Hackworth hints at lineup changes – so what exactly will they be?

Hackworth hints at lineup changes – so what exactly will they be?

If you take John Hackworth at his word, the Philadelphia Union manager is seriously considering shaking up the lineup for Saturday’s huge Eastern Conference matchup against the Houston Dynamo at PPL Park.

This comes as fairly big news because Hackworth, by and large, has pretty much stuck with the same guys this season, unless he’s had to deal with injuries or international call-ups. But with the Union winless in their last four and coming off a 1-0 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes in a game in which they failed to score despite being up a man for much of the second half, Hackworth seems to recognize that some changes might be in order.

The Union manager didn’t offer too many specifics during his weekly press conference but did indicate the changes will likely come in the attack, with strikers Jack McInerney and Conor Casey and attacking midfielders Danny Cruz, Keon Daniel and Sebastien Le Toux all in danger of losing their starting spots.

Who will take their place? Let’s take a look at some of the options with their chances to start in parentheses. (Note: these percentages are derived from a complicated formula and specific data I’ve been compiling the entire season and … no, I’m just kidding – I’m pretty much just making it up as I go.)

Fabinho (chances to start - 75 percent): Amobi Okugo returns from a two-game suspension this week and will slide back into his center back role (Hackworth said it would be too much of a change to put him in the midfield, even if Delaware County Daily Times writer Matt De George shows it could sorta make sense), which means Fabinho is in danger of losing his spot at left back. But Fabinho has played well, so it seems likely he will either start at left back over Ray Gaddis or supplant Danny Cruz as the team’s left midfielder, where he can continue to showcase his impressive crossing ability.

Michael Farfan (chances to start - 60 percent): Some people would point to Farfan as one of the problems this season, but Hackworth noted how much better the Union were in the second half Sunday after Farfan came on. If Hackworth takes Keon Daniel out of the starting lineup, it will probably be Farfan that replaces him as the team’s central attacking midfielder. (Granted, this wouldn’t be too big of a change considering Farfan and Daniel have started the same number of games this year.)

Antoine Hoppenot (chances to start – 50 percent): The Union’s “super sub” has started just once this season but Hackworth could look for Hoppenot’s energy at the start of games, when the team has often sputtered. The Union manager could opt to play Hoppenot in place of the struggling Jack McInerney or put him on one of the wings.

Aaron Wheeler (chances to start – 25 percent): The 6-foot-4 striker could be one of the best bets to jumpstart the offense as he always seems to pick out balls when he comes on as a late-game sub. But the only way he’d probably start is if Conor Casey goes to the bench. And even though Casey hasn’t scored in the past four games, the burly striker has still been one of the team’s bright spots all season.

Kleberson (chances to start – 20 percent): A straight swap of Daniel for Kleberson would probably do the most to improve the midfield issues. But for reasons only he knows, Hackworth has been very reluctant to play the Brazilian World Cup veteran, who’s logged only 10 minutes in the past three months.

Michael Lahoud/Leo Fernandes (chances to start – 15 percent): Both are solid options to earn minutes in the midfield but neither really brings the kind of creativity Hackworth hopes to see in the attacking third.

Roger Torres (chances to start – 1 percent): Hackworth wants to see less predictably in the midfield and the Colombian playmaker can certainly help with that. But Torres has been buried on the bench even deeper than Kleberson, having played just 37 total minutes this season. This would certainly be a change that would open the most eyes.

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

Despite blowout loss, Sixers see potential in Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor playing together

BOX SCORE

Brett Brown was ready to do it Wednesday night. The matchup against the Kings presented an opportunity to experiment with playing Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together. That pairing had to wait two days, though, after the Kings game was postponed

On Friday, Embiid and Okafor shared the court for just under 13 minutes in the Sixers' 105-88 loss to the Magic (see Instant Replay), who also rolled out a duo of bigs in Bismack Biyombo and Nikola Vucevic. 

“I thought we had our moments,” Embiid said. “We shared the ball, we made shots. Obviously we need to play more together and learn how to play with each other.”

Embiid and Okafor first played together for 5:29 in the second quarter. They scored all of the Sixers' 12 points during that time, including a pair of threes by Embiid. They also combined for five boards. The Sixers outscored the Magic, 12-9, with the bigs in together.

The benefits of the floor spacing was apparent. Oftentimes in the game, Okafor could be seen open at the basket with a hand up for the ball while Embiid was also getting looks from long range. 

“I liked our spacing, I liked the high-low stuff we were doing,” Brown said. “I think when you post Joel, that Jahlil is going to play sort of hide-and-seek on the other side of the floor, and work that low zone, and become — I hope — a potent offensive rebounder. When you post Jahlil, Joel has the ability to space to three.”

Brown turned to Embiid and Okafor again in the fourth. At that point, the Magic had a 23-point lead. Their next 7:25 together was a chance to give them a long run in live game action. They combined for another 12 points and four rebounds. All of their buckets were layups, dunks or free throws. Both teams scored 19 points with Embiid and Okafor in that segment.

Both Embiid and Okafor finished the game with double-doubles: 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for Embiid; 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks for Okafor. 

“I thought they played well together,” Vucevic said. “I thought it was tough to guard them because they’re both really good offensively.”

Okafor credited his friendship with Embiid, which dates back to high school, as a key to coexisting well on the court. Both emphasized their off-the-court relationship would help them in a game situation. 

“I think the communication piece went really well,” Okafor said. “He was talking to me, I was talking to him.”

Scoring and communication always seemed to be the easier parts of the pairing to tackle. Defense, though, was the challenge given that one of the centers would have to guard the four spot. Okafor noted their transition D as an area that needs improvement.

“We’re both used to going right to the rim,” Okafor said. “I think I had a couple easy buckets. That’s something we’ll be able to fix.” 

Brown had based his decision of when to play Embiid and Okafor together on the matchups. While the two could boast their own edge on the offensive end, Brown didn’t want to play them in a scenario in which they’d be at a huge defensive disadvantage. 

“It’s not offense to me, it’s defense. That’s the thing that is most challenging,” Brown said. “We want to play fast. We want to put points on the board. You don’t want to play in the 80s. You don’t want to do that, that’s not our sport anymore. So you want to make sure that you're capable of guarding the opposition.”

Vucevic noticed the challenge from an opposing perspective. He understands the necessary changes since playing alongside Biyombo.  

“It takes time for them to get adjusted, especially for the guy that will be playing the four defensively,” Vucevic said. “They’re not used to that because they always back down to the paint guarding the fives. It’s a different look. They have to work on it, communicate, and I think they’ll be fine.” 

On a night with few highlights in a 17-point blowout loss, Brown was able to take away a positive from this anticipated duo.

"I thought Jahlil and Joel did a really good job," he said. 

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Sixers Notes: Joel Embiid unhappy with effort; Robert Covington hurt

Joel Embiid didn’t see four quarters of basketball from the Sixers in their 105-88 loss to the Magic Friday night (see Instant Replay). Their efforts were inconsistent as they fell flat in long stretches and allowed the Magic to build up double-digit leads as high as 29 points.

The Sixers gave up a 16-0 run in the first and shot just 6 for 26 (23.1 percent) in the quarter. The Magic, who had lost a one-point game to the Grizzlies in Memphis the night before, rallied together to seize this opportunity.

“They just made a lot of shots that we didn’t,” Embiid said. “That’s the game, but we didn’t play hard all 48 minutes and we need to do a better job next time.”

The Sixers didn’t break 30 points until 4:33 to go in the second and attempted just two free throws in the first half. By the end of the third, the Magic had a 21-point lead which they held on to with in ease in the fourth. 

The Magic outshot the Sixers on all areas of the floor: 47.4 percent to 37.9 from the field and 50.0 to 28.1 from three. While the teams had nearly equal percentages from the line, the Magic shot 18 for 26 compared to only 7 for 10 from the Sixers. 

“They missed a lot of shots,” Magic forward Jeff Green said. “We got stops, were aggressive, guys just played hard and created for one another and played as a team.”

Covington injured
The Sixers are waiting to learn more news on the extent of Robert Covington’s injury. In the fourth quarter, Covington exited and did not return after suffering a left knee sprain when he collided with T.J. McConnell chasing a loose ball in front of the Sixers’ bench. If the starting small forward has to miss time, Sixers head coach Brett Brown is thinking ahead to possible lineup changes. 

“We'll try to figure out what his next week represents,” Brown said. “If we aren't with him, maybe there's a chance we can look at Dario [Saric] a little bit at the three.”

Covington is averaging 8.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 27.5 minutes per game. Saric has been coming off the bench at power forward behind Ersan Ilyasova. He started 10 games earlier this season at the four spot. 

Embiid honored
The Sixers honored Embiid during a timeout for being named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month (October and November). Embiid was appreciative of the award and has his sights set on the bigger picture this season.

“All the hard work I’ve put in, it feels great,” Embiid said earlier in the day at shootaround. “Obviously, maybe the bigger picture is Rookie of the Year, that’s what matters. … I don’t have my mind set on that. But if I can get it, that would be nice.”

Brown sees this recent showing as just a glimpse into what Embiid will be able to do over his career. Embiid leads the Sixers with 18.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. 

“This in infant stages, early days for him,” Brown said. “His body of work, given his lack of playing basketball, really is jaw-dropping for what I think he can be. To jump in and get rookie of the month I think is a real, sort of, quick snapshot view of him now. I think what he’s going to be is going to be extremely special.”

Embiid also is shooting 51.4 percent from three, including 3 for 5 against the Magic. When asked if he would like to participate in the three-point contest All-Star weekend, he said "it would be nice" and noted he would have to work on the speed of his release.