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

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.

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Avoiding another bad 1st period

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Avoiding another bad 1st period

Flyers vs. Hurricanes
7 p.m. on CSN, Pregame Live at 6:30

Another season, another slow start for the Flyers.

After dropping their home opener Thursday, the Flyers (1-2-1) welcome the Hurricanes (1-1-2) to the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night looking to snap a three-game losing skid.

Here are five things to know for Game 5 of 82.

1. Slow starts
Through four games, there are a few areas behind the Flyers' lousy start.

The defense continuing to abandon the goaltending and the lackluster power play are near the top of the list, but look no further than the first period of games.

The Flyers have been outscored, 6-1, in first periods through four games. Only Tampa Bay and Vancouver have scored fewer first-period markers with zero. The six first-period goals allowed are tied for the second most in the NHL. Only Calgary has more with seven.

It was an issue last season as well. In 2015-16, the Flyers were outscored, 62-50, in first periods, and the 50 goals ranked in the bottom five of the league. We've talked about slow starts in terms of wins-losses, but this issue extends to first periods too.

While the Flyers have exerted far greater efforts in second periods — leading the league with eight second-period tallies — getting behind so early results in playing from behind, and while resiliency is a trait of winning teams, it's ultimately cost them thus far.

On Saturday night, it doesn't get any easier for the Flyers, either. Carolina is an improved club from last season, which it, too, struggled scoring in opening periods.

That hasn't been the case this season. The 'Canes have outscored opponents, 5-2, in first periods, so it'll be important for the Flyers to come out of the gate with more authority.

2. Read-emption Song
One of the highlights of the early season for the Flyers has been the play of Matt Read.

Read scored his team-leading fourth goal of the season during the Flyers' 3-2 loss to the Ducks on Thursday, dusting off a play that brought back memories of years past.

The 30-year-old got behind the Anaheim defense on the backhand, drove to the net and deposited the puck into the net past John Gibson for a go-ahead score. It was very much a play we saw Read make a few years ago, but has been missing the last two seasons. Read came into training camp early this season hungrier than the previous two seasons, and on Wednesday, general manager Ron Hextall said Read knew he had to get back to the brand of hockey he was playing in 2013-14.

After the game Thursday, Read said his self-evaluation this offseason resulted in him realizing he has to get into the greasy areas to score and avoid playing the outside.

"I think that's something the last two years, I kind of faded away from, I was a perimeter player," Read said Thursday. "It's easy to be a perimeter player if you're going to be making plays and stuff like that. But if you want to score goals, you've got to get into those tough areas, be nasty around the net and battle for loose pucks."

3. Not so special
Special teams so often decide hockey games and it should factor into Saturday's game, too. Carolina comes into the game with a power play and penalty kill both in the top five.

The Hurricanes' man advantage has found twine five times in 16 chances, and their penalty kill has killed off 15 of 16 power plays against. On the other hand, the Flyers have had their struggles on special teams in the early going.

On Thursday night, the Flyers’ PP played a huge role in their loss. They finished 1 for 7 on the man advantage against Anaheim but were 1 for 5 in the second period alone. With Anaheim asking to be beaten, the Flyers couldn’t make the Ducks pay. 

“I thought we had pretty good power plays, our first power play,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I thought we had a good power play during the second, scored a good goal. Had opportunities to stretch to 3-1. It’s disappointing we couldn’t.

“We had one poor power play at the end of the first, where we weren’t able to get set up at all. Our power play was OK. The bigger thing for me is the goal we gave up a few seconds after the last power play in the second period. Those are the type of goals that as a team we can’t give up.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: It hasn't been the smoothest transition to the NHL for Ivan Provorov, one of two 19-year-olds on the roster. Provorov has shown glimpses, but there have been hiccups, as expected. He had a nightmare of a game in Chicago on Tuesday, and followed it up with a not-so-great effort against Anaheim. But we have to remember he's a teenage rookie. Patience is important. Still, the spotlight should remain on him Saturday. How does he respond after a pair of games in which he's made visible mistakes?

Hurricanes: Carolina has a few young players that are a joy to watch, but let’s highlight defenseman Justin Faulk, who quarterbacks the power play. The 24-year-old has a goal and three assists in four games, with two of the helpers coming on the man advantage. An extremely gifted blueliner, Faulk has scored 15 and 16 goals, respectively, the last two seasons, but that wasn’t enough to get him on Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey. We all know how that panned out.

5. This and that
• Read has 14 points in 20 career games against the Hurricanes.

• Dale Weise was suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Anaheim defenseman Korbinian Holzer. Roman Lyubimov will replace Weise in the lineup.

• Carolina has killed off its last 11 penalties and has scored at least one power-play goal in three of its four games and two power-play goals in two of its four games.

Matt Read showing Flyers he's done his homework

Matt Read showing Flyers he's done his homework

To Matt Read’s credit, his hockey education never stopped.

Through a second straight subpar season with a murky summer ahead, Read realized he had to change, even on the cusp of his 30th birthday.

It was in late April when the much-maligned winger met with head coach Dave Hakstol and turned in his homework, almost like a student-teacher conference to address troubled grades.

Read vowed he had learned.

Now, nearly six months later, he’s off to the best start of his six-year career.

“He has always been a hard-working guy,” Hakstol said Thursday. “He is a guy that is doing things with a lot of confidence. For me, it started with Reader back in late August. He was in here working early, getting ready, getting prepared and he has carried that through everything he has done so far this year.”

What he has done is rip off a team-high four goals in four games, attacking the net at will and with an undeniable bravado. Really, it’s a Matt Read we haven’t seen before. On Thursday night in the Flyers’ 3-2 home-opening loss, he took a bouncing puck at the blue line, careened toward the net on a sharp, decisive angle and buried his fourth goal with skilled stick work.

“For myself, I’m just trying to play with speed and get to the net,” he said. “I had all the speed and kind of beat the goalie to the back post.”

Last season, the bottom-six forward needed 26 games to score four goals. The year prior, it took 54 games.

So Read studied. What exactly did he grasp?

“Even my linemates, we talk about that if we’re in the offensive zone, we’ve got to get somebody in the blue paint there,” Read said Thursday. “I don’t know the stat, but I think it’s near 90 percent of all goals are within 10 feet of the net. So if you want to score goals, you’ve got to get in that area.”

This offseason, Read looked in the mirror and, with some self-evaluation, knew what had to be done.

“I think that’s something the last two years, I kind of faded away from, I was a perimeter player,” he said. “It’s easy to be a perimeter player if you’re going to be making plays and stuff like that. But if you want to score goals, you’ve got to get into those tough areas, be nasty around the net and battle for loose pucks.”

A new outlook has brought renewed confidence. It’s fair to question whether over the last two seasons if Read ever makes the play he made Thursday. He also knows it’s early and more can be accomplished.

“I feel good out there right now,” Read said. “Hopefully I continue to have good health, keep working out and being strong on my feet. A lot of it has to do with confidence. If you’re shy or not having the confidence, you probably won’t go to that far post.

“I know for myself in the last two years, I know I’ve got to be better. Even going into last year, I knew I had to be better and I did as much I could in the offseason to have a good season and I guess it didn’t go my way, or over the course of the season, it took its toll.”

Read amassed 11 goals and 15 assists in 79 games. The 26 points were a personal low for a full season. Those figures didn’t sit well with Read and general manager Ron Hextall noticed.

“You know what, Reader came in early before camp, he's absolutely worked his tail off,” Hextall said Wednesday. “He understood that he hadn't been as good a player as he should have been last year. He understood it, he took it upon himself, put in a great summer, came in early, got himself in great shape, and he's a hungry hockey player right now and he's been back to where he was.”

When signed by the Flyers in 2011 out of Bemidji State University, it was uncertain where Read projected. Over the past two seasons, he’s fallen to a fourth-line role and was even healthy-scratched last season. More buzz surrounding his status within the organization heated up entering training camp as the Flyers made additions and Travis Konecny blossomed.

Thus far, however, Read has won himself a promotion to the third line because of his early success. He played only 16 power-play seconds Thursday, but if goals keep coming and the Flyers produce more 1-for-7 results on the man advantage, maybe Hakstol increases the 30-year-old’s minutes there, as well.

“When Matt Read is playing like he can play,” Hextall said, “he's a helluva player.”

Not a bad student, too.