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.

NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

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NBA draft profile: F Dragan Bender

Dragan Bender

Position: Power forward
Height: 7-1
Weight: 225
Team: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Croatia’s latest basketball export is just 18 years old. He won’t turn 19 until November. Like a lot of teenagers, he’s hardly a fully finished product. The kid is raw, but his obvious potential figures to make him a high lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

Through 38 games with Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, Bender averaged just 12.9 minutes. He took 3.7 shots per game. He shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 33.8 percent from deep (on 2.0 attempts per game) and 71.9 percent from the line. He didn’t get to the line very often, by the way. In fact, he hardly got there at all, taking less than one attempt per game from the stripe.

But Bender’s appeal isn’t about what he is right now; it’s rooted in what he could become with time. There’s a reason why all 30 NBA teams sent someone to watch him play this year, according to DraftExpress. Investing in him could yield a significant return. Also, dude’s name is Dragan Bender. He was destined to become a pro athlete or conquer King’s Landing. Either way, good things ahead.

Strengths
Bender has been on the NBA’s projection radar for a while now. He’s worked hard to develop his shooting. Initially thought of as a non-shooter with wonky mechanics, Bender changed his stroke. It’s more compact and efficient now. Despite the small sample size, Bender had a 54.1 true shooting percentage and a 51.4 effective field goal percentage through 38 games this season.

He could pass more, but when he does he’s pretty savvy — particularly with the full-court outlet pass. Defensively, he’s not a rim protector, but he has a long wingspan (7-2) that should help him be a good pick-and-roll defender with time. In the increasingly switch-everything NBA, that’s a plus.

Also, did we mention his name is Dragan Bender? Donald Bender works in Croatian finance. Dave Bender has a nice B&B on Hvar Island. Dragan Bender is a potential NBA star.

Weaknesses
He’s reportedly put on some weight recently and worked hard to develop a better base, but he’s 7-1 and 225 pounds. Someone needs to feed him lots of sandwiches and protein shakes. Adding muscle for the long-slog NBA season will be important.

In addition to having a still-developing body and skill set, he hasn’t faced top-level international competition yet on a regular basis. He needs minutes against the best in the world, and in order to get those minutes he’ll have to refine his game – particularly his ball-handling and driving, which are still works in progress.

Unlike some other recent NBA imports (Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis among them), it’s probably going to take a while before Bender can be a consistent contributor in the league. Any team that takes him has to acknowledge the inherent time commitment.

How he’d fit with the Sixers 
If we’re talking about how he’d fit with the Sixers, who had a long-term plan and weren’t in a hurry to rush anything, the Sixers who embarked on an open-ended journey with no fixed timetable or end point, you could make a case for Bender (but not with the first overall pick). Five or seven years from now, Bender could be a polished product – an outside shooting threat with, perhaps, an expanded offensive game that allows him to put the ball on the floor and optimize his passing and scoring. You could imagine him growing defensively and creating mismatch problems. You could envision it – over time.

The question is whether these Sixers, who keep talking about transitioning from the rebuild into whatever comes next, are about to scrap the slow-and-low approach to cooking their roster in favor of adding on-court heat and off-court PR sizzle. If that’s the case, Bender wouldn’t fit well at all. Not to mention that taking Bender means adding another body to an already clogged frontcourt.

NBA comparison
Lots of people have drawn a parallel between Bender and Porzingis. That’s the easy, reflexive comparison. Both are tall, lanky stretch fours from a not dissimilar region of the world. But really that’s unfair to Bender. Porzingis declared for the NBA draft back in 2014, only to withdraw his name and wait until last year. The wait helped elevate him to more of a known commodity. At that point, he had played three seasons for Sevilla of Liga ACB in Spain, one of the best leagues in Europe that features some of the premiere international talent. Bender isn’t there yet in terms of experience, and their games aren’t one-to-one equivelants anyway. Bender might ultimately shake out as something closer to Andrei Kirilenko (if he can improve his handle) or Nikola Mirotic.

Draft projection
Top five. If he lasts any longer, it will be a surprise.

Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

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Eagles mailbag: Jordan Matthews; injury concern, leading rusher

Another day, another mailbag. 

I hope you're enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend. If you're reading this on the beach or at a BBQ, well done. 

Yesterday, I answered the first round of your questions about Doug Pederson, Brandon Spikes and the possibility of adding another running back. 

Today, I'll answer some more: 

At times, Jordan Matthews will still be in the slot this season. But he won't be there all the time. 

In Doug Pederson's offense, the receivers will move around quite a bit, which means we'll see Matthews lining up out wide on both sides and in the slot. He has the ability to do both. Either way, he's going to be on the field. He's clearly the Eagles best receiver and they're not going to take him off the field. 

I think there's a good chance we'll see some Josh Huff in the slot this year, which would make a ton of sense to me. Huff is at his best when he gets the ball in his hands and can make something happen. He's shifty enough to play in the middle. 

The idea that slot receivers are just small, shifty guys is outdated. It's all about matchups and Pederson won't be afraid to move his receivers around to find the best ones. 

Good question. I'll give you two names. One on offense and one on defense. 

Now, I didn't just pick the best players, I picked the best players with the biggest drop off to their backups. So on offense, it's Jason Peters and on defense it's Jordan Hicks. 

The scary thing: it wouldn't be shocking if either of these two go down in 2016. 

If Peters goes down, the Eagles will be fine at left tackle, because Lane Johnson will shift over. But that means either Dennis Kelly or Halapoulivaati Vaitai will come in. We all know what's happened in the past when Kelly comes in, and Vaitai is just a rookie. Not a ton of great depth at tackle. 

As for Hicks, we saw what happened to the defense when he went out last season. And this year, the team has virtually no depth at linebacker. If Hicks went down, either veteran special teams player Najee Goode or rookie Joe Walker would need to fill in. Yikes. 

I understand it's kind of a cop-out to just pick the top running back on the depth chart, but that's what I'm doing. I know Ryan Mathews has a lengthy injury history, but I can't see Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood or Kenjon Barner being the team's leading rusher. 

And when healthy, Mathews was the team's best running back in 2015, going for 539 yards on 106 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt. If he manages to play 12 games this year, I think he'll be the team's leading rusher. 

Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

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Phillies pitching prospect Mark Appel hits DL with shoulder strain

Mark Appel, whose fastball velocity was down considerably in the first inning of his last start, was placed on the disabled list Friday with a shoulder strain.

Appel, 24, is 3-3 with a 4.46 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in eight starts for Triple A Lehigh Valley in his first year in the Phillies' system. He's struggled his last four times out, allowing 18 runs (15 earned) in 16⅓ innings on 20 hits and 11 walks.

The No. 1 overall pick in 2013 out of Stanford, Appel has had a disappointing pro career to this point. In 62 minor-league games (61 starts), he has a 5.04 ERA. The Phillies acquired him from Houston as part of the Ken Giles trade this past winter.

Appel's trip to the DL creates an opportunity for right-hander Ben Lively, who was promoted from Double A Reading to Triple A to take Appel's place in the IronPigs' rotation. Lively, acquired from the Reds for Marlon Byrd prior to the 2015 season, is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA this season.

Rehab updates
Leftfielder Cody Asche and left-handed reliever Mario Hollands had their rehab assignments transferred to Triple A Lehigh Valley. 

Asche is 5 for 34 (.147) with two home runs and 12 strikeouts during his stints with Clearwater and Reading. 

Hollands has been sharp, posting a 1.04 ERA in 8⅔ innings with 12 strikeouts and one walk.