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.

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

Today's lineup: Ryan Howard batting fifth again

In his second-to-last game in a Phillies uniform, Ryan Howard will man first base and bat fifth against the Mets on Saturday afternoon (1:05/FOX).

Howard went 1 for 4 Friday night with a double. The first baseman has three home runs and five RBI in 44 at-bats against the Mets this season. 

Andres Blanco takes Freddy Galvis’ starting spot at shortstop and bats second. Galvis left Friday night's game with hamstring tightness. Blanco has not made a start since Sept. 16, but is batting .294 against the Mets this year.

Cameron Rupp catches and bats sixth for the second day in a row. Rupp went 2 for 3 on Friday night with an RBI. Jimmy Paredes and Aaron Altherr follow Rupp in the lineup and man the corners in the outfield.

Here's the Phillies' full lineup:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Andres Blanco, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Jimmy Paredes, LF
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Phil Klein, P

And the Mets lineup:
1. Jose Reyes, 3B
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
3. Yoenis Cespedes, LF
4. Curtis Granderson, CF
5. Jay Bruce, RF
6. T.J. Rivera, 2B
7. James Loney, 1B
8. Travis d'Arnaud, C
9. Bartolo Colon, P

Love Isn't Always on Time: Approaching the Ben Simmons injury rationally

Love Isn't Always on Time: Approaching the Ben Simmons injury rationally

Does it hurt? Yeah, it hurts. 

You know when the last year the Sixers went into the preseason without a devastating injury to a frontcourt player hanging over their heads was? 2011. Back when LMFAO was big. Since then, it's been:

2012: Andrew Bynum
2013: Nerlens Noel
2014: Joel Embiid
2015: Joel Embiid
2016: Ben Simmons

Even the Blazers, heretofore the NBA franchise with the most cursed big-man luck, got years, decades in between the NBA tragedies of Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, and Greg Oden to grieve. The Sixers seem unprecedently determined to get their bad juju all out of the way at once. 

The last item on that list was, of course, announced last night - Simmons has a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot -- and is especially tough, mostly because it was so unforeseeable. Andrew Bynum had a long history of injury. Nerlens Noel was ruled out for the season before draft night, as was Joel Embiid. But as far as we knew, Ben Simmons had lived a long and healthy life that, failing a Shaun Livingston-type freak injury, was just going to continue in its elongated healthiness. Foot trouble was definitely not in the plan. 

It's also tough because it proves we're not out of the woods yet. Not like anyone thought Philly was gonna win 40 games and challenge for the playoffs this year, but certainly most of us allowed ourselves to believe that the worst was over, and that karma was gonna finally owe us for a little while. Turns out, we may be through with the past, but the past isn't through with us. Doug Collins musta really sold this team's soul to get us to that Game 7 against Boston in the conference semis four seasons ago. 

But we can deal. For better and worse, Sixers fans have developed a hard-earned resilience to news of such maladies, and this revelation isn't nearly as bad as some other casually-in-crisis press releases we've had to deal with in recent years (yet). So once we're done processing the initial sorrow that comes with hearing we're not going to get to see our No. 1 overall pick play meaningful basketball as soon as we deserve, let's make our parents proud by being good little Process Trusters, and approaching this situation rationally: 

This is only a two-month injury. 

This isn't yet, and shouldn't be, a season-ender. ESPN estimates Simmons will be out eight weeks; a wise bet would probably have him staying sidelined a little longer than that Just to Be Sure. Christmas seems like the reasonable mental goalpost for his return, which means -- barring setbacks -- at most he'd miss the team's first 30 games. 

That's a lot, but not really: Jahlil Okafor missed 29 games last season, and I don't think most of us even remember injuries as being a particularly notable part of his rookie year. By this point, the Sixers are used to going entire seasons without proof of life from our star rooks. Two months? We can do that standing on our heads. 

This doesn't necessarily mean anything for Simmons' long-term prospects. 

Feet-related injuries are rivaled only by head stuff as the scariest thing you can see on an NBA medical report — especially for big men, as memories of giants like Walton and Yao having their careers plagued by such maladies continue to reverberate. In Simmons' case, his injury is reminiscent of Nets center Brook Lopez, who lost the better part of several seasons to recurring problems stemming from an initial foot fracture. 

But as that above list shows, the great majority of NBA players to have suffered this injury -- presumed to be an avulsion fracture, not the ghastlier Jones fracture -- have bounced back from it pretty quickly, and not been subsequently effected. Pau Gasol and Mike Bibby both went on to have long, productive, mostly health-drama-free-careers -- hell, Pau just averaged 19 and 13 in 72 games as a 35-year-old. C.J. McCollum suffered the injury as a rookie just three years ago, and I'd already forgotten it was even part of his story. Our Once and Always Dark Lord-willing, it doesn't have to be part of Simmons', either. 

The Sixers — and Simmons — were gonna be bad anyway. 

Not like this much hurts the Sixers' playoff chances, which were basically 0 to begin with. As much excitement as we could have expected from the early parts of this season, "wins' was not gonna be part of the deal just yet — Vegas set our over-under at 27.5, and most of our local experts have logically taken the under. Hopefully we actually get at least one of our first 17 this year, but with a poorly balanced rotation consisting mostly of rookies and free agents, W's were always gonna be slow-coming. 

And I personally believed that Simmons was gonna take a while to blossom himself. We'd get some gorgeous passes and fun full-court shenanigans, sure, but we'd also get a lot of clanked jumpers, missed rotations, and soul-sucking isos that take up 18 seconds of the shot-clock and still finish where they started. He'll still have that rough adjustment period two months or so later, but at least with the season already underway and the rest of the squad maybe finding their footing a little, hopefully there'll be less pressure on him to do everything immediately. 

Simmons can still put in work while sidelined. 

Remember how horrific Nerlens Noel's shooting form was coming into the NBA? The upside of him missing a year with his torn ACL was that he was able to spend a good portion of his should've-been-rookie season rebuilding it. He's still not Kevin Garnett on offense and likely never will be, but he was able to reach Respectably Bad at the free-throw line, and that alone will make an enormous difference in the arc of his NBA career. 

Simmons' jumper isn't nearly so broken, but he could also use the work. Time spent perfecting his mechanics while he doesn't have any other aspects of the game to really worry about could be huge for Benny's early development, and hopefully will give him the confidence to take -- if not yet make -- those open jumpers when first presented to him. 

We still have the two other guys. 

Truth is, Simmons was only the rookie I was third-most-excited about on the Sixers this year, and the other two -- Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, who we've waited a combined four seasons for -- are still on track to play. Of course, putting all (or at least half) our eggs in Emiid's basket is never gonna be a particularly secure feeling, and the mind goes even catatonic considering the possibility of Embiid also getting hurt before season's start. But if (knock on lumber-yard) this as bad as the preseason news gets for the Sixers, and we enter with just the two mega-hyped rooks, with a third on the way shortly... that's still cupcakes and sprinkles as far as I'm concerned. 

So yeah, this is a bad weekend, and a rough development for a fanbase who'd finally begun to let their guard down the teensiest amount. That said, it's not the end of the world, the end of the season, or really the end of anything besides our foolishly unbridled optimism. A valuable lesson in hoping for the best and always fearing the worst, but just because we're not floating in the clouds anymore doesn't mean we're plummeting to the ground yet, either.