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.

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

Robert Covington, Sixers show 'swagger' without Joel Embiid in comeback win

BOX SCORE

The Sixers began the season looking lost without Joel Embiid. Now they are finding ways to win when he is not on the court. 

Embiid suffered a left knee contusion in the second half of Friday’s 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see story). He was sidelined for the decisive 8:50 of the game (see Instant Replay).

The Sixers trailed, 81-78, when he subbed out for the second time because of the injury, and outscored the Trail Blazers, 15-11, from that point on.

So how was this team that battled with inconsistency and reliance on Embiid able to pull out a comeback win punctuated in the final seconds? Ask the Sixers and they’ll give varying answers, a sign they are getting the job done in multiple ways and aren’t relying on just one key to success.

The most glaring difference was the hero of the game. Robert Covington drained two three-pointers in the final 40 seconds. His trey from Dario Saric with 38.2 remaining cut the Trail Blazers' lead to just one, 91-90. With 4.5 to go, he nailed the game-winning three from T.J. McConnell to give the Sixers their eighth victory in 10 games (see feature highlight).

“That’s resilient Cov,” Nerlens Noel said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good shot or a bad shot; he’ll pull it in your face. That’s the confidence he has and that’s the confidence we need him to have. He steps up and makes two big shots like that, that’s enough said. He won us that game.”

Critics have called out Covington’s up-and-down performance from three all season. (They’ve made their feelings known with loud boos at home games.) Covington shot 5 for 12 behind the arc on the night but his 2 for 3 performance in the fourth was what mattered most. 

“I am a fighter, that’s what I have been my whole life,” he said. “Just because fans are booing me at one point doesn't mean anything. I just keep working. I am not going to let that deteriorate my game. It goes in one ear and out the other.”

Without Embiid in the game, the Sixers had to rely on a total team effort. After he went to the bench, the final points were scored by a combination of Covington, Gerald Henderson, Noel, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and McConnell.

“Ball movement,” head coach Brett Brown said. “We had 25 assists out of 36 made baskets. It’s not like we’re going to give the ball to Damian Lillard (guard for the Blazers). That’s not who we are. Whatever we do, it has to be done by committee, by a group, by a team. It’s even more exposed when Joel isn’t in the game. They did that. Unlikely people ended up with the ball sometimes in unlikely spots. … You have to move the ball. That’s what the team has learned without Joel.” 

Several of the players on the court in critical moments were from the second unit. Since Brown locked in on his rotation, the reserves don’t have a drop-off in confidence from the starters. 

“It’s the mentality,” Covington said. “Everybody has that swagger about us right now because once Joel comes out, the next person steps in and fills that void. It’s a matter of that contagious feeling that trickles into the second unit that’s making us that much more valuable.”

Then there's always defense, the foundation of any solid NBA team and a focal point for the Sixers. Noel saw that as the difference-maker when subbing in and out. The Trail Blazers scored just two points in the final 1:56. 

"The second unit goes there and does a great job guarding the yard, not letting up easy baskets," Noel said. "The offensive side is fluid motion. Guys get shots, pick-and-roll, it opens up open threes for guys, driving lines, pump fakes, it’s a great unity."

Embiid liked what he saw from a distance. He will not travel with the team to their game on Saturday against the Hawks in Atlanta. 

"I’m just happy we’ve been closing out games, and the main thing I’m really happy [about] is they’ve been able to do it without me," he said. "That’s going to give us a lot of confidence when I’m missing back-to-backs. My teammates are going to have more confidence to come in and play the same way."

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Joel Embiid feels 'great' after injury scare to left knee

Of the nearly 20,000 people in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, Joel Embiid was seemingly the least concerned when he came down and injured his left knee. 

Fans held their breath and the Sixers looked on anxiously as the standout big man got up in visible discomfort and limped off the court (see highlights). Embiid, however, wasn’t worried. 

“I knew it was OK. I just landed the wrong way,” he said after the Sixers' 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers (see Instant Replay). “I’m great. The knee’s fine. They did an MRI and stuff, everything looked good.”

Embiid ran off the court on his own, was diagnosed with a left knee contusion and was cleared to return to the game. He aggravated his knee again driving to the basket and this time, the team held him out to be careful.

“The review is that he hyperextended his left knee,” head coach Brett Brown said. “There was a minor tweak again, and for precautionary reasons only, the doctors did not allow him to return. There will be more information given as we know it. But quickly, that's what we know.”

Embiid understood the team’s decision to sideline him for the final 8:50 while the Sixers went on a comeback run (see feature highlight). He still finished the game with an 18-point, 10-rebound double-double, five assists and four blocks in only 22 minutes.

“Obviously those guys, the front office, they care about my future, so they just shut it down,” Embiid said. “But I was fine.”

Embiid will not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s game against the Hawks (pre-scheduled rest). He expects to be available for Tuesday’s home matchup against the Clippers. 

"You know how tough he is," Nerlens Noel said. "If it isn’t anything serious, he’ll be right back. At the end of the game, he was telling me was he was feeling great and there was no pain. He wanted to come back in the game … he’s a trooper. He always gives it his all and always plays hard."

Injuries to any player are worrisome, especially a franchise centerpiece with two years of rehab (foot) behind him. The Sixers have been methodical and cautious with his playing time. Embiid is on a 28-minute restriction and can play in only one game of a back-to-back series. 

The same player who is so closely watched, though, also plays with sky-high energy that doesn’t have a brake pedal. 

“You're concerned,” Brown said of seeing Embiid get injured. “It's clear to all of us that he plays with such reckless abandon. I think that we're all going to be seeing this and feeling this regularly. From flying into stands to stalking somebody in the open court to block a shot to the collision he often is in trying to draw fouls. That's just who he is. 

“I think that as he just plays more basketball and continues to grow, to not necessarily avoid those situations, just to perhaps manage them a little bit more. Right now, he's just a young guy that's just playing that doesn't know what he doesn't know and has a fearless approach underneath all that attitude.”

Fearless is an accurate description considering Embiid's trouble-free reaction to the awkward way his leg bent (he hadn’t seen a replay). 

“I kind of had that in college, too,” he said. “I think I’m flexible, so it’s supposed to happen.”