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.

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

Eagles Stay or Go Part 6: Taylor Hart to Donnie Jones

In the sixth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — Part 6 is Hart to Jones.

Taylor Hart

Roob: No matter how hard the Eagles try, they just can't get rid of Taylor Hart. Chip Kelly drafted Hart in the fifth round in 2014 and then Hart began last season with Kelly in San Francisco before reappearing here later in the season. Hart is going into his fourth NFL season and has 15 games, 12 tackles and no sacks to show for it. He turns 26 next month and has never shown any signs of being a guy who can contribute in a 4-3 defense. I’m going to say he goes, but don't be surprised if he finds his way back onto the roster at some point. 

Verdict: GOES

Dave: Hart was with the Eagles last training camp but cut him on Sept. 4 and he was claimed by the 49ers and Chip Kelly. Then when the Niners cut him, the Eagles claimed him back and he spent the rest of the season watching the Eagles play football. He was inactive in all but the last game and in that one he didn’t play. Hart is a former fifth-round pick who just fits better in a 3-4. The Eagles already played undrafted rookie Destiny Vaeao over him, so it’s time to set him free. 

Verdict: GOES

Jordan Hicks
Cap hit: $796K

Roob: Whenever you blast Chip for getting rid of Shady, DeSean and Jeremy Maclin, you have to mention that he did draft Jordan Hicks in the third round. Hicks, in just 24 games, has become one of the most productive playmaking linebackers in Eagles history. With seven interceptions, he already has the 11th-most interceptions in franchise history by a linebacker, and he led all NFL linebackers with five INTs this past season. Only four linebackers in NFL history have had more interceptions in their first two seasons – Hall of Famer Jack Ham is one of them. But Hicks is more than a ballhawk. He’s a smart, heady linebacker who is stout at the point of attack and is already developing into a terrific locker room leader as well. The future is certainly bright for Hicks.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: He just finished his second year in the NFL, but Hicks is quickly becoming one of the biggest playmaking linebackers in the league. Through the first 24 games of his career, he has seven interceptions. In his first two years, he has 7 INTs, 4 FRs, 1 FF. He’s the fifth player in NFL history to do that in his first two seasons and he’s the only linebacker. That said, Hicks needs to get better against the run and he knows it. Now that he won’t have an injury to heal from this offseason, he plans on hitting the weight room to get stronger and better at stopping the run. He looks like a cornerstone of the franchise. 

Verdict: STAYS

Malcolm Jenkins
Cap hit: $7.5M

Roob: Jenkins had another good year in his third season with the Eagles, although not quite up to his Pro Bowl level of 2015. Jenkins, who turns 30 late next season, is on the books for another four years with some pretty high cap figures — $7.5 million in 2017, then $10 million, $9.75 million and $9.25 million. But as long as Jenkins continues to play at a high level, I don’t see him going anywhere until after the 2018 season at the earliest, when he would count just $3 million in dead money if he’s released. But Jenkins is a guy you'd like to see finish his career in Philly. Hope that happens. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: It’s hard to quantify just how much Jenkins means to the Eagles or how much he’s worth. But it’s a lot. The last two seasons have been the best of his career and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. The best Jenkins stat is this: He’s missed just eight defensive snaps since arriving in 2013. Unreal. If the Eagles chose to play him at cornerback last year, he would have probably been their best one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Lane Johnson
Cap hit: $10M

Roob: If he goes, it’ll be because of a third positive drug test. Johnson’s play in the six games he was available to the Eagles was at an All-Pro level. But after two positive tests for banned substances and suspensions of four games in 2014 and 10 games in 2016, he’s now one positive test away from a two-year ban that would essentially end his Eagles career. My gut feeling is Johnson has learned his lesson and won’t take any more chances. That he understands what’s at stake here and isn’t going to risk his career by taking a supplement that hasn’t been pre-tested and cleared. Obviously there are other reasons the Eagles were 5-1 when Johnson played. Those five wins included games against the hapless Browns and Bears and a win against a Cowboys team that wasn’t trying to win. But that said, Johnson’s value is clear. He's a beast. It’s up to Johnson whether he becomes a Pro Bowl offensive tackle or a casualty of the NFL’s substance abuse regulations. I can’t imagine he’ll make the same mistake again.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: A lot was made about Johnson’s suspension voiding the guaranteed portion of his contract. And for a week or so, a bunch of fans were calling into talk radio saying the Eagles should cut him. That was laughable. Johnson is still the Eagles’ best offensive player and as long as he stays on the field and plays the way he did in 2016, he’s going to make most of the money in his contract. He obviously deserves plenty of blame for the way last season went, but he’s a big piece of the future. One more suspension and his career is basically over, so the Eagles just have to hope he doesn’t ruin everything.  

Verdict: STAYS

Marcus Johnson

Roob: Johnson is an interesting guy. Ran a 4.37 so he has wheels, but he didn’t have much of a career at Texas. Then again, Texas didn’t have a legit quarterback while he was there so maybe there’s a lot of untapped potential. The Eagles are so desperate for help at wide receiver they’ll take a good long look at everybody on the roster, even a guy who bounced off and on the practice squad last year. This Longhorn is a longshot to make the roster, but then again, if he catches the football consistently in training camp he’ll give himself a fighting chance.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: The receiver was with the Eagles during training camp and flashed some before getting hurt. He joined the practice squad during the season and was there at season’s end. He’ll be brought to camp but is a longshot to make the roster. 

Verdict: GOES

Donnie Jones
Cap hit: $1.25M

Roob: At 36 years old, the greatest punter in Eagles history (sorry Mat McBriar) showed no signs of slowing down. In his 13th NFL season, Jones averaged 45.8 yards per punt with a 40.7 net – both above his career highs. The most amazing thing about Jones is his knack for dropping punts inside the 20 without hitting very many touchbacks. He had 21 inside the 20 this year with just six touchbacks, and in four seasons with the Eagles he has 117 inside the 20 with just 26 touchbacks. When you don’t have an explosive offense, field position is critical, and Jones is a human field position flipping machine. The Eagles signed him to a three-year extension this year, and he’s now under contract through 2019.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: At times during the last two seasons, Jones has looked like the offense’s best weapon. That’s not a good sign for the offense, but it is for Jones. He’s already the best punter in team history. He’ll be 37 by the time the 2017 season starts, but he just signed a contract and will be the team’s punter for at least a couple more years if everything goes to plan. 

Verdict: STAYS