Worrisome Trades, Jumpers in Progress and Absent Mascots: Talking Sixers Basketball with Michael Levin

Worrisome Trades, Jumpers in Progress and Absent Mascots: Talking Sixers Basketball with Michael Levin

Officially in the throes of an unexpectedly promising Sixers season, I turned again to Michael Levin of fine Sixers blog Liberty Ballers
for a healthy dose of guarded realism to temper out my unbridled
enthusiasm. So far this year, Mike is impressed with Evan Turner and
Spencer Hawes, but disappointed with Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young,
and still believes the team's core to far well short of
championship-caliber—though he does see the Sixers winning the hearts of
the City of Brotherly Love by season's end.

Check out the interview below, and make sure to take note of his
post-season prediction for the Ballers—when we asked him the same
question halfway through the season last year, he called it perfectly:
"7th [seed] is where I fit them in for now, which most likely means
Miami, and a 4-1 series loss...But they'd be mostly close games and the
management would claim IMPROVEMENT!"
Andrew: So when we talked last season, you were still encouraging the team to
tank. After an 11-5 start and what looks like a clear path to the
Atlantic division title, you're not still rooting for losses, are you?
 
Michael Levin: No, I wouldn't say that I'm rooting for losses. But I'm not exactly
living and dying by each win either. Definitely keeping a blog for the
Sixers (and getting older, I suppose) has hardened me to the idea of
straight "fandom" and I've become very rational about what I think the
team can achieve. So I'm not advocating Tankfest but I do value a great
game out of Evan Turner or Jrue Holiday more than I would a win on the
shoulders of Elton Brand or Lou Williams.

Do you think the start is a function of legitimate team
improvement, or just an impossibly soft start to the season
schedule-wise?
 
Definitely both. The schedule (and injuries)
has benefited the Sixers greatly so far, but you also can't discount
the fact that they've had a full year together under the same coach,
with the same core.
 
Did you like their off-season strategy of basically just getting the band back together?

For
what they're trying to do, it was absolutely the right move. They're
all about continuity and chemistry and all of those buzz words. So
keeping the team together was integral to their continued success. But
in terms of a championship, no, I still don't think this team is
anywhere close to contending, even though I may be leaning the other way
more than I was last time we spoke. Like for example, I disagree with
signing Thad Young.
 
Too much money? [Thad re-signed for 5 years, $42 million]
 
The
money was actually for less than I thought it'd be. It's just that in
four seasons (this is his 5th), he hasn't gotten better at anything
really.
 
Well, he's one of the best bench scorers in the league, no? Isn't a guy like that worth 8.5 a year?
 
I
don't think so, no. Especially on a team that, I don't think, will ever
contend for a championship. Lamar Odom on a 4-seed and a 2nd round
playoff exit is not a good guy to have. Thad was great at scoring in
transition, finishing off the offensive glass, and playing high energy.
He's still good at those things. Only he hasn't gotten better at
shooting, dribbling, rebounding, or defending (markedly at least).

Do you think that the money the Sixers gave Thad was partially in the hopes that he was still young and would improve his game?

Yes
definitely. Or at least I hope so. He's below average at so many
aspects of basketball that paying him 8.5 is outlandish for him to stay
that way. Now, I think he won't ever get much better than he is
currently. But the Sixers are banking on the fact that he will.

Well, the other guy who the Sixers brought back definitely has
improved his game considerably. Did you see this coming with Spencer
Hawes, and how sustainable do you think his numbers are?

I'm
particularly blown away by how Wight Howard (our nickname for Spence on
LB) has played thus far. Did not see it coming at all, though I've been
saying since last year that Hawes wasn't as bad as most people were
giving him credit for. Mostly, he's feeling more comfortable within the
offense and has been able to use his formidable passing skills to
generate a lot of movement from the high post. That being said, the main
reason for his effectiveness is that his jump shot has been falling.
And I don't think it will continue at that rate—he's shooting 57% on
attempts from 16-23 feet. That's aburd.
 
The Sixers are 1-3 without Spence in the lineup, does that show
how important he's become to the team? Or is it just that they played
tougher teams over those games?

Both, again. There's never
just ONE REASON why a team loses a game. It's what makes watching
individual games fun and unique, because there's more than one guy or
one play that can be singled out as the reason the team won or lost. But
Spencer has been a huge part of the team's success thus far, and
there's no question that without him, the frontcourt has been extremely
thin and rebounds hard to come by, especially considering how bad Thad
is on the defensive glass.

Now if I remember correctly, you weren't that high on Nik Vucevic
coming out of the draft (and for the record, neither was I). Are you
changing your tune at all about him given how he's played so far,
especially in Hawes's absence?
 
A little, yeah. He's been better than I expected, but at the same
time, his current play was never an issue I had with him. I called his
ceiling that of a below average starting center, somewhere like what
Hawes' is. He'd be a great backup big man on a good team, but he's not
athletic, nor is he very skilled. He doesn't try to do too much and gets
his within the flow of the offense. No question he's helped so far, but
I didn't think it was the
right pick then and I still don't now, in terms of what I think the team
should be doing.

Still, if you can get a quality backup
center with the 16th pick in a historically weak draft, that's something
of a coup for GM Rod Thorn & co, isn't it?
 
Yeah,
that's definitely what they wanted. I have to be clear in illustrating
that yes, he's a perfect fit for what they wanted, I just didn't want
the same thing because my longterm goals for the team are different from
theirs, sadly.
 
You think the goal for the team is just to be as competitive as possible as quickly as possible?
 
Absolutely, no question about it.

Well,
what about the Marreese Speights trade, then? Didn't moving a potential
role player for draft picks show some kind of long-term vision?

No that wasn't what that was about. Speights never had a role on
this team as long as Collins is here, so they just moved him for
essentially nothing to get him out. I love 2nd rounders, but they're
rarely anything more than bench fodder, so it's not like they got great
value for him. If they can package that as an asset with which to move
up in the draft this year? That's great. But this shouldn't be seen as a
great move even if it was the one they had to make.

Back to recent Sixer draft picks—you were one of the biggest
advocates last season for staying patient with then-rookie Evan Turner,
saying he was coming along and just needed time (and opportunity) to get
used to the pro game. Are you feeling vindicated somewhat by his
improved play thusfar this year?
 
Yeah, I think pretty much everyone who's around basketball would
have told you that while Turner's start wasn't ideal, there's no reason
to think he wouldn't get better. And he has, which makes me extremely
excited for when he finally gets 35 minutes per night and takes full
control of the team, but Doug Collins keeps making us wait for that.
 
What's it going to take for Evan to wrest the starting two-guard spot from Jodie Meeks, you think?

I
don't think it happens this season, unfortunately. We've discussed
extensively on Liberty Ballers about whether starting actually matters
and I've come to the conclusion that it doesn't 90%, to 10% that it
does. It indicates a role the player has on the team. I want Evan Turner
to be our primary offensive option. That won't happen if he's not
starting, especially considering Doug uses the start of the 2nd half
like it's his starting lineup again. So that's immediately 10-15 minutes
there that ET isn't in. But as long as he technically gets more minutes
than Jodie...I'd be relatively content, if not completely satisfied.

Do you think he's ready to be a first option, though? It seems a
lot of his improvement this year has come from learning to pick his
spots better—if he's shooting 20-25 times a game, won't his efficiency
plummet, at least at first?

Well, he's only shooting 9 times per game now. So to say he'd
jump all the way to 20-25 is a steep climb. But 15 shots with,
hopefully, a bunch of trips to the line, could keep that efficiency
high, all the while picking his spots in the framework of the
offense...The way the team is constructed ,there isn't necessarily a
"first option," save for when Lou Williams is on the court,
unfortunately. But if he's playing 30-35 minutes a game, he'd have the
chance to get his opportunities more than he has so far

But you think the future of the team's offense, at least in
stretch runs, might look something like when Evan went into takeover
mode in the fourth quarter against Denver?
 
I'd hope so,
although I would like him to involve his teammates a bit more. Evan
plays very much in streaks, when he goes from deferring to his teammates
in the half court to deciding to take over and kind of putting his
blinders on. That's something that will improve with time and exposure.
He's got the ability to score himself and find his teammates, he just
has to use them simultaneously. That would make him, at least on the
offensive end, a complete player.
 
How are you feeling about the jumper?

Better than I
was last year but still not exactly pumped about it. The form is better,
undeniably, but the results haven't caught up with him yet. I have
faith that they will, but in the meantime I'm glad that he's taking the
shots but not being dependent on them, instead going to the basket and
getting fouled at a decent clip.

It seems like at the very least, he's taking the right shots now. They just have to start going in.
 
Exactly,
and as he gets better, he'll start getting those foul calls from the
refs that he hasn't really gotten the benefit of. Nothing wrong with a
little superstar treatment now and then.
 
As bullish as you've been on Evan this year, you've been kind
of down on Jrue Holiday of late. What about his play in '12 have you
found so discouraging?
 
All in all, he really hasn't done a
good job anywhere on the court. He's terrible defending the pick and
roll on defense, but I still see enough flashes of great D to be excited
about it for the future. Offensively, he's making bad decisions with
the ball and settling for outside shots, which limits his trips to the
line, thus limiting his effectiveness. That's the best thing about Lou -
he gets to the line a lot. Jrue needs to be able to get fouled going to
the basket because then it'll open up lanes for him to hit less
contested jumpers and find open teammates, which he hasn't been doing.
His jumper is looking nice though - a 47% clip from 16-23 is pretty
impressive. I'd just rather those points come at the rim.

If you had to tab one guy between Evan and Jrue as the future of the franchise, who would it be?

I'd
still mark Jrue as the more valuable player right now, capable of
achieving his ceiling, but I think Evan has the higher ceiling down the
road. Does that make sense? I hope that doesn't sound like a cop-out.

So, Iguodala and Brand—are we just stuck with these guys? If you
had to put odds on either being moved before their contract expires, how
would you mark them?

I'd give it a 20% chance that they
amnesty Brand in the offseason, but by that point his contract will be
expiring so I may even condone against it. For Andre, it's like 0.5%.
Management views trading any decent player as a step back and they are
100% against that, so they'll just keep them until they walk or pay them
another fat contract to maintain "continuity".
 
Are you worried about their potential activity at the trade
deadline, if the record remains good and they might start thinking about
trading some young guys for veterans?

Trading young guys for
veterans is something that worries me all the time, Phillies included.
Luckily, there aren't enough young guys on the Sixers that they don't
seem to value that could potentially go. Craig Brackins could be moved
but he's not doing anything. They won't trade Jodie because of his value
from the outside, and they won't trade Evan or Jrue because they do see
those players as franchise building blocks. I think the team is so in
love with itself that they don't want to break up anything they have
going. It's nice to see that kind of commitment to the team but when the
team's potential tops out at a 2nd round playoff exit, it's hard for me
to get too excited.
 
I haven't thought too much on it yet, but I'm betting they sign
Hawes to a long-term contract and keep the same exact team next year
too.

Do you see any potential for a big move a few years down the road that could bump the team up a level?
 
I imagine you're alluding at least in some respect to [Orlando Magic center] Dwight [Howard].
 
I was just about to add a Dwight-related addendum, yes.

OK.
Dwight's a guy that would instantly vault the Sixers to championship
contenders. Sub him in and I would be fully on board with them, feet
first. He'd fit perfectly next to, really, everyone and make guys like
Jodie and Lou even more valuable than they already are because of their
outside shooting. I would trade any three players for him as long as one
of them wasn't Jrue or Evan. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like
they'll have the money or be willing to part with the assets to bring
him in.

Besides all that, you don't think the Sixers have put themselves
in a position to potentially maybe package some of those guys in an
eventual KG/Gasol-type deal?
 
No I don't think they would.
They're extremely attached to the young guys, which I can appreciate,
but the likelihood that other teams value them as much as the Sixers do
isn't high. I'd love to make a deal involving Iguodala and one of the
Jazz big men, but that's just something in my head. Because
Evan/Jrue/high-upside big man can be something to hang your hat on.

So I know you guys addressed this a little on the blog, but who are some of the low-cost big men you're eyeing to improve the team's frontcourt depth?
 
Well I'd prefer someone young that can join the core and
possibly capitalize on high, untapped upside. Larry Sanders fits that
bill. So, to a lesser extent, does Kosta Koufos...But Collins is itching
for more vets, so I'm guessing no, they aren't realistic options. Older
guys that fill a role in the short-term and cost bad money down the
road seem inevitable.
 
Such as?

Anderson Varejao. Though I've gotten higher on him than I had been previously.
 
Seems like money aside, he'd fit a real need for this team.

Yeah
he would. The best thing about him is that he doesn't try to be
something he's not. And unlike Reggie Evans, he can also defend, and
isn't completely ass backwards on offense. But any more speculation
would just be guessing. I really think they'll go after somebody very
soon. Maybe with one of those second rounders or maybe with Noce's
expiring. Or just Mo's trade exception.

So I know it's still early, but you called it perfectly last
year—what do you think of the team's post-season prospects? Will they
win a first-round series, at least?

I've been really going
back and forth on it because I'm so blown away that Boston and New York
aren't better. But if I had to guess, I really think that Boston will
win the division. Maybe it's just history telling me things I can't
un-hear. But in spite of their oldness, I can't imagine they don't make a
big run at the division. Either way, I'm penciling the Sixers around
3-4-5 seed and a playoff win.
 
You're giving them the win?
 
Yeah, I say they get
it this year. But then they'll run into Miami or Chicago and get
steamrolled. And, just like last year, people will scream for
improvement and no trades/improvements/anythings will happen.
 
So you're not all that impressed by the prospect of the team's first series win since the Iverson era?

Nope.
I mean, one playoff win isn't much to write home about. The East isn't
as deep as the west, so winning a round puts them around 10th best team
in the league. Which is where I have them now anyway. But I can't see
them - ever, really - getting past the 2nd round unless a legitimate big
man comes in or Jrue/Evan become godlike.

So if I had to guess, Sixers beat Atlanta 4-2 in round one, then
lose to Miami 4-1 in round two. If I'm right again, I'm going to Vegas
in 2013.
 
Last thing—Do you think the Sixers become a
bandwagon team in the city of Philadelphia by season's end? Will we see a
full Wells Fargo Center for the Sixers' first post-season home game?
 
Yes to both. I think people are getting around to acknowledging
basketball's existence in Philly again, which is nice to see. They're
young and fun and everybody loves Jrue Holiday. It'll start to pack up
against better teams and then once playoff time rolls around, it'll be
rocking.
 
Especially if B. Franklin Dogg or Phil E. Moose shows up by then.
 
DOGGMOOSE 4 LYFE.

The Ryan Howard saga is hard to watch

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The Ryan Howard saga is hard to watch

It's difficult to feel sorry for a professional athlete who will have earned nearly $200 million in salary before his playing career ends at 37 years old. It's hard, but Ryan Howard is doing an outstanding job of making me feel bad anyway.

The statistics speak for themselves. As the calendar rolls over to June, Howard is batting .157 with more than twice as many strikeouts (52) as base hits (22). Debate rages as to whether the Phillies should hang on to the three-time All-Star for locker-room morale -- perhaps also in the desperate hopes they can still trade him -- or if they should just put The Big Piece out of his misery with an outright release.

There's no satisfying answer here. All I can say is I wish for it to be over.

Howard's decline has been one of the saddest to watch in recent Philly sports memory. From 2005 through 2011, he was the heart of the Phillies' order, belting 284 home runs and driving in 859 runs in six-and-a-half seasons, during the most successful run in franchise history. In 2016, Howard's bat can barely catch up to the ball, let alone knock it out of the infield.

Largely through no fault of his own. Howard has never been the same since rupturing his Achilles on the final at bat of the 2011 season. Sure, there were signs he was slowing down or that the rest of the league was catching up to him even then, averaging 32 homers between the '10-'11 seasons compared to 49.5 over '06-'09 -- but he was still hitting the ball at that point.

Since the injury, Howard's power hasn't necessarily dipped dramatically. It's his ability to hit the ball, period. From '04 to '11, he was a .275 hitter. After the injury, he's batting .226. This season has been especially trying, with the month of May bordering on the historic.

Of course, it's not news Howard's career was derailed by injuries. It's no secret he's been particularly awful this season. It's just harder than ever to watch.

Just how ineffective has Howard been in 2016? In retrospect, maybe the numbers don't quite do the struggle justice. Obviously, he isn't hitting, and he's striking out as frequently as ever. What's new this year is the percentage of fly balls that don't even make it out of the infield -- 12 percent, which is twice as high as any season in 13 Major League seasons.

What does it mean exactly? Howard's swing is so jacked right now that even when he does make contact, even when he doesn't hit a ball into the defensive shift, one in 10 times is essentially a harmless pop-up.

To his credit, Howard also has eight home runs this season, some of which have been big at bats or game-winners. He's also been hailed as a positive influence and leader in the clubhouse, an example this young group of Phillies can certainly benefit from.

Nor do I believe Howard really needs anybody to feel bad for him. He's worked hard and accomplished more than most ever will at his profession, and as a result is able to provide for his family and generations beyond. He's built a great legacy both on the baseball diamond, but one that no doubt extends beyond athletic prowess.

Yet none of that changes the fact that Howard's play has deteriorated to the point where he's become a black hole in the Phillies' lineup. It pains me to say that, to use this platform to write it -- just not as much as it pains me to watch it happening.

I'd love nothing more than for Howard to go on a tear and end his final season with the Phillies with head held high. It's the ending a legend like him deserves. Or better yet, improve his production to a level where a contender in the American League would sign Howard and give him one last crack at postseason baseball.

But short of that, I'd love nothing more for it to all be over, to not have to watch one of the great Phillies sluggers flail away every other or third day, or less as it soon may come to. It's not a matter of debate as to when or how that should happen. The sooner, the better.

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Bryce Harper (knee) sits for Nats

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Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts; Bryce Harper (knee) sits for Nats

Bryce Harper is out of the Nationals' lineup Tuesday night after being hit in the knee by a Jeremy Hellickson pitch on Memorial Day.

Big break for the Phils considering Harper has hit .346 against them with three doubles, 11 home runs, 23 RBIs and 21 walks in his last 104 plate appearances against them.

It's an equally big break for Aaron Nola, against whom Harper is 6 for 10 with two homers (see game notes).

For the Phillies, Ryan Howard gets the start at first base against another right-hander, Washington's Joe Ross. Phillies fans are clamoring for more playing time for Tommy Joseph, but starting Howard against Ross does make some sense given how much better lefties have been against him (.295 BA) than righties (.209). Ross throws a ton of sinkers and sliders which make it tough on same-handed hitters.

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Cameron Rupp, C
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Tyler Goeddel, LF
7. David Lough, RF
8. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
9. Aaron Nola, P

And for the Nationals:

1. Ben Revere, CF
2. Jayson Werth, RF
3. Daniel Murphy, 2B
4. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
5. Clint Robinson, LF
6. Anthony Rendon, 3B
7. Wilson Ramos, C
8. Danny Espinosa, SS
9. Joe Ross, P

10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

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10 observations from Tuesday's Eagles OTAs

The Eagles wrapped up their Tuesday practice just before 12:30 p.m. under a hot summer-like sun.

Tuesday was the first day of four in the team’s final week of OTAs, which are voluntary. The mandatory minicamp starts next Tuesday and runs through next Thursday.

That’s when we might see Fletcher Cox and Darren Sproles, both of whom have been staying away from the team during the voluntary period. And that’s where we’ll start with today’s 10 observations:

1. With Cox still out, Mike Martin was again working with the first team at defensive tackle next to Bennie Logan, as he was last week. Two weeks ago, Taylor Hart was next to Logan at tackle. Martin was a depth piece in Tennessee and that’s how he’ll fit with the Eagles once Cox comes back.

Martin was also involved in the first little scuffle we’ve seen during these spring practices. Nothing too exciting … just a little shoving with left guard Allen Barbre.

2. Sproles is still out, but Ryan Mathews returned. Mathews missed the last practice opened to the media with an illness but participated Tuesday. The interesting thing was that Mathews didn’t get all the first-team reps. In fact, Kenjon Barner actually opened the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 portions of practice with the first team.

It’s early, but Barner has looked pretty good this spring. It’ll be interesting to see if he fits with the team. He’s ahead of rookie Wendell Smallwood now, but would the team really elect to keep him over a fifth-round pick? Or will the team be OK keeping four running backs again?

Another note: Rueben Randle (gallbladder surgery) is still out.

3. We saw a little trickery from Doug Pederson’s offense on Tuesday against no defense. First, Chase Daniel threw a lateral screen to Josh Huff, who threw down the right to Smallwood. Then, Carson Wentz threw a lateral pass to Nelson Agholor and then Wentz ran a route down the left sideline, but Agholor overthrew him.

Maybe the trick plays are just way to keep practice lighter, but it might also mean the offense is moving along nicely and installing more and more of the playbook. It’s a good sign.

4. Wentz was up and down on Tuesday, but his best completion came on a deep pass down the right sideline to wideout Xavier Rush (who is a candidate for best name on the team). Rush wrestled the ball away from corner C.J. Smith, who should know Wentz pretty well. The two played together at North Dakota State.

Meanwhile, Sam Bradford had a shaky day, throwing several balls that could have been picked off.

5. Again, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks — the two Jim Schwartz guys in the secondary — were working with the first team. On Tuesday, Eric Rowe was the extra corner on the field in the nickel. When Rowe came in, Brooks shifted into the slot. It still looks like Nolan Carroll isn’t yet allowed to practice during team portions.

On the first play of 11 on 11s, Brooks broke up a pass from Bradford that was then picked off by Rodney McLeod and taken the other way. Not a good throw from Bradford, but Brooks was aggressive and jumped it.

6. Down by the goal line during the team period, Malcolm Jenkins made a nice play to get in front of a pass, but couldn’t pick it off. He’s in midseason form. Jenkins had a great year in 2015, but really struggled to intercept balls that he had in his hands.

7. Jordan Hicks didn’t participate in 7 on 7s or 11 on 11s Tuesday. Two weeks ago, he sat out with tightness in his legs, but returned last week. On Tuesday, with Hicks watching, Najee Goode filled in at first-team MIKE, flanked by Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks.

8. Chase Daniel overthrew two balls badly within a few plays during the 11-on-11 drills, but then capped off a drive by dropping a ball into the hands of wideout Paul Turner in the back of the end zone. Decent day for Daniel.

9. The Eagles ran some scout team looks for the first time (that we’ve seen) on Tuesday. Daniel ran the scout team, which makes sense. Normally, it would be the third-string quarterback, but Wentz probably has plenty on his plate. Not sure whom the offense was mimicking, but the two pinnies were Nos. 88 and 82. Perhaps the Cowboys?

10. At one point on Tuesday, the offense started to use a tempo offense, giving everyone in attendance flashbacks to Chip. Well, not exactly. The up-tempo didn’t last long and it did produce the ugliest Wentz pass since he’s been with the team.

We are seeing plenty of interesting looks from the Eagles. At times they’ve been using formations with three tight ends. And they even showed some designed quarterback runs on Tuesday. The progression and complexity of this offense is starting to be revealed by these practices, and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Stupid Observation of the Day: Punter Donnie Jones has begun to wear a pretty sweet white and blue bucket hat at practice when he’s not wearing his helmet. Only a punter could get away with this. Here, you can see him in the background from last week.