Ten Biggest Questions for the Sixers' Off-Season: #9. Is Thaddeus Young Untouchable?

Ten Biggest Questions for the Sixers' Off-Season: #9. Is Thaddeus Young Untouchable?

The good and bad thing about the 76ers' current state of supreme flexibility is that we don't have a ton of players that we know for a fact are gonna be a big part of this team's future. In the long-term sense, just about everybody on this team is expendable, and it wouldn't be hugely surprising if two years from now, at least ten of the 12 guys who played the most minutes for the Sixers this year were wearing a different uniform (or in some cases, possibly out of the league altogether). Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, Jason Richardson, Arnett Moultrie, even Kwame Brown--all of them can be had for the right price.

The only true untouchable on the team is probably Jrue Holiday, the team's 22-year-old point guard. He made his first All-Star team this year, the youngest player in franchise history to do so, he kept the team in playoff contention for about half the season (before running out of gas after the All-Star break), and he's signed to a bargain of a four-year / $41 million contract. Unless they're dealing for an MVP candidate--and there aren't a ton of those out there for the dealing--any deals they make are going to be to find a complementary player for the Damaja.

The real question is about Thaddeus Young, the Sixers' second-most-valuable player. Like Jrue, Thad had something of a career year last year, averaging career highs in rebounds, assists, steals and win shares, while playing the most minutes of his career, proving that he can be a starting forward for a good team in this league, maybe as  a sort of poor man's Shawn Marion. And like Jrue, Thad is signed to a contract that now seems extremely reasonable, under team control for another three years and another $27 million or so.

However, Thad probably ranks below Jrue in terms of trade value for the Sixers and around the league, mostly as a function of his being a couple years further along his carer than the Damaja, and there being more of a sense that this is probably about as good as Young is gonna get as a player. He could expand his shooting range a little (though he'll probably never be a real three-point threat) and he could further improve his ball-handling (which he's already made great strides with), but he's probably a little too slight and undersized to be enough of a post presence to grow into a 20/10-type player. He'll always provide value in subtle ways, but he's not too likely to become a star, in the conventional sense.

So Thaddeus Young stands not only as the Sixers' second-best player (and probably top all-around producer), but also as their most valuable trade chip, a player any team would love to have, on a contract that many teams could easily absorb without it becoming problematic. If the Sixers wanted to add a second core player to build around, along with Jrue, including Thad in a deal for that player would likely be the most efficient way to do it.

For instance--and I'm not suggesting that they should actually do this--the Sixers could probably make a real run at star Lakers big man Pau Gasol in the final year of his contract using a deal built around Thaddeus and an expiring contract or two. Thad would offer the Lakers a chance to get younger and more athletic, and his defensive versatility would help them further cover up the defensive deficiencies of their aging Nash-Kobe backcourt. He'd also help Mike D'Antoni by being able to play the three or four, allowing them to use him in small or big lineups, and his finishing ability would be a fantastic weapon for Nash and Kobe on the break or in the fast court.

However, you might look at all that and rightfully ask: If Thad is that good, and that valuable, why would you trade him at all? Why not keep him long-term and build around him and Jrue as the nucleus of the team's future? Having two young, cheap players like that locked up on team-friendy, multi-year deals is a pretty good starting point for any young team, and if you could add a third worthwhile core player through the draft or free agency without giving up Thad, wouldn't that be the better long-term play?

Undoubtedly it would, but unfortunately, that's much easier said than done. Barring a lottery miracle--their second in four years--the Sixers will likely have the 11th pick in this draft, said to be historically weak, and chances are much better of them adding a quality rotation piece than a true difference-maker. And if they keep both Jrue and Thad around for the next few years, that'll probably be good enough to keep them out of the top ten of the draft for the foreseeable future, meaning they'll have to strike late-lottery (or early-out-of-lottery) gold with another Jrue Holiday (who the Sixers nabbed with the #17 pick in 2009) to add another core player that way.

As for free agency, having Jrue and Thad is a good start to landing quality free agents. However, the Sixers don't have quite enough financial flexibility to add a max guy this off-season, and the free-agent class next season is pretty weak. And in the meantime, the rules of the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement have so incentivised players to stay with their current teams (who can award them more years and more money per year than any new team) that the only reason marquee free agents have to really switch teams are to play in a major market or chase a championship, neither of which they would necessarily be doing if they signed with the Sixers.

This is all pretty broad-strokes stuff, but I do believe that generally speaking, it'd be much easier to add another difference-maker through trade than through other avenues, and Thad is their best asset with which to do it. And if so, I think that would ultimately be a sacrifice the Sixers have to make--as wonderful as Thad has been, he hasn't been good enough to be the second-best guy on a Sixers team that would actually contend for anything, and even though his production last year was his best yet, it was more due to an increase in minutes and role than any tremendous strides he made as a player, as his percentages and rates for the season--field goal percentage, PER, win shares per 48, etc.--were all basically in line with his last two years' averages.

That's not to diminish his accomplishments--being able to maintain that level of production in big minutes is a huge accomplishment in itself, and Thad proving he could do it was a huge step for his career. But as previously mentioned, it's hard to see him getting that much better from here, and a guy that gives you 15 and seven with solid peripherals and excellent defense is still more of a complimentary player, a third or fourth option, on a title-caliber team. Thad could easily put a team close to contention over the top, but it's hard to see him elevating a lottery team like the Sixers to that status without a whole lot of help. So if the right trade opportunity came along, I would like to see the Sixers open to trading Thaddeus, though not for anything less than an established star (or at least a player with the upside to be one), or a likely high future lottery pick.

Of course, as with so many of our Ten Biggset Questions, the Funny-Looking Kid With the Big Hair looms large over all. If the Sixers do end up rolling the dice a second time with Bynum, that high-upside guy they could get without giving up any other assets besides cap space, it might be worth holding to Thad for at least another year, since he would be an excellent frontcourt complement to Bynum, especially if he can be enough of a mid-range threat to give Drew some space on offense. But if Bynum is a no-go, our chances are better at getting the player we thought he was gonna be for us are better if we deem Thad expendable in such pursuits. Sad, but that's just how player acquisition works in the NBA.

Darren Sproles signs 1-year extension with Eagles

Darren Sproles signs 1-year extension with Eagles

The Eagles signed veteran running back and punt returner Darren Sproles to a one-year contract extension Friday morning.

Terms of the deal were not immediately available, but Sproles is due to earn $3.5 million in base salary in 2016. Sproles, a Pro Bowler in each of his two seasons with the Eagles, is now signed through 2017. He was due to become a free agent after this season.

Sproles skipped the Eagles’ voluntary organized offseason workouts and the given reason was to spend more time with his family in San Diego. But Sproles’ contract status certainly could have played a role in his reason to stay away.

Sproles, 33, is tied for seventh in NFL history with Dave Meggett with seven career punt returns for touchdowns.

After five years with the Chargers and three with the Saints, he has enjoyed a career resurgence with the Eagles, making his first two Pro Bowl teams and becoming only the second player in NFL history with four or more punt return TDs after his 30th birthday. The other is Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.

In his career, Sproles has 2,867 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns with a 5.0 average rushing and 473 receptions for 4,156 yards and 28 more touchdowns.

With 133 more rushing yards and 27 more receptions, Sproles will become only the 12th player in NFL history with 3,000 rushing yards and 500 receptions.

Sproles' 5.0 career rushing average is 14th-highest in NFL history among non-quarterbacks with at least 500 rushing attempts.

In two seasons with the Eagles, he has 646 rushing yards and 95 receptions, although his 3.8 rushing average last year was well below his career average.

He has two punt return TDs in each of his seasons with the Eagles and is one of only seven NFL players in history with consecutive seasons with multiple punt return touchdowns.

Sproles entered the league as the Chargers’ fourth-round draft pick in 2005. The Eagles acquired him – or stole him – from the Saints in March 2014 in exchange for a fifth-round pick.

That pick turned out to be Ronald Powell, a linebacker who played in just 14 career games and is not currently in the league.

Aaron Altherr provides major spark in season debut to lead Phillies past Braves

Aaron Altherr provides major spark in season debut to lead Phillies past Braves

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies are still looking for the real Aaron Nola, but they may have found a useful bat Thursday night.

Aaron Altherr had the kind of season debut he’d dreamed about for the four months he was on the disabled list as he helped the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-5, at Turner Field (see Instant Replay).

Altherr was one of three Phillies to hit home runs on a night when the offense awakened after generating just one run the previous two days in Miami. Altherr, who came off the disabled list earlier in the day after missing four months with a wrist injury that required surgery (see story), drove a two-run homer to left in the fifth inning. Earlier in the game, Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph had back-to-back homers to headline a five-run first inning.

Franco leads the team with 19 homers and Joseph, hitting .375 with six homers in his last 17 games, has 14 in just 57 games with the club.

Altherr, who batted fifth behind Franco and Joseph, also had two hard singles in the game.

“He had a really good night in his debut,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He provided a spark for us. He added to the offense. So I'm happy for that. It's good to get a win. We scored some runs, finally.”

Altherr was projected to be a starter in the Phillies’ opening day outfield until he suffered the wrist injury in spring training. He spent the last four months in Clearwater, rehabbing and, well, dreaming of a night like this.

“Definitely, especially sitting around thinking about how that first game's going to be being back,” he said. “For it to be like this, it was definitely special and I have to thank the Lord above for getting me back here as fast as He could.

“I was hoping to get a home run in the first game, but I definitely wasn't expecting it. Just hopeful. To have it happen like that was definitely awesome.

“It definitely surprised me a little bit because I hadn't really been driving the ball like I had wanted to down in my rehab stints. I'm just glad to know I've got [the power] in there somewhere.”

The Phillies hit all three of their home runs and scored all their runs against Atlanta right-hander Matt Wisler. He received a ticket to Triple A after the game.

The Phillies batted around against Wisler and scored five runs in the first inning. That was a welcome cushion for Nola, who desperately needed a win after failing to get one in his previous seven starts. The right-hander did manage to earn his first win since June 5, but it wasn’t exactly pretty. He lasted just five innings and threw a whopping 95 pitches as he continued to experience command issues that have been plaguing him in recent weeks.

Nola gave up eight hits and three runs. He walked three and hit a batter. That’s not Aaron Nola’s game. At least it wasn’t in his first 12 starts this season. He recorded a 2.65 ERA over that span and walked just 15 while striking out 85. He has walked 14 in his last eight starts.

“He's not the same guy,” Mackanin said. “He's just struggling with command once again. He's not dotting his fastball like he normally does. His curveball is erratic. He needs to get back on track.

“Sometimes it's harder to pitch when you have a big lead. You know you don't want to blow it. That can affect a pitcher as well. You have to have that mental toughness either way, whether it's a one-run game or an 8-0 game. You don't want to pitch poorly. There's a tendency, well, you have a five-run lead, should I throw more fastballs and challenge? But it was good to see he got a win. I'm happy for that. That should help him. He just needs to get to where he was. He's not there yet.”

Nola described his outing as “fairly OK,” which was probably right on. He got the win, but overall was not sharp. He allowed three runs in the fifth inning.

“I ran into some jams there,” he said. “I left some balls over the plate for them to hit. They took them the other way. The plan was to try to hit the outside part of the plate and they took it away.

“I feel like I have the command for the most part, but there’s some areas I still need to get better at and work to get better at.”

The Phillies used four relievers to close out the game. Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris pitched well. David Hernandez and Jeanmar Gomez did not. Gomez allowed three base runners and a run, but still managed to get the save. Hernandez allowed a hit and a pair of two-out walks before giving up an RBI double. A number of scouts from teams looking for bullpen help were on hand. Hernandez and Gomez probably did not help their trade value. Four days before the deadline, starter Jeremy Hellickson is still the Phillie most likely to be dealt.

Best of MLB: Sale loses in White Sox return, Chapman saves Cubs' 3-1 win

Best of MLB: Sale loses in White Sox return, Chapman saves Cubs' 3-1 win

CHICAGO -- Chris Sale returned from his jersey-trashing suspension and threw six effective innings, but John Lackey outpitched him and Aroldis Chapman got the final four outs to save the Cubs' 3-1 victory over the White Sox in Chicago's rivalry series Thursday night.

Sale (14-4) was greeted with smiles and hugs from his teammates following a five-day ban for tearing up 1976-style uniforms he didn't want to wear before his previous scheduled start. He had command issues, but worked out of trouble while allowing two runs and six hits.

Lackey (8-7) allowed one run in six innings for his first win since June 8. Chapman, in his second appearance since being acquired from the Yankees, struck out two and consistently hit 102 mph in his first save for his new team.

Kris Bryant, who homered against Sale in the All-Star Game, hit an RBI double off the center field wall in the first inning (see full recap). 

Diaz's homer helps Cardinals beat Marlins and Fernandez, 5-4
MIAMI -- Aledmys Diaz homered, doubled and drove in three runs against childhood pal Jose Fernandez, helping the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Miami Marlins 5-4 Thursday.

Fernandez gave up five runs in five innings and fell to 26-2 at Marlins Park.

Miami's Dee Gordon, the 2015 NL batting and stolen bases champion, returned from an 80-game suspension for failing a drug test and went 0 for 4. Ichiro Suzuki doubled as a pinch hitter in the seventh for Miami and needs two hits for 3,000.

Diaz and Matt Holliday homered in the third inning against Fernandez (12-5), who had never previously given up more than one homer in a home game. His only other loss at Marlins Park came on opening day this year against Detroit.

Michael Wacha (6-7) allowed three runs in six innings, and three relievers completed an eight-hitter. Seung Hwan Oh pitched around a one-out single in the ninth for his seventh save (see full recap). 

Familia falters again, Rockies rally for 2-1 win over Mets
NEW YORK -- Mets steady closer Jeurys Familia stumbled for a second straight game, allowing two runs in the ninth inning as the Colorado Rockies beat New York 2-1 Thursday for their seventh win in eight games.

Less than 24 hours after Familia's streak of 52 consecutive regular-season saves was snapped, the right-hander entered in the top of the ninth with a 1-0 lead, and couldn't hold it.

Trevor Story had a leadoff single and stole second. After fellow rookie David Dahl walked, Daniel Descalso bunted up the first base line. Mets catcher Rene Rivera watched as the ball spun toward foul territory but it stopped fair, loading the bases with no out.

With one out, Familia (2-3) got pinch-hitter Cristhian Adames to hit a slow grounder to the right side. First baseman James Loney booted the ball and Story scored to make it 1-all. Familia then threw a wild pitch, allowing Dahl to cross the plate with the go-ahead run (see full recap).