The700Level

Brett Brown for MVP

Brett Brown for MVP

As the evidence became incontrovertible on Sunday afternoon that the Philadelphia 76ers were in fact going to beat the Boston Celtics -- their first victory against Boston since the Michael Carter-Williams era, and along with their Hinkie's Comet 42-point stomping of Dallas two days earlier, their first consecutive wins since before the All-Star break -- I started to internally debate who the Sixers' most valuable player this season is. 

Obviously the answer should have been Joel Embiid, but regardless of whether or not he should be disqualified for an All-Star bid or Rookie of the Year honors, I do think the Sixers have now played too many games without him for him to be considered for team MVP. Conversely, while Dario Saric may have proven a surprisingly sturdy back to carry the team on down the stretch, he was too crappy for the season's first half for him to be a front-runner here. 

T.J. McConnell provided much-needed stability at a crucial point in the season and might be the most clutch Sixer of the post-Iverson era, but MVP is a little tough a sell for a starter who routinely goes weeks in between double-figure scoring nights. Jahlil Okafor probably deserves some kind of trophied recognition for not complaining once while the Sixers treated him like the kid that nobody remembered to pick up from soccer practice, but top team honors seems a step too far for that. 

The player with the best case is probably Robert Covington. RoCo has established himself not only as the Sixers' best defender, but one of the best wing stoppers in the entire league, playing tough, smart, versatile D that helps keep the Sixers in just about every game. He's a consistent rebounder, an improving playmaker and driver, and after a brutal early-season stretch, he's shot his way back up to near his career averages. (In fact, after Sunday's 7-15 shooting night, he currently has the highest FG% of any of his three seasons with Philly, though still under 40%.) The only real argument against him is that he still doesn't score that much -- 14.4 points per 36, a lower rate than Justin Anderson or Gerald Henderson -- and that his impossibly frosty shooting in 2016 should earn him a Dario-like DQ for this.

But after the game ended, I realized how silly this entire exercise was. The Sixers' MVP this season is beyond obvious, and it's not any of the players mentioned or unmentioned here: It's Brett Brown, easily. 

For four years running now, Brett has arguably had the hardest, most thankless coaching job in the NBA. Up until this season, he's had to deal not only with stewarding the youngest, most talent-devoid squad in the league, but with a front office that keeps auctioning off the team's top players and drafting reinforcements that take years to arrive, as well as injury luck that's practically at Final Destination levels of absurdity at this point. He's had to deal with levels of losing virtually unprecedented on this level, with the horizon line promising better days ahead constantly slipping further and further away. 

This season might've been the toughest ask of all for Brown. He had to figure out how to make sense out of a roster that would need to feature three rookies (then two, then one) and had four centers (then three, then two) all deserving big minutes. His starting point guard never got healthy, and his backup proved mostly ineffective. He had to figure out life with Ersan Ilyasova once we traded for him, then life without him once we dealt him away. And he had to keep the locker from not crumbling amidst playing-time grousing, imminent trades that never transpired, one-sided deals that DID materialize and injuries, injuries, always injuries. 

Notice that nowhere in that list of responsibilities for Brett Brown this season did I say anything about actually winning basketball games. The one benefit you could say of being a man in Brett's position is that the pressure to win is slight to the point of being virtually non-existent. The deck has been so stacked against the Sixers from an on-court perspective since the Jrue Holiday trade in June 2013 -- and the incentives for piling up losses so considerable -- that accruing actual Ws has historically been of a relatively low priority for Brown. This season was no different; even assuming a healthy Joel Embiid and an eventually returning Ben Simmons, most realistic prognostications had the Sixers winning about 20 games, maybe 25 if things broke their way a little. If there was a Sixers writer who didn't scream UNDER at Bovada somehow pegging them at 27.5 Ws, they didn't show up on my timeline. 

Well, here we are with 13 games still to go in 2016-'17, and it's safe to say that things have not broken the Sixers' way this season. Embiid got shut down after 31 games. Simmons is out for the season. Nerlens Noel is gone. Okafor is still here. And yet, the Sixers are sitting on 26 wins, still playing coherent, spirited basketball, competitive nearly every time they play. They win close games now, and as of Friday, they win blowouts, too. It's not unreasonable to think they might get to 30 Ws this year -- three times their total from last year. And they're doing it collectively, with a bunch of young guys who (mostly) just keep getting better. 

Brown has always kept the Sixers engaged and playing hard, but with improving talent this year, he's fashioned a team that can generate consistently good looks on offense without a guard who can collapse a defense or (since Joel's injury) a big man to serve as a true offensive hub, and can reliably apply pressure on defense without a true shot-blocker or even a particularly good rebounder on the roster. It's mostly about scheme, effort and chemistry, and as players have shuttled in and out of the rotation due to health and/or performance, the common element is Brett. For the team to even still be watchable at this point in the season is a tremendous achievement, for them to be scaring the Warriors and beating the Celtics (without Isaiah Thomas, but still) is just incomprehensible.

When things got really bad for the Sixers in 2015-'16, their poor performance in late-game situations -- and Brett Brown's responsibility for it -- became an unignorable talking point for the Process Phaithful. Even early this season, the Sixers continued to lose way too many one-or-two-possession games where they couldn't seem to get a half-decent shot up in the game's final minutes; eventually we had to wonder how much of it was on Brown for not being able to draw up a decent play. But as the season has progressed and the team has closed a number of games in similar fashion to how they used to blow them -- Robert Covington banking in a perfectly planned alley-oop with seconds to go, T.J. hitting multiple final-minute game-winners -- it seems that either our earlier worries about his late-game play-calling abilities were overblown, or that, like the rest of the team, he's improving with reps and experience. 

He called an absolute doozy to sink the Celtics in the final minute on Sunday. Up three with the ball and 40 seconds to go, the Sixers ran a 1-4 set in which the two bigs (Saric and Richaun Holmes) set simultaneous screens for the two wings (Covington and Nik Stauskas), who each darted to the opposite side of the court. The play caused such chaos among the Boston D that Terry Rozier and Jae Crowder literally ran into each other, and T.J. dished to Stauskas for a clean look at a three. I'm still sorta shocked that he hit it -- especially since Marcus Smart scrambled in time to get a hand in Nik's face -- but regardless of whether or not it landed, the play was brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, at the most clutch moment in the game. Good coaching doesn't come much clearer than that. 

So much about the Sixers' future is still murky -- the lack of clarity surrounding the injuries and ensuing treatments and recoveries for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons just keeps getting scarier, there's still an obvious lack of balance to the Sixers' current roster construction, and the duh downside to the winning the Sixers are doing now is that the chances of them grabbing Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball in the draft are getting ever slimmer. But if this team ever does manage to stave off the bad juju for a whole season, you've gotta feel good now that we've got the guy in place to get them in position to be pretty good pretty quickly. Brett Brown for team MVP, and he should probably be in the mix with Harden and Westbrook for league-wide honors too, really.

Eagles' latest Achilles heel emerges in preseason

Eagles' latest Achilles heel emerges in preseason

Right when the Eagles get finished plugging one potential hole, another springs up.

For months, cornerback was considered by far the greatest weakness on the Eagles' roster, but Howie Roseman appears to have taken care of that with the trade for Ronald Darby. Now, all of a sudden, the Eagles' secondary has the potential to be a strength in 2017.

Yet, just as the plan at corner is beginning to take shape, another concern is emerging halfway through the preseason, at a position many fans thought Roseman solidified in May. Running back looks like it could quickly become a serious problem for the Eagles, if it hasn’t reached that point already.

It’s only preseason, and the offensive line hasn’t done him any favors, but LeGarrette Blount has nine carries for 17 yards with a fumble in two games. Fifth-round draft pick Donnel Pumphrey – who the coaching staff seemed enamored with this spring — has 14 total touches for 34 yards. After a strong start at training camp, Wendell Smallwood has yet to play in an exhibition game due to a hamstring injury. And by now, everybody is aware 34-year-old Darren Sproles isn’t an every-down back.

The best any running back has looked in exhibition games is undrafted rookie Corey Clement, by far. Whether that’s a testament to his development or a commentary on the state of the backfield is a matter of perspective.

Regardless, you could’ve seen this mess coming from a mile away.

The Blount signing was met with tremendous enthusiasm, when it really should’ve been met with tremendous skepticism. Though he rushed for 1,161 yards and led the NFL with 18 touchdowns in 2016, Blount averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, sat by in free agency as the Patriots moved to replace him, and turns 31 in December. He’s never been a threat as a receiver, and even his gaudy numbers last season with the Super Bowl champions were an outlier compared to the rest of his career.

The reality is Blount is not a mortal lock to make the Eagles' roster. He likely will, because he still has value in short yardage and at the goal line, and most of all, because the competition hasn’t made enough of a push. However, releasing Blount would only cost the Eagles $400,000 against the salary cap, according to OverTheCap.com, while his age and the limitations of his skill set are worth reiterating.

The question is what then?

While the Eagles have toyed with getting Pumphrey and Sproles on the field at the same time, projections as to how prevalent those designer packages would be always felt ambitious as well. Listed at 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, Pumphrey has not looked like an NFL-ready player through two games. Even if he is ready to contribute, that is not an offense designed with running the football in mind.

The Eagles’ ability to let Blount go would seem to hinge almost solely on Smallwood. Of course, it was an unwillingness to rely on a second-year player with 83 touches that caused the club to seek veteran help in the first place.

Smallwood is not an unimpressive prospect. A fifth-round draft pick from West Virginia a year ago, Smallwood has the size and athletic ability to handle the bulk of the work. He was running with authority in camp. He simply hasn’t been able to stay healthy, which is his biggest shortcoming at this point, aside from inexperience. It’s impossible to tell whether Smallwood is in line to finish with the most touches in this backfield (regardless of Blount’s presence) or if he’s fighting for his job.

Clement is the bright spot in all of this, and arrives as a more polished pass protector than Smallwood was as a rookie. Seeing as inexperience was one of the primary reasons the Eagles weren’t willing to entrust Smallwood as the primary ball carrier, it’s difficult to imagine Clement could be the guy the in September.

Again, some of the culpability for Blount’s struggles falls on the offensive line. Some. Blount’s last season in New England was far from the norm, and for most of his eight-year career, he’s been purely a situational player. Even under optimal circumstances, expecting him to recreate last season’s numbers, or come close, never made much sense.

And while it would be easy to chalk up the pitiful ground attack as a symptom of the preseason, the fact is these games have exposed a problem that’s been lurking beneath the surface. Blount is old and not an ideal fit for the Eagles' offense. Pumphrey is an undersized rookie. Sproles is Sproles. Smallwood is a mystery.

Up until a week ago, everybody was worried about the cornerbacks. Before that, it was the wide receivers, until the Eagles made significant investments in talent over the offseason. All along, there’s been an underrated need at running back, or at the very least, an uncertainty.

Try as he might, Roseman can’t seem to find a solution for every hole on the roster — and it’s beginning to look like running back is the spot the Eagles might spring a leak.

Eagles preseason stock report, Week 2: Mychal Kendricks up, LeGarrette Blount down

Eagles preseason stock report, Week 2: Mychal Kendricks up, LeGarrette Blount down

Carson Wentz was impressive in the Eagles’ second preseason contest against the Bills on Thursday. While he did not look sharp early in the game, the way he was able to bounce back and finish strong was very encouraging.

Wentz missed two of his first three passes, badly overthrowing the intended receiver on both plays. He scrambled for a short gain on another play where he easily could’ve unloaded the football for a bigger chunk. Not coincidentally, the Eagles failed to record a first down on their opening three drives.

That easily could’ve been it, but Wentz went back out for a fourth series and played better, completing five of his last six attempts for 45 yards. The drive ended with a fumble, but Wentz showed resilience.

Sometimes we forget Wentz is a second-year quarterback. There are still going to be ups and downs this season – stretches of series and perhaps even games where he doesn’t find his rhythm. However, he also showed an ability to let it go and stop pressing here when the game didn’t get off to the start everybody would hope.

While not his best evening from a numbers standpoint, Wentz’s stock is still very much on the rise. Unfortunately, not too many of his teammates on offense could say the same after this effort.

STOCK UP

Mychal Kendricks
Preseason or not, Kendricks was everywhere. The sixth-year linebacker saw extensive playing time, finishing with two tackles for loss, 1.0 sack and one interception. The crazy part is the numbers don’t really do the performance justice. Kendricks was rushing the passer, providing sound coverage and just generally in position to make plays. One good outing may not translate into more snaps come the regular season, but Kendricks managed to rebuild some confidence in his ability. Who knows, it may have been enough to entice a team to make a trade offer the Eagles can’t refuse.

Ronald Darby
This should go without saying, but Darby was impressive in his Eagles debut. In fact, the most disappoint aspect of his night may have been when he dropped a likely pick-six. He of course made up for it later with a 48-yard interception return. Darby’s speed and instincts were on display for both plays. He was patient and in sound position, as opposed to some overly aggressive ballhawks that gamble, and had the athleticism to close on the football and finish the play. If this preview was any indication of what’s to come, Darby could feast behind the Eagles' front four.

Corey Graham
With Ron Brooks nursing a hamstring injury, the Eagles used Malcolm Jenkins at nickel cornerback and brought in Graham to play safety. That could also be a package the Eagles go with depending on the match-up, with the 32-year-old defensive back showing he still has something left. Graham finished with five tackles, at one point coming up from his spot at safety to make a nice stop in the backfield. He hit hard and demonstrated some value on special teams. Signed two weeks ago, it’s clear Graham has already overtaken Terrence Brooks and Jaylen Watkins on the depth chart.

Corey Clement
Clement has been the most productive running back on the team through two preseason games. The undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin rushed eight times for 34 yards and one touchdown versus the Bills, and his 24-yard carry is the Eagles’ longest of the summer. Yet, the area where Clement has been most impressive is in the passing game. He’s shown some ability as a receiver, but more important, he’s been willing and effective in pass protection. Given all the issues in the Eagles' backfield, Clement is going to have a legitimate shot to make the 53-man roster should this continue.

Alshon Jeffery
It was only two receptions for 24 yards, but with that, Jeffery was able to provide a glimpse into why the Eagles have kept him in bubble wrap this summer. His 14-yard slant was especially exciting. While the grab was as easy as it gets in the NFL, Jeffery showed a little explosiveness after the catch. Everybody talks about the highlight-reel catches, but Jeffery is an all-around weapon who can get it done on short and intermediate routes as well. This was a nice preview that should leave people wanting to see more.

STOCK DOWN

LeGarrette Blount
Through two games, Blount has 17 yards rushing. To put that in perspective, he also has 15 yards receiving. In Blount’s defense, the offensive line has not given him much room to run. At the same time, the 30-year-old back doesn’t look like a great fit for the offense. He’s slow to the corner, he’s not really a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, and he’s not great in pass protection, either. Add a drive-killing fumble to Blount’s preseason resume as well. With Clement’s emergence, Blount’s roster spot might be up for grabs, especially if Wendell Smallwood can show anything.

Lane Johnson
Johnson played poorly, with the caveat that he was starting at left tackle rather than the right. Of course, Johnson is the emergency option there, so it’s not as if he gets a pass. There were at least three plays where the fifth-year lineman was beaten badly, resulting in a run getting stuffed in the backfield, a quarterback sack and a holding penalty. He was only in for 18 snaps. It’s not as if this was the first time Johnson played the position, either. Granted, Johnson would no doubt improve if he were on the left full-time, but in a pinch, he’s still a little scary.

Matt McGloin
The Eagles won’t feel the need to carry three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. Most of McGloin’s passes down the field are errant at best, with too many balls being forced into double coverage. One such attempt resulted in an easy interception on Thursday. McGloin simply doesn’t have the arm strength to get away with those mistakes. He doesn’t look comfortable in the pocket, either, a combination that tends to result in a lot of check downs. Fortunately for the Eagles, Nick Foles is healthy and expected to play next week.