The Honeymoon Is Over, Union Have Problems

The Honeymoon Is Over, Union Have Problems

For the first two seasons of its existence the Union led a charmed life. Sure, there were natural growing pains the first season, but fans were simply grateful to have a club to support. Season two brought an unexpected playoff berth. Union supporters could point to the progress the team made as a harbinger of good times to come.

Everything was lining up beautifully for the franchise. They opened a soccer-specific stadium. Attendance, buoyed by the rabid support of the Sons of Ben, was robust. They seemingly announced a new corporate partner every week. They secured television and radio deals. Then came the coup de grace, the announcement that the Union would host the MLS All-Star Game.

There was nary a misstep along the way. Yes, Peter Nowak made the occasional odd choice of lineup or formation, but by and large the organization and fans were in lockstep. Then the Sebastien Le Toux trade happened. The fallout from the trade was bigger than just the reality that Le Toux would no longer be racing up and down the field in the familiar blue and gold #9 shirt.

Looking back, the Le Toux trade marked the moment when the honeymoon between club and fans ended. Le Toux’s post-trade comments to Chris Vito shook the foundation that had been built between the team and its fans. He accused the organization of being cheap and cash-strapped. The most cutting remark was when he said “I would be happy to just retire than play for Peter again”. Perhaps he was simply lashing out in anger at being traded, but when the most likeable player on your team lobs Molotov cocktails at the organization you cannot help but take notice.

Truth be told, the honeymoon period between the team and its fans was going to end at some point. It’s simply the nature of the business. Organizations make unpopular decisions. It happens. That it happened so spectacularly and so publicly was shocking. For the first time there was reason to question the decision-making of the team. On Sunday, the Danny Califf situation provided another opportunity to wonder what was going on.

Califf, the captain of team, did not start against Colorado. After the game Nowak revealed that he opted to sit Califf because he underwent an offseason procedure on his knee to remove meniscus and had a shot in the knee on March 5th (the shot was later revealed by Califf to be Synvisc, which apparently is a joint lubricant). Despite the offsesason procedure he was fit enough to play the full 90 minutes in the season opener against Portland the Monday before. In fact, prior to the home opener on Sunday he started all 62 games in which he appeared. He was apparently fit enough to be included in the gameday 18 against Colorado, but not fit enough to start.

Upon learning of Nowak’s rationale for omitting him from the starting XI Califf told Chris Vito “I guess I found out. Supposedly I have a knee injury.” Califf went on to say:

“I have no idea what’s going on in Peter’s head because he hasn’t said a word to me. To be honest, I don’t really have any idea. I would’ve thought that he at least would have a conversation with me. But he didn’t and maybe that’s his style and that’s the situation right now.”

Whatever Nowak’s motivation was for sitting Califf the reality is that, in light of the fallout from the Le Toux trade, fans are no longer willing to simply accept Nowak’s decisions (and by extension the organization) at face value. This isn’t to say there’s an adversarial relationship between fans and the club, but the blind faith from the first two seasons is a thing of the past.

I wouldn’t characterize this new reality as a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of things that makes following sports enjoyable. This tension provides talking points. Fans are able to debate the efficacy of front office decisions. We can question the tactics of the coach. It’s sports.

Califf doesn’t get the starting nod and his replacement, Chris Albright, is beaten for the game-winning goal. Starting right back Sheanon Williams was just called into the US U23 Olympic Qualifying camp. Who is going to step in and take his place? Did the Union leave themselves exposed and overburden Zac MacMath by not bringing in a veteran back-up?

The Eagles are cheap and disloyal. The Phillies and Flyers hide injuries. The Sixers started Jodie Meeks for the majority of the season. We deal with these issues year round. Now the Union gets to join the fun.

There’s a great old Chris Rock bit where he talks about why he likes Bill Clinton. He points to the fact that Clinton’s got real problems like running out of money, his wife being a pain in the ass, and how his friends are going to jail. These are real folks problems; not presidential problems.

Well, the Union now has real folks problems.

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.