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.

Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

Jerad Eickhoff proved people wrong, changed expectations

It feels appropriate with the season coming to an end and the recent struggles of the Phillies' entire pitching staff to again point out how consistent Jerad Eickhoff has been in 2016.

Tuesday's rain delay likely cost him a shot at reaching 200 innings — he's sitting on 191⅓ with one start left — but his season has obviously been a success whether or not he reaches that mark. 

Some may argue Odubel Herrera has been the Phillies' MVP this season, but I'd go Eickhoff. Maybe that's just based on the inconsistencies of his rotation mates, but there's real value in a guy who gives you six quality innings each time out. Eickhoff this season was basically John Lackey — a reliable mid-rotation workhorse with solid but unspectacular numbers.

ESPN's longtime prospect analyst Keith Law mentioned Eickhoff this week in an Insider post looking at players he judged incorrectly. Eickhoff and Cubs Cy Young candidate Kyle Hendricks were the first two pitchers mentioned.

In his assessment of what went wrong with his initial evaluation of Eickhoff, Law wrote:

"I hadn't seen Eickhoff in the minors and, based on what I'd heard about him, had him as a back-end starter, saying he had the repertoire to start but giving him a limited, back-end ceiling. Eickhoff had a good curveball with Texas. But the Phillies' staff has encouraged him to throw it more often, and it's been a difference-making pitch for him. His curve accounted for 40 percent of his swings and misses in 2016, and it's one of the most effective curveballs in MLB right now; that pitch alone has made him more than just a back-end starter, and he has been the Phillies' most valuable starter this year. He is probably a league-average, No. 3 starter going forward with the arsenal he has — average fastball, plus curveball, inconsistent slider that flashes plus but on which he makes too many mistakes — and with 4-WAR potential, given his durability."

Eickhoff's curveball was what made a lot of us take notice late last season. He used it to shut down some good lineups in September, and he finished 2015 with back-to-back seven-inning, 10-strikeout games against the Nationals and Mets.

This season, he grew up. He incorporated the slider more and that led him out of an early-season funk. Early in the year, hitters were laying off his curveball and swinging at any fastball near the zone because it's a hittable pitch. Once he started showing another breaking ball, the game plan for the opposition became more complicated.

There was nothing fluky about Eickhoff's 2016 season. He'll enter the final day of the season 11-14 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. 

It's pretty startling to compare Eickhoff's numbers since joining the Phillies to Cole Hamels' with the Rangers. Have a look.

Hamels with the Rangers (44 starts): 3.42 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 2.8 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

Eickhoff with the Phillies (40 starts): 3.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 3.9 K/BB ratio, .244 opponents' batting average

It's not an apples to apples comparison because Hamels has pitched about 40 more innings than Eickhoff in a tougher league and in a tougher ballpark. It doesn't mean that going forward they will be equals. It just means that over the last season and a half, their production has been close to equal.

Nobody would have expected a year ago that Eickhoff would be the best piece in that trade. But until Jorge Alfaro and Nick Williams graduate to the majors in full-time roles and produce, Eickhoff will be the unexpected centerpiece of that blockbuster deal with the Rangers.

He's a walking example of solid scouting and even better player development by the Phillies.

Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

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Union want to send off Tranquillo Barnetta with MLS Cup win

CHESTER, Pa. — Union head coach Jim Curtin knows it may seem like a weird situation to some.

Early on Tuesday morning, as soccer fans around the area were just waking up, the Union issued a press release that stated that Tranquillo Barnetta would be leaving the team at the end of the 2016 season (see story)

There was no trade. No sale. No contract dispute. No off-the-field issues. 

It was simply a case of a player — a really good player — deciding before the end of the season that he wanted to say goodbye to MLS and finish his pro career with his hometown club in St. Gallen, Switzerland. 

“I think it’s unique maybe to the American public and fan bases that a guy announces it and there’s still [part of] a season left to play,” Curtin said during his weekly press conference. “I think it’s strange for everyone to hear it that way. But in Europe that’s kind of the norm. To get out ahead of it shows what kind of man and leader he is. He addressed the team and didn’t want it to be a situation where something leaked out. He’s a true pro. I’m honored to have coached him and I want to prolong it as long as I possibly can.”

In other American leagues, of course, a talented but aging player with Barnetta’s pedigree might drum up a bidding war to try to get one more good contract in free agency before he retires, perhaps using a strong playoff performance to do so. But, as Curtin alluded to, global soccer is a whole different animal. And Barnetta never planned to use his 2016 performance as a launching pad to a new deal with Philly or something bigger on a different MLS team.

His plan all along was to retire for the hometown club he cheered for as a kid — and he made sure he’d have the freedom to do so when he signed with the Union last summer.

“We offered several years but he was very content and adamant about taking an 18-month deal,” Curtin said. “A lot of people say they’re not about the money but Tranquillo truly means when he says it. He came here at a very big discount to what his value was in the European market. And he had a goal of playing for his hometown club, which I respect at the end of the day.”

If there’s any knock against Barnetta, it’s that he essentially treated MLS as a short-term project, a way to try something new after an illustrious career in Switzerland and Germany, to live in a different part of the world and see different cities throughout the United States.

But make no mistake, he earned that right and he never tried to hire his future ambitions. And even if his tenure with the Union will be a short one, it’s been very beneficial for both sides.

Barnetta, for instance, learned about the grueling travel demands in MLS and the more physical nature of the league compared to ones in Europe, all while showing the sublime skill that made him a three-time World Cup veteran for Switzerland.

And the Union leaned on his talent and leadership at the end of their disappointing 2015 season and throughout the entire 2016 campaign with Curtin calling him “the best player that ever wore a Philadelphia Union jersey.”

“He’s a great example for our young guys,” the Union coach added. “He’s got a close relationship with a lot of the veteran guys. And he’s just a pleasure to have in the locker room. He comes to work with a smile on his face but when it’s time to work, he’s the hardest worker there is. A true professional. And the pedigree is the highest we’ve ever had in this club.”

You can make the case that acquiring players with great pedigrees hasn’t always worked to the Union’s benefit (see: Mbolhi, Rais), but it’s hard to find any fault in the Barnetta deal, especially when you consider Philadelphia got him at a discount and that Curtin and technical director Chris Albright orchestrated the signing at a time when the franchise was in a state of flux and sporting director Earnie Stewart had yet to join the fold. 

For someone that’s played in three World Cups, the Champions League and one of the top leagues in Europe, Barnetta may not be the biggest name out there. But getting him when they did was still something of a coup for Philadelphia. And the benefits will likely be reaped for a long time to come as the Union followed last year’s Barnetta signing with a couple of big moves in the offseason and this summer’s long-term acquisition of U.S. national team starter Alejandro Bedoya — the combination of which has them thinking about the playoffs and a whole lot more even as Barnetta’s departure looms.

“It’s something we want to celebrate rather than pity and feel bad,” Curtin said. “We’re happy for the time we’ve had him here. And now we’re gonna make it last as long as we possibly can. The rest of the games out, in the pregame talk, we’ll say, ‘Let’s extend this thing as long as possible and use it as a rallying cry.’ You don’t want it to come to an end. And when it does come to an end, you want it to be a special moment.”

What kind of special moment?

“We want his last game with the Philadelphia Union to be an MLS Cup.”