State of the Union, Pt. 2: Talking Sixers Year-End Basketball With Michael Levin

State of the Union, Pt. 2: Talking Sixers Year-End Basketball With Michael Levin

Michael Levin is a 76ers writer for the excellent Liberty Ballers,  part of the SB Nation network. Needing a fresh perspective on the  Sixers heading into the post-season we caught up with Mike  to recap the season that was, and look ahead to the Sixers' (possibly short) playoff run and the team's future in years to come. Mike still hearts Jrue and Evan, would rather have seen Craig Brackins the last week of the season than Elton Brand, and has high hopes for Game One against the Heat. Here's how we did it up:

700: Were you disappointed in the way the season ended? Or was the team's play excusable due to injuries and complacency?

ML: I'm more disappointed that Craig Brackins didn't get some minutes, actually. The last couple games didn’t really matter…I would’ve rather Doug rest the guys, basically. Give 'em some time off to basically get their bodies back to the speed that they’re ready to go in. It’s a long season, Elton Brand was especially banged up, and after not playing for a full season in three years, it would’ve been nice to give him some time off before his first post-season experience [as a Sixer]. Brackins has a ton of potential. I know there’s a lot of holes in his game…but I would still like to see what he can do in like a bigger role. He only played in three games in Philly, and he played ten minutes in all of those games. And he didn’t play that many games in the D-League either—he kept getting brought up and sent back down.

In terms of the last couple games, yeah, it would’ve been nice to finish over .500, since we haven’t done that since ’04 and we made playoffs in three of last four despite not finishing over 500 in any of 'em. Which is a joke, and just kinda gives a lot of light to that “Well, how mediocre can one team be over this span?" idea. And it’s kinda like that still. This is considered a very successful season, by all accounts, if you talk to anybody who’s a Sixers fan...and they still didn’t finish over .500.

So do you think it would have meant anything if the team had gotten that 42nd win? Just to be able to say that it was a winning season?

In the grand scheme of things, it’s so meaningless….one game’s not gonna matter. But when you look at the bigger picture, the "are we getting better" question...and the answer’s no. New regime, a couple new players, but even with this wildly successful season, they still dind’t finish over .500. So it’s less disappointing on a basketball level, and more on like a mental level, that they still haven’t been a winning team since ’04.

Who do you think was the team's MVP this year?

That’s a really tough question….I think that’s the best part about this team from a fan perspective, is that there isn’t a team MVP. No one out of six or seven guys, no one really steps out. I could make a case for Jodie Meeks, just because how much his being in the starting lineup and getting minutes turned things around…Elton Brand had a really terrific season for what he’s coming back from, and Andre Iguodala was just really efficient, played really good basketball. Jrue improved from last year—his defense still isn’t what it could be, but he’s still only 20 years, he’s a baby. He’s gonna be really good, it’s gonna be cool to watch…I’m just really excited about Jrue. And Thaddeus Young has just been unbelievably good off the bench, prob deseres a bigger contract than I’d be willing to give him. And some people who aren’t me are going to say Lou Williams, though I’m not going to say that.

Who would you call the team's LVP, or their most disappointing player, in that case?

Some sort of marriage between Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes. A lot of Turner isn’t really his own fault—a lot of is, but a lot of it is just the situation. People on my blog and others will say "Well, you’ve been making excuses for him all year long," and I have been. But he’s a rookie, you can’t discount the fact that he’s becoming a professional person, and some people that affects more than others. I think we’ve seen the last game and over the course of the season when he’s gotten a chance, there’s a lot of potential there. But if you had told me what we would get from him this year when we drafted him, I would not have been happy. And though Hawes has been better the last couple months, better than we gave him credit for, I was hoping to see more when we got him from Sacramento. More that this guy could make himself into a top ten pick, which he was in 2007. And so I’d like to see flashes of “wow, he could be really good,” and we just never saw that. There’s nothing in his game that says he’s going to be a very good player. At his best, he’ll be a lower-level starter, and worst, he’s a solid backup.

Speaking of Evan Turner on Wednesday Night, it looked like he and Jrue were really getting it done out there. Do you think that was a glimpse of the backcourt of the future for the Sixers, for next year moving forward?

I’m a little worried…around January, I still was thinking Jodie was playing well, but Evan Turner was still going to eventually be the starter. Then by February, I was hoping Turner would still be the starter next year, but by now, there’s no chance that Jodie’s not starting next year. Because this team is probably gon hold on to Andre, and Jodie’s gonna be needed to stretch the floor, so Evan's going to be a backup next year again, which worries me.

I think Paul Pierce is a nice comparison [for Evan going forward], just because he’s a smart player, he’s not the most athletically gifted, but he can use his body and size to his advantage. Once Evan bulks up, and he will, he’s gonna be a very good player. That kind of fill up the stat sheet, do everything on the ball court kind of player, more offense and less defense than Dre. I still hope they trade Dre in the off season. If he gets traded, and we go into next year with Jrue, Jodie and Evan, and we pick up a high-upside big, I’ll be very excited about this team.

What kind of moves do you hope the team makes in the off season, or think that they will make?

The biggest thing is Thaddeus Young. He’s had a really, really good season. And with his contract coming to a close, he wants a good deal of money. He’s a restricted free agent so we can match any offer. What the Sixers’ll probably do is say OK, go see what you can get, and if we have enough money, we’ll match it. And they’ll probably hope that someone does what the Grizzlies did a couple years ago with Josh Smith—offer a low deal, and we’ll match it. But I think people around the league will see his production, see how young he is, and want to offer him too much. I don’t think he’s gonna be that good, he doesn’t have a jump shot, his handle isn’t terrific, and his defense is just average, same with his rebounding. He’s a perfect contender for 6th man forever, but on our team, we can’t afford to pay a Lamar Odom when we’re not going to win the title. I kinda hope he’s not back here, because if he is, that’s because we’ll have overpaid him.

What I forget, and what a lot of people do is that he’s never had a coach for more than a year, and Collins loves him, and if he’s here for a couple years, Thad could really, really blossom. If this isn’t his ceiling, then he could become a really good player. I just don’t think that he’s ever gonna live up to the hype that’s surrounding him.

Assuming Thad doesn't come back, and they do have a little money, are there any other moves you'd like to see the team make, or think they will make?

I think Noc is gonna go also, either bought out or just retire and go play in Europe. In terms of the o
ff season, I don’t think any big free agent is gonna come here. I’d personally just rather try to trade Louis Williams—no surprise. If we can package Lou and Noc’s expiring for a big guy and a draft pick I’d love it. I really just don’t think on this team, if Lou has a big role, which he does as currently assembled, I don’t think that team is ever gonna win a championship. He needs to be like the 8th man off the bench, shoots for 15 minutes and sits down, like Eddie House. He’s beter than House, but he’s not the cornerstone of a franchise. So I would love to see them try to trade him, so Jrue could officially take on the role of point guard, just put him in control the offense. Give him the C letter.

So what has to happen for the Sixers to even have a chance to be competitive in this series, minus any injuries or assassination attempts?

I think what has to happen....basically the only thing the Sixers can do is keep doubling on Wade and LeBron and making the other guys beat you. The hope is they’ll try to get Prime Time on you, take a couple shots when they’re double-teamed—and some will go in bcause they’re so talented—but if you can make them take those, and not have James Jones go for 25 threes against us, then there’s a chance we could win a couple games. We basically just need to make every shot, Jodie needs to go off completely, Iguodala needs to just shut LeBron down, Hawes has to be efficient…the last time they got killed on the boards, because the Big Three all had double-digit rebounds, and all are athletic enough that even though they’re not typical big men, they're hard to box out. So we need to focus on limiting second-chance points and just out-smarting them. We’re a smarter team. Collins is a smarter coach than Spoelstra, and if we just hang with them, hang with them, hang with them, and then someone makes a big shot…I would just love for them to win the first game, and then all of a sudden Miami is just shitting themselves, and everyone’s “ohh my god, LeBron can’t win a big game.” If they can get into a battle with them...

What would they have to do in this series for you to feel like it was a success?

I think I’m gonna feel good about the season as a whole no matter what. If they lose all four, we lost to a much better team with two of the best players of their generation. If hey win game one or two. I’d be amped. If they take the series to six games, maybe they’d turn some heads, and people would start talking about the Sixers, rather than just who the Heat would be playing. Though still, honestly, I still would’ve rather this team lost 55 games this year and got a good pick. Right now, it's fun to watch, I’m enjoying it, but in five years, I think I would rather the team have tanked for the pick."

Who on the Sixers are you most closely watching this post-season, to see what, if anything, they show you?

I’m looking at Jrue. He’s the biggest hope for this franchise. Andre’s been in the playoffs before, and I’m kinda worried he’ll take that “Look at me, I’m a #1 option” again attitude, and Elton hasn't been there in a while…but Jrue, I think this is a big stage for him, and he’s still really young. So if he can come out and have a big series, defend Wade a little, lock him down for just one game, it’ll be like he’s here, he’s a big name, he should be up there right below guys like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. If the Sixers were a better team, had better players, than Jrue could be talked about just like those guys. He’s gonna be a force in a couple years as a guy who can just do everything on the basketball court.

Ultimately, when all is said and done, do you think this team was any different from the '08 or '09 Sixers? The feeling around the team is so different, but they ended up with about the same record.

It’s the same team. Back then, everyone was excited about Thad, he was the young guy, and now that’s kinda Jrue or Evan…but when you look at it, they’re still an underdog, they’re scrappy, their identity is play hard and get out on the break. The only difference is that now we have a guy who can shoot the three with regularity. It’s a nice team, it’s a nice underdog story, but really, you look at the teams and they’re very similar.

That's...kinda depressing.

Well, yeah. People hated last year, but I loved last year. It was fun to hate Eddie Jordan, it was fun to make fun of his stupid decisions…it was awesome. This year, they’re gonna get some playoff love, and that’s cool...but I love what OKC did. Be s---ty for a long time, get draft picks, and then be better. Unless a superstar falls into your lap, you have to be bad, in order to be good.”

Got any chants in mind for LeBron or the Heat for the home games?

I kinda want…people have been posting pictures of Bosh as an ostrich, so I’m kinda hoping for a couple Bostrich pictures at the game. If he’s shooting a foul shot and there’s a big picture of an ostrich, that'd be fun. A lot of people wouldn’t know what it really meant, and that’d be fun too.

The Sixers' post-season tips off at 3:30 against the Heat in Miami this Saturday.

Best of MLB: Beltre's 2 home runs lift Rangers over A's

Best of MLB: Beltre's 2 home runs lift Rangers over A's

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Adrian Beltre hit his second home run of the game with two outs in the ninth inning, a two-run shot that rallied the Texas Rangers past the Oakland Athletics 7-6 on Monday night for their third straight win.

Beltre, who finished with four hits, had two singles in his first three at-bats before hitting a solo homer in the seventh. His game-winning drive came on the first pitch from Ryan Madson (3-4).

Until then, Texas had trailed since Danny Valencia hit a two-run homer for Oakland with two outs in the first. All 13 runs in the game were scored with two outs.

Texas turned three double plays behind starter Martin Perez, who has induced a major league-best 25 in 21 games.

Valencia also had the first of three run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that gave the A's a 5-1 lead (see full recap).

Blue Jays' Sanchez wins 10th straight decision
TORONTO  -- Aaron Sanchez pitched seven shutout innings to win his 10th consecutive decision, Kevin Pillar had three hits and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the San Diego Padres 4-2 on Monday night.

Sanchez (11-1) became the first Blue Jays pitcher to win 10 straight since Roy Halladay won 15 decisions in a row in 2003. Halladay and Roger Clemens (1998) hold the club record.

Making their first appearance in Toronto, the Padres were held scoreless until Alex Dickerson hit a two-run homer off Bo Schultz in the ninth.

Dickeerson's drive into the fifth deck extended San Diego's team-record streak of games with at least one home run to 23. The 2006 Atlanta Braves were the last National League team to homer in 23 straight games.

Roberto Osuna replaced Schultz and got two outs for his 21st save (see full recap).

Orioles top Rockies for 5th straight win
BALTIMORE -- Adam Jones scored the winning run in the 10th inning on a low throw to the plate by pitcher Jordan Lyles, and the Baltimore Orioles beat the Colorado Rockies 3-2 on Monday night for their fifth straight victory.

Jones reached on a one-out single off the third-base bag and took third on a single by Jonathan Schoop. Manny Machado followed with a comebacker to Lyles, who fumbled the ball before throwing home. Catcher Nick Hundley caught the ball near the ground and lost the handle while attempting to tag the sliding Jones.

Lyles (2-3) was charged with an error on the play.

Getting two RBIs from Jones, the Orioles climbed a season-high 18 games over .500 (58-40) and improved to 37-14 at home.

Chaz Roe (1-0) worked the 10th for the win (see full recap).

Trade candidates — especially Jeremy Hellickson — lead Phils to shutout of Marlins

Trade candidates — especially Jeremy Hellickson — lead Phils to shutout of Marlins

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jeremy Hellickson was standing in front of his locker speaking with reporters after his second strong outing in a week against the Miami Marlins when Cameron Rupp walked by an offered his take on all the trade talk surrounding the veteran pitcher.

“He’s not going anywhere,” Rupp said loud enough for everyone in the room to hear.

Hellickson laughed at his catcher’s commentary.

“I hope not,” he said.

If Hellickson really wants to stay with the Phillies and finish out this rebuilding season instead of moving to a contender for the final two months — and possibly beyond — he did himself a disservice Monday night.

He enhanced his attractiveness to potential buyers by pitching six shutout innings in the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Miami Marlins (see Instant Replay).

Hellickson, who sports a 3.65 ERA in 21 starts, needed just 70 pitches to get through the six innings. He was lifted for a pinch-hitter with runners on second and third and two outs in a scoreless game in the top of the seventh. Ryan Howard struck out, following Cody Asche and Peter Bourjos, as the Phillies whiffed on a golden scoring chance.

“I hated taking Hellickson out of the game there, but we had an opportunity to score and I had to go for it,” manager Pete Mackanin said.

“After we didn’t score, I didn’t think we had a chance to win this game. I just thought that with their bullpen we were in trouble.”

The Phillies ended up winning with a rally against Miami’s bullpen. Tommy Joseph delivered a clutch, two-out double against Fernando Rodney in the eighth to score Maikel Franco from first. That was the only run the Phillies needed. They tacked on three against the sloppy Marlins in the ninth to finish it off.

Hellickson, David Hernandez, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez then combined to allow just one base runner in three innings to finish off the Phillies’ 11th shutout of the season. That’s the most in the majors.

“Our bullpen did a great job,” Mackanin said.

Three of the four pitchers that the Phillies used in the game — Hellickson, Hernandez and Gomez — are very much available for trades. They all pitched well with a gaggle of scouts sitting behind the backstop. A number of contending clubs — the Cubs, Orioles, Giants, Rangers and Blue Jays — had scouts at the game. Pitching, starting and relief, is high on the needs list for most of those teams.

Of course, the Marlins are looking for pitching, too. They have interest in Hellickson, though it’s not clear whether he is a top target of theirs. Maybe he will become a top target after what he’s done to the Marlins in the last week. Hellickson has pitched 14 innings over two starts against the Marlins. He has given up just six hits and a run.

“Just executing,” said the pitcher, explaining his success. “In my last two games the ball has been down for the most part. I’ve just gotten a lot of easy outs. The ball's down and not missing too many spots right now.”

Hellickson will be a free agent this winter and does not appear to be in the club’s future plan. Nonetheless, he has steadfastly said he would like to remain with the club for the rest of this season. Phillies management is not opposed to keeping Hellickson. He provides veteran stability and innings to a young rotation. But management would move Hellickson for a player that has the potential to help in the future.

Trade rumors can be distracting for a player. But Hellickson, who has been dealt twice in his career, is locked in.

“It doesn't bother me,” he said. “Once I'm in this locker room — obviously you still see it on TV and stuff — my focus is on helping us win today. Now it's on to the next start. It's been like this for a few years now so it's pretty easy to go out there right now.”

Mackanin said he had no idea what will become of Hellickson’s fate. But if the pitcher stays, he won’t complain.

“At this point, I don’t want to lose him,” Mackanin said. “I wish he could stay here. He’s that solid for us. He’s been like that the whole year.”

The Phillies needed a good pitching effort to pull this one out. Their hitters struck out 13 times, left 11 men on base and went just 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position.

“We don’t show plate discipline,” Mackanin lamented. “We’re taking fastballs early in the count that are hittable pitches. If you’re going to take fastballs early in the count that are hittable pitches, you cannot swing at breaking balls in the dirt. That’s all I can say about that. We have to have more plate discipline.”

On the positive side of that, Franco and Rupp both walked three times, and Franco’s two-out walk in the eighth became the biggest run of the game on a night when Jeremy Hellickson and his status with the Phillies was the biggest storyline.

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Marlins 0

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Marlins 0

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jeremy Hellickson continued to enhance his trade value and Tommy Joseph had the big hit in the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Miami Marlins on Monday night.

Hellickson shut down the Marlins for the second time in a week. The next time he pitches, it could be for them. The Marlins are one of the teams interested in the veteran right-hander. Scouts from several other contending teams were in attendance for Hellickson’s strong outing.

Joseph’s two-out double in the top of the eighth broke a scoreless tie.

Phillies pitching held the Marlins to two hits. The Phils have 11 shutouts this season.

Starting pitching report
Hellickson pitched six scoreless innings and gave up just a hit and a walk while striking out one. He exited for a pinch-hitter after just 70 pitches. The right-hander has pitched 14 innings and allowed just one run in his last two starts, both against the Marlins. He has lowered his season ERA to 3.65.

Miami’s Jarred Cosart came up from Triple A and pitched five scoreless innings. However, he threw 92 pitches. He allowed three hits, a walk and struck out one.

Bullpen report 
Trade candidate David Hernandez pitched a strong seventh inning for the Phils, picking up the win. Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez closed it out.

Miami right-hander Kyle Barraclough came up big in the top of the seventh inning. He struck out Cody Asche, Peter Bourjos and pinch-hitter Ryan Howard with runners on second and third to preserve a 0-0 tie.

Marlins right-hander Fernando Rodney struck out the first two batters in the eighth then gave up a four-pitch walk to Maikel Franco before Joseph’s two-out double delivered the game’s first run.

Rodney took the loss.

A.J. Ramos was charged with three runs in the ninth, two unearned.

At the plate
The Phillies survived 13 strikeouts, a 1-for-9 performance with runners in scoring position and 11 men left on base to score the win.

The Phils had just six hits. Joseph had a pair of them and now has 25 RBIs in 54 games.

Cesar Hernandez gave the Phils some cushion with an RBI single in the top of the ninth. Miami’s defense fell apart after that and the Phils scored two more runs to put the game away.

Asche had a hit to break an 0-for-26 skid. Bourjos is 0 for his last 17.

Trade talk
Andres Blanco is out for six weeks so he’s no longer a trade candidate, but others are (see story).

Up next
Jerad Eickhoff (6-11, 3.98) pitches against Miami right-hander Tom Koehler (7-8, 4.42) on Tuesday night. Koehler pitched eight innings of two-run ball in beating the Phillies last week at Citizens Bank Park.