What Happens Next: Attempting to Preview the Most Important 76ers Season in Nearly a Decade

What Happens Next: Attempting to Preview the Most Important 76ers Season in Nearly a Decade

We went into this off-season here at the 700 Level just wanting something different. It'd been a half-decade of basically the same movie with the 76ers—four years out of five where the Liberty Ballers squeaked into the playoffs with a record around .500, put up a good fight in the post-season but ultimately were exposed for their lack of talent, retooled with a couple low-leverage signings and trades and a mid-first-round draft pick, extended their core and ran the same reel again next year. If something didn't change this year, coming off a post-season where the Sixers managed to go seven games in the semis but clearly hit their peak as a team, and a number of key players were at or near the end of their contracts, we might have spent the rest of the decade winning 42 games a year and losing in the first round.

Well, something changed all right. A couple things, actually, and big things. For the first time in a long time, this Sixers team enter the next season with a ceiling higher than the first floor. How much higher that ceiling is remains to be seen, and whether or not the floor beneath them has gotten a little less steady is also up for debate, but at long last, there's reason for both fear and excitement when talking about the Philadelphia 76ers, rather than a lingering sense of existential dread. So let's talk break it down, in parts both tantalizing and downright frightening:

Things I'm Looking Forward to With the Sixers This Year:

1. Andrew Bynum On the Floor. Duh. The centerpiece in more ways than one of the team's myriad off-season moves, Bynum is the guy with the chance to take this team to the next level, the league's most promising still-developing center, a two-time champion, and a guy really without peer in the Eastern Conference. (Not to mention a guy who would've led the Sixers in points, rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage with his stats on the Lakers last year.) He's the elite-level talent we've lacked on the Sixers since Iverson, and a post scoring presence we haven't really had since Moses. There could be games when he scores 30 points, grabs 20 boards and picks up five blocks, the kind of dominant performance that no one on the Sixers has been able to deliver in some time.

He's far from a sure thing, but the promise of greatness is exciting in its own right, and I can't wait to feel that rush in actual live-action Sixers basketball.

2. Andrew Bynum Off the Floor. Oh sure, there'll be moments when he does stupid, careless things that drive fans and media and Coach Collins—especially Coach Collins—absolutely batty. But one of the other things the Sixers have been missing wit their lack of star power is players with star-type personalities, which, while occasionally frustrating, can also be quite enjoyable. As sports writers, we are endlessly grateful for the 10% of athletes that aren't afraid to do weird shit—they're just more fun to write about than the Thaddeus Youngs and Jason Richarsdons of the world—and Bynum will doubtless give us endless amounts of blog fare, even if he never plays 48 minutes as a Sixer. (Though we, uh, hope he does play more than that.) And the hair—my god, the hair. He'll be the splitting image of Rasheed Wallace by year's end.

3. Three-Point Fast-Breaking. This was the most remarkable part of the pre-season to me, mostly because I don't think I'd ever seen this Sixers team do it before—they'd be running three men in the open court, and rather than the ball-handler being flanked on both sides by teammates cutting to the hoop from different angles, the other two guys would stop at the three-point line for an open trey. The team couldn't do this before when Jodie Meeks was their only half-decent deep shooter, but now that we have Dorell Wright, Jason Richardson and Nick Young, it's a legit possibility and a clever gameplan tactic, and it's downright tickling to watch.

The three-pointer in general should be a newfound weapon for the Liberty Ballers this year, and with Bynum in the middle hopefully drawing double-teams, our offense at its best could click like the Magic's did at its peak a couple years ago. Exciting stuff.

4. Jrue Holiday Taking the Reins. With Lou Williams and Andre Iguodala finally out of the way, there's no question that this is Jrue's team to run now. I was encouraged by how Jrue looked this pre-season—his scoring was erratic (though occasionally quite prolific, as with his 27 point, 12-14 shooting game in the pre-season opener), but his pasing numbers were solid, and he looked comfortable as the team's primary ball-handler and distributor. Especially with Bynum likely out at season's beginning, they'll need Jrue to be teh team's anchor, and I think he's ready to do it. I'm pumped to see what kind of numbers the Damaja puts up this year.

5. Spencer Hawes as Backup Center. I was against the team's re-signing Spence for two years and $13 million, mostly because I didn't have faith in him as a starting center and $13 million is too much for a backup. Both those things are still true, but now that we have Bynum, the Hawes signing does become more valuable, because even if he's not an acceptable full-time starter, he's a highly competent backup starter/big-minutes player, and Bynum will surely need such a fill-in at times throughout the season. Not to mention that the two can probably play some together, with Spence feeding Bynum from the high post like a poor man's Pau Gasol, though hopefully Collins' original idea of starting the two together won't actually end up coming to fruition.

Oh, and in case you haven't seen—Spence has been awesome in the pre-season. He's looked a whole more lot like the guy who briefly lit the league up at the beginning of last season then the guy who proved virtually unplayable against the Celtics in the playoffs last year. Of course, there's a big difference between pre-season against Cleveland and post-season against Boston, but still...it bears monitoring. And again, the hair. How did it possibly take the Big GOPper this long to grow a mullet?

6. Seeing the Old Sixers in New Places. I might write more about this elsewhere, but as jazzed as I am for the Sixers this year, I'm nearly as excited to see the guys no longer on the team making hay in new places—Elton Brand in Dallas, Jodie Meeks in LA, Lou Williams in Atlanta, and of course, Andre Iguodala in Denver. Wish 'em all the best, and to anybody considering booing any of them when they make their first visit back to the Wells Fargo Center as an opponent, shame on you, good sir.

7. Evan Turner. The Extraterrestrial begins his third year as a Sixer, finally free of being redundant on the same roster as Andre Iguodala. Finally, Turner should be free to do his swiss-army-knife thing on the wings for the Liberty Ballers, without having to worry about being unplayable at the same time as their most valuable player, With Jrue patrolling the perimeter and Bynum anchoring the middle, they'll need Turner cutting to the basket and hitting mid-range jumpers—as well as crashing the boards and getting the ball moving in transition—to get to the next level. And of course there's no telling what kind of trouble he'll get up to on Twitter, what weird Philly locations he'll instagram himself being dorky at, what kind of off-court chemistry he and fellow kook Bynum will have...it's always an adventure with ET, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Things I'm Not Looking Forward to With the Sixers This Year:

1. Andrew Bynum On the Bench. As exciting as it is to start the season with Bynum on the roster, it's going to be quite the bummer when the news inevitably comes down that he'll be riding the pine
with knee pain on opening night, and who knows for how long after that. The really tough thing with Bynum's injury is that there's no timetable to it—all anyone in Philly can say is "he's ready when he's ready," which makes waiting out his injury about as stressful and irritating as waiting for a train with no scheduled arrival time. I almost wish they'd just say that Bynum's out for a hard six weeks, and we'd know he's coming back at the end of it, then spending the opening weeks of the season always hoping he'll be back the next game, and in all likelihood, always ending up disappointed.

How many games will Andrew Bynum play for the 76ers this year? I'd put the over/under at 60, and sadly, I'd probably bet the under. We can only hope that he plays enough games to find his place among his new teammates in time for the playoffs, or at the very least, to prove his worth to the team in time for us to decide whether he's worth a max contract in the off-season.

2. Tough Sledding for Coach Collins. Honestly, I don't think that Coach Collins' history with not making it past his third year with any of his respective teams necessarily spells doom for him. What spells doom for Coach Collins, in my opinion, is Andrew Bynum. I just can't see Bynum getting along with a disciplinarian like Collins for an entire season, and with injuries and perhaps some bad vibes exacerbating the team problems...I just think everything has to go right with the Sixers this year to ward off the impression that Collins is starting to overstay his welcome, and the smart money is certainly against everything going right for the Sixers this year.

3. Games Against the Miami Heat. As improved as I believe the Sixers to be this year, especially in their long-term outlook, I still think they're gonna get thumped by the Heat. Bynum will help them be competitive, hopefully, and Miami doesn't have anyone on the roster who should be able to deal with him down low, but they're probably gonna have to face the Heat without him once or twice, and even with him, I still think the talent gap is wide enough that Miami should still dominate Philly, in either the regular season or the playoffs. And that's gonna hurt to watch.

4. Figuring Out What to Do with Jrue Holiday. Though everyone is hoping Jrue takes that leap forward this season—and I do think he will—the Sixers will find themselves in a real quandary when it comes to re-signing him. Indications have the Damaja demanding a max or near-max extension with the Sixers, and though it's unlikely he'll deserve it, he might get it somewhere else, and then the Sixers have to figure out if it'll be worth overpaying him a bit to keep him here, or if they're better off cutting bait and finding cheaper point guard play elsewhere. It'll be a tough decision for the franchise that I'm very glad I don't have to make, and certainly don't want to have overcasting my '12-'13 Sixers season any more than necessary.

5. Evan Turner. As much fun and as endlessly promising as the presence of Evan Turner can be, the Villain had a rough time of it statistically in the playoffs last year—a measley 9.0 PER across 13 games, albeit with a couple big fourth-quarter shots to his credit—and hasn't exactly been setting the pre-season on fire, though some ankle trouble might have had something to do with that. As good a thing as it may be for ET that redundancy at his role has been eliminated this year, it also means that he's a little out of excuses, and in year three, if he doesn't start showing serious improvement, the Sixers might end up considering him an inessential part of their future, and letting him walk after he plays out his rookie contract next year. Put up or shut up time for everyone's favorite Eminem stan.

Things I Don't Know What the F%$* to Think About With the Sixers This Year:

1. The Power Forward Situation. Assuming Bynum eventually ends up a constant presence in the middle...who's starting alongside him, exactly? The smart money currently would probably be on either Thaddeus Young (offense, energy) or Lavoy Allen (defense, floor spacing), but nobody seems exactly like an ideal fit—not like, say, Elton Brand would have been had he not been amnestied to make cap space for Nick Young. Ultimately, I wouldn't be surprised if Allen, Young, Hawes and maybe even rookie Arnett Moultrie all get time starting alongside Bynum, with Allen being my bet for the eventual answer in the playoffs (if the team gets there, which I imagine they will). But there'll be a great deal of experimenting and substituting there—with injury likely to play a part as well—and at the beginning of the year at least, a whole lot of confusion.

2. Who Starts With Evan on the Wings? Or, as some might ask—will Evan Turner even finish the season as a starter? Collins might like having shooters complementing Bynum and Holiday too much to allow Turner and his poor three-point shot big minutes, so we might very well see a late-year starting lineup that includes Jason Richardson and Dorell Wright, with ET resuming his night shift duties. But at first, at least, Turner will start, and it's a tossup as to who plays alongside him at the two or three. My guess would be Jason Richardson at first for his steady shot, experience playing with a dominant big man and veteran presence, but if Dorell keeps playing like he did in the pre-season, that might get switched up once or twice.

3. Who's Good in the East? Aside from Miami as the prohibitive favorite, and probably the Celtics right behind them, it's hard to tell where the Sixers slot in amidst the rest of the conference. Will the Pacers regress? Can the Bulls withstand a season spent largely without Derrick Rose? Are the Nets for real? Will the Knicks finally put it together? None of it seems certain, and if Bynum is healthy for most of the decision, I could see them ending as high as third in the East standings. But if things break right for a couple other teams and Bynum takes a while to get right (or never fully does), I could also see them falling back to their traditional seventh or eighth seed, if not out of the picture altogether. We probably won't know until at least halfway through the season about where the Sixers rate, and even then, the post-season picture might remain a mystery.

4. Evan Turner. You really just never know with this guy. Every time you think he's turning a corner as a player, he goes 2-14 with five turnovers. Every time you think he and Coach Collins are finally in sync, he misses an assignment, complains about a foul call and gets benched halfway through the second. And every time you think he's just not gonna get there, he posts a 25 and 10, or hits a big shot in a big moment, and makes you think maybe he could reach his potential after all. I can't even fathom how anyone thinks they could predict what he'll do in his third season, and I certainly won't try to do so myself—I just look forward to the rollercoaster, drops and all.

Of course, I can't do a preview column (especially one of this length) without making at least a couple predictions, so I'll end by calling the following:

Sixers finish the season 47-35
Bynum only plays 55 games, but the team goes 15-12 in the games he misses
Bynum ends the season averaging 20 and 12, though his field goal percenta
ge will drop to around 50%
Jrue Holiday jumps to 17 points and eight assists a game, and gets some consideration for Most Improved Player
Thaddeus Young averages a career-high in scoring and rates as one of the season's biggest late-round steals across fantasy leagues
Nick Young plays only sparingly by the second half of the season, but hits at least two game-winning or game-sealing shots anyway
Sixers win a first-round series, but lose to the Celtics again in the second round
Sixers re-sign Bynum to a max contract in the off-season

Season starts Wednesday night at home against the Nuggets. Go Sixers.

NFL Notes: All-Pro safety Eric Berry to report to Chiefs Sunday

NFL Notes: All-Pro safety Eric Berry to report to Chiefs Sunday

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- All-Pro safety Eric Berry plans to report to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, giving him two weeks and one preseason game to prepare for the start of the regular season.

A person familiar with his plans told The Associated Press that Berry will join the team after its preseason game Saturday in Chicago. The person spoke on condition of anonymity Friday because he was not authorized to discuss Berry's plans publicly.

Berry was given the franchise tag early in the offseason but has not signed the deal, which means he could skip all of training camp without being fined. Once he signs the one-year contract, he will make just over $10.8 million, making him the league's highest-paid safety.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey have said all along they expect Berry to report ahead of the regular season, but it was never clear when that might happen.

Kansas City plays its first regular-season game Sept. 11 against San Diego.

"I think it's important to see what kind of shape he is in and then gradually bring him back into the football speed of things," Reid said Tuesday, when asked what Berry will need to do to get up to speed. "I don't think it's the end of the world if he doesn't play in the last preseason game (see full story).

Falcons: 1st-round pick Neal to have knee surgery
ATLANTA -- Atlanta Falcons rookie strong safety Keanu Neal, the team's first-round pick and a projected starter, will miss the beginning of the season with a knee injury.

Neal will have arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Monday and is expected to miss three to four weeks, according to the Falcons. Coach Dan Quinn said he is encouraged Neal avoided a more serious injury that could have kept him out longer.

"Hopefully it's a shorter-term injury where we're looking at two and hopefully the worst would be three games," Quinn said, adding that he knows Neal will work for a quick return because "he's kind of just built that way."

Wide receiver Julio Jones is expected to be limited in practice after leaving Thursday night's game in the second quarter with an ankle injury. Quinn said he the injury is not expected to threaten Jones' status for the regular season.

Neal hurt his knee in the first quarter of the Falcons' 17-6 preseason loss to the Miami Dolphins. He had to be helped off the field but walked to the locker room without assistance (see full story).

Ravens: Former Navy star Reynolds finds NFL life 'humbling'
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Keenan Reynolds' foray into the NFL has overwhelmingly altered his perspective of the game.

As a standout quarterback at Navy, Reynolds was revered in Annapolis. He ran for an NCAA-record 88 touchdowns, went 4-0 against Army and finished fifth in the 2015 Heisman Trophy balloting.

However, his prowess at running the triple option is of no help in his quest to make the Baltimore Ravens. Fighting for a job as a backup receiver and special teams contributor, Reynolds is just another rookie buried deep on the depth chart.

"It's very humbling," he acknowledged. "I'm just trying to make the best of it."

At Navy, Reynolds ran, handed off or threw the football. His job now is to catch it.

"I have a lot more respect for the position of wide receiver," he said, "especially after being a quarterback."

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

Chooch was 'a fireball,' says Ryan Howard, last of the '08 Phillies

NEW YORK — Phillies players were greeted by a message from Carlos Ruiz when they entered the visiting clubhouse at Citi Field on Friday.

“I will miss all of you guys. Good luck the rest of the season. Love you all, Chooch! Gracias,” (see story).

Ruiz did not actually write those words on the whiteboard by the entry to the clubhouse, but they were his. He reached out to visiting clubhouse manager Tony Carullo and asked that the message be written in just that way.

Ruiz, 37, was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday, ending an 11-season run with the Phillies that included five NL East titles, a World Series championship, an All-Star Game, a slew of clutch hits, many words of praise from the pitching staff and a million calls of Choooooch from fans in the stands (see story).

“Everybody loved Chooch for a number of reasons,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He’s the kind of guy you loved seeing every day, a hard-working, humble and appealing human being.

“I’d like to think when he’s done playing, the Phillies might have a place for him.”

Mackanin paused and laughed.

“As long as they don’t make him manager and he takes my job.”

Ruiz’s exit leaves Ryan Howard as the only member of the 2008 World Series championship team still with the club. Over the last few seasons, Howard has seen Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Chase Utley depart.

It’s a topic that Howard seems to have grown weary of talking about.

“I've had to hear about it every year,” he said. “It's again the same thing. You play with guys your entire career and now you see them in different uniforms. It's definitely going to be something to get used to but that's baseball. That's the business aspect of it. Teams make moves and that's what happens.”

Like the rest of the core of that team, Howard, 36, has been available for trade the last few seasons, but there has been no real interest because of his decline in performance and huge salary.

So he will play out the final six weeks of his contract and try to hook on elsewhere next season.

Howard saluted his former teammate, Ruiz.

“I'm trying to think of the right words,” he said.

“The thing about Chooch — he was the quarterback in a sense. The way he handled the pitching staff, the way he prepared himself for games with the pitchers, from the defensive standpoint knowing different situations, knowing what guy you want to beat you, what guy you don't want to beat you. Just the way he played the game, he was a fireball. He was a fireball out there. I'm definitely going to miss him. I hit him up yesterday a little bit after I found out. I was happy for him and wanted to wish him the best.

“Chooch, he was always very, very positive. Always trying to help guys out, trying to pick guys up when he can and it carried over onto the field. That was his mentality.”

The Phillies acquired veteran backup catcher A.J. Ellis, minor-league pitcher Tommy Bergjans and a player to be named later for Ruiz (see story). Ellis is due to join the team Saturday. In the meantime, the Phillies added prospect Jorge Alfaro from Double A (see story). He will be the backup catcher Friday night, then return to a talent-rich Reading club that has the best record in minor-league baseball and a date with the Eastern League playoffs.

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews sticks up for beleaguered Eagles wide receivers

Jordan Matthews is probably the only Eagles wide receiver you feel remotely good about right now.

Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff are draft picks who haven’t accomplished much yet. Rueben Randle and Chris Givens are veteran offseason pickups who’ve shown little this preseason (see story). Dorial Green-Beckham is a former second-round pick whose first team gave up on him after just one year.

It’s not a group that inspires a whole lot of confidence right now. 

Potential? Sure. But opening day is 16 days away, there’s only one preseason game left for the starters to play, Sam Bradford has two guys to throw to — Matthews and Zach Ertz — and potential is a scary word at this point.

Matthews isn’t a superstar at this point. He’s a solid pro who seems to be getting better. His 1,862 yards are 10th most in NFL history after two seasons. 

But compared to the Eagles’ other receivers, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He's got credibility and because of that the 24-year-old Matthews has become a spokesman for the entire group. And this past week, two games into the preseason, he found himself in the position of having to defend this entire beleaguered bunch of wide receivers the Eagles have put together.

“The funniest thing is last year [the receivers] played extremely well in the preseason, got into the season, didn’t play well, and everybody’s like, 'Preseason doesn’t matter,'" Matthews said.

"Then the first preseason game we don’t play well, everybody’s like, 'The preseason matters, you guys suck!' Hold on … I thought it didn’t matter. You know what I’m saying?”

What he's saying is it's too early to write this group off. Maybe Huff and Agholor and Randle and Givens — or whichever among them makes the team — will turn it on once the regular season begins.

But going into the Colts game Saturday evening at Lucas Oil Stadium, the numbers are not pretty.

Huff and Randle both have three catches for 13 yards. Agholor has two catches for 30 yards. Givens is 0 for 0.

Matthews hasn’t played yet in the preseason because of a knee injury, and the next four receivers have a combined 56 receiving yards in two preseason games.

Paul Turner, an undrafted rookie, leads the group with nine catches for 78 yards. 

Improvement? Matthews sees it.

“I take this approach,” Matthews said this week. “Every rep counts. And so if every rep counts, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to do better the next rep, and I felt like guys took steps forward for the next rep. And that’s the main thing you always want to see, that improvement.

“I understand it’s the NFL, I understand obviously people are going to say you get paid a lot of money to do one thing, but I’ll tell you what, I know the guys in that room, they want to do well. None of those guys went into that game wanting to mess up or not put their best foot forward.”

Probably no recent draft pick has infuriated Eagles fans as much as Agholor. Well, other than maybe Marcus Smith and Danny Watkins. And Lane Johnson maybe.

But it’s tough for some to be patient with Agholor when Jeremy Maclin had 773 yards as a rookie, DeSean Jackson had 912 and Matthews had 872.

Heck, even Reggie Brown (571 yards) and undrafted Hank Baskett (464) were factors as rookie wideouts.

Agholor’s 283 yards last season rank tied for 27th out of 32 wide receivers drafted in the first round over the past 10 years.

But he has a big-time supporter in Matthews.

“I felt like the jump he made from the first game to the second game [was significant]," Matthews said "Even the stuff you don’t see. Blocking? [Darren] Sproles caught a short pass and Nelson turned his route around … he ran a great route, got open, turned around, blocked and probably sprung Sproles for another 10, 15 yards.

“He had another bubble situation where he had to block for Josh and he did. Definitely better than the first game, and that’s what you want to see. That’s the biggest thing. And it gets lost in the shuffle.”

That Sproles play, a 21-yard gain, was called back because of a penalty on rookie guard Isaac Seumalo.

But Matthews is passionate when he talks about how Agholor’s lack of production as a rookie doesn’t mean anything moving forward.

“I don’t know if y’all know this, but I love Jordy Nelson (Packers Pro Bowl receiver),” Matthews said. “I love him. One of my favorite receivers. Jordy Nelson didn’t have 1,000 yards till Year 4.

“Let’s put it in perspective. Guys get better. And I feel like that’s what I want to see from my group. Are guys getting better?

“There’s two things that I really look for from my group — attitude and effort. And do Nelson and Chris and Josh and those guys bring great attitude and effort?

“Yes. That’s what I want to see, and I feel that’s what we’ve shown.”