The Unstoppable Force Meets, Like, the Most Movable Object Ever: A state of the union before Sixers-Spurs

The Unstoppable Force Meets, Like, the Most Movable Object Ever: A state of the union before Sixers-Spurs

37 games. That's the disparity in win streaks between the Philadelphia 76ers, who have dropped 24 straight, and the San Antonio Spurs, who have rolled through their last 13 games, at the moment. It's a difference in current franchise realities that should be rather prominently on display when the two teams face off tonight in San Antonio in coach Brett Brown's return to the franchise he spent over a decade with. The Spurs are a nightmare matchup for the Sixers: Offensively fluid, with shooters and passers everywhere, capable of playing both at the breakneck open-court pace Philly favors and at the grinding half-court pace in which the Sixers quickly wither, and also defensively opportunistic, able to force teams into playing to their weaknesses and quickly turning mistakes into points at the other end. The results will not be pretty.

However, it might be worth watching anyway. If you've had the stomach to tune in to the last handful of Sixers games, you'll notice that the team has been playing better recently. Not well enough to win, exactly, but well enough to remain competitive, and well enough to see the subtle ways the team is improving, or at least adapting to their new surroundings. They've been defending better, they're finding ways to generate offense, and they might have even found a long-term keeper or two in their endless scrap heap and D-League shuffle.

Michael Carter-Williams is shooting and operating with more confidence, much more liable than at season's beginning to pop off a long two or a runner down the lane if given the space to do either. He's still got to work on the shots to be able to hit either with consistency, but just to see him taking them (and occasionally making) them at all is encouraging. He's also turned into the team's best rebounder, using his length and considerable ups to snare a staggering 8.3 rebounds a game since Evan and Spencer were traded, boarding in the double digits four times in the last eight games after doing so only three times before that this season. He's such a weapon in so many different facets of the game that even when he's shooting below 40% (as he now is for the season), he still manages to keep the team in a lot of these games without, obviously, a ton of help.

Meanwhile, Thaddeus Young has been given the mother of all green lights, and has turned into the league's most unlikely volume scorer, murking his field goal percentage in the process but turning him into an impressively dangerous playmaker on both sides of the ball. Since the trades, Thad is averaging an eye-popping 21.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.8 APG and 2.7 SPG--probably saving more than a handful of fantasy teams in the process--though he's only shooting 41% from the field and 30% from three, despite jacking 21 shots and a half-dozen triples a game. He's not only unrecognizable as the Thaddeus we knew and loved, but is putting up numbers unlike anyone in the league right now. We'll probably be a better team once Thad can get back to his high-efficiency, complementary self, but watching him put up numbers like this on such a depleted team is pretty spellbinding.

Thad and MCW are the only obviously above-average players on the roster right now, but we might have picked up a couple other keepers in big men Henry Sims and Varnado. Sims, a throw-in in the Hawes deal, has been an absolute monster--by Sixers big-man standards, anyway--at center for them, averaging ten points, seven boards and even nearly two assists a game for the size-deprived Ballers. He's a very good interior passer, a solid help defender, and a virtually unmovable presence in the middle of the paint. He's posted impressive double-doubles--16/13 and 18/15--in consecutive games against the Knicks and Bulls, two teams with no shortage of big dudes on the interior, just by being solid down low, outbattling for boards and putbacks with his size and strength.

Sims doesn't exactly have what you'd call a soft touch--he has a 1-12-foot jumper he's willing to unleash and an impressive array of offensive post moves, but not a ton of them seem to end with the ball going in the basket, as he's shooting just 43% from the field. And for a center, he's not tremendous as a shot-blocker--he's got just ten swats total since coming the Sixers, without the elevation to really get to a lot of shots at the basket. But he still manages to score at a decent-enough clip--14 points per 36 minutes--and he's a better shot-affecter than shot-blocker, pushing big guys out of position and at least giving opposing guards something to think about when attacking the basket. His PER of 16.0 is second-best among current Sixers--not saying a ton, but still. He's probably not a starter in this league, but we could do a lot worse for a backup once Nerlens Noel is ready to play.

Sims will have competition, however, from his current backup, the young journeyman Jarvis Varnado. The Mississippi State prouct has about the exact opposite skill set of Sims--he has a much more limited offensive skill set and a very odd-looking jump shot, but looks for his own shot so sparingly that he's still averaging 60% from the field, and is much less solid a post defender, but an absolutely dynamic shot-blocker, racking up over two blocks per 36 minutes. Neither exactly profiles as a likely core part of the Sixers' long-term plans, but it's easy to see either player getting minutes for this team next year. At the very least, it's fun to watch these players come along and give the team really good minutes, to make us feel like there's something being gained in all of these games of losing.

But yeah, about that losing. We're at 24 in a row currently, and that'll almost certainly become 25 tonight, and then 26 on Wednesday when we face the Rockets. The next four games will be a lot more winnable, against four sub-.500 East opponents (Pistons, Hawks, Bobcats, Celtics), but it's the first of those games, against Detroit, that the Sixers should really be focused on, since if they win that one, they'll have only tied the record for consecutive losses in a season (26, with the post-LeBron '11 Cavaliers) instead of owning it outright. Hard to be optimistic, considering how the Pistons have thumped them all season and considering some of the terrible teams they've lost to on this streak, but hopefully the Ballers' improved play of late portends a stronger showing this time out.

At the very least, I feel really good about the direction this team is heading in. The Sixers' pick in next year's draft will be a guaranteed top-fiver, and with the Pelicans going on a mini-tear of late, they've fallen to 11th in the tanking rankings--lower than some Sixer fans were hoping to be drafting with that pick perhaps, but mostly safe from somehow ending up winning the lottery and costing us the pick altogether, of late. Meanwhile, it's clear that none of Thad, MCW or Brown have given up on the season, still playing and coaching their hearts out, desperate for just one win to build off of.

I still think they'll get it before season's end, and even if they don't, I don't think they'll let it get them down enough to have any kind of long-term effect on their or the team's psyches. When I watch the Sixers play now, I don't see a team that's tanking, I see a team that just doesn't have enough good players to win games, but is trying like hell to prove otherwise. And I look forward to watching them again in tonight's likely 25th straight L.

Dion Waiters signed elsewhere, Sixers fans almost out of bullets to dodge

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USA Today Sports photo

Dion Waiters signed elsewhere, Sixers fans almost out of bullets to dodge

Ah, was it only a month ago that we feared signing up for $60-$80 million worth of Dion Waiters, a player who has barely (and rarely) scraped the surface of "good" over his four-year NBA career? A classic "Philly Guy" — which really makes you hope for an eventual reevaluation of our home city's cultural priorities — the perennially over-confident Syracuse swingman had beenregularly (if erroneously) linked to the Sixers for the majority of his pro career, and the rumor mill began churning again this offseason, with the Sixers one of several teams linked to the free agent. Chances seemed at least decent that we would wake up to an Instagram of Waiters at Geno's signing his new contract in cheese wiz — one of those four-year, $70 million-type deals NBA teams seem to be giving out to middling players like complementary after-dinner mints this summer. 

Well, turns out the Sixers didn't have any interest in giving Dion Waiters that kind of money, and neither did anybody else. Neon Dion ended up signing with the Miami Heat for a blockbusting two years and $6 million dollars, and Sixers nation breathed a collective typhoon of relief. Short of trading Jahlil Okafor for every Boston Celtic under the age of 25, this was just about the best news the Colangelos could offer us at this point in the offseason. 

And speaking of: It might — might — now finally be safe to say that the Colangelos aren't as dumb as we feared. With Dion off the board, there just aren't any free agents left to worry about the Sixers overpaying. Well, J.R. Smith technically, but the chances of him leaving Cleveland for Philadelphia under any circumstances are even worse than him being the starting two-guard on a championship team to begin with. (And technically of technicalliest, LeBron James too, but we could give him all our remaining cap space and half the Liberty Bell to boot and he'd still be dramatically underpaid.) 

Anyway, point is: We've worried since the Colangelo clan took over that they would make one dramatically dumb move to hamstring this team in the name of Winning Now-ish, and it would look silly in the short term and be absolutely befuddling in the long-term. The Sixers have even been attached to a couple such deals in reports from NBA experts, deals that had them offering Nerlens Noel and further bounty for the No. 5 pick, or offering absurd free-agent dollars to Jamal Crawford, or being in the mix for ol' DW. Maybe there was truth to some or all of it, but the more rumored deals that sizzle-then-fizzle, the less likely it seems that any of them were ever actually going to come to fruition. 

Dion may represent the smoking gun. Here's a player, that as final evidence would suggest, the Sixers could have had virtually uncontested at any point this offseason — a player that ended up signing a two-year make-good deal for what essentially amounts to the veteran's minimum. Forget four years, $80 million, the Sixers could've offered eight mil for one and Dion probably woulda lunged at the opportunity. (Sure, there are market benefits that might've given Miami a competitive edge, but South Beach ain't what it used to be: With Dwyane Wade gone to Chicago and Chris Bosh unsure to ever even play again, the Heat are only predicted by ESPN to finish two spots ahead of Philly in the East next season.) There's really no conclusion to be reached except that the Sixers were never actually that interested in signing Waiters in the first place. 

So, offseason crisis averted, time to rest easy as we count the days to most exciting Sixers training camp in franchise history? Perhaps, but there is still one shoe left to drop: The Sixers are all but pot-committed to trading one of Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor before the season proper finally tips off. It's mostly encouraging that the Colangelos have waited this long; they said that they weren't going to jump at an early deal that wasn't the right deal, and so far their patience has borne their words out. But as the summer begins to peter out and teams begin talking themselves into the roster they already have — while urgency increases for Philly to make a deal before their opening-night lineup is bottlenecked with blue-chip bigs — a desperation trade certainly isn't out of the question just yet. 

Still, after a month of respectable draft choices, measured free-agent signings, and zero totally thoughtless panic moves (even if they tried unsuccessfully to make one or two) it's getting on time to start giving the Sixers' new front office the benefit of the doubt. It'll never feel quite as safe as we did with Our Once and Future Dark Lord — and the overflow of assets Hinkie equipped Jerry and Bryan with will be all the body armor they really need anyway — but we need no longer fear for our lives with every passing Woj Bomb, and we just might be able to root for the Sons of Sam next year without being constantly interrupted by pangs of crippling regret. Not having to watch Dion Waiters jump and shout for the ball so he can jack a contested 20-foot fadeaway is a pretty good start.

Healed from torn ACL, CB JaCorey Shepherd eager to show how time off helped

Healed from torn ACL, CB JaCorey Shepherd eager to show how time off helped

The hardest days were game days. Sunday afternoons. When his teammates were playing football and JaCorey Shepherd was stuck on the sidelines watching.

“It was tough, man,” Shepherd said Monday. “I never had to miss a season. I never had to really miss a game. Missed two games in college but other than that, I never missed anything.

“Game days were the toughest. Sitting on the sideline and I couldn’t do anything. Practice was tough, but I got used to it. But games? That was the hardest.”

Shepherd, then a rookie sixth-round cornerback out of Kansas, was having a very good preseason last year when he tore his right ACL during practice in early August in a sideline collision with running back Darren Sproles.

Season over.

“Second half of the season it started to get easier because the season was starting to wind down,” Shepherd said. “I’m in the moment, but I was also looking forward to moving forward.”

There are two ways to go when you’re hurt. You can feel sorry for yourself, tune out and wait to get better. Or you can make use of every single moment available to you during your rehab.

Shepherd, always a workaholic, always a film hound, always the hardest worker on the roster in college, didn’t hesitate to make the right choice.

As disappointed as he was, he made sure his 2015 rookie year didn’t go to waste.

“JaCorey, you could tell it was really hard for him to not play,” said veteran corner Nolan Carroll, whose 2015 season was also cut short. “But he made the best use of his time last year.

“Chip (Kelly) let the injured guys stand on the sidelines for games and even brought them to road games, and when me and Walter (Thurmond) and Malcolm (Jenkins) would come off the field, he was always right there listening when we went over what just happened with (defensive backs coach Cory Undlin).

“You could see that he wanted to make the best of his situation and learn as much as possible, even though he couldn’t play. That’s not always easy for a young guy to do, but JaCorey, you could tell he just wanted to learn as much as possible.”

You have to give some credit to Undlin — Kelly’s defensive backs coach last year and still here this year under Doug Pederson — for taking the time to coach up a rookie sixth-round pick who was on injured reserve.

“Coach Cory, he always made the time for me,” Shepherd said. “The defense would come off the field and he would be like, ‘Watch this on this side,’ ‘Watch this route concept,’ just making sure I’m staying in tune.

“They kept me occupied and busy and preparing like I was still playing. ... The older guys would always question me to make sure I was on my P’s and Q’s so that way when I got back, I had the mental part down and it was really just a matter of getting my feet down under me and I’d be ready to go.”

Now that training camp is here, Shepherd is fully healed, 100 percent healthy and certainly not lacking in confidence.

His practice Monday on the opening day of training camp for rookies, quarterbacks and players who finished last year on injured reserve was his first real workout in a year.

“Two years I haven’t played in a game, man,” he said. “So it feels real good just to be out here. This has been a big test for me, but I think it’ll pay off. I learned some patience. That’s one thing I’ve always needed to work on, my patience, and being a smarter player.

“I feel like I’m a lot smarter than last year after sitting on the sideline for a year having to pay attention and learn. I feel like I’m a better player this year than last year even though I didn’t play a snap.”

Along with guys like Jalen Mills, Randall Evans, Jaylen Walker, Eric Rowe and Denzel Rice, Shepherd is one of a number of promising young corners on the Eagles’ roster.

Shepherd loves the competition. He embraces it.

“All of us love to compete,” he said. “That makes it fun. It’s not like, ‘Oh man, it’s a job.’ It’s fun because we’re all out there competing against one another and having fun together.

“We know we’re fighting for spots, but at the end of the day, if you’re having fun and just competing? You don’t want to be thinking about that. Especially around this time. You really can’t afford to because why are you worried about something you can’t control?”

How can Shepherd separate himself from all the other young corners?

After all, he’s not one of Pederson’s guys, he’s not one of Jim Schwartz’s guys. He’s a Chip Kelly draft pick, so he may have to do a little bit more than others just to open some eyes.

“All I can do is continue to do what I do and control what I can control,” he said. “You know? That’s the way the game is. There’s always going to be competition. Frankly, I love competition, so that doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve never been worried about competition, and I’m not going to start now. Just going to do what I do.

“If there’s not a job here, there’s a job somewhere else. All I can control is give it my all on every play.”

Shepherd said Monday’s initial practice was a big step for him, and another comes Saturday, the first practice of the summer in pads.

But the big one, the date circled on his calendar, will be Aug. 18, the preseason opener and Shepherd’s first game since Kansas-Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas, on Nov. 29, 2014.

“Everybody wants to know what JaCorey is all about,” he said with a laugh. “Keep watching. I’m planning on showing them.”

Brayden Schenn out to prove himself after new deal with Flyers

Brayden Schenn out to prove himself after new deal with Flyers

 Shortly before 9 a.m. Monday in Toronto, Brayden Schenn was already sitting in the arbitration room, awaiting his agent Don Meehan and Flyers general manager Ron Hextall.

This was a first for the soon-to-be 25-year-old forward. He wasn’t necessarily nervous or even excited.

“It was a matter of my agent talking to Hexy outside and if they were coming into the room or I was going out and a deal would be done,” Schenn said.

They entered. He exited.

Within the hour, Schenn had a new four-year, $20.5 million contract, avoiding arbitration (see story).

“I’m extremely happy to be signed on for another four years," Schenn said. "I don’t think anyone wants to go through the arbitration process.

“It’s all part of the business. Whatever happens, happens in arbitration. I don’t think whatever is said [in hearings] is meant. It’s just part of the business. The money side of things.

“I think the Flyers like me as a player and to take it to arbitration, I don’t think it’s anything against me. It’s just part of it.”

While Schenn had never been through this, Hextall has. As a player here, the former goaltender took the Flyers to arbitration two decades ago, but settled in a marathon, six-hour meeting the day of his hearing.

“I would not have had an issue with it,” Hextall said when asked if he was prepared for the bad feelings that often accompany such hearings (more from Hextall here).

“Arbitration is part of the process … sometimes it can be difficult for the player. If you can avoid, you want to avoid it.”

The Flyers were prepared for a two-year ruling which would have left them having to attempt to re-sign Schenn as an unrestricted free agent after 2018-19.

Hextall said the club has seen consistent improvement in Schenn, even though this contract overpays him at the start for just one very good year of the past five he’s had as a Flyer.

Obviously, the Flyers are banking on him to become a 30-goal, 70-point player from here.

“Four years is showing confidence in me that they believe in me,” Schenn said. “For me, four years I have to continue to prove myself and get better year by year and I expect to be better next year.

“I’m happy with a four-year deal at a fair number. The team is only getting better and I’m happy to be part of the plan.”

Consistency will be the key as to whether the Flyers' investment in Schenn was worth it.

From a points standpoint, he’s increased his production every season as a Flyer, from 18 points, to 26, to 41, to 47 and this past season, 59. But his every-night play on the ice has often waffled. Then again, the club has waffled, too, as to whether he’s a center or winger.

He spent the bulk of the past season proving he could play on the wing with Claude Giroux in Dave Hakstol’s system. That wasn’t always the case under Craig Berube or even Peter Laviolette.

“Every player has his ups and downs through 82 games,” Schenn said. “Consistency, you try to find it as much as you can throughout the year. I feel I’ve continued to get better at both ends of the ice.

“I still feel I can get better defensively and be more reliable. That is something I definitely will improve on. This past year, I had great opportunity to play with great players.

“Guys like [Sean] Couturier, Giroux, [Wayne] Simmonds, whoever it may be. It’s all about opportunity and I got opportunity last year.”

Which resulted in career highs in goals, assists and points. Hextall expects Schenn to make bigger strides over this contract as he reaches the prime part of his career.

When the Flyers held breakup day in April, Schenn said he enjoyed the pressure of being “counted upon” as a core player. He is now the third-highest paid Flyers forward behind Giroux and Jakub Voracek, so the “core” sticker is on his jersey for good.

“I said at the end [of the season], I have to be counted on each night as part of the core group,” Schenn said. “There’s a bunch of us who have been there for a while now.

“I’ve gotten better year after year. I expect to come in and improve my game in all areas of the ice. When you get the chance to play with good players, they obviously make you better, as well.

“We’ve got some good pieces. We have a good team moving forward … you want to get better individually, but I think the team will be better as a whole this year, as well.”