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.

Philly Mayor goes to bat for Eagles fans, cheesesteaks against John Oliver

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HBO's Last Week Tonight

Philly Mayor goes to bat for Eagles fans, cheesesteaks against John Oliver

Charter schools. They're complicated!

After watching John Oliver's segment on them over the weekend, you'd agree there is plenty of nuance involved in the charter school debate. But also that some of them are dirty as all get out. An underground nightclub at a SCHOOL? Jeez. That can't be okay anywhere.

It's a solid segment. But it also took a couple of unneeded digs at the city of Philadelphia, its cuisine, and its sports fans.

That irked the Mayor of Philadelphia and he fought back today on Twitter.

"Agree on charter oversight but English soccer fan who eats fish from newsprint can't judge Eagles fans, cheesesteaks," Jim Kenney tweeted.

Take that you fish-eating Brit!

You can also watch the entire John Oliver segment from Last Week Tonight below.

On Eagles' roster bubble, Marcus Smith finally showing signs of improvement

On Eagles' roster bubble, Marcus Smith finally showing signs of improvement

Final cuts are a little over a week away. Marcus Smith is trying to impress a coaching staff that didn't draft him. Steven Means has had a very good preseason. Smith has little to show for his first two NFL seasons.

If time is running out on the former first-round pick from Louisville, it's not weighing on him.

"I try not to think about those things," Smith said. "Just go out there every single day and not worry about what's going on around me because everything will take care of itself."

Smith, in his first year as a 4-3 defensive end after struggling in two seasons as a 3-4 linebacker, missed the preseason game against the Bucs with a concussion but actually played very well Thursday night in Pittsburgh, with four tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry.

It didn't count. But it was the kind of performance the Eagles have been waiting for since they made Smith the 26th pick in the 2014 draft.

Smith played just 68 snaps as a rookie, getting more than seven snaps in only four games. Last year, he played five or fewer snaps in nine of 16 games.

But new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has given Smith every opportunity to shine, and he liked what he saw in Pittsburgh.

"The thing I'm most proud about with Marcus is that he's done a good job in the run game," Schwartz said.

"He's a very skilled athlete. He's fast and he's smooth. I think he was a quarterback when he first went to Louisville. I mean, that stuff shows. Where he's really making good improvement is setting the edge of our defense [and] attacking tackles.

"He did that against a physical group from Pittsburgh. That was a great sign."

Smith was asked about his run defense being an underrated part of his game, and he disagreed with the assessment.

"For myself, it's not an underrated part,  but everybody else thinks that it's underrated because they see me as just a pass rusher," he said.

"But I also know that I can play the run and stop the run and rush the passer at the same time, and when you have both those tools then it allows the coaches to be able to put you in the game more."

When the preseason began, it was just kind of a foregone conclusion that Smith's time in Philly had run out.

Now, he's battling not only for a roster spot, presumably with Means, but also for playing time behind defensive ends Vinny Curry, Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham.

Smith insists he's not worried about where he fits in on a roster that's loaded on the defensive line.

"I don't think about those things because if you think about things you can't control you tend to not do the things that you're supposed to do," he said.

"So I just worry about what I can control and just get better and play well."

Smith is on three special teams units — kickoff, punt and kickoff return — which gives him a few more opportunities to show he belongs.

More than anything, for the first time since he got to the NFL, he's brimming with confidence.

That, more than anything else, was missing the last two seasons.

"I feel really comfortable just because the scheme and the type of defense that we're playing, it allows me to just be a defensive end," he said.

"My confidence level is really high. I feel that when I'm out on the field I can't be stopped."

Russell Wilson still affecting Eagles' decision-making

Russell Wilson still affecting Eagles' decision-making

By now, most Eagles fans have probably heard stories that the team coveted Russell Wilson in the 2012 NFL draft but waited too long and wound up watching helplessly as he went to the Seahawks. Doug Pederson was just an offensive quality control coordinator with the Birds back then, but even he realizes how losing out on a franchise quarterback altered the course of history.

“If we’d have drafted Russell Wilson in 2012, we’d still be here as coaches,” Pederson said with a smile.

That's what Pederson told Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com, and there might be a bit of truth to it. Despite concerns over his stature, it turns out Wilson was an outstanding NFL signal-caller from the jump. And while he was surrounded by a dominant defense and ground attack, he likely would've been a winner just about anywhere.

Actually, Wilson may not have been good enough to save Andy Reid's head coaching job in Philadelphia or his staff — after 14 years, it was time, and an offensive line depleted by injuries was the real reason behind a 4-12 final season. Regardless, Pederson learned something from waiting too long on Wilson in the draft, and based on the Eagles' aggressive move for Carson Wentz this year, the organization did too.

Simply enough, if you like a quarterback, Pederson says, “Take him. Take him. Take the best available one. If you’re not planning for the quarterback position, you’re probably not going to win many games.”

...

“There’s a lesson there. Seattle, they felt like we did with Russell Wilson,” Pederson said. “We got Nick Foles right after that, and I love Nick Foles and think he’s gonna be a good quarterback in this league and do well for Kansas City. But if you’re not planning for that position ...”

For as much criticism or questioning as the Eagles have faced for their plan at quarterback this year, "take him" certainly was not the issue. In addition to all of players and draft collateral they gave up for Wentz, they also invested large sums of money into current starter Sam Bradford and long-term backup Chase Daniel.

If you think Pederson and executive vice president of personnel Howie Roseman's experience of missing out on Wilson didn't play a role in those moves, the head coach made it quite clear to the contrary. While Eagles fans would prefer the known quantity and proven Super Bowl champion under center, you can't say this regime hasn't done everything in its power to erase that mistake.