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.

NHL Playoffs: Vernon Fiddler provides big lift as Predators take 1-0 series lead on Blues

NHL Playoffs: Vernon Fiddler provides big lift as Predators take 1-0 series lead on Blues

ST. LOUIS -- One nifty little flip by Vernon Fiddler provided a big lift for the Nashville Predators on a rough night.

Fiddler scored with 5:05 left and P.K. Subban had a goal and two assists, powering Nashville to a 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series on Wednesday.

The Predators lost Kevin Fiala to an ugly leg injury in the second period and blew a 3-1 lead before Fiddler poked a loose puck by Jake Allen in the third.

"They had a little push there," Fiddler said. "We got 3-2 and then 3-3 and the building's rocking. You have to give our guys credit. We just regrouped and went back at them and found a way to get the two points."

It was the fifth goal in 43 career playoff games for the 36-year-old Fiddler, who did not play in the Predators' first-round series sweep against the Blackhawks.

"He's a veteran guy so he's been in these situations before and he stepped up and got us a big goal," Subban said. "That was the toughest game of the season for us and they fought so hard and had so many chances, but we found a way to get it done."

Colin Wilson and Filip Forsberg also scored for Nashville, and Pekka Rinne made 27 saves.

Game 2 is Friday night (see full recap).

Draisaitl leads Oilers to Game 1 win over Ducks
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Adam Larsson scored his second goal of the third period with 4:40 to play, and the Edmonton Oilers blew a two-goal lead in a wild third period before beating the Anaheim Ducks 5-3 on Wednesday night in their second-round playoff series opener.

Mark Letestu scored two power-play goals and Cam Talbot made 33 saves for the upstart Oilers, who seized home-ice advantage from the Ducks with a four-goal final period.

Jakob Silfverberg scored the tying goal with 9:13 to play in regulation for the Ducks, who lost in regulation for the first time in 19 games since March 10.

Larsson scored just four goals in his first 85 games this season, but the Swedish defenseman improbably got two goals in 7 1/2 minutes.

Game 2 is Friday night in Anaheim (see full recap).

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

Phillies push win streak to 5 behind continued growth from Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez

 

BOX SCORE

This is what the Phillies could look like some day, maybe in a year or two, when the rebuild has moved further down the road and the club is approaching contender's status.

Maikel Franco clubbed three hits, including a grand slam, and Vince Velasquez pitched his best game of the young season to lead the Phillies to a 7-4 victory over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night (see Instant Replay).

The win was the Phillies' fifth straight as they inched over the .500 mark at 10-9 and it offered a glimpse of the tantalizing tools of two of the team's most enigmatic young players — Franco and Velasquez. Both players are 24 years old. Both have had individual highs and lows in a Phillies uniform. Both have the ability to be cornerstone talents for the franchise — if they can put together more nights like this one.

"It's a long season and it doesn't happen overnight," said manager Pete Mackanin, acknowledging the ups and downs that each player has had in the early part of this season and before.

It was just last week that Franco was riding a career-worst 0-for-22 slump that dragged his batting average to .145.

On Wednesday night, he stroked three hits — he had two hard-hit singles to go with his grand slam — to push his average to .203, not good but moving in the right direction.

Even as he struggled, Franco continued to hit balls hard and produce runs. He now has 20 RBIs, which is just one shy of the NL leaders. He also has four homers, including two grand slams.

It's no secret that new hitting coach Matt Stairs is trying to get Franco to stop pulling off the ball. From Day 1 of spring training, Stairs has had Franco working on driving the ball to the middle of the field. That's just what Franco did three times Wednesday night. His first hit, a single to center in the second inning, set the tone for his night. His grand slam came on a 2-2 fastball from lefty Wei-Yin Chen in the third inning.

"That was Matt Stairs' big rallying cry for Maikel — try to use the big part of the field and not pull everything," Mackanin said. "He still has it in him where he'll pull his head off the ball, but I think with his type of power, he can hit a ball to center field or right field out of the ballpark. Once that sinks in, he's really going to take off. He's starting to look a lot better." 

Two pitches before Franco lined the grand slam over the wall in left center, he lost his helmet while hacking at a slow breaking ball. It was the type of out-of-control swing that Stairs is trying to eliminate. Two pitches later, Franco gathered himself and hit the grand slam with a smooth swing.

That was progress.

And so is this: He's only lost his helmet on a swing one time this season.

"At the time, I just told myself, 'Calm down, relax, don't try to do too much. Just see the ball and put good contact on it,'" Franco said.

"I think last year I lost my helmet like 20 or 25 times," he added with a chuckle. "I'm working on it."

Velasquez is also working on things. He is trying to harness his power stuff and improve his economy of pitches so he can stay in games longer. He'd lasted just four, five and six innings, respectively, while running high pitch counts in his first three starts. He made some improvements in his last outing at New York last week and took another step forward in this one. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, scattered six hits and three runs, walked two and struck out three. The strikeout total was way down from the 10 he struck out in four innings in his first start of the season. But Mackanin was pleased with the results and the improved efficiency. Velasquez threw 97 pitches, 68 of which were strikes. He threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of 26 batters and that was important to his success.

"Even though he's not striking people out like we know he can and will, he's using all of his pitches and he got us into that seventh inning, which was huge," Mackanin said. "I think he's trying to pitch to more contact and not trying to make perfect pitches and strike everybody out with perfect pitches.

"I think once he puts that all together, he'll have that total ensemble working for him and know when to pitch soft and when to throw hard. He's making good improvements."

And so are the Phillies as a group. They hit three home runs in the game and the bullpen did an excellent job, especially Joely Rodriguez and Joaquin Benoit, who combined on five outs (see story)

Five straight wins is nothing to sneeze at. The Phillies have suddenly become fun. They go for a sixth straight win Thursday.