Ten Biggest Questions for the Sixers Off-Season: 8. Is Spencer Hawes Good Enough For Our Starting Center?

Ten Biggest Questions for the Sixers Off-Season: 8. Is Spencer Hawes Good Enough For Our Starting Center?

It’s been a tough three years with Spencer Hawes in Philadelphia. Our
prospect big man, who started 150 games over his first three seasons as
a Sixer, has been the quintessential NBA tease over his time
in Philly, playing well enough for stretches to gradually raise our
expectations, until he pulls the bottom out from under us with a week or
a month of subpar play, only to begin the cycle over again. The flashes
of growth and unteachable talent are always offset by flashes of
regression and general incompetence, and at the end of the day, it’s
exceedingly difficult to tell if we have a really good NBA player who
just needs to learn consistency, or a seven-foot mirage whose
deficiencies will always outweigh his perceived “potential.”

For the first few years, the Sixers were driven by necessity, and a
paucity of other viable options, to lean towards the former, and they
even rewarded his uneven play with a two-year, $13 million contract last
off-season. With the acquisition of Andrew Bynum later in the summer,
it was supposed to take the pressure of Spence to prove himself–he’d be
overpaid as a back-up center, for sure, but his inconsistency would be
less concerning in a lower-leverage role on the team, and who knows,
maybe he and Bynum would even be able to work well off one another, as
Bynum and Pau Gasol once did in Los Angeles.

Obviously, that pan didn’t plan out, and now with one year remaining
on his contract, the question remains of whether or not Spencer Hawes
will ever be an acceptable starting center in the Association. The
Sixers would really, really love him to be, considering he’s still only
25 (happy birthday last Sunday, Spence!), still not terribly expensive,
and when he plays well, the Sixers always seem to be able to reach
another level, as they did this March when he had his best month of the
season (14/10/4 on 51% shooting and 50% from deep, with two blocks) and
the Sixers went 8-9 for the month, their best month of 2013, sadly.

The numbers sorta bear out that last part, by the way. Take a look at Spence’s splits in Sixers wins vs. losses this season:

Wins: 12 PPG, 8 RPG, 3 APG, 50% FG, 42% 3PT, 2.0 BLK
Losses: 10 PPG, 7 RPG, 2 APG, 44% FG, 30% 3PT, 1.0 BLK

Every player is better in wins than losses, generally, but those are
pretty notable splits, especially in terms of his shooting numbers.
Passes the eye test, too–there’s just so much more that opens up for the
team on offense when he’s hitting his jumper, but everything seems to
really sputter to a halt when he’s clanking.

Anyway, you could make the argument, as Sixers brass will likely try
to, that Spence is a viable option at starting center going into next
year, if Bynum doesn’t work out and Al Jefferson costs too much and no
one in the draft really catches their eye. He still has an above average
PER (16.0 last year, not bad for a center), and set a career high in
Win Shares, supposedly worth about 4.5 wins to the Sixers last year.
Besides, he got better towards the end of the year, and he’s still only
25, which means there should be plenty of room for him still to improve.

I would bet against this happening, though. Forgetting his defense
for a second, let’s compare his numbers this year to his stats for the
Sacramento Kings back in 2009, his second year in the league:

2009: 11.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.9 APG, 47% FG, 35% 3PT, 1.2 BLK
2013: 11.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 46% FG, 36% 3PT, 1.4 BLK

Kind scary similar for a player in his age-20 and age-24 seasons, no?
There are some subtle efficiency differences to be found if you look
hard enough–Spence shot the ball about 10% better from the free-throw
line this year, averaged about half a turnover less a game, and had a
much better defensive rating (though a lot of that was his playing on
the 17-win, anything-goes Kings team of 2009). But for a player to go
through as many ups and downs as Spencer Hawes has as a player the last
four years and essentially be right back where he started
production-wise…it’s a little disconcerting for his long-term prospects.

And if he can’t be a superlative offensive player, his defense will
always make him a net liability. When discussing Hawes’ D, Sixer fans
will likely flash back to the Celtics series in 2012 where he was
profoundly abused by the likes of Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass,
proving himself downright unplayable over the course of the series
(though Coach Collins continued to play him just the same). This year,
Spence wasn’t much better, continuing to get swallowed up by more
physical, sizeable frontlines like that of hose on the Nets, who Hawes
averaged just five boards a game against in four games this season.
(According to Hoopdata,
Spence ranked 23rd in Total Rebounding Rate among centers who played at
least 20 minutes a game.) He was still routinely a crucial half-second
late on help defense, he still didn’t get his hands up to contest jump
shooters, and he never, ever took charges–only three all season, pretty
deplorable for a defensive anchor.

Spence would still be an asset as a backup center, and as a $6.5
million expiring contract this season, could have value to the Sixers in
trade scenarios, either as cap filler in a bigger deal, or as a
short-term loaner to a contending team in need of size in exchange for
future prospects and/or draft picks. As a starting center, I think it’s
safe to say he’s run his course in Philly, and that if we tip off the
season with him jumping at half-court, it probably means our
expectations for the year should be kept reasonably low. Much here
depends on Bynum, free agency, and the draft, but if the Sixers’ plan
for our big-man situation is to resign Hawes to another contract–of any
size or length–once his current expires, that’s really no plan at all.

Previously:

No. 10. Where Are We Now (And Where Are We Going)?

#9. Is Thaddeus Young Untouchable?

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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