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.

Challenges await Darryl Reynolds, Villanova in run to repeat as national champs

Challenges await Darryl Reynolds, Villanova in run to repeat as national champs

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Darryl Reynolds said it hurt. And he wasn’t alone. 

A month ago, Reynolds and the rest of the Villanova Wildcats found out five-star freshman big man Omari Spellman would not be eligible to play in 2016-17.

And despite Spellman — at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds — being the biggest competition cutting into Reynolds’ playing time for his senior year, Reynolds understood the ramifications from losing what was expected to be a key cog in Villanova’s next run for glory.

“We lost a — no pun intended — big piece to the puzzle,” Reynolds said Tuesday at Villanova’s media day. “He went down, but everybody else has realized that we need that much more from everybody else.

“Me and Omari are close, in more ways than on the court. It would’ve been exciting to play with him. But it also provided that much more motivation.”

Motivation because Reynolds, a Lower Merion grad, also understands what the ramifications mean for him, too. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior may arguably be the most important player on the 2016-17 Wildcats. 

For three years, Reynolds has largely taken a backseat, hidden by the shadow of Daniel Ochefu. Now he’s front and center.

“He battled through that,” fellow senior Josh Hart said. “Never complained. Never had any down moments. Brought it every single day. We know he can play at this level.”

Reynolds heads a position in which Villanova was supposed to have depth. Now it has question marks. Reynolds and Spellman were going to be a 1-2 punch inside and a perfect supplement to a bevy of offensive talent around them. The question marks up front include sophomore Tim Delaney and freshman Dylan Painter. How quickly the two of them get going will be big. And so, too, will be figuring out where Fordham transfer forward Eric Paschall fits in the rotation.

Coach Jay Wright, who said Reynolds would be a starter, talked more about the other pieces behind Reynolds when asked what he’d be expecting from the senior big man.

“I think part of our challenge is Tim Delaney and Dylan Painter,” Wright said. “Which one of them, if not both of them, can step up and give us the depth that Darryl gave us last year up front when we needed size? Down the stretch in big games against big-time teams, you need that size. We’ve got to develop Tim and Dylan and see how they do with that, see how Eric Paschall can do. Can he play bigger? We definitely have our challenges.”

Those challenges also include replacing leadership roles vacated by Ryan Arcidiacono, Ochefu and a trio of walk-ons.

Insert Reynolds there, too. The Wildcats will start three seniors this year. Hart and Kris Jenkins may do most of the scoring, but they’re pretty reserved off the court and when talking to the media.

“Obviously Ryan (Arcidiacono) was a great leader for us. He was our rock,” Hart said. “When you look at this team, a lot of times we look at [Reynolds]. He calms everybody down. He vocally tries to make sure everybody’s on one accord. Basketball-wise, he’s always been good. You saw the Providence game last year when we needed him to step up and he had, what, like 19 and 11?”

Hart remembers the numbers well, even if he added an extra rebound to the ledger. Reynolds was 9 for 10 from the floor and had two blocks in 36 minutes of action to help the Wildcats earn revenge with a road win after the Friars beat them in Philadelphia two weeks prior.

That game was the last of a three-game stretch in late January into early February when Ochefu was sidelined with a concussion. Reynolds’ minutes over that stretch: 29, 31 and 36, respectively.

That experience, Reynolds says, coupled with the rest of 2015-16 — when he saw an uptick in minutes from his sophomore season’s 5.4 per game to 17.1 per game — will be easy to draw from in 2016-17.

“There’s nothing like getting out there and actually playing,” Reynolds said. “You see a lot from the sidelines. You learn a lot playing spot minutes. You get different things. But just being out there throughout entire games, playing 20-plus minutes, it teaches you things that you could never have learned from another perspective. I learned a lot from those experiences and I think it made me the player that I am in many ways. It’s the same thing with this year. I’m still going to learn a ton in a sense of being out there that much more and not having Daniel. 

“In many ways he taught me a lot. So not having him, not having that voice in my ear, not having that guy to go against in practice, it will make me grow up. 

“Nothing wrong with that,” he said with a smile.

Doug Pederson not afraid to get aggressive with play-calling

Doug Pederson not afraid to get aggressive with play-calling

Talk to Doug Pederson and he comes across … what’s a nice way to put it … dry?

Very nice guy. Very friendly. Very down to earth. But not the most dynamic personality in public.

Which is why his personality on gameday has been so surprising.

Pederson is a risk taker as a playcaller. Aggressive and fearless.

Whether it’s going for it on fourth down with the lead, going for two after a successful PAT or throwing deep in a situation that doesn’t necessarily call for it, Pederson has proven to be the proverbial riverboat gambler that Chip Kelly was expected to be but never became.

“My personality is probably a little more conservative by nature, I think,” Pederson said Monday. “You'd probably agree with that.”

Pederson got a laugh with that comment because his public persona is exactly the opposite of his gameday demeanor.

It only took one day before we all got a taste of Pederson’s fearlessness.

In the season opener against the Browns, with the Eagles clinging to a 15-10 lead and a rookie quarterback making his first NFL appearance and a 4th-and-4 at the Browns’ 40--yard-line, he kept the offense on the field.

Carson Wentz responded by connecting with Zach Ertz on a five-yard gain to move the chains, and one play later, the Eagles took command on Wentz’s 35-yard TD pass to Nelson Agholor.

Six weeks in, the Eagles are 5 for 5 on fourth down. Only the Falcons have converted more fourth downs in the NFL this year, and they’re 6 for 10.

In the win over the Bears, the Eagles were 3 for 3 on fourth down, their best fourth-down conversion day in nine years.

This is the first time in 14 years the Eagles have converted five or more fourth downs through six games.

According to Pro Football Reference, the Eagles are one of only seven teams in NFL history to attempt five or more fourth down plays through six games and still be at 100 percent. The Lions are also 5 for 5 this year.

Pederson said analytics are a big part of his decision-making process, but he also trusts his instincts.

“I think it's both,” Pederson said. “But I trust our guys and I trust our offensive line and I think it sends a great message to the rest of the team, to the defense and special teams, that, ‘Hey, if we can convert this and stay on the field,’ it sends a good message.

“And on the other side of that, if you do convert, (it’s about) the message you send to the other team and the fact that you're going to stay aggressive.”

The Eagles are 29th-best in the NFL on third down at just 34 percent. But they’re one of only three teams that’s at 100 percent on fourth down.

“It's kind of a crazy deal when you're not great on third down, but you can be 5 for 5 on fourth down and convert them,” Pederson said. “It's a weird deal. But credit to the guys for the execution.

“I'm going to continue to look at it. I don't ever want to be in a position that I'm going to jeopardize the team at the time (by being too aggressive). Looking at the five fourth-down decisions this year, I don’t think they put us in any harm at that time.”

Wentz is 3 for 3 for 21 yards on fourth down, with the four-yard completion to Ertz, a seven-yard first down to Jordan Matthews in the Bears game and a nine-yard to Dorial Green-Beckham, also in the win in Chicago.

He also rushed six yards for a first down on a 4th-and-2 Sunday in the win over the Vikings. The Eagles’ other fourth-down conversion this year was Ryan Mathews’ one-yard TD on a 4th-and-goal against Chicago.

Pederson said as an assistant coach under Andy Reid, he always found himself asking himself whether he would be conservative or aggressive in crucial situations.

We’re all learning the answer now.

“Yeah, you definitely put yourself in those situations, as a coordinator and a position coach,” he said. “Putting yourself in those spots, it's a lot easier when you're not making the decision obviously to go, ‘Oh, yeah, I would have not gone for it there or not gone for it there.’

“Now, being in this position, it's my tail on the line if we don't convert.”