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.

As Aaron Altherr's audition begins, Pete Mackanin says Cody Asche 'needs to step it up'

As Aaron Altherr's audition begins, Pete Mackanin says Cody Asche 'needs to step it up'

ATLANTA — Nearly four months late, Aaron Altherr is finally getting his shot to show the Phillies he deserves to be part of their future outfield plans.

Altherr, 25, was activated from the disabled list before Thursday night’s game against the Braves and was in the lineup, batting fifth (see story). Altherr will see a lot of playing time over the final two-plus months of the season. He’s essentially auditioning.

“We want to see him play as much as possible,” manager Pete Mackanin said before the game. “So if he stays healthy, I’m going to keep running him out there. That’s what this year is all about. We’re finding out about the guys that are here. He is a potentially important part so we want to see what he does. I’m anxious to see what he does.”

Altherr, a ninth-round draft pick in 2009, played in 39 games for the Phillies last season. He hit just .241, but 20 of his 33 hits were for extra bases and he had a .827 OPS. He was slated to be the team’s everyday rightfielder before suffering a wrist injury that required surgery early in spring training.

Altherr is healthy now and eager for his chance.

“I’m good to go mentally and physically,” he said Thursday afternoon. “I’m definitely excited to be back up.”

Altherr took Peter Bourjos' spot on the roster. Bourjos was placed on the disabled list with a sprained right shoulder two days after running into the outfield wall in Miami.

With Mackanin committed to giving Altherr playing time, it will be interesting to see how the skipper divides up playing time with the remaining outfielders, especially when Bourjos recovers. Bourjos was a trade candidate before his injury. He could still be moved in a waiver deal once he’s healthy in August. Tyler Goeddel, Cody Asche and Jimmy Paredes also play corner outfield spots and much heralded prospect Nick Williams is expected to be here at some point (see Future Phillies Report).

Asche is walking a tightrope. He entered Thursday night’s game mired in a 4-for-51 skid and Mackanin seems to be losing patience.

“As I said earlier in the season, this is a very big year for Cody to prove that he can be part of the future and he needs to step it up,” Mackanin said.

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Heading into his 13th season, Jason Peters has experienced a lot during his exceptional NFL career. So when the eight-time Pro Bowler says head coach Doug Pederson is more respectful of veteran players than the previous regime under Chip Kelly, you take notice.

"I think so," Peters stated frankly on Thursday at training camp. "The last couple years, there wasn't a lot of vets, and any vet that stood up and had something to say, we got rid of him.

"Doug was a player here, he understands veteran players and he understands the game, so I think it's better."

Addressing the media for the first time since last season, Peters faced a series of questions about how Pederson differs from his unique predecessor. Schemes and philosophies were topics of discussion, as well, but perhaps the sharpest criticism levied by Peters was Kelly's lack of appreciation for what an NFL player goes through to be ready on Sunday.

"Any time you've got a coach who's been there, done that, he knows about the trenches and he knows about the two-a-days, it definitely helps with a veteran team as a whole," Peters said.

Peters admitted Kelly's practices took their toll on players. If that sounds like a familiar complaint, it's probably because former Eagles cornerback Cary Williams voiced a similar opinion in 2014. On Thursday, Peters echoed and expanded upon Williams' sentiments.

"The same practices that we did in training camp were the same spring practices, exactly the same, so it's pretty much we had training camp the whole offseason," Peters said. "Even OTAs were the same exact practice. It kind of wore us down."

Peters also maintained the unusual practice schedule during the regular season was no help, either.

Most teams practice Monday and take Tuesday off. Kelly did the opposite, so there was no real break leading up to gameday.

"We practiced on Tuesdays when Chip was here, and you felt it on Sundays," Peters said. "I did anyway."

Pederson has mentioned on several occasions the Eagles intend to do everything they can to keep Peters fresh and prepared for Sundays this season, which the 34-year-old says is "just being smart." One way that could manifest itself is an occasional day off during the week.

Although Peters' criticisms of Kelly weren't limited to the workload on veterans, the left tackle indicated the constant uptempo attack may not have done the offense many favors, either.

"If you run 100 times in a row, back to back to back, don't you think your 50th time you're going to be a little slower?" Peters asked. "But if you get a little bit of a rest, you're going to be a little bit faster.

"It's give and take. When you go back to the huddle and you get that wind, you're just a little stronger when you go back to the line, so I think it will help."

Peters added that the simplicity and predictability of Kelly's system became a problem, as well.

"I mean, this is the National Football League, and if the running back is to the left and you're running the zone read, where do you think the ball is going?" Peters asked rhetorically. "To the right.

"They caught up to us. We had some good years there back to back, then last year we had that down year. We just needed to change a little bit up, especially with [quarterback Sam Bradford] back there. They know he's not gonna run it, so it kind of put our hands behind our back."

While Peters believes the return to a more sophisticated, traditional NFL offense under Pederson — one that uses snap counts and chip block to help its offensive linemen — will be an enormous improvement for the Eagles.

Peters knows it's on the players to do a better job in 2016, too. At the same time, he feels as though the deck might've been just a little stacked against them.

"We can't really blame it on that, we're professionals," Peters said.

"[The coaches] call the play, and we execute it. But when the [opponents] know, and they're professionals too, and they know what the play is, it's tough."

Eagles camp Day 4 notes: Brandon Brooks out; starting O & D

Eagles camp Day 4 notes: Brandon Brooks out; starting O & D

As the Eagles kicked off their first full-squad practice in the bubble on Thursday afternoon, a big part of the offense was missing. 

Starting right guard Brandon Brooks was nowhere to be found. In his place, with the first-team offense, was veteran Stefen Wisniewski. 

Brooks, who signed a five-year, $40 million deal to join the Eagles this offseason, missed practice with a hamstring injury and is listed by the team as day-to-day. 

The only other player that missed practice is running back Ryan Mathews, who is on the Active/Non-football Injury list with an ankle injury he suffered while training last week. 

Offensive starters
Thursday’s light afternoon practice was what Andy Reid used to call a “10-10-10” practice. The term is back under Doug Pederson. Basically, it’s a light practice that goes continually through offense, defense and special teams. But it’s not very conducive for observations because of the format, which is meant to allow the offense or defense to look good. 

But we did get a chance to see the starting units. 

Here’s what the first-team offense (they came out in 11 personnel) looked like to start practice: 

QB: Sam Bradford
RB: Darren Sproles (Mathews was out)
TE: Zach Ertz
WR1: Nelson Agholor
WR2: Chris Givens
Slot: Jordan Matthews
LT: Jason Peters
LG: Allen Barbre
C: Jason Kelce
RG Stefen Wisniewski (Brooks was out)
RT: Lane Johnson

Notes: It’s worth noting that Matthews is still working in the slot way more than he is outside. And Givens, after a nice spring, got the nod to work outside with the first team.

Defensive starters
The defense first came onto the field in the nickel package, so we’ll start there: 

LDE: Vinny Curry
RDE: Connor Barwin
LDT: Fletcher Cox
RDT: Bennie Logan
LB: Jordan Hicks
LB: Mychal Kendricks
LCB: Leodis McKelvin
RCB: Nolan Carroll
Slot: Ron Brooks
S: Malcolm Jenkins
S: Rodney McLeod

Notes: We listed the defense in nickel, but when the Eagles were in base, Nigel Bradham was on the field as the strongside linebacker. The most important thing to note is that when the team was in base, Ron Brooks stayed on the field and moved outside. That’s what the team did most of the spring and it hasn’t changed yet. We’ll have to keep an eye on that. 

North Dakota’s hero
Earlier this week, there were several reporters and a TV crew from North Dakota to watch the progress of their hometown hero Carson Wentz. Wentz said it was cool to see some familiar media faces, especially because he knows how closely fans in his home state are still following his career. 

The rookie hasn’t been home much recently, so he wasn’t sure if the buzz has died down at all since the draft, but he suspects there are many more Eagles fans at home now. 

“I know now that football season is starting to kick up, it’s starting to heat up back home,” he said. “Everyone’s all interested in the Eagles, more than just the local teams around there. It’s pretty exciting. Exciting time for the state of North Dakota, for sure.” 

Odds and ends
• We’ll start with Wentz, who made a great toss on Thursday down the field about 40 yards to shifty wideout Paul Turner. Just a beautiful ball from the rookie. 

• Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Jalen Mills made another play. This time, he was able to get between the ball and Jordan Matthews near the right sideline. Perfect coverage. If he keeps this up once the pads go on Saturday, he’ll earn some playing time this season. 

• Jason Peters spoke for the first time this year after Thursday’s practice. We’ll have plenty on his thoughts and comments, but here’s what stuck out to me: he really didn’t like the way Chip Kelly did some things. He clearly didn’t like the tempo offense or Kelly’s management style. When asked, Peters agreed that Pederson’s staff is way more veteran player-friendly. 

“Any vet that stood up and had something to say, we got rid of him,” Peters said. Yikes. 

• Sproles, Agholor and Rueben Randle worked as the punt returners on Thursday. Obviously, Sproles is the guy, but this gives us an idea of the depth there. 

• Pads go on Saturday. 

• The first open practice (of two) is this Sunday at the Linc at 10 a.m. No tickets needed, just show up.