Sixers '09-'10 Season Preview: Reasons to Be (Cautiously) Optimistic

Sixers '09-'10 Season Preview: Reasons to Be (Cautiously) Optimistic

Finally, today is the day that we've all been waiting for, the one we've watched and offered endless prognostication for, the one that will keep us up late at nights and be the topic of every office / dorm room conversation. That's right--it's the night of the 76ers season opener! Yeah, all right, so that other team is still technically playing somewhere in New York, but c'mon, nobody cares about those guys, they never win anything. The Sixers, as we all know, is where the city's true devotion lies.

All right, so all sarcasm aside, the Sixers do play their first game of the season tonight, paying a return visit to sunny Orlando to face the team that knocked them out of the playoffs in the first round last season--and believe it or not, that is cause for excitement. I'm not going to try to tell you that the Sixers are going to be contenders this season, because they're not--they'll be somewhat fortunate to even make the playoffs, and a third-straight first-round exit does seem like a distinct possibility. But they're going to be a fun, exciting team, one with a couple players on the verge of the legit stardom, and one with hope--if not necessarily expectations--for the future.

Wanna run down the reasons why? I thought you'd never ask!

10. Continuously Wide-Open Eastern Conference

There seems to be little to no doubt about the conference's top three teams--Orlando, Boston, Cleveland, in some order---and after that, there's probably the Hawks and the resurgent Wizards. Then, it's pretty much open season. There are five teams--Chicago, Miami, Detroit, Toronto and Philly--and maybe even more, who could finish anywhere in between 30 and 50 wins this season. At least one will be plagued with injuries, and at least one will be plagued with general bad voodoo--assuming the Sixers aren't one of those teams, we should be golden. 40 wins has been about the buy-in for the playoffs in the east the last two seasons, and it should probably be for a third season as well.

9. Jrue the Damaja

Falling to the Sixers in the draft with the 17th pick, I don't think there's ever been more than a sentence written about Holiday without sneaking the words "raw" and "project" in there somewhere. It's true--watching him in the pre-season, he seems undeniably talented (skilled playmaker, tenacious defender), but still a little slow on the uptake with regards to decision-making (turnovers, low-percentage shots). It's hard to say how long it'll take him to get there, or if he'll definitely get there at all, but it should be fun to watch him (hopefully) develop over the course of the season.

8. Marreese Speights

The offensie-minded power forward gave the Sixers a much-needed jolt of energy (and a mucher-needed jolt of outside shooting) midway through the season last year before running into the much-dreaded rookie wall. I still have questions about his defensive abilities, his maturity, and most pressingly, his basketball IQ, which is why he's as low as he is on this list, but he's still likely to be one of the team's most reliable half-court players and electric fast break gunners, and he looked damn good in some of the pre-season games. The return of Mid-Season Marreese would do wonders for the team offense--especially if he could shore up his defensive game enough that he could serve as a late-game replacement for Samuel Dalembert.

7. Rodney Carney

I felt somewhat vindicated to hear NBA TV anchor and noted Minnesota Timberwolves megafan Rick Kamla bemoan the Wolves' apathy towards re-signing Rodney Carney--the swingman the Sixers acquired via trade in the 2006 draft, who played two seasons before being exiled to Minnesota to make cap room for the Elton Brand signing. I loved the guy during his time here, and I still don't understand why he keeps getting short-changed like this--he's a powerful, athletic guy that can fly with the best of 'em and keeps improving his long-range stroke. Now back with the Sixers, he gives badly needed depth to a bench hurt by the promotion of Lou Williams, and he should be able to spell the badly-overused Iguodala from time to time. And he kind of looks like Lieutenant Sydnor from The Wire.

6. Hott New/Old Uniforms

Seriously, how much are we digging these new retro unis? It's unlikely that attempting to revive the Spirit of '83 is going to bring about similar returns in terms of wins or championships, exactly, but hey, some things never go out of style, right? I look forward to watching our boys in these colors all season, and I'll be sure to pick one out for myself at the first Sixers home game I go to this season.

5. Jason & Jason

That's right--we have two white guys named Jason on our team now! One of them you might remember from a couple years ago, the seven-footer Jason Smith, who returns from an ACL injury that kept him out all last season to give the team a more offensively proficient (read: can hit shots) alternative at the center position to Dalembert (I even saw him hit a couple threes this pre-season, honest!) The other is a more recent acquisition, three-point specialist Jason Kapono, who gives the Sixers the long-range threat they've so badly lacked in recent years. Watching Kapono play with these guys, I'm reminded what a luxury it is to have a trailer on the break who can reliably hit an open three--it's far more important to the success of a running team like the Sixers than people (including myself) probably realize.

4. Embracing the Ivy League

The Sixers' experimentation with the Princeton Offense in this pre-season has been...well, a work in progress, to be generous. But I do believe that this is the eventual way to go for the Sixers, who with Lou Williams now at the helm, lack a conventional point guard, and were always somewhat stilted in the half-court to begin with. A motion offense by its very definition sounds like a good thing, and Eddie Jordan certainly seems like the man to install it. The question is of which Sixers are going to be able to best embrace its tenets--'Dre seems like a natural fit, but who else? I have a feeling that once the team gets a better feel for it, and for each other, though, it could end up being a beautiful thing.

(Side note, though: I never much cared for the term "The Princeton Offense." Nothing against the university, and it may be an accurate or fair designation, but you don't really want your pro sports team associated with a school like Princeton, do you? Thus, the Sixers' offense from this point forward will be referred to as "The Rugged Streetball Offense.")

3. The Re-Branding

Elton Brand is going to cause me a heart attack before the end of the season. I want so badly for him not to be a flop, an albatross of a signing, that each minor failure of his causes a wrenching pain in my side. The good news is that he's definitely healthy again, and he once again looks like a total monster, and should be able to get up and down the floor with the young'ns OK. But his success, more than how or if he's able to fit into the team's running game, comes down mostly to two things:

1. Can he finish in traffic?
2. Can he hit a twelve-foot jumper?

From what I've seen, the jumper is a little touch-and-go, but I have faith in that coming out positively. Elton still seems to be struggling a little with the finishing in traffic, though--I saw him do this all last season, where he'd get the ball in the block off an offensive rebound or something, and he just wouldn't be able to get it back up without the ball being blocked or stripped away. I don't know if it's just a matter of his height, or if it's a hesitancy thing due to so much time out of the league, but if he's able to be productive in a crowd down low, it'll mean a world of difference for this team--especially if, as some have suggested, the Sixers want to try shifting Elton to the center position and getting Sammy's detrimental ass out of there. With a full season to work with and lowered expectations across the board, you gotta figure that the guy's gonna be able to put it back tog
ether.

2. The Development of Thaddeus Young

The guy's made such unbelievable strides since being drafted in 2007--both figuratively and literally--that it's hard not to be excited to see what comes next. With an improved jumper and maybe a little more bulk, there's no reason why this guy can't be one of the dominant forwards in the Eastern Conference. He's the kind of player that always seems to do one thing a game you never saw coming--an offensive rebound he swoops in for from out of nowhere, an and-one he somehow gets over the rim and in, a bank shot he has no business pulling off. He may or may not be a franchise player--we still need to see a little more aggression from him, a little more vocal presence--but he's absolutely the kind of guy you want to build your franchise with. 

1. Andre Iguodala, All-Star

It is my unwavering belief that Andre Iguodala was one of the ten best players in the Eastern Conference last season. The amount he gave this team in just about every facet of the game, from defense to leadership to clutch shooting, was what is traditionally expected of the league's star players. But 'Dre continues to hover a level below that distinction--namely, because he doesn't score 20 a game, and often doesn't even try to. But Iguodala's the reason I continue to believe in this team's potential, even without Andre Miller, and even if Brand never turns out to be the player the team thought they were getting.

'Dre really showed his value in both of the team's playoff wins against Orando, sinking the difficult game-winner in G1 and having the offensive game of his life in G3. Of course, he also showed why he's not quite yet a superstar in the team's losses, where he could not or would not simply take over and impose his will on the opposition, in the way that most of the league's elite could. Whether Iguodala will ever be able to reach that level is unclear, and probably unlikely. But if he continues to play at the level he has the last two seasons, and the Sixers remain semi-competitive in the east, it'll be a travesty if he isn't voted to his first all-star team.

Ultimately, what I think we have here with the Sixers is this: A team that is going to be very, very inconsistent. What the team is going to miss most with Andre Miller's departure is his stabilizing presence--he had some ups and downs, sure, but you generally knew what you were getting from him each night. Few, if any, of the players on the current Sixers roster are like that. One night Iguodala will be hitting his high-arcing jumper and slamming down megadunks, and another he'll be trying too hard to drive the lane in traffic and missing his free throws. One night, Sweet Lou will be reminiscent of '01 Iverson, and another he'll be reminiscent of '08 Iverson. One night Elton Brand will be a dominant power forward, and another, get me a fucking antacid.

You could see this already in the team's pre-season: They beat the Suns by 20, and then they lost to the Nets by just as much. In the end, I think it'll about even out, and the team'll probably end up close to the 41-41 they've straddled the last few years. But the electricity on the good nights will always outweigh the misery of the bad nights for me, and we should be grateful for a team that at the absolute least, always keeps things new and interesting.

Oh, and apparently they hired a hot blonde as the sideline reporter this season, too. So there's that.

Stay or Go Part 9: Jalen Mills to Wendell Smallwood

Stay or Go Part 9: Jalen Mills to Wendell Smallwood

In the ninth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — part 9 is Mills to Smallwood.

Jalen Mills
Cap hit: $559K

Roob: Mills has all the tools to be a capable cornerback except world-class speed. He’s fearless, he’s cocky, he’s smart, he’s a hard worker. He just doesn’t have that make-up speed you want your top outside corners to have. I’ve seen enough positives from Mills that I definitely want him on my team. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a starter, but I definitely want him around.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Mills really got thrown into the fire as a seventh-round rookie, didn’t he? It wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad either. It’s pretty obvious defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s loves Mills’ competitiveness. He doesn’t have top-end speed and that’s probably going to prevent him from ever becoming a top-of-the-line corner in the league. But there’s no reason he can’t stick around for a long time. He certainly has the right mindset to be a corner in the NFL and that’s a part of the battle. The Eagles really need to upgrade the corner position, which could greatly reduce Mills’ role, but he should still have one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Aaron Neary

Roob: Neary is a guard who spent the year on the Eagles’ practice squad.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: I’d say there’s a fair to good chance most of you have never heard of Aaron Neary. He’s an undrafted O-lineman out of Eastern Washington who was on the practice squad in 2016. I’d be lying if I told you I knew a lot about him. 

Verdict: GOES

Jason Peters
Cap hit: $11.7M

Roob: Cut Jason Peters at your own risk. You want the $9.2 million cap savings that the Eagles would gain by releasing the perennial Pro Bowler? Find it somewhere else. Because some guys simply should never be released. Peters is an all-time great Eagle and unless his level of play drops off dramatically, he should be allowed to decide when it’s time to go. Only Chuck Bednarik has been picked to more Pro Bowls than Peters in Eagles history. Peters rebounded from a subpar 2015 with a vintage Peters season this past year. Considering that the Eagles have a promising young quarterback who has to be protected and considering that Lane Johnson is one more positive test from a two-year suspension, Peters has to stay. I don’t care what the cap savings would be by getting rid of him. He’s too good and means too much to cut him. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Sure, the Eagles could save over $9 million in cap room if they cut Peters, but who would they get to play? While they’d be fine moving Lane Johnson to left tackle, they’d then be relying on Halapoulivaati Vaitai to play right tackle. And while that might be the plan in coming years, it would weaken the team in 2017. Peters might not be the dominant force he once was, but he had a very good season and he was able to play 97 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, which is huge. He gets paid a lot, but he’s still worth it. 

Verdict: STAYS

Isaac Seumalo
Cap hit: $764K

Roob: I asked Jason Kelce about Seumalo back in training camp and Kelce said he thinks the third-round pick will one day be a Pro Bowl center. Pretty clear Seumalo is the heir apparent to Kelce, it’s just a matter of when the transition occurs. Kelce wasn’t as awful as some people seem to think. He actually finished the season strong. But I think Kelce goes this offseason and Seumalo is your opening-day center in 2017. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Seumalo’s rookie year was a really interesting one. It started with a pec strain in training camp that slowed him down, but eventually ended with his getting some real experience. In all, Seumalo played six different positions in 2016: right tackle, right guard, left guard, left tackle, fullback and tight end. He didn’t even play center, which might be his most natural spot. I think he’ll have a real shot to be the team’s opening-day starter at left guard. 

Verdict: STAYS

Aziz Shittu

Roob: Rookie defensive tackle spent the year on the practice squad. Depending on what happens with Bennie Logan in free agency, the Eagles could be on the prowl for defensive tackle depth this offseason, and Shittu is an interesting guy. He had a good training camp last year coming off a solid career at Stanford and it’s fair to say he has a chance, depending on what the Eagles do in the draft and free agency. Going with my instincts on this one.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: I actually really liked Shittu coming out of Stanford and not just because I giggle like a schoolgirl every time I hear his name. For an interior defensive lineman, he has some real pass rushing potential. I think he would have been the undrafted guy to make the team over Destiny Vaeao had he not missed the spring because of the silly college graduation/quarters rule. I’d like to see him get a legitimate shot to stick here. It’s a longshot, but I’m going to take a chance with this one. I think he can make the roster. 

Verdict: STAYS

Wendell Smallwood
Cap hit: $601K

Roob: We spend so much time talking about the Eagles’ desperate needs at cornerback and wide receiver that it’s easy to forget they're just as desperate at running back. Assuming Ryan Mathews isn’t back, the Eagles will have a real need for a No. 1 back. You can’t draft or sign every position. So Smallwood could get a real shot at the lead back role. Can he handle the role or is he best suited to be a No. 2? Not sure yet. I like how Smallwood responded when he got double-digit carries against the Steelers, Falcons and Seahawks. Averaged 4.2 yards in those three games. And he had nine runs of 10 yards or more out of just 77 carries. I know Smallwood is a player. I’m just not sure where he’ll fit in. Maybe it’s the No. 28 jersey, but at worst I see him as a Correll Buckhalter-type, a solid No. 2 back who can fill in once in a while as a lead guy. At best? We’ll see. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Smallwood might not be the true answer at the running back position, but he proved enough to earn a roster spot next year and a role in the offense. I’m not sure if his ceiling is very high, but he got better throughout the year, specifically as a blocker. He’ll be back for Year 2. 

Verdict: STAYS

Flyers in familiar spot in standings as critical games before break await

Flyers in familiar spot in standings as critical games before break await

While many people believe the Flyers are in far better shape right now than where they were a year ago, the fact is, they are pretty much the same.
 
After 48 games played, the Flyers have the same number of points now as they did last season – 52.
 
The critical difference – and this is why fans say they’re better off – is that a year ago at this juncture, the Flyers were five points behind Pittsburgh in the wild-card chase.
 
Right now, they own the second wild-card spot, but there are five teams behind them within four points or less of catching them, two of which have games in hand.
 
Earlier this week, Toronto was ahead of them and the Maple Leafs have three games in hand, which makes Thursday’s showdown against the upstart Leafs at Wells Fargo Center a very critical game.
 
That game represents the back end of the Flyers' 13th back-to-back set, which starts Wednesday with a date at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.
 
If ever two games in a short week prior to the All-Star break were of prime significance, these next two seem to qualify.
 
“A hundred percent,” said Jakub Voracek, the Flyers' leading scorer with 42 points. “It’s the same for every game. Practice and come to the rink with a win in your head.”
 
To a man, the Flyers go into the nationally televised showdown with the Rangers feeling great about themselves because of the extraordinary effort they showed in Sunday’s 3-2 comeback victory against the Islanders in OT.
 
“I felt like we won the Stanley Cup with that overtime goal,” Voracek kidded. “That’s how happy we were. There was a lot of relief. Now we have to keep going.”
 
Just five points separate nine teams from the second wild-card position right now. The Eastern Conference is just as tight as it’s always been. Within the Metropolitan Division, just five points separate the Flyers from the three times tied for last in the conference - the Islanders, Sabres and Lightning.  
 
“It’s been that way,” said coach Dave Hakstol. “Right from the drop of the puck in October, it was going to be a battle. You can’t get too distracted by it. You worry about the job in hand and that’s tomorrow.”
 
The focus this week is rather narrow: two games left before the All-Star break begins on Friday.
 
“Yeah, both these games have implications directed to us in the standings,” said goalie Steve Mason, who will start against the Rangers. “Both being Eastern Conference teams and they are right with one another.
 
“We have to have a short mindset. We have the Rangers and that’s going to be a tough game going into MSG. Once that game is over, we focus on the Leafs.”
 
The Rangers have beaten the Flyers twice this season already – both in South Philly. While the games were mostly competitive, there remains a huge disparity in one critical area for both teams this season: goal differential.
 
The Rangers have a plus-40 differential while the Flyers check in at minus-18. As poor as Henrik Lundqvist (2.75 goals against average) has been this season – although his recent performances are trending upward – he still owns the Flyers.
 
In his last 15 games against the Flyers, going back to Jan. 1, 2013, Lundqvist is 11-3-0 with a 1.91 GAA and .938 save percentage.
 
“This is huge, especially in MSG,” Voracek said. “We lost two games in a row to them at home. Hopefully, we get points.”
 
In his last three starts this month, Lundqvist is 3-0, with a 1.32 GAA and .952 save percentage. In other words, the “old” King Henrik appears to have regained his throne just in time to face the Flyers.
 
“Their goaltender has been outstanding over this past stretch for them,” Hakstol said. “Their team is playing well.
 
“We have to worry more about our team. We’re not going to control what their side is going to do. We can control what we do.”