What do the Sixers want with Rockets center Omer Asik?

What do the Sixers want with Rockets center Omer Asik?

Dec. 15th is a date worth keeping an eye on for Philadelphia 76ers fans, and/or general Sam Hinkie acolytes. It's the date at which free agents signed over the course of the previous off-season can first be dealt, greatly expanding the pool of tradeable players. Naturally, it's also the date at which league-wide trade talk is expected to ramp up, for what should be a pretty busy swapping season between teams looking to contend this season and teams looking to rebuild for the future.

The Sixers, of course, fall squarely into the latter category. Hopes of some sort of historic over-achievement for the Liberty Ballers this season have been largely quashed by a 2-9 run over their last 11 games--incredibly, they're still just 2.5 games out of the playoffs in the miserable East, but at least the Celtics' recent three-game winning streak means the Sixers probably won't be taking back over the Atlantic anytime soon.

For this and a number of other reasons, the Sixers have long been presumed to be sellers at the trade deadline, jettisoning the likes of Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and possibly even Thaddeus Young for likely combinations of cap relief, young talent and future draft considerations, as they look to slip even further to the bottom of the standings and higher up on the draft board for next June. However, in recent discussions, the Sixers' name has come up in discussion surrounding perhaps the most-discussed trade piece of the early NBA season--Rockets center Omer Asik.

Sixer fans will no doubt recall the Turkish center Asik from his days of playing off the bench with the Chicago Bulls--after all, it was Asik who missed the two free throws at the end of Game Six of the Sixers' first-round series with the Bulls two seasons ago, then fouled Andre Iguodala at the other end, allowing him to hit the go-ahead freebies that secured the Sixers their only playoff series win of the past decade.

Anyway, Asik signed with the Houston Rockets a couple summers ago, and in increased minutes, he proved to be one of the league's elite defensive centers, with Houston's defensive rating being about six points better with him on the court than off. He also averaged nearly 12 rebounds a game, and proved competent enough as a finisher on offense, scoring about ten a contest on 54% shooting, though not without the occasional fumble out-of-bounds and layup left on the rim.

Though his first season in H-Town proved he was a worthy NBA starter, Asik was relegated to the bench this season with the Rockets' acquisition of All-NBA pivot Dwight Howard. Houston coach Kevin McHale attempted a twin-towers starting lineup with his two big men, but the duo proved incompatible, killing the team's floor spacing on offense and badly hurting their perimeter defense at the other end.

With Asik discontent to return to a substitute role, he repeatedly asked Rockets management for a trade, even sitting out a couple games out of apparent frustration. Though he's since returned to the team's regular rotation, Houston has apparently acknowledged the futility of the situation and consented to trade him--reportedly by Dec. 19th, which is late enough for potential deals to include just-signed free agents, but early enough that players acquired in such a deal can be included in subsequent swaps before the Feb. 20th trade deadline.

So where do the Sixers come in with all this? Well, ESPN's Marc Stein, one of the more reliable sources of NBA scuttlebutt, has cited Philly as one of the more likely Asik landing spots. Sez Stein:

Keep your eye on Philadelphia. Front-runner would be overstating it, but the notion that the Sixers are a viable destination for Asik is increasingly making the rounds. And that certainly makes sense given (A) Philly's front office is run by a certified Asik fan in former Rockets exec Sam Hinkie and (B) Philly has a frontcourt player to send back to Houston in Thaddeus Young, whose skill set can click with Dwight Howard's, albeit not as well as seemingly unattainable dream target Ryan Anderson; and (C) there really isn't an Asik for Philly to draft with the high pick it's likely to snag in the 2014 lottery.

Stein goes on to say that the Rockets would much prefer to send their fallen center to the Eastern Conference, likely to avoid strengthening any of a number of possible playoff contenders in their own, already much stronger conference.

From the Rockets' perspective, I can see the Sixers' attractiveness as a trading partner. I don't totally love the fit of Thaddeus Young alongside Dwight Howard in Houston, because he's still not a reliable enough an outside shooter to be considered their much-coveted "stretch four," but certainly Thad is athletic enough to play the four in Houston's run-and-gun offense, and he's certainly a better defensive option than Omri Casspi, Terrence Jones or anyone else the Rockets currently have to stack up in the frontcourt alongside D-12. The two players' contracts are fairly similar, so no further cap fodder would be needed to make the deal match, unless one team insisted their asset was more valuable than the other.

From the Sixers' perspective, though, I'm not sure I get it. Asik is obviously a very good player, one who gives them something they definitely lack on their current roster, and one who undoubtedly makes the team better in the short-term. But the short-term isn't something Hinkie has ever really seemed concerned about, and indeed, improving our record for this year seems like something he's actively tried to avoid, lest it result in the Sixers picking lower in the most loaded draft in a decade. Heaven forbid Asik actually win us a couple games and we end up picking 8th instead of 7th next June.

Meanwhile, the long-term outlook of acquiring Asik is fuzzy to me. The Turkish center only has this season and next remaining on his deal, and while his contract is of fair value (a little over 8 mil per, though in actual cash payout it's going to be nearly twice that next season, due to a weird contract quirk that Houston GM Daryl Morey put in Asik's deal to make it less attractive for Chicago to match two summers ago), it's not particularly cheap, and an extension would likely cost the Sixers eight digits annually starting in the summer of 2015.

Similarly, for a player with only a handful of seasons of NBA experience, Asik isn't all that young--he'll be 29 by the time he hits free agency, likely to get increasingly plodding as he ages, and a weird fit for what should still be a fairly young and athletic Sixers team. Dealing the younger Thaddeus Young for him (Thad will be 27 in June 2015) seems like the kind of move you make when you're just one step away from contention, not when you're in a total rebuild like Philly.

There's also the question of fit for Asik in Philly. We forget he's lurking in the reeds sometimes ourselves, but if you recall, we already picked up a guy last June to be our defensive anchor of the future. Nerlens Noel is still recovering from ACL surgery and busy working with Coach Brown and company to totally rebuild his wonky shooting stroke, so we might not see him at all this season, but he'll be around soon enough, and when he does, he's going to be nearly as awkward a fit alongside Asik as Howard was--another pair of big men that can't shoot outside of five feet, clutter up the paint for potential drivers, and overlap a little too closely on defense.

You could say that Asik will be useful even next season, because Noel will still be on the long road back from recovery, and a little too raw on both sides of the ball to contribute right away, and Asik can man the middle in our starting lineup until Noel is ready to take over. Fair enough, but is it worth giving up Thaddeus Young--still a very talented player in the prime of his career--just to get a stopgap center for the next season-plus? There's a chance Thad and Nerlens could play together, which along with Michael Carter-Williams and whoever the Sixers get with their two picks in next year's first round, could give the team a really nice core for the future. Asik is a very good player, but not the kind of difference-maker it seems worth screwing with your team's long-term future plans for.

There's two potential explanations here. One is that Hinkie simply sees Asik as an undervalued trade commodity at the moment, and wants to pounce on him while his value is low--which, after a month of sulking, trade demands and mediocre backup play, it certainly is. If Asik is dealt to Philly before Dec. 19th, then they can play him starters' minutes for a couple months, prove that he's still good, ramp his trade value back up to where it was over the summer, and then deal him again for more complementary long-term pieces before the Feb. 20th deadline. (I have no idea how he and Spencer Hawes would fit alongside one another, but it'd be fun to find out, and it's possible Spence isn't long for this team anyway.)

Another is that we don't know for a fact that Thad is being included in any HOU-PHI discussions for Asik here. Perhaps Hinkie is trying to convince his old buddy Darryl that Spence and Evan Turner's statistical upticks this season are legit, and trying to sell him on a package based around those two guys in exchange for Asik and some other spare parts he sees lying around--say, forward Donatas Motiejunas and point guard Isaiah Canaan. It's unlikely Morey would go for it, but the point is, we don't know what's going on in their discussions, and to just assume that they're talking about dealing Thad for Asik straight up because that's the deal that makes the most sense on paper is probably foolish.

In any event, we'd be wise to continue to put our trust in Sam Hinkie, whose maneuvering to date has put the Sixers in pretty much the exact position they'd like to be moving forward for the next few years, and who has earned the benefit of the doubt in such matters for the time being. If he wants Asik, there's probably a good reason why, even if it might not be immediately clear, and if he doesn't, then that's probably for the best too. In the meantime, let's all enjoy being part of trade-rumor season, and be thankful we don't have to be abjectly terrified for no real reason at this time of year anymore.

Eric Rowe explains 'hiccups,' ready for fresh start in pads

Eric Rowe explains 'hiccups,' ready for fresh start in pads

Earlier this week, Doug Pederson admitted cornerback Eric Rowe had some “hiccups” during the spring, and seemed to indicate they stemmed from learning a new defense. 

Rowe says that wasn’t the problem at all.

“It wasn’t the new defense that was giving me whatever hiccups [Pederson] was talking about,” Rowe said on Wednesday as he reported for his second training camp (see Day 3 observations). “It was just, I was having trouble breaking on top of the routes, specifically the curl routes. But fade ball, deep post, digs, I didn’t have any trouble there. It was just curl routes. I just knew I had to work on it after the OTAs.”

Rowe, 23, said the problem was technical; he just needed to get his feet down quicker.

Whatever the problem, whatever the hiccups, it seems as though Rowe’s standing within the organization and on the depth chart isn’t what it once was.

Many thought he would be a starter in 2016, like he was at the end of 2015, but that wasn’t the way things were in the spring. Instead, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks took those positions, and it looks like Nolan Carroll, returning from an injury, and rookie Jalen Mills, who hasn’t yet practiced in pads, are vying for playing time, too.

In back-to-back days earlier this week, Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz failed to mention Rowe’s name while listing players at the cornerback spot. Coincidental omissions or a vocalized unofficial depth chart?

Rowe could possibly go from starter to deep bench player, but that’s not what he’s planning on.

“I know I had a little ups and downs in OTAs, but now the pads are coming on,” Rowe said. “I feel like it’s a fresh start for me and I’m just ready to get out here.”

Pads go on Saturday.

“Right now, I think I still stand in a good position (with the team),” Rowe said. “Football is about the game with pads on. Now we’re really about to see in a couple days when we put the pads on.”

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

He looks like a small back. He's built like a small back. He wants to play like a big back.

Wendell Smallwood, trying to make the Eagles as a reserve tailback, stands 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, but he said he’s got a surprise for defenders that think he’s one of those itty-bitty backs that dances around looking pretty … until they get hit.

“I think that’s what most people expect,” he said Tuesday. “But when I actually put my head down and fight for those extra yards and get under guys, guys start to say, ‘Hey!’ They start to feel me a little bit.

“So I definitely think that started to show my last year in college, and I started becoming more of an inside zone type of runner instead of an outside runner.”

None of this should be a surprise considering Smallwood’s position coach is Duce Staley, who during his 10-year NFL career was much more interested in running over people than around them.

Smallwood is nowhere near as big as Staley, who played at about 235 to 240. But that’s the kind of back he wants to be.

“It’s definitely important to me and it’s definitely what Duce wants me to do,” Smallwood said. “He wants me to hit the holes and hit ‘em hard and that’s the reason he got me here.

“Duce, he doesn’t like small backs. He doesn’t. I don’t think he believes in those guys. He was a big boy. Running dudes over left and right. That’s what he wants.”

Smallwood played sparingly as a freshman at West Virginia, shared time with Rushel Shell as a sophomore, then took over last year when he led the Big 12 with 1,519 rushing yards and added nine touchdowns, 26 catches and a 6.4 rushing average.

The Eagles plucked him out of Morgantown in the fifth round, and in an uncertain running back picture, he’s got a realistic chance to not just make the team but also play a role.

Just don’t expect him to play like a typical guy his size.

“I don’t consider myself a small back anymore,” he said. “People have always said that and I kind of started to agree, but then I looked at some of the guys who are around and I’m not a small back at all.

“I’m not little and the running style I like to do is suited for a big back, and my catching kind of throws people off. I definitely think I’m a mixture of both.”

Smallwood ranked 13th in Division I in rushing yards last year, and his 6.4 average was tied for ninth among backs with at least 200 carries.

He said a lot of defenders expect him to be a finesse back, a guy who likes to juke safeties and linebackers instead of bowling them over.

“Get me going downhill and I’ll get you what I can get you,” he said. “A lot of [defenders] kind of take the easy route and think it’s going to be easy and then the rest of the game they’re going low and trying to take my legs out.”

Look at the Eagles’ running back picture.

The starter is Ryan Mathews, who is talented but injury-prone. The backup right now probably is Kenjon Barner, who has 34 career carries. Then there’s Darren Sproles, whose 3.8 average last year was his lowest since 2009 and second lowest of his 11-year career.

With a strong camp, there’s no reason Smallwood can’t work himself into that picture.

The last frontier for the Northern Delaware native is blitz pickup. Something he was never asked to do at WVU.

“I don’t think I did basically any in college,” he said. “They didn’t ask me to block at all. I was mainly running routes.

“But as soon as I got here, Duce emphasized, ‘If you want to get on the field, you’re going to block. If you’re not going to block, you’re not going to play.'”

Staley’s No. 22 wasn’t available, but Smallwood is happy to wear the jersey number of another one of his favorite backs growing up, Correll Buckhalter’s No. 28, who he seems quite similar to.

It’s not fair to compare Smallwood to Staley, Buckhalter, Brian Westbrook or any other former Eagles back until the pads go on and we see what he’s really made of.

But Smallwood said he’s thrilled Staley is his coach and said there’s nobody he’d rather be playing for.

“I think he’s a great fit for me as a coach,” Smallwood said. “I need a kind of guy who drives me, tough guy, who’s not going to let up, who’s going to keep his foot on my back. I definitely need that kind of coaching.

“Just being around him growing up and seeing what he did when he was here and how he runs and him being one of my favorite backs, I was kind of star-struck to be around him, and now he’s my coach. It’s definitely a great situation for me.”

Patience being tested after Phillies' embarrassing 10-run loss to Marlins

Patience being tested after Phillies' embarrassing 10-run loss to Marlins

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Wednesday was a miserable day for the Phillies, but there was one winner among the group.

Bench coach Larry Bowa was ejected from the game in the fourth inning, sparing him from having to watch a full dose of the carnage that befell the team in an embarrassing 11-1 loss to the Miami Marlins (see Instant Replay).

Manager Pete Mackanin wasn’t as fortunate as Bowa. He had to stick around for all nine innings as Zach Eflin struggled through a poor start and the weak-hitting Phillies came within an out of being shut out for the second straight game.

“He was mad at the umpire,” Mackanin said of Bowa. “He couldn't control himself. He had to let it out.

“In this game, when you win, you get giddy. When you lose, you want to hang yourself. You have to stay even keeled. You have to stay consistent. At least I have to. I have to try to stay consistent emotionally. 

“I used to be more emotional when I was younger. Over time, I just learned that it doesn't do you any good. My fate is left in the hands of the players.”

The players have not performed all that well since coming back from the All-Star break. Wednesday’s loss dropped the club to 4-9 since the break, dropping it to 11 games under .500. The Phils are averaging just 2.6 runs per game over that span and the pitching has been spotty. The baserunning, particularly by Cesar Hernandez, has been poor, as well.

“This game is all about consistency,” Mackanin said. “Repeating your delivery. Showing plate discipline. Not getting yourself out. Making the plays. Doing the little things on a consistent basis. Over the course of 162 games, the teams that do these things the best are the best teams.”

Wednesday’s loss dropped the Phillies to 2-4 on the first two legs of this 10-game trip. But all is not lost. The Phils play the Braves in Atlanta the next four days. The Braves have the worst record in the majors.

“We're going to Atlanta,” said Mackanin, not realizing he was about to damn his club with faint praise. “I think we have a good chance to compete against Atlanta to end the month on a positive note.”

The Phils came up short offensively and on the mound Wednesday. Actually, they had 10 hits, but only one was for extra bases, and they left 10 men on base while getting just one hit in eight chances with a runner in scoring position. (The Phils were 2 for 21 in those situations in the series.) Marlins lefty Adam Conley pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings and pitched out of bases-loaded trouble twice.

Eflin was hit hard early. The Marlins scored three runs in the first inning, two on a scorching two-run homer to left by Giancarlo Stanton. The bruising line drive left Stanton’s bat at 112 mph.

In all, Eflin was tagged for nine hits, including the homer and a pair of triples, and seven runs in five innings. Mackanin said Eflin “was not the same guy” that pitched a three-hit shutout in his previous start at Pittsburgh.

“I didn't like the mix of pitches he used,” Mackanin said. “We were hoping he'd use his curveball a little bit more. I thought he made some good pitches that the umpire missed. But that wasn't the reason. He just wasn't the same guy. We stranded 10 runners — had some chances to get something going but couldn't capitalize.”

Eflin was grazed on his pitching hand by a pitch during batting practice Tuesday, but said that did not affect him at all.

“I was just up with everything,” he said. “I wasn't executing. That's what it came down to. I was leaving all my pitches up in the zone and didn't give my team the best chance to win the ballgame. I didn't do my job. I've got to work on being consistent and staying down in the zone.”

Eflin is just 22. He had a 1.80 ERA in four previous starts in the month of July. He will be right back out there when his turn in the rotation comes up again next week.

But Mackanin seems to be losing patience with others. He laughed when a reporter asked him if it was time for a lineup shakeup.

“What do you think?” Mackanin said with some exasperation. “We've faced some tough pitching lately. It's an up-and-down season. That's the type of team we have. We don't have consistency in the lineup. Let's put it that way. That doesn't bode that well.”

Riding out a rebuild means Mackanin doesn’t have a whole lot of options at his disposal. He probably will have a new face to put in the lineup Thursday night in Atlanta, though. It appears as if Peter Bourjos will go on the disabled list and Aaron Altherr will be activated (see story). Altherr was projected to start in the outfield until blowing out his wrist in spring training. He is healthy now (see story). Maybe he can bring a spark to a lineup that has been mostly lifeless since the All-Star break.