for this team, the worst
they get for Turner—or maybe it's the other way around, it's always hard
to tell with ET—and now that his name is even being mentioned in trade
rumors probably means that the bloom is off the rose with Evan's
'12-'13. (The fact that no other team has actually been confirmed as
being interested in him doesn't help his case a ton either.) It's not
too late for Evan to turn things back around—his second half in
Milwaukee last night was a good start, playing and scoring with an
aggression (if not quite a finesse) that the team badly needed (and has
badly lacked)—but going to the All-Star Break with his sagging further
and further to where they ended last year, it's hard not to view Evan's
season as a bummer at the moment.

3. Free throws. To get away from individual players for a
minute, the team-wide malaise at the charity stripe has also been one of
the season's biggest head-shakers. To an extent, this is what happens
when you have a team who a) builds their offense around pick-and-pop
bigs and b) doesn't have a star scorer whose reputation earns them
borderline calls, but even still, the Sixers' extreme lack of foul
shooting—second-worst in the NBA in attempts, first-worst in makes—has
made them something of a league laughing stock, and resulted in their
offense going ice-cold for quarters at a time. A lot of the blame has to
go to Doug Collins for this for not making foul-drawing a team
priority, but if the Milwaukee game was any indication, in which Turner
made his most concerted effort of the season to drive to the basket, the
team might finally be trying to force the issue a little.

4. No stolen games. Recently, Coach Collins lamented how his team had not stolen any wins this year—i.e.,
won a game unexpectedly that they probably wouldn't have won without
some hot shooting and lucky breaks. That's not really true—they
definitely stole one game in Memphis, and arguably stole another at home
against the Knicks—but the idea is on point. The Sixers have done a
very good job this year of losing the games that they should lose—and
they mostly win the games they should win, too, there just aren't as
many of those. This was mostly true last year, as well, but the bar was
at least a little higher last year, making the team's W-L predictability
a little more palatable.

5. Kwame Brown. We paid six million dollars for THIS? It's
tough, because in the limited minutes that Kwame does play, it's easy to
see the benefits of having him on your roster—he's easily the best
defensive center the Sixers have, capable of changing games on D by
clogging up the middle and out-muscling other bigs for rebounds. But
it's also easy to see why he's unplayable so much of the time, and
that's because he's even worse than advertised on offense. His hands are
awful, his touch is non-existent, he can't make free throws and he's
too slow and stone-y to even find himself open for easy buckets or
putbacks more than once a game. On a team with enough perimeter scoring
to play 4 on 5, you could probably get away with it, but in an offense
that requires its big men to be such a big part of the offense, it's
hard to argue that he deserves more minutes than he's getting (which is
basically none). Sigh.

6. Jason Richardson. Like Evan, J-Rich is a pleasant surprise
gone awry, though unlike Evan, he'll not be getting any more
opportunities to turn things around. Jason started off the season like
he was the answer to our long-term two-guard problems, hitting 45% of
his threes through the team's first dozen games, and 40% through the
first 20, and even providing a little veteran leadership the team lacked
without Elton Brand in the locker room. But that percentage kept
dropping and dropping, as Richardson seemed unable to recapture his
early-season groove, and then a couple games out with a knee injury
became a couple weeks and then shortly, the whole season. We'll likely
try again with J-Rich at the 2 next season—he's under contract until
2015—but he's no longer the known quantity he appeared to be at season's
beginning.

7. Damien Wilkins. Here, I'm not saying that Wilkins is the
disappointment—he's played about exactly as well as I'd expected, which
is to say, "not"—but the fact that we've had to play him at all. Of
course, the really perplexing thing is that for the most part, we
haven't had to play the 31% shooter—we've had Dorell Wright, a
superior player in just about every conceivable way—but for reasons
unspecified, Doug has opted for Wilkins over Wright for long season
stretches, dooming the Sixers' second unit to offensive incompetence.
Not that Dorell Wright is Carmelo Anthony either—he's an arguable
disappointment in his own right—but even Wright at his mediocrest is
preferable to Wilkins at his best, and the idea that Wilkins has spent
large parts of the season as a key rotation cog for this team tells you
all you need to know about the '12-'13 76ers.

8. Maalik Wayns. It's hard to be too disappointed in a player
that came to the Sixers, as an undrafted player, with no expectations
at all, and the fact that Maalik Wayns ended up washing out as the
Sixers' backup point guard can hardly be called surprising, let alone
disappointing. Still, I really liked Maalik in the pre-season—he seemed
like a really solid change-of-pace option off the bench, a more physical
Lou Williams with better passing instincts. But once he had to face
big-league defenses, it turned out he was still a little too
helter-skelter as a point guard for the NBA, and it was back to the
D-League for Maalik. Hope we see him again somewhere down the line, but
perhaps he never should've been expected to help the team this year.

9. Nikola Vucevic. I don't really want to go too hard on this
one, since I'm not trying to say the Sixers in any way made a mistake
by trading away their second-string center for the second-best center in
the whole league. Sure, it didn't turn out as we'd hoped, and sure it's
easy to second-guess the administration that brought us to this point,
but just because Nik is putting up daily double-doubles in Orlando now
while the Sixers continue to struggle to get production from the pivot
position doesn't mean that there was anything to regret about pulling
the trigger on the Bynum trade. Still...it's not exactly helping
matters, is it?

10. We're right back where we started. And at the end of the
day–the end of the season's first half—this is really the problem, isn't
it? The Bynum deal seemed to at leat guarantee that things would be
different for the Sixers—maybe better, maybe worse, but different,
blessedly different. Yet here we are again, fighting for one of the
last two playoff seeds, just like we have been four of the last five
springs, begging to be crushed by the Heat or Knicks in the first round.
For better or for worse, last night's loss in Milwaukee might've sealed
the Sixers' fate as a lottery team, so perhaps they go in that
direction for the rest of the season. Perhaps they won't even have much
of a choice in the matter. Maybe it's not too late to scrap a mid-level
lottery pick out of this mess.

If they can secure that decent lottery pick, and they get Thad back
healthy, and the Funny-Looking Kid with the Big Hair at least plays for
like a month at season's end to prove that he still has two legs that
work most of the time, and we re-sign him in the off-season, then this
year doesn't have to be a total waste. With the emergence of Jrue and
Thad (and occasionally Evan), there's still a good core to be had with
this team, and if the missing piece ever feels like showing up, next
year could be the exciting year we hoped this year would be. But
man...another season of Wait Till Next Year. That's some sobering shit
right there.

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Phillies MVP Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

usa-tranquillo-barnetta.jpg
USA Today Images

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”