State of the Union: Talking Sixers Basketball with Michael Levin

State of the Union: Talking Sixers Basketball with Michael Levin

Michael Levin is a 76ers writer for the excellent Liberty Ballers, part of the SB Nation network. Needing a fresh perspective on the Sixers heading into this year's all-star break, we caught up with Mike to recap the first half of the season, and to discuss where the team is going from here. Mike supports Jrue and Evan as the team's future, gives Coach Collins his seal of approval (for the moment), and wishes the team would listen to Charles Barkley's plea for losses. Here's how it went down:

700: So what one thing above all else do you think is the biggest reason for the Sixers' recent run of success?

ML: I think you gotta look at the defense. They've been tightening up all over, getting into passing lanes and forcing bad shots. When they start letting the other team get into the lane at will and open up spot-shooters, they aren't gonna be anybody.

It doesn't hurt that Elton and Andre are clicking more than they have in the past three years. But I think defense is the biggest thing right now. And Collins is wetting himself about that.

And is the improvement in that due to Collins, you think? Or just improvement and gained experience from the young guys?

Collins. You have to realize he's the fourth coach in four years, and easily the most proven. So he's got the respect of everybody because of where he's been...they're buying into his system. They've easily been playing the best team defense since the Iverson/Mutombo years, and the best part is that Jrue still hasn't been playing as good as he can. He's made huge improvements from last year, but defensively there's a ton more he can provide.

It seems like he kinda comes and goes on the defensive end this year.

For sure. But he's just 20, so I'm not remotely worried. And when you consider there is no center on the team, you have to give Doug a lot of credit [for the improved defense].

Are you worried about Jrue's development with Collins taking him off the ball and putting 'Dre more at point-forward these last few weeks?

Absolutely. Don't get me wrong, it's nice to see the Sixers winning games, even if it's just for a few weeks of overachieving. But the most important part of this season was seeing how Jrue and Evan play together. Jrue's been downright spectacular at points this season, and Evan's been getting better and better and should be taking a bigger role in the offense soon. His and Jrue's development would be expedited if Andre got traded. Keeping him on the team to win a few more games and lose in the first round isn't worth wasting a year of Evan and Jrue's time together.

The thing that upsets me about the move is that it seems to be screwing up one of the few known quantities we had on the team, Jrue being a relatively pure point guard on a team full of positionally-vague guys.

Definitely. He's a championship point guard in three years. He'll have a long, terrific prime. But if Doug keeps Andre and Elton at the faces of this team, they won't have the right pieces gelling together at the same time. Honestly, I'd trade everyone on the team but Evan and Jrue. None of them will be integral pieces on a 76ers championship team and the role players are easily replaceable. I'd even consider just playing 5-on-2 basketball just to see what they can do. That's probably illegal somewhere.

So it seems like you're pretty up on Evan these days. What's he doing that's really showing you something?

He's making plays. If you look at his assist to turnover ratio lately, it's something like 8 to 1.

Yeah, I crunched the numbers on that recently, it's absurd.

48 assists to his last 6 turnovers [as of earlier this week]. That's unconscious. And while I disagree with the notion that he's a point guard, he's certainly able to handle the ball and make plays from the wing position. He and Jrue are going to be spectacular together once they are running the team. Evan's getting into the lane, rebounding and pushing the ball, and I'm confident that the jump shot will come along. He's got a great mid-range game that's taking a little time to show itself at this level.

What do you say to people who look at his stat lines and see 32 minutes, eight points, four rebounds and three assists and wonder why we're not getting more out of the #2 pick?

After I stab them in the throat, I wipe some of their blood away and show them his stats at OSU. As a freshman there, he took a back seat to everybody else as well. 27 minutes, 8.5 points, 4.4 boards and 2.6 assists. Look familiar? By junior year he was 20, 9 and 6 on 52% shooting.

He's not the most demanding person or player. It's just not his personality. When I met him, I could tell he was excited but a little overwhelmed by the whole thing. He was letting other people dictate the new situation and going from there. But once he gets comfortable in the environment, he excels.

Yeah, he seemed fairly hesitant to step into the role of star player right away.

Absolutely. I'm not saying I'm super pleased by what's happening. And he's certainly done a little worse than I thought he would. But that, I believe, is more because of Collins than anything else. Doug saw a team that could win now and gave the reins to the veterans on the team. If he was intent on rebuilding, he'd start Evan and let he and Jrue run the show. But he didn't. The offense is run through Lou, Andre and Elton, with Jrue, Evan, and Thad picking their spots.

So are you of the Charles Barkley mindset that the team would be much better off losing games now and rebuilding through trades and the draft?

100%. At LB we've been screaming for #missionBJ for months. That's where we tank and get a chance at a top pick for Harrison Barnes or Perry Jones. But because of the weak draft class and recent string of wins, most people are jumping off the rooting for losses bandwagon. For me it really doesn't matter--I just don't want them ruining a chance at future success to win a couple of games now. I keep getting the image of Jamaal Magloire in a Sixers uniform in my head and I want to die--just these old ass big men who have "experience" and "know how to win" and crap like that.

Still, part of you's gotta be pretty geeked at the Sixers making a playoff push and beating the Spurs and Bulls and whatnot?

Yeah, it's exciting for sure. But my goal is a championship, and I don't see nearly enough pieces on this team that can even come close to contending for a title. Anywhere between 32 and 46 wins is mediocrity. It doesn't matter what happens [this season] because we've been stuck in that block since 2001. Getting the 2nd pick last year was a godsend, and it should have been taken as "OK, we can have two pieces to a championship team, let's get another one and we'll make a run"--the Oklahoma City method. But instead they kept Andre, took Elton off the market, and gave Lou a big role.

You've alluded to it a couple times already, but I know you have far more in store when it comes to your personal feelings about Lou Williams. Tell us why it is that Sweet Lou so draws your ire?

Oh my. In my opinion, Louis Williams is a boulder that got dropped right in front of Jrue Holiday's face. He's a high-usage player that plays far too big of a role in an offense that should be Jrue's. He makes bad decisions with the ball, plays poor off-the-ball defense, and can't stay with anybody. Just because he hits the occasional off-balance three doesn't make him a good basketball player. He gets to the line, and I appreciate that. But every time he touches the ball, it's out of the rhythm of the offense. He's a luxury on a good team, and despite the run, we're not a good team.

It seems like Lou's the go-to guy down the stretch for the team this year. Though it's maddening much of the time, I'm not exactly sure what the other options are. Optimally, what would you like to see the team do with the ball down two with fifteen seconds left?

Run a play. Any play. Pick and roll. Post up with cutters. It seems like all teams in the NBA see the clock winding down and just hand the ball to one dude and say "all you."

 

It's weird, yeah.

Why not run a play? Plays are generally more effective than dribble-dribble-chuck basketball. That's why coaches diagram plays. I've never gotten that. Have Jrue and Elton run a pick and roll with Jodie on the wing and Andre cutting. Nothing too difficult, just keep your options open.

So if the goal is to work with the young guys, and Collins is forever reliant on his veterans, does that mean that even with the dramatic improvement, he's only a short-term solution at head coach?

I'm truthfully not sure. He's a hell of a coach. Basically, the team isn't as good as they are under Collins and they weren't as bad as they were under Jordan--talent-wise, they're somewhere in the middle. But I think if Thorn and Stefanski decide to move Andre at the deadline (they won't) or with Brand in the offseason, Collins is a good coach to start the OKC movement with Jrue, Evan, and the nameless prospects we get from the trades and draft.

What do you think the team should do about it's big men situation? Is Spencer ready for full-time starter's minutes? Is it worth pursuing someone else on the trade market?

Hawes hasn't been nearly as bad as people have made him out to be.Statistically, he's the best defensive rebounder on the team. People get on him for looking awkward, and he's certainly not the best defender in the post, but he's a capable rebounder from the 5-spot. He's be a 12 and 10 player given 36 minutes, and Brand is 16 and 9. But I don't think he's a starter in the NBA--especially not on a championship team. He's a nice backup because he can shoot and pass from the top of the key.

Do you consider the Hawes-Dalembert trade a step in the right direction?

It was a wash. I would've liked to get more for Sam, but that's the way it goes a lot of the time. We made a trade to shed some salary (even though we picked up Noce) and got a young center prospect in the process. He doesn't look like he's working out like we hoped, but he was the 10th pick a few years back and is only 22 years old.

I'd have liked it a lot more if not for the Nocioni element, but yeah, at least it was a move to get younger.

Sure. Younger is better. I'd draft infants if we could. Directly out of preschool.

So, assuming the team doesn't adapt #missionbj and holds on to its vets like we all know they probably will, where do you see them ending up in terms of the post-season?

A lot depends on the Melodrama. But even without him, I think the Knicks are the better team. So 7th is where I fit them in for now, which most likely means Miami, and a 4-1 series loss.

Would they have a shot in the first round against any of the top four teams [Boston, Miami, Chicago, Orlando], you think?

If we draw Chicago, we could sneak two wins. I say they win one game against Miami and Orlando, one or two against Chicago, and Boston would sweep our asses. But they'd be mostly close games and the management would claim IMPROVEMENT! Then continue to be mediocre until the world explodes.

Will you root for them to get swept, just to teach Stefanski and Thorn their lesson?

A good part of me is still rooting for losses. If they make the playoffs, this will likely be the third year out of the past four that we've made the playoffs without a winning record. And that's disgusting. It isn't getting better if that's the case. It's frustrating to go through the same cycle again and again, with management spouting the same BS each year.

All right, that should do it on my end, anything else you wanna add?

Well, I suppose I'd like to apologize for being so negative. I am stoked the Sixers are finally getting some love in the town. It's just tough to get excited about another mediocre season ending in a first round loss.I still believe the only winning that is good is the winning that comes on the backs of Jrue and Evan.

No worries, very understandable. If I was emotionally strong enough to handle the tanking process two years in a row I'd probably feel the same way.

A lot of drug use.

Eagles-Redskins predictions by our (cough) experts

Eagles-Redskins predictions by our (cough) experts

The Eagles (5-7) come into Sunday's game against the Redskins (6-5-1) on a three-game losing streak.

The Redskins exposed the Eagles' defense the last time these two teams met almost two months ago on Oct. 16.

Here are our (cough) expert predictions for this Week 14 matchup.

Dave Zangaro (4-8)
After losing three straight games, I couldn't pick the Eagles against just about any team in the NFL. Maybe Cleveland. Maybe Chicago. 

But against Washington? Nah. Can't do it. 

Sure, I know Washington comes into the Linc on a two-game losing streak, and they're clearly not a top team in the NFC. It just doesn't matter. Kirk Cousins is a decent quarterback and Washington clearly has enough weapons to shred the Eagles like they did for 493 yards in the first meeting. 

For the Eagles' offense, Carson Wentz hasn't looked good in a long time and this week he enters with a few of his skill position players banged up. 

This looks like another loss to me. 

Washington 26, Eagles 20

Derrick Gunn (5-7)
The Eagles are an embarrassed, desperate team, and a win over the Redskins could lift the weight of what has been a downward spiral. Ryan Mathews and Jordan Matthews returned to practice this week, but can they jolt this offense back to life? Carson Wentz has played like a rookie the last three games, and the once stout defense has crumbled.

So here come the Redskins, losers of two in a row but still very much in the playoff conversation. The Redskins' defense is beat up and could be missing several key players, but unfortunately for the Eagles, Washington's offensive weapons are relatively healthy, except for tight end Jordan Reed, who's listed as questionable with an AC joint sprain. Matt Jones and Robert Kelley pack a punch out of the backfield. 

Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been in a zone. Over their last six games, Cousins has averaged 352.6 passing yards, plus he's thrown 12 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. 

The Eagles remember what Washington did to them back in Week 6, but I feel their revenge motives will fall short.

Redskins 27, Eagles 17

Ray Didinger (5-7) 
With all the talk this week about effort and players dogging it, I fully expect the Eagles to come out focused and fired up at home Sunday. Here's the problem: I just don't know if they are good enough to win the game. Motivation is one thing, but talent is another and right now, the Eagles are lacking in that area.
 
The players have been called out by their coach, by the media and by the fans so if they have any pride at all they will come out and play hard against the Redskins but I look at the matchup of this Eagles' secondary against the Washington receivers — especially a hot DeSean Jackson (25.3 yards per catch the last three games) — and I don't see a happy result.
 
Redskins 24, Eagles 17

Andrew Kulp (6-6)
Not sure if the Eagles really are in freefall mode or if they've simply been unable to overcome injuries while facing some better than advertised opponents. Either way, they have plenty to play for, because Washington has been embarrassing them for awhile now. With Jordan Matthews back and against a less than stellar D, I predict an end to the losing streak, so long as they finally come up with an answer for Kirk Cousins.

Eagles 26, Redskins 24

Corey Seidman (5-7)
Close game, better performance from Carson Wentz and an awakening in the run game, but not enough defensive talent to shut down what Washington will try to do deep with DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder, over the middle with Jordan Reed and short with Pierre Garcon.

Redskins 31, Eagles 27

Andy Schwartz (5-7)
It's simply come to this. I can't pick the Eagles to win a game the rest of the season until they do.

I want to think the offense will benefit from the return of Ryan Mathews and Jordan Matthews. And I want to think the defense will play with desperation and break out of its "slump" and make some big plays.

But I won't believe it until I see it.

Redskins 24, Eagles 16

Shayne Gostisbehere suffers bone bruise on right hand in win over Stars

Shayne Gostisbehere suffers bone bruise on right hand in win over Stars

Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere took a shot off his right hand in the second period Saturday and has a bone bruise. 
 
The Flyers will watch it because sometimes the swelling prevents wearing a glove comfortably the next day.
 
Ghost, who has five points – all assists – over his past six games, was hit with a puck in the second period of a 4-2 win over the Stars. He went to the bench and tried to shake it off, but left for the dressing room shortly after a Flyers power play began in the period’s final three minutes.
 
He participated for part of the power play, then left the ice and did not return until the start of the third period.
 
“It was good by then,” he said. “Obviously, it hurt a bit.”
 
The Flyers play in Detroit on Sunday night. 
 
Ghost has 16 points (four goals) in 29 games this season. X-rays were negative, he said, adding he was not worried about the hand, which was badly swollen after the game.