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.

Aaron Grymes waived/injured by Eagles

Aaron Grymes waived/injured by Eagles

Aaron Grymes was making a serious push to be on the Eagles' 53-man roster until the cornerback's right shoulder slammed into the ground at Heinz Field after an interception.

Grymes hasn't practiced or played since and the Eagles waived/injured the 25-year-old corner on Monday.

Before coming to the Eagles this spring, Grymes spent three successful seasons in the Canadian Football League and won a Grey Cup as an All-Star for the Edmonton Eskimos in 2015.

There seems to be a decent shot that the Eagles might want to put Grymes on their practice squad.

After the Pittsburgh game, when he had the interception and suffered the injury, Grymes was asked if he would prefer to be on a practice squad or head back to Canada, where he's already a proven star.

“I’ve thought about both of them," Grymes said on Aug. 18. "Both of them are great opportunities. I know that there are teams in Canada that are willing to bring me in and let me play. But then again, you can’t really compare it with this NFL dream I’ve had forever.

"To sign to a practice squad … injuries happen every day, and I think an opportunity could be there. It will be something I sit down with my wife and talk about, sit down with my agent and talk about. We’ll just make the best decision for us from there.”

Nelson Agholor unlikely to play Eagles' preseason finale, even if he could use the work

Nelson Agholor unlikely to play Eagles' preseason finale, even if he could use the work

Starters typically don't play much if at all in the final preseason game, but what does that mean for the Eagles and Nelson Agholor?

Agholor may be a starter by default, but the second-year wideout has followed up a disappointing rookie campaign with an uninspired summer thus far. More reps might be of value for a young player in Agholor's position.

Doug Pederson apparently disagrees, telling reporters on Monday that Agholor "probably" won't make an appearance in the Eagles' preseason finale this Thursday against the Jets. When pressed for an explanation, the head coach gave a curious response.

"One, I don't want to risk an injury necessarily," Pederson said. "Two, he's right on track with where he needs to be, so I'm not concerned with Nelson."

Any assertion that Agholor is "on track" is debatable. The 2015 first-round pick has just two receptions for 30 yards in preseason action. To make matters worse, he's also dropped three passes, including a costly deflection that went for an interception against the Colts on Saturday.

Minimal production and lapses in concentration plagued Agholor throughout last season, and there's little evidence those issues are behind him. Regardless, Pederson sounds unconcerned.

"Every day he comes out here and puts in a quality day's work," Pederson said. "He works extremely hard, and I've seen what he can do in practice.

"Is there the occasional drop here or there? Yeah. What he did after the drop (against the Colts), you probably didn't notice the blocking downfield, the things he did away from the ball. More than being a receiver — obviously, catching the ball is number one — but we pride ourselves in being physical in the run game and blocks down the field, and the things he did in this football game put him in a really good position going into the regular season."

To his credit, Agholor has shown a willingness to contribute without the ball in his hands. The 23-year-old threw a key block on Josh Huff's eight-yard touchdown run on Saturday.

Of course, Agholor wasn't taken 20th overall for his ability to pancake defensive backs. The Eagles are hoping he can become a viable target in the passing attack.

Agholor has dealt with questions about his production and confidence going back to last year. He knows as well as anybody that he needs to improve, although he doesn't necessarily feel that growth needs to take place in an exhibition game.

"The most important thing to me right now is practice, and I got an opportunity to go out here and practice and progress from the game to today," Agholor said. "We went over some corrections from the game, so that was a step, and now when I go out here, I have to show signs of progression.

"(Coach Pederson's) decision is his decision. For my mind, I need to make sure I go out here today and get better as a football player."

But are Agholor's troubles holding on to the football correctable through practice? Drops are often attributed either to a receiver's hands or his concentration, both of which tend to be difficult flaws to overcome.

Concentration has been more to blame in Agholor's case. If there's a positive, he realizes that. Agholor looks at a drop like the one he had against the Colts that wound up going for an interception and tries to figure out exactly what broke his concentration on that play so that he won't make the same mistake again.

"As a wide receiver, when you watch that, the end result, the drop, isn't on my mind," Agholor said. "It's 'What was my route?' to go to that. Did I do too much to take my focus away from receiving that football? And I felt like I did.

"I felt like my pattern to get to the football — I made man moves and they were actually in a zone — and all those stairsteps made my eyes and my hands not be in the right place to receive the football at the right time."

Nobody is putting more pressure on Agholor to eliminate these mistakes than he is.

"That's what you have to do in this league, and that's what you have to do for a football team, especially when they count on you," Agholor said.

"My teammates count on me to be explosive with the football and without the football. I want to always do it with the football because that's my job. I'm a wide receiver. But as a player on the field, I have to make sure I'm explosive and I have to make sure I make plays without the ball in my hands too."

Perhaps that's why Pederson is showing so much faith in his young receiver. Work ethic has never been an issue for Agholor, and he's going to do whatever he can to become a reliable weapon for the Eagles. When he comes up short, it's not for lack of effort or preparation.

Fortunately, there's still time for Agholor to turn things around. If he can give the offense somewhat steady production in 2016, nobody will remember the preseason or even how he struggled as a rookie. Agholor realizes that too, so he's worried only about getting ready for opening day against the Browns on Sept. 11.

"I have a responsibility because I will be a guy that's out there," Agholor said. "In my mind, my number's going to be called multiple times and I need to answer the phone. That's how I look at it."

Eagles LB Myke Tavarres reportedly changes mind, will stand for national anthem

Eagles LB Myke Tavarres reportedly changes mind, will stand for national anthem

Several hours after telling ESPN that he would join Colin Kaepernick in not standing for the national anthem, Eagles rookie linebacker Myke Tavarres has apparently changed his mind. 

Tavarres' agent told FOX29's Chris O'Connell Monday afternoon that the linebacker will stand for the national anthem Thursday in the Eagles' preseason finale against the Jets.

All right then. 

Eagles head coach Doug Pederson released the following statement regarding Tavarres' decision(s):

For what it's worth, Crossing Broad found this picture from Tavarres a few weeks ago, when he certainly seemed to be pro-America.

Happy Independence Day!! 🇺🇸

A photo posted by Myke Tavarres (@myket14) on