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.

Best of NFL: Redskins notch 1st win vs. Giants; Cowboys rout Bears

Best of NFL: Redskins notch 1st win vs. Giants; Cowboys rout Bears

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.  -- Dustin Hopkins kicked a 37-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter for his fifth of the game and the Washington Redskins avoid a near-disastrous 0-3 start with a 29-27 win over the penalty- and error-prone New York Giants on Sunday.

Kirk Cousins threw touchdown passes of 44 yards to DeSean Jackson and 55 to Jamison Crowder as the banged-up Redskins (1-2) handed new coach Ben McAdoo his first loss with the Giants (2-1).

Su'a Cravens ended the Giants' final drive with an interception in New York territory. It was Eli Manning's second pick of the quarter, with the other coming in the end zone by Quinton Dunbar after New York got to the Redskins 15 on a big play by Odell Beckham Jr.

This was a wild NFC East matchup that see-sawed the entire second half after Washington rallied from a 21-9 deficit (see full recap).

Prescott, Cowboys rout Bears on SNF
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Dak Prescott led scoring drives on all four Dallas possessions in the first half before throwing his first career touchdown pass, and the Cowboys beat the Chicago Bears 31-17 on Sunday night to snap an eight-game home losing streak.

With his second straight win, Prescott doubled the number of victories the Cowboys (2-1) had in 14 games without injured quarterback Tony Romo over three seasons before the rookie fourth-round pick showed up.

Prescott's first TD pass was a 17-yarder to Dez Bryant for a 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter, and he's up to 99 throws without an interception to start his career. Philadelphia rookie Carson Wentz has 102, and those are the two highest career-opening totals in NFL history.

Brian Hoyer had trouble moving the Chicago offense early with Jay Cutler sidelined by a sprained right thumb as the Bears fell behind 24-3 at halftime and dropped to 0-3 for the second time in two seasons under coach John Fox (see full recap).

Vikings stop Newton, snap Panthers' home win streak
CHARLOTTE, N.C.  -- The Minnesota Vikings keep finding ways to overcome injuries --and keep finding ways to win football games.

Sam Bradford threw a touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph, Marcus Sherels returned a punt for a score and the Vikings snapped the Carolina Panthers' 14-game home winning streak 22-10 on Sunday.

The Vikings put the clamps on Cam Newton, intercepting the league's reigning MVP three times and getting eight sacks, one of those resulting in a safety by Danielle Hunter. The eight sacks were the second-most ever against Newton.

"We have a great team -- the best team I have been a part of," said Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, who had three sacks. "We come from every area on the field and we get sacks."

Said Newton: "They were dictating to us after they got the momentum."

The Vikings improved 3-0 despite losing running back Adrian Peterson and offensive tackle Matt Kalil to injuries last week. They lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in the preseason (see full recap).

Bills bounce back with win over Cardinals
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.  -- LeSean McCoy scored twice and safety Aaron Williams returned a botched field-goal snap 53 yards for a touchdown in leading the Buffalo Bills to a 33-18 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

Quarterback Tyrod Taylor also scored on a 20-yard run at a time the Rex Ryan-coached Bills spent the past week taking the brunt of criticism after opening the season 0-2.

The win also came on the heels of Ryan firing offensive coordinator Greg Roman and replacing him with running backs coach Anthony Lynn.

McCoy scored on 24- and 5-yard runs, and finished with 110 yards rushing after combining for just 117 in his first two games. Taylor had 76 yards rushing, including a 49-yarder, the longest by a quarterback in team history (see full recap).

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Doug Pederson: For the Eagles, 'this was a good benchmark'

Doug Pederson: For the Eagles, 'this was a good benchmark'

On his way to the locker room following his team's stunning 34-3 victory over the Steelers, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson reacted, well, like you probably did.

Pederson had to be surprised by what had just transpired. After all, this wasn't the Browns or the Bears. This was the Steelers, who entered the game with the second-best odds behind New England, per Bovada, of winning the Super Bowl (the Patriots were first). 

And the Eagles didn't just beat them. They clobbered them.

But minutes later, when Pederson met the media for his postgame press conference, he tried his best to act like it was no big thing.

“I told the team way back in OTAs that it just takes a little bit of belief," Pederson said. "Belief in themselves. Trust the process. Believe in the coaches and the coaches believe in one another. That’s what they did tonight. 

"Am I surprised? A little. But at the same time, I know that locker room, I know those guys and I know what they are building. By no means have we accomplished anything yet. The season is still extremely young. But what they did tonight just proves that they are coming together as a football team.”

Yeah, yeah. Sorry, Doug. It's OK to be surprised. Scratch that. Make that stunned. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year. But now? Forget that. 

At least for the next two weeks. The Eagles are on their bye week and don't play again until Oct. 9 at Detroit. 

“It is still a young season, only three games. This was a good benchmark," Pederson said. "That’s a good football team, the Steelers are a great football team. They are going to be there at the end, they always are. Coach (Mike) Tomlin always has those guys ready to play. 

"But for our guys, it is just a little glimpse of that belief that I have been saying since the spring and summer. If they just do their jobs, I just feel that good things can happen. We just protect each other in that dressing room in there and keep coming to work everyday.”

Pederson is the only head coach in team history to win each of his first three games. It's only the ninth time the Eagles have started 3-0.

And of course, a big reason they've done so is their prodigy quarterback Carson Wentz, who became only the second rookie in team history to record a 300-yard passing game (Nick Foles is the other).

More impressively, Wentz now has attempted 102 straight passes without an interception, the longest streak ever begin an NFL career (per ESPN). Dallas'  Dak Prescott is at 99 after the Cowboys beat up the Bears.

But don't ask Pederson to admit he's amazed by Wentz or the fact he had the presence of mind to make plays like the riveting 73-yard TD pass to Darren Sproles (much more on that here).

“You know, you just put on his college film. Just watch him," Pederson said. "We exhausted his college tape and those were the plays that he made at North Dakota State. That play tonight was just a tremendous play by both he and Darren Sproles. Those are the types of things that we know he can do. He just keeps gaining confidence every single week.”

As does the defense, which kept one of the league's most potent offenses out of the end zone

"They just weren’t going to be denied," Pederson said. "They just weren’t going to bow their necks. They weren’t going to let them in the endzone. It just came down to our will versus theirs and I was just so happy with the way the guys played. Just a great team effort.”