Same Old Sixers? Five Ways This Year's Team is Different Than the Last Few

Same Old Sixers? Five Ways This Year's Team is Different Than the Last Few

The script feels awfully familiar, it's true. The Philadelphia 76ers
have gotten off to a fairly good start this season, going 10-7 in their
first 17 games, but have done so mostly at home and mostly against
fairly weak teams, and it feels like only a matter of time until they
start falling back and end up about where they've ended up in four of
the last five seasons—with a seventh and eighth-seed in the playoffs and
an all-but-certain first-round exit. The Sixers aren't a bad team, but
they're not an elite team, and they will probably be exposed for their
mediocrity sooner or later, just as they have been every other year. 


However, even though the overall story arc is a retread, the season
doesn't feel quite like a repeat. That's because a number of the
details—including some of the cast and characters—have been different
enough from past years, last year especially, to keep things
interesting. Here are some of the changed subplots for the Sixers this
year:


1. They're winning in close games, not blowouts. When the Sixers
got off to their hot start last year, John Hollinger briefly had them
listed at the top of his Power Rankings. This year, they're in the 20s.
Why the huge disparity, despite the similar records? Scoring
differential. Last year, the Sixers were 12-5 after 17 games, but they
had an incredible +209 scoring margin, including eight wins of 20 points
or more against lottery-bound teams like the Raptors, Warriors, Pistons
and Wizards. The inflated wins, explained largely by the Sixers having
the advantage of a consistent roster from the year before in a
strike-shortened, training-campless season, made the team seem more
dominant than they actually were, and masked the fact that they still
had no idea how to win close games, an inability that would haunt them
later in the season when the rest of the league started to catch up to
them.


This year, the Sixers aren't blowing out anybody. Their biggest win
this season was a 15-point victory in New Orleans, and their nine other
W's have been by ten points or less—in fact, for the season, the Sixers
have a negative scoring differential, having been outscored by opponents
by a total of 14 points. Most statistical analysts would point to this
decreased scoring differential as a sign that this Sixers team is weaker
than last year's, and rightly so, though on the other hand, you could
at least say that this marks some sort of progress, that the fact that
the Sixers are now able to close in close games against mediocre
opponents, where their record last year in one-possession games was
abysmal. It's a change of pace anyway.


2. They don't fast break anymore. Whether a conscious
strategic decision by Coach Collins or a matter of changes in
personnel—the departed Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams were two of the
team's best fast-breakers and most aggressive playmakers—the team
doesn't really run anymore. After finishing in the top five in the
league in fast-break scoring each of the last five years (except for
last year, when they finished eighth), the team ranks only 19th this
season, with about 13 points a game.


With Jrue Holiday as the team's primary ball-handler, the team runs a
much more precise, orchestrated half-court offense that doesn't rely on
scoring in transition. Watching Holiday in transition, he rarely looks
to be bolting for the basket, instead just steadily advancing towards
the hoop, looking for easy-score opportunities to present themselves,
and running a play if none do. Given the improved half-court option the
team has acquired (Jason Richardson, Nick Young) or developed (Evan
Turner, Thaddeus Young) this year, this makes sense, though it results
in a lot fewer highlight dunks and such as we had with 'Dre and Sweet
Lou running the team at 60 MPH.


3. They can shoot the three-ball. The primary half-court
weapon the team has added to their arsenal this year is the
three-pointer. The team averaged a solid 36.2% from three last year, but
they barely shot the long-ball, averaging about 14.6 attempts a game,
the sixth-lowest rate in the league. This year, they're shooting more
from deep—about 18.5 attempts a game—and converting at a higher rate,
38.2%, good for sixth in the league. Thanks to the recently acquired
trio of Nick Young, Dorell Wright and Jason Richardson (particularly
Richardson, averaging 2.5 treys a game on 43% shooting) and internal
improvement from Jrue Holiday (39%) and to the surprise of many, Evan
Turner (42%), teams now need to honor the Sixers' three-point shooting,
giving Jrue Holiday more options when penetrating and Thaddeus Young
more freedom to operate on the post.


4. Their starters are their scorers. For the first two years
of the Doug Collins era, our Coach seemed obsessed with keeping scoring
balance between the starting lineup in bench, with two of the team's
three best scorers—including Lou Williams, who became the first player
in nearly 20 years to lead his team in scoring as a sixth man—coming off
the bench. Well, not this year—our top four scorers all start this
year, and they're the only four players on the team averaging
double-digits in points per game. Even the odd man out in the starting
lineup—Lavoy Allen, eighth in team scoring with 6.2 points a game—has
started to pick it up, going for double-digits in three of his last four
games after only doing so three times in the team's first 13 games.


This disparity might not exactly have been by design for Coach
Collins—he's probably still hoping to get more scoring out of Nick Young
(9.6 ppg, 38% FG), Spencer Hawes (7.2 ppg, 44% FG) and Dorell Wright
(7.9 ppg, 33% FG)—but it does sort of illustrate that the team's
strengths might not be in its depth, as it was last year, but rather
that our good players area really getting good. Which brings us to...


5. They have room for improvement. Under the guidance of
veterans Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams and Elton Brand, the team was
probably better at the beginning of last season than it has been this
season. But that team was never going to be better than it was during
that first month of the season—its core guys had already become who they
were, and the team's ceiling was correspondingly low. This year,
though, it's all about potential, which the team is only starting to
realize. Two of the team's core players, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young,
seem to be getting better with every game, and a third, Jrue Holiday,
seems like a front-runner for the Most Improved Player award with his
play all season. The chemistry is improving, a team identity is
emerging, and the unit on a whole just seems a lot stronger than it did
when the season began a month ago—with the potential to get even
stronger as the season goes on.


Oh yeah, and there's still that other guy, the world's most
controversial seven-foot Trina superfan, healing on IR, hopefully to
join the team before season's end. Maybe he makes the Sixers a whole lot
better with his return, maybe he proves toxic upon his return and
actually makes the team worse, maybe he doesn't return at all. But the
prospect of his return, however unlikely it might appear at this point,
means you can't close the book on this Sixers season just yet, since if
he actually does join the tam at some point, they instantly go
from being one of the most predictable teams in the league to one of the
most unpredictable. After years of knowing the ending in the first
couple chapters, we'll gladly take the promise of an uncertain ending.

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

Phillies manager Pete Mackanin: Adam Morgan is a definite bullpen candidate

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Just pitch.
 
Don’t worry about the role.
 
Just pitch.
 
That’s Adam Morgan’s mindset this spring.
 
“I’m just trying to show whoever needs to see it that I can be an asset to this team,” the left-hander said after his spring debut against the New York Yankees on Saturday (see story). “I’m just keeping it simple that way. I’m not trying to go out for that fifth (starting) spot. If the fifth spot opens up, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want to put me in the bullpen, I’d be more than willing to do that. If they want me to be the backup catcher, I’ll be the backup catcher.”
 
The Phillies have plenty of candidates for backup catcher.
 
And the top five spots in their starting rotation, barring an unforeseen development, are accounted for.
 
But there is a way for Morgan to make this team.
 
“He’s definitely a bullpen candidate,” manager Pete Mackanin said.
 
Mackanin is on record as saying he’d like to have two lefties in what likely will be a seven-man bullpen. It might not work out that way, but that would be Mackanin’s preference.
 
Morgan is one of what appears to be four candidates along with Joely Rodriguez, Cesar Ramos and Sean Burnett. Ramos and Burnett are experienced major-league veterans in camp on minor-league contracts. Rodriguez is the only pure lefty reliever on the 40-man roster. Morgan, of course, is on the 40-man roster, but he’s mainly been a starter in his career.

There’s a long way to go in spring training and it would not be surprising to see general manager Matt Klentak add to the list of lefty relief candidates with some type of pickup before the end of camp.
 
But for now, it’s just these four.
 
Morgan, who turns 27 on Monday, started and pitched two scoreless innings against the Yankees on Saturday and will likely continue to have his innings stretched out throughout the Grapefruit League season, just in case he’s needed as a starter.

Ramos and Rodriguez both pitched an inning Saturday. Ramos allowed a hit and a run. Rodriguez had a clean inning. Burnett was tagged for two hits and two runs on Friday.
 
Morgan made 21 starts for the Phillies last season. He also made two relief appearances and finished the season with a 6.04 ERA. He was sent to Triple A in July and returned in mid-August. He made nine starts after returning and pitched at least six innings and gave up two or fewer earned runs in four of them.
 
During his time in Triple A, Morgan started throwing a two-seam fastball or sinker. He’s continued to throw it this spring and believes it will help him.
 
“I learned to trust the two-seamer last year and that’s what I hope to keep moving forward with,” he said.
 
Will it take him to the Phillies’ bullpen?
 
He hopes so. He got a taste of relieving last season and liked it.
 
“Oh, yeah, I loved it,” he said. “Every time the phone rang down there, I was on high alert. It was awesome. It’s a rush.
 
“But wherever I land, I land. I’d be willing to play anywhere on this team.”

Instant Replay: Villanova topples Creighton, clinches Big East title outright

Instant Replay: Villanova topples Creighton, clinches Big East title outright

BOX SCORE

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Sophomore transfer Eric Paschall scored a team-high 19 points -- including five dunks -- and Kris Jenkins added 15, as No. 2 Villanova pulled away late to beat No. 23 Creighton, 79-63, and clinch the 2017 Big East Conference regular-season title outright.

Paschall, starting during Darryll Reynolds’ injury absence, shot 8 for 12 from the field and added six rebounds.

Creighton’s last lead was 45-43 six minutes into the second half, but a Paschall slam and Jenkins’ first three after five misses sparked a 16-4 run that gave the Wildcats a 59-49 lead with 8½ minutes left. Creighton got no closer than seven the rest of the way.

Paschall’s career high is a 31-point game for Fordham against NYIT on Nov. 14, 2014.

Villanova again struggled from three-point range but had tremendous success attacking the basket, especially in the second half of the final game at the Pavilion for two years.

The Wildcats shot just 17 percent from three (3 for 18) but 69 percent from two (24 for 35) and repeatedly got to the foul line in the second half, when they were 14 for 18.

Jenkins again struggled from three (1 for 7) yet still finished with 15 points to go with four rebounds and three assists.

Josh Hart shot 7 for 11 for 16 points and added seven rebounds and three assists.

Villanova opened a streaky first half by taking a 7-0 lead, but Creighton hit four straight threes in less than two minutes and led by three. Villanova then went on a 17-2 run and led by as many as 10 points before Creighton finished the half on a 13-3 run to tie the game at 33.

There were seven lead changes in the first seven minutes of the second half, but Villanova finally pulled away and outscored Creighton 36-18 over the last 14 minutes.

Mikal Bridges added 11 points and eight rebounds for Villanova, while Jalen Brunson had nine points and three assists.

Freshman Dante DiVincenzo came off the bench to contribute nine points and four rebounds for Villanova.

What it means
Villanova improved to 27-3 overall and 14-3 in the Big East, clinching the conference title outright. Entering play Saturday, only Villanova or Butler was in position to win the conference title, with Villanova holding a magic number of one.

Villanova, which lost to Butler on Wednesday, has now won 12 straight games immediately following losses (15 if you carry over to the next year).

The Wildcats last lost consecutive games at the end of the 2012-2013 season, when they fell to Louisville in the Big East quarterfinals and to North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Creighton fell to 22-7 overall and 9-7 in the Big East. The Bluejays are 4-6 since an 18-1 start.

Stat of the day
Marcus Foster had 25 points and eight assists, becoming the first player with 25 points and five assists against Villanova since Ben Hansbrough of Notre Dame, who had 30 points and 10 rebounds (and five steals) in a 93-72 win over Villanova on Feb. 28, 2011, at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Indiana.

Turning point 
Villanova led by one at 48-47 when Jenkins finally buried a three for a four-point lead.

Moving out
This was Villanova’s last game at the Pavilion for about 20 months. Villanova will play most of its home games at the Wells Fargo Center next year while renovations are made to the Pavilion.

Villanova is 293-62 all-time at the Pavilion, which opened in 1985. That includes a 131-12 mark since the start of the 2004-2005 season.

By the numbers
Khyri Thomas scored 17 points for the Bluejays … Creighton was 7 for 14 from three in the first half but 4 for 13 in the second half … Villanova has won six straight against Creighton since a 101-80 loss in February 2014 when Doug McDermott scored 39 … Reynolds, Villanova’s second-leading rebounder at 5.5 per game, sat out a fifth straight game with a rib injury.  

What's next
Villanova has a week off before facing Georgetown at the Verizon Center in Washington at noon Saturday. Georgetown is 14-15 overall and 5-11 in the Big East.