State of the Union, Pt. 2: Talking Sixers Year-End Basketball With Michael Levin

State of the Union, Pt. 2: Talking Sixers Year-End 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 the post-season we caught up with Mike  to recap the season that was, and look ahead to the Sixers' (possibly short) playoff run and the team's future in years to come. Mike still hearts Jrue and Evan, would rather have seen Craig Brackins the last week of the season than Elton Brand, and has high hopes for Game One against the Heat. Here's how we did it up:

700: Were you disappointed in the way the season ended? Or was the team's play excusable due to injuries and complacency?

ML: I'm more disappointed that Craig Brackins didn't get some minutes, actually. The last couple games didn’t really matter…I would’ve rather Doug rest the guys, basically. Give 'em some time off to basically get their bodies back to the speed that they’re ready to go in. It’s a long season, Elton Brand was especially banged up, and after not playing for a full season in three years, it would’ve been nice to give him some time off before his first post-season experience [as a Sixer]. Brackins has a ton of potential. I know there’s a lot of holes in his game…but I would still like to see what he can do in like a bigger role. He only played in three games in Philly, and he played ten minutes in all of those games. And he didn’t play that many games in the D-League either—he kept getting brought up and sent back down.

In terms of the last couple games, yeah, it would’ve been nice to finish over .500, since we haven’t done that since ’04 and we made playoffs in three of last four despite not finishing over 500 in any of 'em. Which is a joke, and just kinda gives a lot of light to that “Well, how mediocre can one team be over this span?" idea. And it’s kinda like that still. This is considered a very successful season, by all accounts, if you talk to anybody who’s a Sixers fan...and they still didn’t finish over .500.

So do you think it would have meant anything if the team had gotten that 42nd win? Just to be able to say that it was a winning season?

In the grand scheme of things, it’s so meaningless….one game’s not gonna matter. But when you look at the bigger picture, the "are we getting better" question...and the answer’s no. New regime, a couple new players, but even with this wildly successful season, they still dind’t finish over .500. So it’s less disappointing on a basketball level, and more on like a mental level, that they still haven’t been a winning team since ’04.

Who do you think was the team's MVP this year?

That’s a really tough question….I think that’s the best part about this team from a fan perspective, is that there isn’t a team MVP. No one out of six or seven guys, no one really steps out. I could make a case for Jodie Meeks, just because how much his being in the starting lineup and getting minutes turned things around…Elton Brand had a really terrific season for what he’s coming back from, and Andre Iguodala was just really efficient, played really good basketball. Jrue improved from last year—his defense still isn’t what it could be, but he’s still only 20 years, he’s a baby. He’s gonna be really good, it’s gonna be cool to watch…I’m just really excited about Jrue. And Thaddeus Young has just been unbelievably good off the bench, prob deseres a bigger contract than I’d be willing to give him. And some people who aren’t me are going to say Lou Williams, though I’m not going to say that.

Who would you call the team's LVP, or their most disappointing player, in that case?

Some sort of marriage between Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes. A lot of Turner isn’t really his own fault—a lot of is, but a lot of it is just the situation. People on my blog and others will say "Well, you’ve been making excuses for him all year long," and I have been. But he’s a rookie, you can’t discount the fact that he’s becoming a professional person, and some people that affects more than others. I think we’ve seen the last game and over the course of the season when he’s gotten a chance, there’s a lot of potential there. But if you had told me what we would get from him this year when we drafted him, I would not have been happy. And though Hawes has been better the last couple months, better than we gave him credit for, I was hoping to see more when we got him from Sacramento. More that this guy could make himself into a top ten pick, which he was in 2007. And so I’d like to see flashes of “wow, he could be really good,” and we just never saw that. There’s nothing in his game that says he’s going to be a very good player. At his best, he’ll be a lower-level starter, and worst, he’s a solid backup.

Speaking of Evan Turner on Wednesday Night, it looked like he and Jrue were really getting it done out there. Do you think that was a glimpse of the backcourt of the future for the Sixers, for next year moving forward?

I’m a little worried…around January, I still was thinking Jodie was playing well, but Evan Turner was still going to eventually be the starter. Then by February, I was hoping Turner would still be the starter next year, but by now, there’s no chance that Jodie’s not starting next year. Because this team is probably gon hold on to Andre, and Jodie’s gonna be needed to stretch the floor, so Evan's going to be a backup next year again, which worries me.

I think Paul Pierce is a nice comparison [for Evan going forward], just because he’s a smart player, he’s not the most athletically gifted, but he can use his body and size to his advantage. Once Evan bulks up, and he will, he’s gonna be a very good player. That kind of fill up the stat sheet, do everything on the ball court kind of player, more offense and less defense than Dre. I still hope they trade Dre in the off season. If he gets traded, and we go into next year with Jrue, Jodie and Evan, and we pick up a high-upside big, I’ll be very excited about this team.

What kind of moves do you hope the team makes in the off season, or think that they will make?

The biggest thing is Thaddeus Young. He’s had a really, really good season. And with his contract coming to a close, he wants a good deal of money. He’s a restricted free agent so we can match any offer. What the Sixers’ll probably do is say OK, go see what you can get, and if we have enough money, we’ll match it. And they’ll probably hope that someone does what the Grizzlies did a couple years ago with Josh Smith—offer a low deal, and we’ll match it. But I think people around the league will see his production, see how young he is, and want to offer him too much. I don’t think he’s gonna be that good, he doesn’t have a jump shot, his handle isn’t terrific, and his defense is just average, same with his rebounding. He’s a perfect contender for 6th man forever, but on our team, we can’t afford to pay a Lamar Odom when we’re not going to win the title. I kinda hope he’s not back here, because if he is, that’s because we’ll have overpaid him.

What I forget, and what a lot of people do is that he’s never had a coach for more than a year, and Collins loves him, and if he’s here for a couple years, Thad could really, really blossom. If this isn’t his ceiling, then he could become a really good player. I just don’t think that he’s ever gonna live up to the hype that’s surrounding him.

Assuming Thad doesn't come back, and they do have a little money, are there any other moves you'd like to see the team make, or think they will make?

I think Noc is gonna go also, either bought out or just retire and go play in Europe. In terms of the o
ff season, I don’t think any big free agent is gonna come here. I’d personally just rather try to trade Louis Williams—no surprise. If we can package Lou and Noc’s expiring for a big guy and a draft pick I’d love it. I really just don’t think on this team, if Lou has a big role, which he does as currently assembled, I don’t think that team is ever gonna win a championship. He needs to be like the 8th man off the bench, shoots for 15 minutes and sits down, like Eddie House. He’s beter than House, but he’s not the cornerstone of a franchise. So I would love to see them try to trade him, so Jrue could officially take on the role of point guard, just put him in control the offense. Give him the C letter.

So what has to happen for the Sixers to even have a chance to be competitive in this series, minus any injuries or assassination attempts?

I think what has to happen....basically the only thing the Sixers can do is keep doubling on Wade and LeBron and making the other guys beat you. The hope is they’ll try to get Prime Time on you, take a couple shots when they’re double-teamed—and some will go in bcause they’re so talented—but if you can make them take those, and not have James Jones go for 25 threes against us, then there’s a chance we could win a couple games. We basically just need to make every shot, Jodie needs to go off completely, Iguodala needs to just shut LeBron down, Hawes has to be efficient…the last time they got killed on the boards, because the Big Three all had double-digit rebounds, and all are athletic enough that even though they’re not typical big men, they're hard to box out. So we need to focus on limiting second-chance points and just out-smarting them. We’re a smarter team. Collins is a smarter coach than Spoelstra, and if we just hang with them, hang with them, hang with them, and then someone makes a big shot…I would just love for them to win the first game, and then all of a sudden Miami is just shitting themselves, and everyone’s “ohh my god, LeBron can’t win a big game.” If they can get into a battle with them...

What would they have to do in this series for you to feel like it was a success?

I think I’m gonna feel good about the season as a whole no matter what. If they lose all four, we lost to a much better team with two of the best players of their generation. If hey win game one or two. I’d be amped. If they take the series to six games, maybe they’d turn some heads, and people would start talking about the Sixers, rather than just who the Heat would be playing. Though still, honestly, I still would’ve rather this team lost 55 games this year and got a good pick. Right now, it's fun to watch, I’m enjoying it, but in five years, I think I would rather the team have tanked for the pick."

Who on the Sixers are you most closely watching this post-season, to see what, if anything, they show you?

I’m looking at Jrue. He’s the biggest hope for this franchise. Andre’s been in the playoffs before, and I’m kinda worried he’ll take that “Look at me, I’m a #1 option” again attitude, and Elton hasn't been there in a while…but Jrue, I think this is a big stage for him, and he’s still really young. So if he can come out and have a big series, defend Wade a little, lock him down for just one game, it’ll be like he’s here, he’s a big name, he should be up there right below guys like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. If the Sixers were a better team, had better players, than Jrue could be talked about just like those guys. He’s gonna be a force in a couple years as a guy who can just do everything on the basketball court.

Ultimately, when all is said and done, do you think this team was any different from the '08 or '09 Sixers? The feeling around the team is so different, but they ended up with about the same record.

It’s the same team. Back then, everyone was excited about Thad, he was the young guy, and now that’s kinda Jrue or Evan…but when you look at it, they’re still an underdog, they’re scrappy, their identity is play hard and get out on the break. The only difference is that now we have a guy who can shoot the three with regularity. It’s a nice team, it’s a nice underdog story, but really, you look at the teams and they’re very similar.

That's...kinda depressing.

Well, yeah. People hated last year, but I loved last year. It was fun to hate Eddie Jordan, it was fun to make fun of his stupid decisions…it was awesome. This year, they’re gonna get some playoff love, and that’s cool...but I love what OKC did. Be s---ty for a long time, get draft picks, and then be better. Unless a superstar falls into your lap, you have to be bad, in order to be good.”

Got any chants in mind for LeBron or the Heat for the home games?

I kinda want…people have been posting pictures of Bosh as an ostrich, so I’m kinda hoping for a couple Bostrich pictures at the game. If he’s shooting a foul shot and there’s a big picture of an ostrich, that'd be fun. A lot of people wouldn’t know what it really meant, and that’d be fun too.

The Sixers' post-season tips off at 3:30 against the Heat in Miami this Saturday.

Eric Paschall's game rounding out when Villanova needs it most

Eric Paschall's game rounding out when Villanova needs it most

Those on the outside are now starting to see what those on the inside of Villanova basketball program have seen for the last year and a half.

Eric Paschall can play.

Paschall on Saturday had the biggest game of his career – at least his Villanova career – with 19 points, six rebounds and two steals in the Wildcats’ Big East-clinching win over Creighton at the Pavilion.

With Darryll Reynolds sidelined since early February with a rib injury, the Fordham transfer has been starting and playing at a high level. But he was at his best on Saturday when his team needed him the most.

Paschall was essentially a guard at Fordham, but with Reynolds out and Omari Spellman forced to sit out the year, Paschall has been playing a lot of the 5 for Villanova, and against Creighton, he effectively neutralized 6-foot-11 Blue Jays center Justin Patton, who managed just four points – 9 ½ below his average.

“He’s getting better, that’s the biggest thing,” teammate Josh Hart said of Paschall. “He’s down there battling with Patton, a 7-footer, he’s down there battling with 6-10, 6-11 guys just about every night, and he’s battling and battling and we just tell him, keep working like that. That’s more important to us than him going out there scoring 20.

“We know he’s talented enough to score 20, you saw that (Saturday), but the way he’s battling and the way he’s not being frustrated and just keeps getting better, for us that’s the best part.”

Paschall averaged 15.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game two years ago for the Rams, earning Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year honors.

He was one of only three NCAA Division I freshmen who averaged at least 15.9 points and 5 ½ rebounds per game. The others were D’Angelo Russell of Ohio State and Jahlil Okafor of Duke, who are both now double-digit scorers in the NBA.

But to play at Villanova, you have to play defense, and that’s where Paschall has shown the most improvement.

“Eric is developing as a Villanova basketball player defensively in terms of executing far better than anyone knows,” coach Jay Wright said. “We know. When he’s in the game, we are executing at a high level. We’re just starting to see what he can do offensively, but in our program, you’ve got to be able to (play defense) first and he’s been doing that all year.

“(He’s) getting better and better, and today you just saw a glimpse of what you’ll probably see next year, but you’ve got to get the basics down first, which he’s done an incredible job of this year. It’s like I tell you with Dante (DiVincenzo), these guys play against him in practice, they’re not surprised when they see him do that, but I know everybody else is, because they don’t get to see it all the time.”

It’s not easy to transfer into a new program and get used to new players, a new coach, a new system, a new philosophy.

“It was a process,” Paschall said. “The biggest thing was getting used to what they wanted, and that’s defense and rebounding. That took some getting used to, but once I understood what they were looking for from me and what they wanted me to do, that just made it easy.

“The guys welcomed me with open arms. It’s a brotherhood here and we’re all brothers and they made me feel like I was a part of it from Day 1. It can be hard sometimes as a transfer coming in, but they made it easy. It’s just a matter of focusing on my job.”

Overall, Paschall is averaging 7.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game and shooting 50 percent from the field in an average of 21 minutes a night. But during these last five starts, he’s 21 for 32 from the field (66 percent) and is averaging 9.8 points per game.

“Eric, he came in knowing what coach wanted, knowing what coach’s philosophy is and how coach wants things, and he’s come and in done what’s expected,” Jalen Brunson said.

“He’s done a great job for us and we’re extremely confident in him. It’s hard coming in front a different school, coming in and learning a new system, learning the philosophy, but he’s done a good job.”

Paschall can play the 2 through the 5, so he gives Wright a lot of versatility.

His 19 points Saturday were his most as a Wildcat and his most in any game since he scored 21 for Fordham vs. George Mason on Feb. 18, 2015.

When asked about his role, he just pointed at Hart and Kris Jenkins.

“Just listen to these guys, making sure I have my head clear every game,” he said. “They do a great job of telling me what to do during the games and having my attitude right during the games so I can just go out there play hard, play together, play smart, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

As thin as Villanova is – Wright has played just six guys in his regular rotation since Reynolds got hurt – Paschall has been a life-saver.

It’s hard not to imagine how talented Villanova will be next year with Spellman, Paschall, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth, Brunson and DiVincenzo.

But first there's a game Saturday against Georgetown, the Big East Tournament in New York and then the NCAA Tournament.

“We see him getting better every day with his decision making,” Hart said of Paschall. “Last year he definitely kicked our butt a lot when he was on the scout team.

“One thing we always had a question about was how was he going to fit in with just playing hard the way we play defense, and he’s doing the best job, and he keeps getting better, and seeing him develop and seeing him grow has been amazing. Looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do in the future.”

Phillies prospect Nick Pivetta has long-awaited meeting with Roy Halladay

Phillies prospect Nick Pivetta has long-awaited meeting with Roy Halladay

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Phillies pitching prospect Nick Pivetta had one of those pinch-me moments Saturday.

He met his boyhood idol, Roy Halladay, at a charity event.

Someone had filled in Halladay that Pivetta had grown up in Canada and had regularly watched Toronto Blue Jays games on television. Pivetta loved watching Halladay pitch, as he talked about a few weeks ago here.

“I got to briefly shake his hand,” Pivetta said Sunday morning. “He knew I was like a stalker. He said, ‘Oh, right, you’re the guy from British Columbia.’ “

Halladay, who pitched for the Phils from 2010 to 2013, lives in the Clearwater area. Pivetta said he expected to speak more with Halladay in the coming days.

Halladay was honored at the 44th annual Clearwater For Youth banquet and Pivetta attended with a number of his teammates and Phillies officials. Phillies chairman David Montgomery and his wife Lyn were also honored for their charitable works.

Pivetta will pitch for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic in March.