Sixers Handle Hawks: What Kind of Team Is This, Anyway?

Sixers Handle Hawks: What Kind of Team Is This, Anyway?

I was watching at halftime of ESPN's broadcast of the Knicks-Celtics
game from Friday on my DV-R, and they were reviewing highlights of the
Heat's close-for-three-quarters-turned-blowout win of the Sixers. One of
the commentators—maybe Jon Barry, I can't remember which one, they all
kind of suck—scoffed to one of the others (maybe Michael Wilbon) about
the Sixers: "I thought you said they were contenders?" Maybe-Wilbon had
no real recourse, except to sigh "Bad matchup."

This is sort of
how I feel right now with the Sixers. Last night, the Liberty Ballers
went to Atlanta to play the 16-7 Hawks, and they won handily, leading by
double digits for almost the entirety of the second half and leaving
with a 98-87 victory. (Sorry Sixers fans chilling at the WFC for some
reason, no Big Macs.) And it wasn't the win that impressed me so much,
but how unsurprising it was—I legitimately expected Philly to fly to
Atlanta on the second night of a back to back and show that they were
the better team. Which they did. Which they are. And then it occurs to
me—how many teams are out there now that I wouldn't feel confident with
the Sixers playing? Sure, I'd be a little nervous against the Thunder or
Clippers (the latter of whom we'll be seeing soon enough), but I'd
still think their chances are decent. Really, there are no teams left at
this point at which a Sixers win could legitimately be seen as
unexpected.

Except for the Heat.

The one test that the Sixers
have yet to pass, one which they don't appear particularly close to
passing anytime soon, is to Beat the friggin' Heat—Philly has now twice
played them about even for 30-36 minutes, yet completely lost their
handle in the final twelve minutes, finishing with final scores that
indicate a pretty wide gap between the two teams. And that gap, while
perhaps exaggerated by the final scores, is certainly no mirage—the Heat
are a better basketball team than we are, and will win the great
majority of the games the two teams play.

And yet—is that really
it? If the Heat are so much better than we are, how come they're just a
half-game higher than us in the standings? How did they lose to the
Bucks twice? How did they blow three straight road games on the West
Coast? Could it really be that, as maybe-Wilbon says, the Heat are just
an unfavorable matchup? It's true that with Wade and LeBron, they
nullify our biggest competitive advantage (our wing defense) somewhat,
and that our biggest weakness (post play, interior defense/rebounding)
is exposed somewhat with Chris Bosh and the team's endless reserve of
tall, high-energy rebounders. (Not to mention that we still haven't even
played them with Spencer Hawes and Nik Vucevic, our team's top two big
men, for a full game, and you saw their value last night, as we have all
season.)

So maybe the Sixers aren't that much worse a
team than the Heat, but just might not ever have much success against
them team-to-team. Does that alone mean that they're not considerable as
contenders in the NBA this year? Well...unfortunately, yeah, sorta.
It's hard to imagine a road to the finals that doesn't in some way lead
through Miami—unless Indiana knocked them off in the second round (or if
Milwaukee can repeat their shocking success in an eight-seed upset),
Philly will undoubtedly have to play them in the second or third round
of the Conference playoffs, assuming they get that far. In the '90s, how
many title contenders might there have been in the East if not for the
Jordan/Pippen/Jackson Bulls? But you can't hide from those guys forever,
and it's hard to consider the Sixers a legit title contender until they
have some legitimate level of success against them.

But anyway,
back to the Atlanta game, which turned out pretty cool. We finally got
both our young centers back, though we had to trade Elton Brand for 'em,
since EB was out with a sore thumb, giving rookie Lavoy Allen his
first-ever NBA start, though he only actually played 12 minutes. Hawes,
Vucevic and Allen between them scored 33 points on stunning 16 of 23
shooting, showing what an impressive roster of skilled big men this team
has assembled. There's still some work to go with these guys—the trio
grabbed just 12 rebounds between them and didn't even attempt a free
throw, which is pretty bad for three frontcourt players in 64 combined
minutes of game action—but man, am I glad to finally have all of them at
our disposal at once.

The bench was the big story last night,
as all four subs (including Vucevic with a team-high 15) scored in
double-digits. Evan Turner had a very nice game after some uninspiring
outings against Miami, Chicago and Orlando, scoring 11 points on 5-7
shooting—including a chuckle-worthy three that started out as an
alley-oop pass—with six rebounds and five assists. Perhaps more
importantly, he seemed to learn his lessons on defense from the team's
last game against Atlanta, where Tracy McGrady abused him one-on-one,
getting cheap fouls on The Extraterrestrial and out-maneuvering him for
easy buckets. This time, he played back on T-Mac and turned him
primarily into a distributor, holding him to seven points on 2-6
shooting, and not letting him impose his will on the game. Encouraging
moments from our second-year project.

Elswehere on the Night
Shift, Thaddeus Young continued his run of tremendous offensive play
with 14 points, five boards and even three assists, and Lou Williams
also contributed 14 and five dimes, hitting the game-clinching shot with
just over a minute to go. And also due some cred to two members of our
starting lineup—first, Jodie Meeks, who connected on a pair of threes
and now has hit multiple treys in seven of his last eight games, on pace
for a better year shooting from deep than any Sixer has had since Kyle
Korver. And then, of course, Andre Iguodala, whose All-Star push
continues with another near triple-double—nine points, eight rebounds
and ten assists, with just a single turnover. 'Dre is probably happier
than anyone to have Vuc and Hawes back, since both bigs play the
pick-and-pop so beautifully with our point forward, and his feeds were
damn on the money last night. (We'll let the 3-15 shooting slide for
now, since it wasn't really needed last night anyway).

So yeah, a nice road win for the Sixers, who 24 games into the season,
have still yet to lose consecutive games—a real testament to the team's
character and toughness, and one that the
increasingly-difficult-to-please Coach Collins had to salute after the
game. ("This was our fourth game in six nights and with the emotional
game with
Miami last night, I can't tell you how proud I am of the guys.") But as
good as the win is, it doesn't shake the pall cast from Friday's
discouraging home loss to the Heat, and no matter how they do on the
remainder of this tough stretch (even though by starting 3-1, they've
already done better than many might have predicted beforehand), the only
thing that's going to completely erase that bitterness is a win—or at
the very least, four good quarters of play—when they meet the Heat for a
third time on March 16th. Until then, it's still a great season, but
it's not one that anyone will mistake for being championship-bound.

Next up for the Ballers: Monday night at home against the Los Angeles
Lakers. A win over Kobe and co. will exorcise a couple demons, even if
it might not mean as much as it would have a couple years back when the
Lake Show was at the peak of its powers. All we can do now is play the
games on our schedule, keeping posting good results against good times,
and hope that the sting of the two tough Miami losses fuels the team to
an even more determined level of play. We'll see 'em again soon enough.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

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Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

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