The Sixers just beat one of the NBA's best teams. What the hell do we do now?

The Sixers just beat one of the NBA's best teams. What the hell do we do now?

You would think that watching the 76ers pull off a road upset of the 26-7 Portland Trail Blazers about an hour or so after the Eagles came up just short in Philadelphia's first big four playoff game since May of 2012 would help ease the heartbreak of sports fans in the City of Brotherly Love, give them something nice to think about for the future and remind them that generally speaking, all is not totally lost. At the very least, you'd certainly think the win wouldn't add to the city's misery on the night, right?

Well, unfortunately, things aren't so simple in Philadelphia sports this year, and in the words of Rosie Perez in White Men Can't Jump, sometimes when you win, you lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win. (And sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie...yeah.) The Sixers' surprise W in Portland was not met with delight and wonderment, but--at least from the Philly dudes on my Twitter--rather a sense of foreboding panic: Oh crap, the team's actually good again, what the hell are we gonna do now?

This is, of course, not only due to last night's win, but the fact that the W marks four in a row for the Sixers, all on the road, all against the stacked Western Conference. The winning streak is the longest of the season for the Liberty Ballers, and brings them up to a tie for tenth place in the East standings. Most incredibly, with their 12-21 record, they are now a mere two games behind the Charlotte Bobcats for eighth place in this crappy conference, and a possible playoff bid.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. This time two Sundays ago, we were applauding a road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks--the friggin' 5-21 Bucks, who have gone a sparkling 1-5 since beating the Sixers--which seemed to crystallize the Sixers' brilliant, seemingly foolproof plan to sink all the way to the bottom. I had this conversation with my girlfriend the next morning:

Me: "The Sixers lost last night to the worst team in the NBA."
Her: "Oh, sorry. Who's the worst team in the NBA?"
Me: "Well...the Sixers, now, I guess."

It wasn't exactly a cause for celebration, but it did feel like the fruits of a plan coming together. The Sixers had started the season 3-0, given us all a bunch of thrills and a whole lot of laughs, but now the time had come for the team to really dig in and get to work. Losing work.

We were gonna play our way to the bottom, one Evan Turner 2-15 shooting night at a time, and reap the rewards come the June draft. Evan and Spence were gonna walk, and we were gonna begin our rebuild around Rookie of the Year winner Michael Carter-Williams, as well as a healthy Nerlens Noel, two lottery picks in next year's loaded draft (including our own Top Five pick, the most important part of the equation), and possibly Thaddeus Young if he happened to survive the roster's nuclear winter. It wasn't pretty, but it was beautiful.

Now, who the hell knows. It's not like the Sixers are unexpectedly campaigning for a championship, but like I alluded to earlier, the playoffs no longer seem totally out of the question in the miserable East. You look back now and you realize that the team's 12-21 record might actually be deceptive, since when the team has both Michael Carter-Williams and Evan Turner healthy in the lineup, they're actually 11-10, and with their recent MCW-ET-Hollis-Thad-Spence starting five in tact, they're actually 6-2.

With the LBs playing like this, you then start looking at the teams around them in the East standings and wondering which, if any of them, are conclusively better than the Sixers. The Bobcats? I wouldn't be so sure. The Cavaliers? Certainly doesn't seem like it. The Knicks and the Nets? Well, if they were, they probably would've shown it by now, wouldn't they? It's a frightening exercise, to say the least.

But this isn't what you want to be hearing about right now, particularly after the other events of last night, is it? You'd probably rather I try to talk you off the ledge, to explain why this doesn't actually mean the Sixers are playoff-bound, and how even if it does, that's not the worst thing in the world, right? Well, you're in luck, because I think I can mostly do that. Consider the following:

1. The Sixers' first three wins on this road trip were wins that even a truly shitty team should have been able to pick up. They caught a sub-.500 Lakers team missing Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and their top two point guards, then a plummeting Nuggets team in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, and then a Kings team that, while improving, was still just 10-20 on the season, and in mostly the same situation as the Sixers. Taken on their own, none of these wins would have been all that surprising, and certainly none considerable as alarming.

2. The marquee win of this road trip, last night's victory over the Blazers, was the fluke win to trump all fluke wins. The Sixers' league-worse three-point defense somehow managed to hold the Blazers' league-best three-point shooting to a miserable 3-22 behind the arc, one game after Portland flirted with history by hitting 21 treys against the much-tougher Bobcats defense. The Sixers are doing a better job of guarding the three on this road trip, but it was mostly just Portland missing shots they almost always make, and if the teams played that game last night 100 times and I'd be surprised if they hold the Blazers to just three triples even once more.

Not to mention that Portland PG Damian Lillard had a chance to tie the game and send it into overtime with just seconds to go, and missed a relatively clean look at the game-tying layup. This is the same Damian Lillard that's probably hit more game-tying and go-ahead buckets in the final 30 seconds of games this season on his own than half the other teams in the league combined, and most of them on ridiculous bombs from well beyond the three-point arc. What were the odds he missed that layup? One in ten, maybe? The Sixers must have cashed in all of their 2014 karma just to get a W in that one.

3. The Sixers' improved play does not exactly scream sustainable. Thaddeus Young in particular has been on a historic tear of late, playing by far the best basketball of his career over the four-game winning streak (and even the two losses before that), now upping his averages to 27 points, nine rebounds, two assists and three steals on 55% shooting over the now seven contests since he was engulfed by trade rumors. We've never seen Thad sustain this level of production for this long before, and it's pretty hard to believe that he's simply evolved into an All-Pro-type player, seemingly overnight. Chances are, he comes back to earth sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, since that 2-15 night in Milwaukee, Evan Turner seems to have turned things around as well, averaging 23 points, seven rebounds and nearly five assists on 47% shooting in the four wins since. But we know Evan well enough to know that any hot streak of his can freeze up at a moment's notice, and it might be weeks, even months before he gives off any kind of heat again. No winning run built around the consistent success of these two players should ever last for more than a week at a time, and I'd bet this one is no exception.

Oh, and not to mention that Michael Carter-Williams endured a nasty bump on the noggin at the end of last night's win. He says he's OK, and no one on the team has used the word "concussion" yet, but knowing the Sixers' medical staff / tanking engine, I wouldn't be surprised if he sat out at least a game or two for "precautionary reasons." That might be enough to help derail the team's momentum a little, and if they lose one or two, it could be weeks before they get back on track. You never know with this team.

4. The trade deadline is still a month away. In many ways, it's in the Sixers' best interest for everyone to be playing their best ball at this time of year, and for the team to even emerge victorious in a handful of games as a result, since it flashes a message to contenders: We have good players for sale who will help you win ballgames. Evan in particular had deflated his trade value to near-negligible proportions with his and the team's crappy play earlier in December, but now that he's scoring and winning again, maybe we can convince the Timberwolves or Clippers or whoever else that he's worth dealing some future considerations for. Spence is hooping again, and of course any team would love to add Thaddeus Young to their roster when he's playing like this.

We've seen that depth is not a particular strong suit of this team, so it might not take a complete roster annihilation to reverse the team's fortunes. Really, dealing any one of these guys would have a seismic impact on the team's chances--imagine having to start Daniel Orton or Elliot Williams for the final 40+ games of the season, and what that alone would do to our chances to win nightly. The team might only be one trade away from getting right back into tanking contention.

Now, even with all that said, you might still want to hear from me that the team winning isn't such a bad thing, and that really even if the team does continue to ball and maybe scrape their way into the playoff conversation, that that's OK and that some of the fringe benefits of that winning will make up for losing out on a potential top five pick in next year's draft. You might want to hear that all of this is really for the best, and that in fact we should actually be rooting for the team to keep winning, because it'll really help the team in the long run.

Will it? I honestly don't know. There are real, tangible benefits of winning for winning's sake--for instance, if you believe reports that Thaddeus Young did request a trade based on the team's poor performance, you might think that now that they're winning a little, he might rescind his request, or at least not push it too urgently. That could be hugely beneficial for the team down the road, since if Thad continues to play anywhere near this level for the next few seasons, he could be an integral part of the next truly contending Sixers team, and we might look back in a few years and be very thankful that we didn't end up panic-trading him just to indulge his whim and assist our tanking chances.

Meanwhile, there's something to be said for building a "winning atmosphere" in Philly, establishing losing like the Sixers did for most of December as unacceptable, and letting the league know that the this team is gonna be for real sooner rather than later. The draft isn't the only avenue the Sixers will have for improving their team next year--they're also gonna have oodles of cap space going into free agency, and while it's not a stellar FA class and most of the top guns aren't realistic fits for the Ballers anyway, it never hurts to have a desirable team situation to market as a selling point. No legitimately productive veteran ever signs on to play for a known loser in a small-to-medium market without a significant overpay on the team's part, and overpaying FAs certainly doesn't seem like General Hinkie's M.O.

And in the end, even though getting the top-five pick seems to be the highest-percentage way for this team to rebuild next summer, it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even in a Worst-Case Scenario in which the team actually makes the playoffs--stupid backwards basketball--and has to give up their otherwise-protected draft pick to the Heat this summer, they could still go into next summer with the Hornets pick (likely to land around #12), a waiting-in-the-wings Nerlens Noel, an on-the-cusp-of-greatness MCW, a happy and productive Thad, plenty of other improving young talent and cap space from here to eternity. It's more future assets than a lot of other teams will have at their disposal, I can tell you that much.

There's also no telling what kind of impact it will have on the Sixers if Sam Hinkie decides to start dealing veterans just as the team starts to thrive. No one on our team wants to actually tank, and if a key player gets traded in the midst of the Ballers' best play of the season, it could mark a betrayal that is not easily forgiven by those players remaining on the roster. Think that if Evan or Spence get traded, that Thad won't demand to be the next out the door, even if we can't find a trade that lands fair value for him? If Hinkie leads us down that road, things could start getting real messy real quick.

So that's all the con side to tanking for the sake of tanking at this point in the season. The pro? Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Joel Embiid, Dante Exum and Aaron Gordon. As potentially destructive as it might be for the Sixers to take active steps towards big-scale losing, you watch some of those guys play for a game or two and it's hard not to feel like it's all probably worth it if it could result in us landing one of them. If the Sixers are gonna be legitimately good, it might be a while before we have a chance to land a player of that caliber through the draft again, and finding it elsewhere in the NBA can be pretty tricky.

It's a very tough decision, and it's one that I'm glad men smarter and more knowledgeable than myself have been tasked with making. But in the meantime, I'm still not convinced that it's time to panic. If you recall, the Sixers started off their season with an unexpected winning streak, too. Then things went wrong. And that's what happens in the NBA, especially to young, rebuilding teams: Things go wrong. Injuries. Disrupted chemistry. Unforeseen trades. For the Sixers to have a chance of making the playoffs this year, just about everything has to go right for them. That may be a possibility, but it's not a particularly large one, and I'll put my money on entropy over perfect stability in this league any day.

Let's not freak out about this just yet, then. It's not too late in the season to get a little excited over a fun Sixers win without worrying about the potential tanking consequences. There's still a ton of basketball left, and if they drafted today, the Sixers would still have a top ten pick with a decent chance of getting lucky and landing in the top three. They remain in the driver's seat for that top five pick, and even if they don't get it, their future remains unquestionably bright. It's enough to find joy in during an otherwise sobering Philly sports morning.

Penn State season preview: Is James Franklin on the hot seat?

Penn State season preview: Is James Franklin on the hot seat?

It should come as no surprise that one scalding take heading into this college football season is that Penn State coach James Franklin is on the hot seat.

It’s understandable if you consider the fact that the Langhorne native has finished 7-6 each of his first two seasons, or that he is a combined 0-6 against Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, the three teams he absolutely must beat to succeed in the rugged Big Ten East.

(Also to be taken into account is that the Lions lost to Maryland two years ago for the first time since 1961, and to Temple last year for the first time since 1941.)

Take a step back, though. Consider that he is still dealing with the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal — that, specifically, the draconian NCAA sanctions left him with a threadbare roster when he arrived from Vanderbilt.

Consider further that his own athletic director, Sandy Barbour, has his back, and that he is entering just the third year of a six-year contract.

Hot seat? Well, maybe a little toasty, but nothing more.

For the record, Franklin declined to play along when asked Tuesday afternoon about any noise pertaining to his job. He said during the Big Ten coaches’ conference call that he was concerned only with the task at hand — Saturday’s season opener against Kent State in Beaver Stadium and the day-to-day machinations of his team.

“Focus on that, not anything else,” he said. “Not any other conversations or anything else going on. Focus on the things we can control.”

He has said on other occasions that he considers this Year One of his program, since he finally has a full complement of 85 scholarship players (or thereabouts) at his disposal. He and his staff have consistently brought in top-notch recruits, something best reflected at the skill positions.

The Lions, however, are painfully young (12 players with senior eligibility) and have a new quarterback (redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley), questions along both lines and little depth on linebacker. They are also facing a tough schedule, especially early. September includes visits to Pitt and Michigan sandwiched around a home meeting with Temple, and later they not only face the Buckeyes and Spartans but an always-respectable Iowa club.

So if they tank — if, say, they go 4-8 (not an impossibility) — then it is safe to say that Franklin might be in jeopardy. If they again piddle along in the middle of the pack, which seems more likely, he will almost certainly get another year.

McSorley, a smallish run-pass threat (at 6 feet, 201 pounds), would appear to be a better fit for Franklin’s preferred offensive mode than the departed Christian Hackenberg, a classic dropback type — particularly since new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, formerly the head coach at Fordham, has brought his no-huddle spread attack to Happy Valley.

McSorley spelled an injured Hackenberg midway through last season’s TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia, going 14 for 27 for 142 yards and two touchdowns, and he certainly has a pedigree. He was a rare four-year starter at Briar Woods High School in Virginia, leading his team to four consecutive state finals and winning the first three of those.

“Trace just has that gene inside him that just makes him a competitor, and just a winner,” said Wake Forest tight end Cam Serigne, once McSorley’s high school teammate.

That is literally true. McSorley’s dad, Rick, played football at Richmond, and a paternal uncle, Jeff, played at Marshall. But McSorley has seemingly taken that DNA and run with it.

In his very first high school game he led his team, minus its top two running backs, on a game-winning 88-yard drive in the final minutes. And in his career he won 55 of 60 games.

“He was kind of smart beyond his years,” Briar Woods coach Charlie Pierce said. “I’ve been coaching for 27 years and a head coach for 17 years at a couple different high schools, and I’ve only experienced a couple players that had a football acumen like Trace. Trace had the best, by far, at an early age.”

Now he will be entrusted with a unit that promises to be heavy on run-pass options.

“I think that’s going to be one of the best things of our offense,” McSorley said, “because the defense can in one sense never be right.”

He has a guy who can run in sophomore Saquon Barkley (a school freshman-record 1,076 yards last year) and a bunch of guys who can catch, headed by Chris Godwin (69-1,101-5 TDs) and DaeSean Hamilton (45-580-6 TDs).

But the line remains a question, and only one projected starter — right tackle Andrew Nelson — will open in the same position he filled a year ago. (The new left guard is Ryan Bates, a redshirt freshman from Archbishop Wood.)

The defensive line, which lost three NFL players in Austin Johnson (Titans), Anthony Zettel (Lions) and Carl Nassib (Browns), is likewise unsettled. Only end Garrett Sickels returns.

Linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White, a Philadelphia native, was lost for the season with a knee injury sustained in the 2015 opener against Temple. The fifth-year senior is back and will man the weak side, after playing the middle last year.

Jason Cabinda slid over from the weak side to fill the breach when Wartman-White was injured, and led the team with 100 tackles. He’s also back. So too is Brandon Bell (Mays Landing, N.J./Oakcrest High) on the strong side. He made 65 tackles last year despite “playing with two bad wheels” and “a shoulder that kept popping out,” according to Brent Pry, who was promoted to defensive coordinator after Bob Shoop left for Tennessee.

The secondary is likewise well-fortified, and includes cornerback John Reid, a sophomore from St. Joe’s Prep.

Bottom line: There are too many questions surrounding the Lions to believe they can challenge Ohio State and Michigan atop the division, and (perhaps) enough to drop them below the .500 mark for the first time since 2004. Split the difference, then. Figure that they remain a middle-of-the-road club, and that Franklin’s seat doesn’t become too hot to the touch.

Not yet, anyway.

Freelance writer Gordie Jones is a regular contributor to CSNPhilly.com.

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Adam Morgan, Phils vie to avoid sweep

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Adam Morgan, Phils vie to avoid sweep

Phillies (60-72) vs. Nationals (77-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

For the second time in less than a week, the Phillies try to avoid a sweep by winning the final game of a series against a division opponent. Adam Morgan will try to overcome the Phillies' struggles as well as his own, while the Nationals toss out veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez. 

Here are five things to know for Wednesday night.

1. Close to quality
For just the fifth time this year, Morgan put together a quality start for the Phillies on Aug. 19 against the Cardinals. In his follow up outing against the Mets on Friday, he came quite close to another one.

If it wasn't obvious from his 1-8 record and his 6.50 ERA, Morgan has been absymal this season. He's shown glimpses of his talent, such as his strong start against the Cards or his seven innings of one-run ball on May 10 in Atlanta. Yet for the most part, his outings have been filled with hits and home runs.

Back to Friday. He had gotten through the Mets' lineup with just two runs in five innings, keeping the Phillies in the game while Bartolo Colon held them at bay. But a grand slam ended his night and gave him an ugly six-run, eight-hit line in five innings of play. While he tied a career-high with eight strikeouts, he allowed three home runs. That simply won't get it done.

In his final start of the month, he needs to put together a strong outing to prove he's worthy of a rotation spot even after rosters expand in September. If he keeps allowing more runs than innings pitched, it'd be tough to keep handing him the ball.

2. Lefty in decline
In the first two games of the series, the Phillies saw two starters that they will see plenty of in the future: Tanner Roark and Max Scherzer. Now they face a man who headed their rotations of the past.

Gonzalez was traded to the Nationals in 2012 for his age-26 season after becoming an All Star for the first time. Not only did he come up with another All Star appearance in 2012, he won a league-high 21 games and finished third in the Cy Young vote.

However, that was Gonzalez's peak. His ERA has declined every season since 2012 and he no longer strikes out more than a batter an inning. When he was truly at his best, he was able to keep the ball in the ballpark at a very solid rate (0.4 home runs per nine innings in 2012). He was able to match that mark in 2015, but he's given up his most home runs per nine innings (1.0) since his rookie season in 2009. 

The bad news for the Phillies is Gonzalez has a solid track record against them. He's 8-6 in 18 starts against them with a 2.82 ERA. He strikes out almost exactly a batter an inning in those games while not walking as many batters as he usually does. He's even better at Citizens Bank with a 2.52 ERA in 11 starts. 

Despite giving up just two earned runs over 13⅓ innings against the Phillies in April, he did not earn a win in his two starts. In fact, he lost his second start against them while the Nationals lost both games. 

3. Outperforming expectations
The Phillies are nowhere close to their 14-10 start, but that was to be expected. Very few thought the Phils could begin the season on such a strong run, which lasted into mid-May. 

Right now, they have a 60-72 record. However, their pythagorean record (which uses their runs scored and runs allowed to project what their record should be) is 51-81, nine games worse. 

Meanwhile, the Nationals are 77-55, comfortably in first place in the NL East. But their pythagorean record is 81-51, four games better than their current pace. 

There are plenty of reasons why teams can outperform or underperform compared to their pythagorean record. A team that outperforms can have a series of blowout wins that inflate their runs scored despite a 10-run outburst only contributes to one win. Teams that underperform tend to have lot of success in close games (or have suffered a few blowout losses), yet they also usually regress and start playing more toward their projected record.

The easiest way to explain why the Phillies and Nationals would have the out or underperformed is their bullpens. The Phils have had a strong backend of their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez and Hector Neris, who have been able to close out many close Phillies wins. Meanwhile, the Nationals had Jonathan Papelbon closing for them. Papelbon had a poor enough season to be designated for assignment after blowing a few games this summer. 

The other reasons are the ones listed above: the Nationals' offense has produced some big outbursts thanks to hitters like Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper and the Phillies have had some blowout losses (that Mets series last week was a great example). 

However, the main takeaway from this may be the surplus wins the Phillies have produced thanks to their bullpen. Without Neris or Gomez, the team would not be where they are because close leads wouldn't have been as safe as they've been. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: With the news that Ryan Howard will be getting less playing time, Tommy Joseph is the man who will benefit. He takes on a lefty tonight, although he hasn't faced Gonzalez before because he was not in the majors in April.

Nationals: Despite going 0 for 4 on Tuesday, former Phillie Jayson Werth has been on a tear this month. He's hit seven home runs, including one Monday. He also has a .346 average against lefties.

5. This and that
• The Phillies are 1-7 against the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park this year. That includes a sweep by the Nationals from May 30-June 1, the first sweep by the Nationals at CBP since Sept. 20-22, 2011 (a four-game series).

• Freddy Galvis has the most at-bats of any current Phillie against Gonzalez. He's 8 for 31 with a home run, two doubles and a walk.

• Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa is 2 for 6 against Morgan with two home runs. Nats catcher Wilson Ramos is 3 for 5 with a home run and five RBIs. 

• The Phillies are 12-13 in August despite have allowed 150 runs and scored just 111. The Nationals are 16-11 this month. 

Undrafted CB C.J. Smith still has 'a lot of room for improvement'

Undrafted CB C.J. Smith still has 'a lot of room for improvement'

Covering Colts receivers T.Y. Hilton or Donte Moncrief is a daunting task for just about every cornerback in the NFL, let alone an undrafted rookie. That's precisely what the Eagles were asking of C.J. Smith on Saturday when they plugged the North Dakota State product into the game with the first-string defense.

And the results weren't bad. Hilton and Moncrief made some catches, but each time, Smith was right there to challenge them, wrap them up and get them to the ground. No busted coverages. No missed tackles. No backing down.

"I think I did all right, but I think I have a lot of things to improve on," Smith said of his performance Saturday. "The game was a little faster than when I played in the preseason before, so I definitely think I have a lot of room for improvement."

All right would be a fair assessment. Smith wound up finishing with a team-high seven tackles, which is not a great stat for a corner because it usually means passes were being completed. Although once again, consider his background and the opponent. This 23-year-old hasn't even been practicing with the first-team defense, then one day all of a sudden Andrew Luck is throwing in his direction.

"Coaches gave me a little heads up," Smith said. "They didn't give me too many reps in practice with the ones, but I think they just wanted to see if I could handle being out there, thrown in the fire in my situation."

Nobody could've blamed him if he was nervous, if he would've made a mistake or got beat.

"A little nerve-racking at first, but things started to settle in," Smith said of facing a dangerous Colts passing attack. "My teammates had my back, so that was the biggest thing. And then the coaches said everything translates from practice to the game, you just have to trust it."

Seeing Smith out there with the first-team defense was something of a surprise. There's already a logjam at cornerback, where Nolan Carroll, Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Eric Rowe and Jalen Mills are jockeying for position. Smith getting a shot might mean the Eagles are considering keeping six corners, or that one of the others could be on the move.

The 5-foot-11, 189-pound defensive back impressed throughout training camp as well as in the Eagles' preseason opener, where he recorded three pass breakups and an interception. Smith also notes he played a lot of man coverage in college, a skillset he believes is attractive to this coaching staff.

Perhaps Smith getting a shot with the ones shouldn't have been a surprise based on the summer he's had. He's starting to build the case he shouldn't have gone overlooked in the draft either.

"I was hurt going into my senior year with a pretty bad knee injury, so I had to overcome that," Smith said of going undrafted. "And then I still think playing at the FCS level, it's tough to overcome that too."

Smith will have at least one more opportunity to show the Eagles what he can bring to the table Thursday when the preseason schedule wraps up against the Jets. Now that he's gone up against Pro Bowl-caliber talent, he should really shine in a game typically reserved for backups and fringe NFL talents.

Maybe that's expecting too much, but Smith probably won't mind.

"You try to expect a lot of yourself," Smith said. "I'm just taking things day by day, trying to get better every day, trying to control the things I can control."