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.

Best of MLB: Bryant homers twice, Cubs spoil Ruiz's Dodgers debut

Best of MLB: Bryant homers twice, Cubs spoil Ruiz's Dodgers debut

LOS ANGELES -- Kris Bryant hit a tiebreaking two-run homer in the 10th inning to go with an earlier solo shot, lifting the Chicago Cubs over the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-4 on Friday night in the series opener between NL division leaders.

Bryant's 35th homer capped a comeback from an earlier two-run deficit and extended the Cubs' winning streak to four games. Chicago fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" as Bryant scored behind Dexter Fowler, who singled leading off.

Chicago improved to 19-4 in August while earning its major league-leading 82nd victory.

Travis Wood (4-0) got the victory with one inning of relief. Aroldis Chapman struck out two in the 10th to earn his 10th save.

Adam Liberatore (2-1) took the loss, allowing two runs and four hits in one inning (see full recap).

Mariners overcome Sale's 14 K's to beat White Sox
CHICAGO -- Chris Sale struck out 14 but got outpitched by Felix Hernandez and the Seattle bullpen, and the Mariners ended a three-game skid Friday night by beating the Chicago White Sox 3-1.

Hernandez (9-4) improved to 5-0 in eight starts since returning from the disabled list, throwing 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball.

Sale (15-7) gave up five hits and walked none in his fifth complete game of the season. He retired the final 16 batters, striking out 10 of them.

Sale struck out six straight in the sixth and seventh innings, one shy of Joe Cowley's team record.

Franklin Gutierrez hit a solo home run and Adam Lind added an RBI double off Sale.

Todd Frazier's 32nd home run in the seventh was one of eight hits off Hernandez until he left with the bases loaded (see full recap).

Gonzalez earns 100th win as Nationals top Rockies
WASHINGTON -- Jayson Werth and Daniel Murphy hit solo homers and drove in two runs each, and Gio Gonzalez earned his 100th career victory as the Washington Nationals beat the Colorado Rockies 8-5 on Friday night.

Gonzalez (9-9) threw six innings and allowed two runs and four hits with one walk and five strikeouts.

Mark Melancon retired Christhian Adames for the final out. Melancon entered the game shortly after Nick Hundley hit a three-run homer off Shawn Kelley to pull the Rockies within three.

While Gonzalez hit the century mark, Rockies rookie Jeff Hoffman (0-2), remains in search of his first major league win (see full recap).

Best of NFL: Tom Brady on target, leads Patriots to win in preseason debut

Best of NFL: Tom Brady on target, leads Patriots to win in preseason debut

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tom Brady looked sharp in his preseason debut, throwing a 33-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan in helping the New England Patriots to a 19-17 preseason win over the Carolina Panthers on Friday night.

Brady relieved Jimmy Garoppolo late in the first quarter and completed a 37-yard pass to Aaron Dobson on his first play from scrimmage, leading to a field goal. On his second drive Brady heaved a perfectly placed over-the-shoulder pass to Hogan down the right sideline for a 9-0 lead. Brady's other two drives failed to produce points.

While Brady was on the mark, league MVP Cam Newton struggled mightily in his most extensive playing time of the preseason. Newton was intercepted twice and the Panthers failed to get any points on his eight first-half possessions. Overall, the Panthers scored just three points in 10 Newton-led drives.

The sixth-year quarterback was high on some passes and didn't get much help from his receivers, who had problems getting separation and dropped four passes, including one by Brenton Bersin on a fourth-and-2 at midfield.

New England's defense shut down the league's highest-scoring offense from a year ago. They also intercepted Derek Anderson and allowed only one passing play of more than 15 yards in the first half.

Garoppolo, expected to start the first four games for the Patriots while Brady serves a suspension for his role in "Deflategate," returned in the second quarter but couldn't get anything going.

In the third quarter he rolled out of the pocket while under pressure and missed an open receiver who'd gotten behind the defense. His six drives resulted in no points, although Stephen Gostkowski missed a 30-yard field goal on the New England's opening possession (see full recap).

Redskins overcome slow start to beat Bills
LANDOVER, Md. -- Kirk Cousins found a groove and undrafted rookie running back Robert Kelley made the most of his chance and the Washington Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills 21-16 Friday night in the third preseason game.

With the Bills (1-2) resting almost their entire starting defense, Cousins overcame a rough start to finish 12 of 23 for 188 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

Despite coming mostly against Buffalo's second- and third-stringers, it was an important recovery for Cousins, who had thrown only five passes in the preseason and didn't play last week in an effort to test backup Colt McCoy.

Kelley ran for 51 yards on 12 carries in a personal showcase with Matt Jones and Chris Thompson out and after seventh-round pick Keith Marshall sprained his left elbow on his only carry of the game.

Bills starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor played only two series, by coach Rex Ryan's design, going 2 of 5 for 11 yards before being replaced by E.J. Manuel.

Ryan also opted to rest running back LeSean McCoy and several key defenders, including defensive tackle Kyle Williams, linebacker Jerry Hughes and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore.

Coach Jay Gruden took a more conventional dress-rehearsal approach to the third preseason game for the Redskins (2-1) and got the kind of performances he'd like to see from top players such as tight end Jordan Reed, receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, left tackle Trent Williams and cornerback Josh Norman.

Reed, Garcon and receiver Ryan Grant each caught a touchdown pass from Cousins, and Norman looked sharp on defense along with second-year linebacker Preston Smith and lineman Ziggy Hood (see full recap).

Roethlisberger shreds defense in Steelers' win over Saints
NEW ORLEANS -- Ben Roethlisberger torched New Orleans' defense for 148 yards and two touchdown passes on his first two series of this preseason, then got the rest of the game off while the Steelers rolled to a 27-14 victory over the Saints on Friday night.

Roethlisberger, who sat out of the first two preseason games, opened by leading a 14-play, 76-yard drive on which he converted two third downs and found tight end Jesse James for a 5-yard score. His next series was highlighted by his 57-yard scoring pass down the left sideline to Antonio Brown, also playing for the first time this preseason. The Steelers star finished with 12 completions on 17 attempts.

Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell also made his preseason debut, gaining 21 yards on three carries, but his lost fumble in the second quarter -- forced by cornerback Delvin Breaux and recovered by linebacker Dannell Ellerbe -- led to Drew Brees' only TD pass. Brees' strike went to Willie Snead, who made a difficult juggling catch as he landed on his back following a collision near the back of the end zone.

Brees had a difficult night behind a struggling offensive line. It didn't help that starting left tackle Terron Armstead left the field unexpectedly in the first half for undisclosed reasons. Brees completed 9 of 12 passes, but for only 78 yards. One of his better throws connected with newly acquired tight end Coby Fleener for 26 yards, but it was called back for holding on Armstead.

The Saints have dropped all three preseason games.

Steelers backup Landry Jones went 19 of 22 for 206 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates. He also completed a 58-yard pass to Coates to set up Chris Boswell's 40-yard field goal (see full recap).

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

Adam Morgan, Phillies allow 4 homers in latest loss to Mets at Citi Field

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — The New York Mets set the tone for this game early on Friday night. Their first two batters stroked Adam Morgan fastballs over the wall and they were off and slugging to a 9-4 win over the Phillies at Citi Field (see Instant Replay).
 
“There’s not much to say,” manager Pete Mackanin said afterward, “other than we have to pitch better.”
 
The Mets, very much in the thick of the NL wild-card race, played inspired ball in powering their way to their fifth win in the last six games. They hit four home runs on the night, including three against Morgan, and got a typically strong start from Bartolo Colon.
 
“It’s never good when you start a game by giving up two home runs,” Morgan said. “If I make better pitches, it’s a different outcome.”
 
The third home run that Morgan gave up was the killer. It was a grand slam by Wilmer Flores with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. That turned a 2-1 Mets’ lead into a 6-1 Mets’ lead.
 
Flores’ grand slam came on a first-pitch slider. Morgan threw nine pitches before walking Neil Walker, the previous batter, to extend the inning. One of those pitches was a foul pop down the right-field line that Ryan Howard could not chase down. Had he been able to make the tough play, Morgan would have gotten out of the inning unscathed.
 
Then again, the pitcher could have gotten out of the inning unscathed if he did not give up the two-out walk to Walker.
 
Or make a mistake with the first-pitch slider to Flores.
 
“It was a bad pitch,” Mackanin said. “He tried to backdoor a slider and it ended up in his wheelhouse.”
 
As for the pop-up down the right-field line …
 
“I was hoping somebody could run that down,” Mackanin said. “Nevertheless, you’ve got to pitch around those things and make good pitches. That mistake to Flores put it away for them. Morgan had command issues. Too many pitches out over the plate.”
 
In all, Morgan allowed eight hits, including five for extra bases, in his five innings of work. He dropped to 1-8 and his ERA rose to 6.50.
 
Reliever Frank Herrmann gave up the Mets’ fourth homer, a two-run shot to Asdrubal Cabrera in the sixth. Cabrera homered from both sides of the plate.
 
Meanwhile, Colon, the Mets’ 43-year-old control artist, did what he often does to the Phillies. He gave up just three hits and a run through seven innings before hitting the wall and giving up three runs without getting an out in the eighth. Colon had to settle for seven-plus innings of four-run ball. He is 12-7 with a 3.44 ERA. He is 9-3 with a 2.98 ERA against the Phillies as a member of the Mets.
 
“He seems to own us,” Mackanin said. “We can’t seem to square up the ball against him. He does a tremendous job with control and command.”
 
Peter Bourjos concurred.
 
“He’s different than any pitcher you see these days,” Bourjos said. “You don’t see many guys throwing mostly fastballs at 88 mph and sinking it. You see some guys throwing a majority of sinkers, but it’s 95. This guy changes speeds on his fastball and locates it so well.”
 
The game marked the Phillies’ first without Carlos Ruiz, who was traded to the Dodgers on Thursday. Jorge Alfaro came up from Double A and served as the backup catcher. He is expected to return to the Reading club on Saturday when A.J. Ellis arrives. The Phillies picked up the veteran backup catcher in the trade.
 
Alfaro did not play, but called the experience of coming to the majors “a dream.”
 
That was the only thing that resembled a dream for the Phillies on Friday night.
 
They have lost 20 of 29 games to the Mets over the last two seasons and 12 of their last 16 in Citi Field, hardly encouraging with two more games to play in the series.