Now What? A Simultaneously Premature and Overdue Eulogy For the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers

Now What? A Simultaneously Premature and Overdue Eulogy For the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers

Tonight, the Philadelphia 76ers face off against the New Jersey Nets in their tenth-to-last game of the regular season. The questions for the Sixers going this game are many: How will the club handle Nets star point guard Deron Williams after he expoded for 34 and 11 in the first matchup between the teams? Will there be changes to the starting lineup, which Coach Collins threatened if the team couldn't get it together on Sunday against the Celtics? Will Nik Vucevic, who saw extended game action in Boston for the first time in two weeks, continue to get minutes?

All worthwhile questions. But another, more urgent, and significantly more depressing question looms over all: Who cares?

The Sixers have now lost four straight games, and ten of their last 14, in the midst of the most critical stretch of their season. They've fallen all the way to the eighth seed, three behind the surging Boston Celtics, with their first Atlantic Division crown in a decade basically out of reach. They'll have even more difficulty catching Orlando for the sixth seed (four games up on Philly), and they're just one game up on ninth-seeded Milwaukee, so now the only real question facing the team is whether they push for the seventh seed (and face a likely quick slaughter by Miami), try to hang in the eight seed (and face a likely more extended slaughter by Chicago), or drop out of the race altogether (and likely get another middling draft prospect).

If you're not holding your breath in anticipation of which of the three paths the teams ends up taking, you will not be faulted by this blog.

When the Sixers started the 2011-12 season with a 20-9 record, including wins over the Hawks, Magic, Pacers, Lakers and Bulls, people actually did care. There was a buzz around this team like there hadn't been since the Iverson era, not just in Philadelphia, but around the league, where the Sixers were finally being talked about in columns by national publications, topping ESPN stat expert John Hollinger's early Power Rankings and getting some long-overdue games on ESPN and NBA TV. It looked like even if they couldn't push Miami or Chicago for the conference championship, they'd at least be able to contend for a bit in the post-season, maybe even get that first playoff series win since 2003. At the very least, the prospect of meaningful post-season games was exciting.

Now, all that is over. The Sixers have bottomed out, and even though their late-blooming version of bottoming out isn't as miserable as the season-long bottoming out of the Bobcats and Wizards, it's arguably even worse, since there's no light of a top-flight draft pick at the end of the tunnel for the Sixers this year. Hollinger, once the Sixers' biggest proponent, just wrote a column about how real (though once unlikely) the possibility is of them missing the playoffs. The guys over at The Basketball Jones spent much of their last podcast talking about how they hope the team misses the playoffs because they're depressing to watch now, and they even suggested that Sixers fans probably feel the same way.

They might be right. I mean, I'm not sure I want to watch this team in the post-season, are you? I definitely don't want to see them face the Heat again—I already re-watched that movie over the course of their four-game season-series this year, and I liked the ending even less the second time around. If we faced the Bulls at eight, that might be preferable, since this team has played the Bulls tough (even winning an early-season game) and might be able to push them to five or six games, but how much do we really want another moral-but-not-actual post-season victory these playoffs? Wasn't this supposed to be the year that we actually played to, you know, actually win a series or two?

Really, at this point, maybe it would be best for the team to let the Bucks have the last spot in the East. At least then, not only would our draft slot be higher, but the embarrassment of missing the playoffs just a couple months after it looked like they would cruise to the Atlantic Division title would force the team's front office to make the hard decisions that it's delayed making for the last two seasons of surprise almost-contention. That includes: Finally finding a trade partner for Andre Iguodala and/or Elton Brand, re-evaluating Lou Williams' role on a rebuilding team and possibly letting him walk if he opts out of his contract in the off-season, and assessing Jure Holiday and Evan Turner's ability to co-exist as team fixtures in the backcourt, and looking to move one of them if they are deemed incompatible.

Tall order. But as so many Sixers fans and writers have cried over the years, this team has to do something to avoid spending the next five years where (with the exception of the dismal '09-'10 season) they've spent the last five—in the middle. Cutting ties with the team's expensive veterans and handing the keys to Jrue and Evan would likely result in the team missing the playoffs next year, and it might also frustrate Coach Collins to the point where his position becomes untenable, but it's what the team has to do. They've not close enough to contending, and they probably won't ever be with this core—the last 14 games have proven that. It's time to rip it up and start again.

The thing that's really so disappointing about all this is that for a minute there, it looked like we were on our way to experiencing what all sports fans dream about—getting to watch a young, largely homegrown team take that collective leap to realized potential. Even better, we did it without a superstar, proving all sorts of basketball truisms about being unselfish, playing together as a unit and allowing the team to become something more than the sum of its parts. It felt unreal, and that's because ultimately, it was unreal—the team wasn't as good as it looked then, they were just better-prepared for the 66-game season than a lot of other teams, and they were building momentum against a lot of really messy, subpar competition. We always knew that was true to some extent, only now do we realize how true the full extent really is.

Does that mean that I'm rooting for them to tank the rest of the season? Nah. I still refuse to root against my team from game to game, and never will advocate doing so. I wish the team the best over the final ten games, and if they can get some momentum going into the playoffs and clinch the team's first winning season in seven years in the meantime...I don't think it'll end up resulting in much, but good for them. I can't really blame the team for the season ending up so disappointing—this is just how good a team they really are—and really, I can't even blame the front office for seeing the shortened season and trying to gain an advantage by returning all last year's team players, hoping their pre-established chemistry and young legs would be enough to separate from the pack while everyone else struggled with new lineups, out-of-shape veterans and a lack of practice time. Hell, it almost worked.

What matters now isn't what happens in the final ten games, or in the playoffs, or even on draft night in June. What matters is what happens the rest of this off-season, and whether the front office starts to take the difficult-but-necessary steps to get this team out of the middle class—first in one direction, then hopefully in the other. And that means not passing on trade offers for Andre Iguodala, regardless of how much of an immediate negative they are for the team, and that means probably not giving Spencer Hawes a long, cap-clogging extension (though with his awful play these last few weeks, it's doubtful our one-time MIP candidate could really get that much on the open market no
w anyway), and that means definitely NOT re-signing or extending Lou Williams if he decides he wants out.

Most importantly, it means acknowledging, in some way, shape and/or form, that this team at its core always will be what it always has been—a middle-of-the-pack, totally directionless basketball team, simultaneously too good and not good enough. I'm not saying that we have to bottom out Wizards/Bobcats-style, even—though it would hurt without Iguodala, Brand and/or Williams, the team does have enough young talent that it could theoretically stay competitive—but as people at this blog and elsewhere have been saying for years, we need to get as young and cheap as possible to either grow through the draft, or have the flexibility to acquire one of those first-option-type scorers the Sixers have lacked since AI, or a big-man anchor they haven't had since Mutombo. (Eric Gordon and Roy Hibbert, possible respective examples of each, are both restricted free agents this off-season. Neither are necessarily the answer for Philly, and I doubt the club will actively pursue either, but they're the type of players the team should be looking at.)

It was a fun season, all told. And theoretically, it's possible that something will happen over the next ten games to add a little more spice to the team's playoff run—maybe Evan Turner will rip off another four-game stretch like the one he had a month ago that'll make him a player of interest in the post-season, or maybe Spencer Hawes will end his contract year by healthening up and regaining the stroke he had at season's beginning, or maybe Lou Williams will decide "F--- it, these losers have been holding me back all year" and go off for 57 points on 53 shots one game. But while I'll probably write another eulogy for this team once it's officially eliminated from the post-season, the season really died Sunday night in Boston when the team desperately needed a win to and couldn't even come close. Let's just hope the season didn't die in vain.

Instant Replay: Rockies 8, Phillies 2

Instant Replay: Rockies 8, Phillies 2

BOX SCORE

The Colorado Rockies laid the wood to the Phillies again Tuesday night. The Rockies hit three home runs en route to an 8-2 win at Citizens Bank Park. The Rockies beat the Phillies, 8-1, on Monday night.

The Phillies have lost four in a row, eight of their last nine and 19 of their last 23 to fall to 15-28.

Two games into this four-game series, the Phillies have been held to just two runs in 13 innings against a pair of rookie Colorado starting pitchers.

Starting pitching report
Zach Eflin had his second straight poor outing. He was tagged for 10 hits and eight runs in six innings. He gave up three home runs.

Eflin has given up 21 hits and 15 runs in his last two starts.

The Rockies got another good start from a rookie. This time it was German Marquez, who held the Phillies to a run over six innings. Rookie Jeff Hoffman held the Phillies to a run over seven innings in the series opener on Monday night.

Bullpen report
Mark Leiter Jr. stopped the bleeding with two scoreless innings.

The Rockies' bullpen has given up just one run in five innings in the series.

At the plate
The Phillies scored their first run on a bases-loaded walk in the third inning. Andrew Knapp homered in the ninth to make it a six-run game.

Rockies leadoff man Charlie Blackmon hit a pair of two-run homers against Eflin. He leads the majors with 62 hits. Blackmon has seven home runs in his last five games at Citizens Bank Park. He hit five in a three-game series last season.

Gerardo Parra also homered for the Rockies, who have the best record in the National League at 30-17.

Transactions
The Phillies placed outfielder Daniel Nava on the 10-day disabled list with a slight hamstring strain. He is expected to return sometime next week. The team opted for an extra bullpen arm and recalled reliever Adam Morgan from Triple A to take Nava's roster spot.

Health check
Howie Kendrick took outdoor batting practice Tuesday for the first time since suffering an abdominal strain on April 15. He could head out on minor-league rehab later this week and be ready to return sometime next week. Kendrick can play corner infield and corner outfield, so he could take away at-bats from Maikel Franco and Michael Saunders if they don't get going. Both were benched Tuesday night (see story).

Up next
The series continues Wednesday night. Jeremy Hellickson (5-1, 3.44) will pitch against Colorado right-hander Tyler Chatwood (3-6. 5.09).

More WRs, more buzz, but Jordan Matthews unfazed with Eagles

More WRs, more buzz, but Jordan Matthews unfazed with Eagles

After leading the Eagles in passing targets for the past two seasons, Jordan Matthews suddenly became an afterthought when the club signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency. There's even speculation Matthews might be available in a trade if a solid offer comes along.

The Eagles' investments at the wide receiver position this offseason would certainly appear to put Matthews' future with the team in question. In addition to Jeffery and Smith, Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson were brought aboard in the draft, all as Matthews enters the final year of his rookie contract.

None of which seems to concern Matthews, who described the trade rumors as "fake news" on Tuesday at the NovaCare Complex, where Phase 3 of Eagles OTAs was underway.

"I don't care about any of that stuff," Matthews said. "I feel like it's the NFL, if you think about it, everybody has a price. Those talks, they happen, so it really doesn't faze me."

To be clear, there has been very little noise to suggest the Eagles were at any point actively shopping Matthews or the fourth-year veteran is on the trade block. A reporter merely stated a belief the Eagles would be open to moving Matthews in the right deal. It was enough to get people talking, and once Jeffery and Smith signed days later, the rumors weren't going away.

Matthews' contract situation has a lot do with the reaction. Apart from all the new faces in the receivers room, this offseason was the first he was eligible to sign a contract extension.

There is absolutely nothing to report on that front. Instead, the Eagles directed funds toward Jeffery and Smith — who are viewed by some as his potential replacements.

"I haven't really talked to anybody about that," Matthews said. "I really don't focus on that too much, to be honest.

"I think you all know me by now. That's not really what fuels me, so it's like one of the last things I actually really think about. Whatever is going to happen is going to end up happening, so I just try to come out here and play hard and do what I need to do for my team."

Matthews turns 25 in July and has impressive numbers for the Eagles, recording 225 receptions for 2,673 yards and 19 touchdowns. Only six players in NFL history amassed more in all three categories their first three seasons.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Matthews will reprise his role as the Eagles' primary slot receiver in 2017, downplaying the possibility of a reduced role. Pederson also noted Matthews' tight bond with quarterback Carson Wentz.

Pederson also declined to make mention of Matthews' standing with the club beyond '17, nor is it really this coach's place to say.

"Jordan has been a big part of this offense, and he is still a big part of this offense," Pederson said on Tuesday. "He's got a great relationship and a great rapport with Carson, and Carson feels very comfortable with him."

Despite trade rumors, his contract situation and the simple fact the Eagles brought in a bunch of players who would gladly take his targets and his job, Matthews remains positive. In fact, he sees Jeffery and Smith making life easier for the rest of the offense.

"I'm glad, to be honest," Matthews said. "I'm glad to have Torrey, glad to have Alshon, the rookies.

"Obviously, having more guys on the field that have that type of production over a long period of time, they're going to garner attention. That's going to help me get free."

Matthews is coming off of his worst season, posting 73 receptions for 804 yards and three touchdowns. Much of his problems seemed to stem from the lack of options in the passing attack, particularly at receiver, allowing defenses to hone in on Matthews.

Furthermore, Matthews was plagued by an ankle injury for much of the season, from which he is still recovering.

"Still getting there," Matthews said. "An ankle messes up the whole chain. It's not like an upper-body extremity injury. When you're dealing with an ankle, there's a lot more stuff that you have to continue to get right from the back down."

Despite the increasing competition at the Eagles' receiver position, Matthews doesn't sound very worried about his ankle, either. Like trade rumors and concerns about his contract, that too will pass in time.

"We've got a lot of time," Matthews said. "I know I'll be good when it's time to roll."