Nerlens and MCW, But No More Jrue: Some Thoughts on What It All Means for the Sixers

Nerlens and MCW, But No More Jrue: Some Thoughts on What It All Means for the Sixers

First of all, and this will certainly be far from the last gushing eulogy I write for his time on the Sixers, let me just say one more time for the record: I LOVE Jrue Holiday. He was, without a doubt, the best thing about watching the Sixers the last four years, from his days toiling for minutes under Eddie Jordan to his first triple-double to coming alive in the Boston series in '12 to him repping Philly at the All-Star team last season. He was a joy to watch on the court, an absolute sweetheart off the court, and I would have loved to watch him develop over the next five to ten years, as he filled out the holes in his game and hopefully grew from a fringe All-Star into a legitimate franchise player.

I will miss him terribly, and I will probably sob myself to sleep in my #11 Holiday jersey I purchased before Game Four of the Miami series two years ago. But I can't really fault Sam Hinkie's logic in making him available. By trading Jrue, he sends the clearest message possible to the league, to the fanbase, and to the team itself: The Sixers aren't that good, and have to get considerably worse before hopefully getting a whole lot better. And everyone--absolutely everyone--is expendable.

Jrue Holiday was the closest thing we had to an untouchable player on the roster, an All-Star point guard with room to grow and an imminently reasonable contract. But if we're attempting to be reasonable here, Jrue wasn't Kyrie Irving, or even John Wall, nor was he likely to reach those guys' level. He's achieved a ton for a 22-year-old, but as superficially excellent as his stats were last year, his numbers came rather inefficiently--his lack of free-throw shooting and high turnover rate meant that his PER was a good-but-far-from-elite 16.7, and according to advanced stats, he was worth just 3.3 Win Shares last year, fewer than even Spencer Hawes or Dorell Wright. He also occasionally lacked discipline on defense, and was prone to the sporadic playmaking mental lapse in late-game situations.

Of course, nearly all Jrue's flaws could have been correctable, and at just 22 with a notoriously conservative head coach, it wouldn't be reasonable for him to expect him to do any better just yet. But does he have the ability, the athleticism, the supernatural talent to be the guy that the Sixers build around? Probably not. Preferably, Jrue would have been a second or third option on a contending team. Trading him will very likely haunt the Sixers in the short term, but it wouldn't be shocking if he stayed his whole career at that kind of borderline all-star level, always top ten at his position but never top five. That's a great player to have, but it's not one who you hoard at all costs.

So once we write off Jrue, we have to turn to the new guys we now have in his stead: Nerlens Noel and Michael Carter-Williams. Noel, a power forward from Kentucky, was pegged before the year as the likely #1 overall pick, and though he didn't get a tremendous amount done in his Freshman year at UK --about 11 points and ten boards a game, going 17-7 in his 24 games--he put up very good peripherals and defensive numbers, shooting nearly 60% from the floor averaging not only an incredible 4.4 blocks a game, but 2.1 steals a game as well, a rare-to-find combination in a big man. Consequently, analytics guys love Noel's potential--ESPN's Kevin Pelton ranked him #1 in projected WARP among rookies next year, and he only turned 19 in April.

Pretty cool, right? So why was he taken at #6 by the Pelicans, and not first overall? Well, he tore his ACL in February in a gruesome in-game incident that will knock him out of game action until at least December, if not longer. (When last reported, Noel was targeting a Christmas return.) This is no small thing for NBA teams drafting in the top five, since even if he does come back promptly, there's no telling if his athleticism will still be 100% in tact, and as any team (and particularly the Sixers with their recent experience) will tell you, when you start messing with big men's knees, there's no telling what kind of long-term fallout will result.

What's more, Noel is still very raw offensively. He won't be able to score in the pick-and-pop like so many Sixers men of years past have been, and even in the low post with his 7'4" wingspan, scoring against elite NBA defenses will be a challenge for young Nerlens, especially at first. Defensively, he should be able to contribute pretty immediately, but even his Kentucky big man predecessor Anthony Davis wasn't particularly prodigious in his scoring his rookie year, and he was far more offensively versatile than Noel. He's gonna take a while for sure.

Meanwhile, there's Michael Carter-Williams, who, pending some moves in free agency, will likely waltz in unopposed as the Sixers' starting point guard. Carter-Williams is also a favorite among the analytics set, ranking ninth in Pelton's rankings, and had a much more obviously productive college career at Syracuse, averaging 12 points, seven boards and five assists (as well as almost three steals a game), while leading the Orange and their crappy offensive attack to the final four. With MCW and Noel, the Sixers will now have two long, range-y, defensively minded athletes at their respective positions, and high IQ guys to boot.

However, as you might have guessed from him being available to the Sixers at #11, there's a catch with all this, and it's this: Shooting has been a bit of an issue for Carter-Williams. Last year, MCW shot a painful 39% from the field, including 29% from deep.He also turned the ball over 3.5 times a game, which, when combined with the bad shooting, is undoubtedly going to cause problems in Philadelphia's already low-efficiency attack. Still, unlike our other tall ball-handler with a successful college career, MCW is seen as a pure point, and he has the athleticism to compete and grow at the NBA level, rather than hitting the pro ceiling the way the Extraterrestrial did.

If it seems like neither of these guys are going to come in and contribute a ton to the Sixers winning right away...well, they probably won't. But therein lies the grand plan of our new GM Sam Hinkie. As we suspected he would, Hinkie has taken a look at the Liberty Ballers' roster and concluded--rightly--that it's nowhere near contention. He has thus decided that rather than try to augment the existing pieces on the roster and push to make the playoffs again next year, the Sixers are in a full-on rebuild, going even younger and stripping the club of all inessential pieces--which, in this case, would appear to be everyone.

Basically, the plan is this: Rebuild around youth, and lose a lot. By shedding the Sixers' most productive offensive player and adding two guys that aren't going to be contributing a ton next year (one of whom might not even be playing at all), they're basically guaranteeing a losing season, and a dramatic one--by the time Hinkie is done, the Sixers might most closely resemble last year's Orlando Magic in terms of roster strength. But that's where the plan really kicks in: Not only will the Sixers likely have a high pick in next year's draft--said by many to be one of the strongest in recent memory, and capped by Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins, on pace to be the most coveted prospect since LeBron--but they'll have a pick of secondary value from the Hornets as well, which is reportedly top-five protected, but might still be a lottery pick in a stacked draft.

Needless to say, this also gives us a pretty clear plan of what the team's off-season strategy from here will be. I wouldn't call this the death knell on a Bynum signing necessarily--if the Sixers are confident in his recovery and feel they can get him for below market value, I believe they still will, though that's such a big if it almost doesn't matter--but you can basically throw out any visions you might have of the team going after an Al Jefferson or J.J. Redick or any other veteran to "put us over the top." And in the meantime, expect more roster-shredding trades to come--by opening night, I would be surprised if Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young were all still on the roster; it wouldn't be hugely shocking if none of them were.

Bottom line: This was the Sixers' best chance to jump-start the rebuilding process, to immediately put us on a five-year path rather than waiting another year or two (or five) to tap out this core and hit rock bottom, and damned if Hinkie didn't grab it with both hands. It's going to be a rough year of Sixer basketball, and Hinkie is going to catch hell from a lot of Philly fans who (understandably) don't want to part with the one unreservedly good thing the Sixers have had going for them the last few years. But even though I'm devastated to see Jrue go, and though the next season will undoubtedly be a soul-crushing slog at times, it is nice to feel that our front office has a long-term plan, and is willing to stick with it, even through tough times such as this.

And in the meantime, MCW and Noel aren't two bad pieces to start building around. I know I'll be on YouTube for pretty much the next 24 hours, gorging on highlights and convincing myself that we just drafted the next Penny Hardaway and Tim Duncan. It won't be quite like that, but it's a start, and for the first time in a long time, I really do like where our basketball team is going.

Another struggling pitcher gets well against the Phillies' feeble hitters

Another struggling pitcher gets well against the Phillies' feeble hitters

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MIAMI -- For struggling pitchers, facing the Phillies has become like a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
 
Another rival pitcher searching for a cure got it Monday night when the Phillies suffered their 23rd loss in the last 29 games. This time it was Miami Marlins right-hander Edinson Volquez. He pitched six shutout innings and allowed just three hits in leading his club to a 4-1 win over the Phillies, who fell to 6-20 in May (see Instant Replay).

Volquez had gone 16 starts between wins.
 
"Every loss stings, I don’t care who's pitching," manager Pete Mackanin said. "We're just in a rut. We've got to battle our way out of it. We have to show up tomorrow and get after it. We've got to get more than three or four hits in the game."
 
The Phillies had just four hits in the game. It was the fifth time in the last nine games that they've had four or fewer hits. Only one of the hits was for extra bases and one of the singles was an infield hit.
 
"Once again, we need more offense," Mackanin said.
 
Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson completed a difficult month of May by allowing six hits, including a two-run homer, and four runs over six innings.
 
Hellickson surrendered a two-run homer to Derek Dietrich with two outs in the sixth and that was basically the ball game. Dietrich hit a high changeup. Back in April, that pitch would have been at the knees. But Hellickson has misplaced the pitch command that he needs to succeed.
 
Hellickson went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA in five starts in April. In May, however, he went 1-3 with a 7.04 ERA in six starts. He was tagged for 35 hits, including nine homers, in 30 2/3 innings.
 
"Command in general," said Hellickson, describing his problem this month. "The biggest thing is not getting strike one, falling behind too much. I'm not getting the quick easy outs I was getting early in the season. I'm trying to get ahead, just missing."
 
Volquez signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the Marlins over the winter, but it wasn't until this game that he delivered his first win. He entered the game 0-7 with a 4.82 ERA in nine starts.
 
The win was Volquez's first since Aug. 25, 2016, when he was a member of the Kansas City Royals.

Volquez isn't the first struggling pitcher to shine against the Phils recently. Eight days earlier, Pittsburgh's Chad Kuhl took a 6.69 ERA into a start against the Phils and pitched five shutout innings. In the series against Colorado, the Phillies were dominated by a pair of rookies. In the only game they won (in a late rally), they were held to one run over six innings by Tyler Anderson, who had entered that game with an ERA of 6.00. On Friday night, Cincinnati Reds right-hander Tim Adleman pitched eight shutout innings against the Phils and gave up just one hit in the best start of his life. He had come into that game with an ERA of 6.19.
 
So Volquez had to be heartened when he saw the Phillies on the schedule.
 
They are the get-well team for pitchers in need of a pick-me-up.
 
It's actually kind of sad.
 
With Odubel Herrera locked in the throes of the worst slump of his life and on the bench and Maikel Franco mired in a 2 for 21 slump and hitting .209, Mackanin is trying to push things a little. He gave Aaron Altherr the green light to steal with one out and runners on the corners in a one-run game in the sixth inning. Altherr was out at second on a close play and Tommy Joseph struck out to leave the runner at third.
 
The Marlins salted the game away in the bottom of the inning on Dietrich's homer.
 
"With our offense, I have to take chances," Mackanin said. "I can't sit around and wait for three hits in a row. We haven't been doing that."
 
The Phils have the worst record in the majors at 17-32.
 
They have lost eight of their last 10 and scored just 15 runs in the losses.
 
"It sucks," catcher Cameron Rupp said. "There's really no other way to put it. It's frustrating. But the only people that are going to help us are ourselves. Nobody's going to go out there and play for us, swing the bats, pitch, play defense. That's on us and we have to do a better job all around.
 
"We all want to be successful and get the job done. We just haven't been hitting the ball. There's no other way to put it. But the good thing about baseball is we play every day so we turn the page and come back tomorrow and try to get it done."

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins come alive late in third to steal Game 1 vs. Predators

Stanley Cup Final: Penguins come alive late in third to steal Game 1 vs. Predators

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PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel beat Nashville's Pekka Rinne with 3:17 left in regulation to put the Penguins ahead to stay in a 5-3 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.

Guentzel snapped an eight-game goalless drought to help the defending champions escape after blowing a three-goal lead.

Nick Bonino scored twice for the Penguins. Conor Sheary scored his first of the playoffs and Evgeni Malkin scored his eighth. The Penguins won despite putting just 12 shots on goal. Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins, who used the first coach's challenge in finals history to wipe out an early Nashville goal and held on despite going an astonishing 37:09 at one point without a shot.

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Ellis, Colton Sissons and Frederick Gaudreau scored for the Predators. Rinne stopped just seven shots.

The Penguins had all of three days to get ready for the final following a draining slog through the Eastern Conference that included a pair of Game 7 victories, the second a double-overtime thriller against Ottawa last Thursday.

Pittsburgh downplayed the notion it was fatigued, figuring adrenaline and a shot at making history would make up for any lack of jump while playing their 108th game in the last calendar year.

Maybe, but the Penguins looked a step behind at the outset. The Predators, who crashed the NHL's biggest stage for the first time behind Rinne and a group of talented defenseman, were hardly intimidated by the stakes, the crowd or the defending champions.

All the guys from the place dubbed "Smashville" have to show for it is their first deficit of the playoffs on a night a fan threw a catfish onto the ice to try and give the Predators a taste of home.

The Penguins, who led the league in scoring, stressed before Game 1 that the best way to keep the Predators at bay was by taking the puck and spending copious amounts of time around Rinne. It didn't happen, mostly because Nashville's forecheck pinned the Penguins in their own end. Clearing attempts were knocked down or outright swiped, tilting the ice heavily in front of Murray.

Yet Pittsburgh managed to build a quick 3-0 lead anyway thanks to a fortunate bounce and some quick thinking by Penguins video coordinator Andy Saucier. Part of his job title is to alert coach Mike Sullivan when to challenge a call. The moment came 12:47 into the first when P.K. Subban sent a slap shot by Murray that appeared to give the Predators the lead.

Sullivan used his coach's challenge, arguing Nashville forward Filip Forsberg was offside. A lengthy review indicated Forsberg's right skate was in the air as he brought the puck into a zone, a no-no.

It temporarily deflated Nashville and gave the Penguins all the wiggle room they needed to take charge.

Malkin scored on a 5-on-3 15:32 into the first, Sheary made it 2-0 just 65 seconds later and when Nick Bonino's innocent centering pass smacked off Nashville defenseman Mattias Ekholm's left knee and by Rinne just 17 seconds before the end of the period, Pittsburgh was in full command.

It looked like a repeat of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa, when the Penguins poured in four goals in the first period of a 7-0 rout.

Nashville, unlike the Senators, didn't bail. Instead they rallied.

Ellis scored the first goal by a Predator in a Stanley Cup Final 8:21 into the second. Though Nashville didn't get another one by Murray, they also kept Rinne downright bored at the other end. Pittsburgh didn't manage a shot on net in the second period, the first time it's happened in a playoff game in franchise history.

Nashville kept coming. Sissons beat Murray 10:06 into the third and Gaudreau tied it just after a fruitless Pittsburgh power play.

No matter. The Penguins have become chameleons under Sullivan. They can win with both firepower and precision.

Guentzel slipped one by Rinne with 3:17 to go in regulation and Bonino added an empty netter to give Pittsburgh early control of the series.