What the hell has been going on with Sixers garbage time lately?

What the hell has been going on with Sixers garbage time lately?

With their 107-99 loss to the Wizards in Monday's MLK matinee--not really as close as that final score makes it look--the Philadelphai 76ers have lost three straight, and seven of eight. This is, of course, not particularly surprising: Despite winning four straight on the road prior to their recent cold spell, just about everything pointed to a downturn in the Sixers' play at some point, and now with injuries to Tony Wroten and Brandon Davies depleting the team's already shallow bench (and the inevitable regressions to the mean sapping Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young of their productivity), now seems like as good a time as any.

What has been notable to me, however, is the way that Coach Brown has handled garbage time in the three most recent losses. Here's how Brown has handled the end-of-game stretches of the three losses:

Friday against Miami: The fourth quarter starts with all five Sixer starters on the bench and Miami up by 18. Though the Sixers trim the lead to 14 by an official timeout at the 8:45 mark, about when the starters would usually start to trickle back into the lineup, Brown leaves the bench unit out there--even as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gets his first five back in the game--and none of the starters re-enter the game before Miami pulls away and ends up winning by 15.

Saturday in Chicago: The fourth quarter starts with Michael Carter-Williams still on the floor, and Chicago up by a resounding 27. Though the game remains roundly out of reach for the entire quarter, Brown brings his other four starters back to the floor, and after giving him about a minute's rest, he sends MCW back out as well. The starting five fail to make any real headway, and are all eventually replaced by bench guys with about four minutes to go, as the Sixers lose by 25.

Today in Washington: The fourth quarter starts with Carter-Williams and Thaddeus Young on the floor with three bench guys, as the Sixers trail by 13. Though both Young and Carter-Williams have had strong games--MCW in particular having one of his best of the season, just two off his career high with 31--Young exits the game with eight minutes to go, and Carter-Williams with four minutes left and Philly down 16, as Spencer Hawes returns to finish things out with the bench crew. Though the Sixers quickly (and surprisingly) make legitimate inroads, cutting the Wizards lead to eight with two-and-a-half minutes to go, Brown leaves Thad and MCW on the bench, and Evan Turner doesn't play the entire fourth quarter. The Wizards just barely hold the fort and end up winning by eight.

The pattern here to me is very inconsistent. When Brett Brown left the starters out of the Miami game late, even though the final result was still in question enough to make Spoelstra nervous, I felt like I understood it--the Sixers weren't likely to come back, and the team had a road game the next night that Brown likely didn't want the team to be utterly exhausted for. I didn't love him throwing the towel in so prematurely against the hated Heat at home, but I could live with it, especially if it meant a better effort in Chicago (which it ultimately didn't, but whatever.)

However, if that was the explanation on Friday, it doesn't make so much sense today. Coming back from double-digits against the two-time-champion Heat and the mediocre Wizards isn't the same thing, and with the Sixers not playing again until Wednesday this week, it doesn't seem likely Coach Brown would consider resting his main guys a priority. Down eight points with over two minutes to go, the Sixers had a shot--an outside shot, sure, but not a dismissible one--to steal that game, and it's surprising to me that Brown would leave MCW and his 31 points on 13-22 shooting, as well as Evan Turner and his decent track record of clutch proficiency this season, on the bench for it, in favor of Lorenzo Brown and Elliott Williams.

Maybe, then, Brown wanted to reward his bench units for making their late-game runs, as well as riding the hot hands to see if they could battle back on their own? But then why did he re-introduce the starters in Chicago, when it was clear that they weren't getting the job done, and most of them were struggling through some of their worst outings of the season? Why only bring your best guys back when the game is most out of reach?

Of course, there might be a consistent explanation for all of this, and maybe you've been screaming it at your computer screen since you started reading this article: Perhaps Brett Brown didn't really want to try to win these games. Perhaps he's leaving his starters out there when the game's decided and going with the bench crews when the game's still a little in doubt because he didn't want to chance actually coming out of the game with a win. Perhaps this is the long-awaited beginning of the 76ers actually making proactive steps towards tanking.

It would certainly make sense, at least in theory, though it's hard to believe Brown would willingly do such a thing in his first season as coach, when he's not really given us any indication thusfar that that's something he and/or the rest of the Sixers staff would tolerate or encourage. Maybe there's behind-the-season reasoning that's not immediately apparent, maybe Brown and his staff just wanted to do a little late-game experimenting to see what works for future reference, or maybe Brown just figured What the Hell. He's earned enough of our trust thusfar that I don't feel right questioning his motives at this point, and even if taking is the driving factor...well, this is the NBA world we live in right now, and it might be for the best when all is said and done.

Still, it's worth noting that the Sixers have lost three straight games now, and in two of them they didn't seem to try their hardest to escape with the win. If the team continues to fold from here, we may look back at this three-game stretch as the moment when the Sixers patted themselves on the back for a surprisingly exciting start to the season, figured that was good enough for now, and figured we'd play out the string and try again next year. Hard to disagree with that line of thinking, though it might make the second half of the season a lot more of a chore to watch than the first.

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

Phils owner John Middleton, who still wants his trophy back, reflects on the Ryan Howard era

The end of an era has arrived for the Phillies.

Ryan Howard burst on the scene like a comet ablaze and powered his way to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year in just a half-season in 2005. A year later, he had one of the greatest seasons in franchise history when he clubbed a team-record 58 homers and added 149 RBIs in winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award. He was the big bat — or Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel so aptly dubbed him — in the middle of the lineup for a club that won five NL East titles, two NL pennants and a World Series over a five-year run of success that ended on that October night in 2011 when Howard himself fell to the ground in pain and clutched his left ankle as his Achilles tendon exploded on the final swing of the season.

From his seat at Citizens Bank Park, John Middleton watched Howard go down that night and he knew.

Middleton had joined the Phillies ownership group in 1994 and seen his stake in the team rise to nearly 48 percent as the club was rising to the level of baseball elite. He felt elation on the night the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, disappointment on the night they lost the World Series in 2009 and frustration when the team suffered postseason failures in 2010 and 2011.

Howard’s crumbling to the ground on that October night in 2011 came to symbolize the end of the Phillies’ great run. A mighty man had been felled by injury. A mighty team had been brought down.

“They all gnaw at me,” Middleton said of the postseason failures that followed 2008 in a recent interview with CSN Philadelphia. “The opportunity to do something extraordinarily special is rare. And when it presents itself, you need to be able to take advantage of it as much as you possibly can.

“That said, I think '11 was the hardest for me.”

The Phillies won a club-record 102 games that year, but did not make it out of the first round of the playoffs and haven’t been back since.

Middleton, still in ass-kickin’ physical condition at 61, was a wrestler in college. He’d seen injuries. He’d had injuries. As soon as he saw Howard go down, he knew it was an Achilles injury and he knew it was bad. Deep down inside, he just knew that great Phillies team would never be the same, that the run was over.

“When Ryan went down with the Achilles injury at the end of that game, I knew he was going to be out for 2012 and you didn't really know when he was going to be back and how well he would come back,” Middleton said.

Howard’s injury coincided with injuries to Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.

“That was just too many people to lose,” Middleton said.

Middleton has stepped out of the background and taken a more up-front role with the club over the past two years. He was a leader in making the decision to move away from past glory and commit to a full rebuild two years ago, and he remains committed to it today.

The reconstruction of the Phillies has coincided with the deconstruction of the club that won all those games and titles from 2007-2011. Hamels, Rollins, Utley, Ruiz, Werth, Halladay, Lee and others are gone. All that remains is Howard and his time in red pinstripes will come to an end after this final weekend series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

While the failure to do something “extraordinarily special” — i.e., win multiple World Series — still gnaws at Middleton, he will remember the good times that Howard provided.

There were lots of them.

“This wasn't just a guy who was good or very good, this was an elite player,” Middleton said.

Howard has not been an elite player since the Achilles injury. There were times in recent seasons when his union with the club became uncomfortable. He was mentioned in trade rumors, but the fact is there wasn’t much interest in him from other teams. He went from being a full-time player and a star to being a part-time player.

Middleton appreciates the way Howard handled things as his role diminished.

“I think he’s a wonderful human being,” Middleton said. “He's been a terrific player and an even better person. I really will miss him when he's gone.

“Ryan made it easy because he was the consummate teammate. And not only for the other 24, 25 guys on the roster, but for his coaches, for the front office, for the owners. This guy has just been fabulous about it.”

In April 2010, a year and a half before Howard would have been a free agent, the Phillies gave him a five-year, $125 million contract extension. The idea was to lock up a key, productive player and gain some cost certainty. Critics said the Phillies acted too early and they were proven right when Howard blew out his Achilles before the extension even officially kicked in.

Middleton was not the architect of that extension. Former club president David Montgomery and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. were at the helm then. Both have stood by the decision and pointed to Howard’s productivity — he averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to through 2011 — as a reason the deal made sense. Both have acknowledged that injuries can change everything in a blink of an eye and, in this case, one did.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Middleton said. “Had you asked a question and had a crystal ball and knew Ryan was going to have an Achilles injury in October of ‘11 and that would probably limit his effectiveness going forward … that's one question.”

Middleton rattled off some of Howard’s accomplishments: The top 10 finishes in the MVP voting, including the win, the fastest player to 100 and 250 home runs in baseball history …

“This guy was a truly terrific player,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, there's been a strategic move on the part of teams to identify young talent and lock it up early. Ryan's contract was just that. We were trying to identify young talent and lock it up before it hit free agency. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And in large part, it didn't work out because he had that crippling injury in 2011.”

Howard was still healthy in 2009. In fact, he hit 45 homers and led the NL with 141 RBIs that year. He was the MVP of the NLCS but struggled badly in the World Series against the Yankees, going 4 for 23 with 13 strikeouts.

The performance crushed Howard.

After the Phillies lost Game 6 in Yankee Stadium, Middleton stood outside the clubhouse and wondered if he should go in and comfort the disappointed players.

He finally did and a story that will forever link him and Ryan Howard was born.

Yes, the “I want my (bleeping) trophy back” story is true.

“Completely true,” Middleton said with a laugh.

“We have to go back to that night. Losing the World Series is excruciatingly painful. As great as they have to be to get to the World Series, when you lose, it's just crushing. It really is. I don't know any other word for it.

“So I went into the locker room, obviously very emotional, and there's tons of media around, and I'm trying to talk to each player quietly and privately. I'm trying to thank them for their contribution to the year. I'm trying to get them focused for the offseason and 2010 because I thought we had a great opportunity in 2010. And I look around, and I see Ryan kind of sitting in front of his locker, slumped over with his head in his hands.

“This is my opportunity to go up to Ryan and talk to him without anyone around so I did that. I knelt down beside him and we were talking about the season, the postseason, just a very emotional moment for the two of us and it became more emotional as we talked.

“And at the end, I said, ‘Ryan, I want my … trophy back.’"

The Phillies are still looking to get that trophy back.

Ryan Howard will not be on the team when they finally do.

But he was a big reason they got one in the first place and in a town that loves winners, well, that should not be forgotten as he heads out the door.

Find great deals on Philadelphia Phillies tickets with TicketIQ. Buy cheap Phillies tickets with no hidden fees for all games on their 2016 schedule. 

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

Jeremy Hellickson enjoyed his time with Phillies, now he'll look for free-agent riches

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Jeremy Hellickson made his final start of the season for the Phillies on Thursday night.

Now he becomes the team’s first big offseason decision.

Hellickson had long left the game with a sore right knee by the time struggling reliever Jeanmar Gomez was tagged for four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning in what ended up as a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves (see Instant Replay). The Phillies were swept in their final trip to Turner Field — the Braves will move into a new ballpark in April — and have lost six of their last seven games heading into the final weekend of the season and a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.

“It’s a bad time to be in a rut and we’re in a rut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’ve got to go home and snap out of it.”

Besides supporting his rotation mates, Hellickson won’t make any contributions this weekend. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finished his season 12-10 in a career-high 32 starts. He tied a career high with 189 innings. His final ERA of 3.71 was his best since he recorded a 3.10 ERA in 31 starts for Tampa Bay in 2012.

Though he left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking his knee while running the bases (see story), Hellickson achieved his season goal.

“This isn’t anything that’s going to linger,” he said, looking down at his knee. “So I came out healthy. That was my main thing, try to throw 200 innings — I fell just short of that — and stay healthy. So as far as those two goals go, it was good.”

By staying healthy and pitching well, Hellickson built himself a nice free-agent platform. But before Hellickson heads out on the open market, the Phillies must make a decision: Do they offer him $17 million to retain him in 2017 or simply let him go. As a rebuilding team, the Phils would love to get a draft pick as compensation for Hellickson’s leaving. But to get that pick, they must make Hellickson that one-year qualifying offer and he must reject it and sign elsewhere. 

It seems likely that the Phils will make the offer to Hellickson. If he takes it, he will return in 2017 and fill the same veteran stabilizer role he did this season. If he rejects, the team will get a pick between the first and second rounds of next year’s draft. The value of that draft pick is significant and was seen as a reason the Phillies did not trade Hellickson in July.

Qualifying offers go out in early November, but general manager Matt Klentak isn’t ready to tip his hand on what he’ll do.

“Both are valuable,” he said, weighing Hellickson's returning on a one-year deal versus picking up a draft selection between the first and second rounds. “For the same reason Jeremy Hellickson was valuable to us this year, Jeremy Hellickson or a player like that could be valuable to us again next year. The draft pick at the end of the first round has a real, measurable, tangible value.”

After Thursday night’s game, Hellickson was asked if he believed he’d made his final start with the Phillies.

“I hope not,” he said. “But I don’t really know how to answer that. I would love to be back here next year. I think everyone knows how much I’ve enjoyed my time here and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

The pitcher was pressed as to whether he could envision himself accepting the qualifying offer if the Phillies made one.

“Yeah, I mean I definitely could see it,” he said. “But …"

Hellickson paused. Then a reporter broke the silence by suggesting the pitcher would rather get a multi-year deal on the open market.

“Yeah, I would love that actually a little bit more,” he said.

The Phillies could look to strike a multi-year deal with Hellickson before he hits the open market five days after the World Series, but that does not appear to be in the club’s plans. The Phils seem to be interested mostly in short-term deals for veterans as they let their kids develop.

In time, this thing will play out.

But for now, the Phillies head home looking to stop a losing streak and scuttle the Mets’ postseason hopes.

Find great deals on Philadelphia Phillies tickets with TicketIQ. Buy cheap Phillies tickets with no hidden fees for all games on their 2016 schedule.