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.

Villanova's Kpassagnon speaks softly but earns NFL scouts' attention

Villanova's Kpassagnon speaks softly but earns NFL scouts' attention

As the rain poured down on him, the 6-foot-7, 290-pound defensive lineman lumbered off the field at Villanova Stadium, a picture of dripping wet intimidation.

And then he spoke.

“I don’t really like the rain,” the Villanova senior said softly.

Then, he thought about the Wildcats’ trip to freezing South Dakota for a second-round FCS playoff matchup with South Dakota State on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN3).

“I don’t like the cold, either.”

Meet Tanoh Kpassagnon, a quiet, articulate, intellectual business school student who doubles as one of the fiercest football players in Villanova history and a big-time NFL Draft prospect.

“He’s a bit of an anomaly,” Villanova defensive line coach Joe Trainer said. “He almost has that California chill mode to him. One of the first thing I tell scouts is he’s not that alpha male who’s gonna come up and go, ‘Hey, dawg, what’s going on, man?’ He’s going to wow you physically but he’s not gonna come out of his skin with personality. A lot of times people initially mistake that for softness but he definitely has an understated toughness and hardness about him that has served him well.”

It’s also served Villanova well as the No. 9 Wildcats rode their gentle giant to an 8-3 regular-season record, their sixth playoff berth in nine years and an opening-round 31-21 win over Saint Francis last week.

One of the top defensive players in the Football Championship Subdivision, Kpassagnon was named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year and recently earned an invite to January’s Reese’s Senior Bowl. He led the league in the regular season with 19 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, while adding two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, one blocked kick and a touchdown.

And his stock may continue to rise with a good performance in Saturday’s Top 10 showdown against No. 7 South Dakota State.

“It’s more TV time, just showing we’re good as a team,” he said when asked about the extra playoff exposure. “I was just talking to the Sauce Squad — that’s what we call the defensive line — about our goals for the year and we had nothing except a national championship on our mind. That’s something that’s been ingrained in our minds, and we’re gonna do everything we can right now in order to reach it.”

The fact that Kpassagnon quickly turned the attention from himself to the team is indicative of how he’s handled his growing reputation around the country. According to Trainer, scouts from every NFL team have been to a Villanova practice or game at least twice this year with most teams coming three times. There have even been four or five NFL general managers at Villanova Stadium to see Kpassagnon, who retiring head coach Andy Talley has called “probably the greatest player we’ve ever had” in his 37 years at the helm.

But while calling the presence of scouts “nice,” Kpassagnon also said he “doesn’t really think about it too much” — at least not until the season ends.

“He’s a very grounded guy,” Trainer said. “The greatest compliment I can give him in terms of non-measurables is he’s as consistent of a player as I’ve ever been around. I mean that not in a performance standpoint but in a life standpoint. A lot of times young kids today are really high and then really low. He’s just steady as the day is long, and he takes everything in stride. His mom and dad have done a great job with him.” 

It’s also because of his parents, both of whom originally hail from Africa, that Kpassagnon isn’t laser focused on the NFL. His mother is a chemical scientist and his father an economist and both stressed education above sports. He never even watched any sports as a kid and didn’t begin playing football until the sixth grade.

Later, he morphed into a three-sport star at Wissahickon High, playing basketball and running track on top of his blossoming football career. But he never took his eyes off the books. A finance major with minors in accounting and entrepreneurship in the Villanova School of Business, he already has four job offers to go along with very good grades. And he likes to study the game of football too, taking pride in maybe finding things that others can’t on film.

“They have a highly skilled backfield but I’ve been paying attention to their line mostly, trying to see their tendencies, trying to see if they have any tells,” Kpassagnon said of the South Dakota State offense. “I think I picked up on a couple.”

He laughed, then added: “I’ll keep that a secret for now.”

No matter what happens Saturday in South Dakota, it’s clear that the secret on Kpassagnon is out. And judging by how much he’s been scouted — and his place on several mock drafts — it’s not a question of if he gets drafted but what round.

“I think he’s the best prospect that this league has ever had in all of my time here,” said Trainer, who coached at Villanova from 1997 to 2004 before becoming the head coach at Millersville and then Rhode Island, returning to ’Nova in 2014. “He’s a special talent whose best football is ahead of him. And he’s not even close to his ceiling.”

Sixers-Magic 5 things: Hoping for a dry court with rested roster

Sixers-Magic 5 things: Hoping for a dry court with rested roster

The Sixers (4-14) will tip off against the Orlando Magic (7-12) at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night (7 p.m./CSN and CSNPhilly.com).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. Floored
Let's try this again.

The Sixers will return to the Wells Fargo Center court for the first time since Wednesday's game against the Sacramento Kings was postponed because of moisture on the floor.

While the Sixers were frustrated that they couldn't face the Kings, the team was also happy that player safety was made the top priority in the postponement decision.

"It was disappointing not to play," head coach Brett Brown said after practice on Thursday. "It got to a stage the longer that it went and it was being prolonged and prolonged, I'm glad that ultimately we didn't play."

2. Rested and ready
The postponement of Wednesday's game means the Sixers haven't played since Monday's road loss to the Toronto Raptors.

Center Joel Embiid should be even more rested than his teammates since he didn't make the trip north of the border because it was the second game of a back-to-back set.

When Embiid does return to action Friday against the Magic, he will have a little more freedom. The NBA's Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month had his minutes restriction raised from 24 to 28 earlier this week.

That should only mean good things for Embiid, who turned in a strong effort when the Sixers faced off against the Magic earlier this season. Embiid recorded 18 points and 10 boards for his first-ever double-double in a 103-101 loss to Orlando back on Nov. 1.

3. Protection plan
Perhaps Embiid's bump in minutes will help the Sixers better protect the paint this time around.

During the season's first meeting, in which the Sixers blew an 18-point lead, the Magic scored a massive 60 points in the paint. Former Sixer Nikola Vucevic and Serge Ibaka led the way with 45 combined points.

The Sixers can't allow that type of production inside, especially from a team that ranks 25th in the league with an average of 39.5 points in the paint per game.

4. Injuries
Jerryd Bayless (wrist), Nerlens Noel (knee) and Ben Simmons (foot) are out for the Sixers.

Former Sixer Jodie Meeks (foot) is a game-time decision for the Magic.

5. This and that
- The Sixers have lost three straight to the Magic.

- Vucevic has averaged 20.3 points and 13.2 rebounds against the Sixers during his career.

- Dario Saric scored a career-high 21 points on 9 of 14 shooting in the season's first clash.