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.

A quiet moment of victory with the only two winners in Phillies history

A quiet moment of victory with the only two winners in Phillies history

And there I was after the 2008 World Series, one of the greatest victories in Philadelphia sports history, wondering who was going to clean up the mess. I had just reentered the main clubhouse after standing in manager Charlie Manuel's office with him and Dallas Green, the only two men to manage the Philadelphia Phillies to a World Series title. I went into Charlie's office to ask him some questions about the great achievement for my stories for my job writing about the team for Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia, only to find him sitting there, still in uniform and with a bottle of V.O. on his desk next to the silver remote control. Charlie had a grin on his face and really didn't feel like doing too much talking. He just wanted to sit back and stay out of the way so his guys could spray champagne and spark up in the other room. After all, it was an emotional time for Charlie. Not only had he achieved a lifelong dream of winning the World Series, but just two weeks before the victory, his mother had died of heart failure in the rural Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Charlie never really had a chance to grieve for his mother yet, since she died shortly before Game 2 of the National League Championship Series and he couldn't leave his team. But sitting there as the party raged around him and throughout the city, thousands of thoughts must have raced through Charlie's head.
He glanced up at the TV where images of people dancing in the streets flickered as if it were beamed back from a foreign country far away where they dance all night until the sun comes up.
"It’s good to see everyone happy," he said. "That makes me feel good."
Off in the corner in an overstuffed chair, Green sat with a huge smile that matched the sparkle from his World Series ring he won with the team in 1980. Brash only begins to describe Green's personality. Boisterous, combative and prone to controversial comments only scratches the surface with Green. As a manager, he cajoled, fought with and browbeat his team into the playoffs and in 1980, they rallied together just to spite him. Of course, it makes you wonder if that was his plan all along. Machiavellian behavior is nothing to put past a baseball man no matter how little time they spent in school or how many books they had read written by Italian philosophers.
However, this time there was nothing to fight over. It was over. The good guys won and Green finally had a new member in his very select club.
"I’ve been in baseball 52 years, so I’ve seen a lot," Green said. "When you’re with a team for so many years and you get to know the guys and the coaching staff and Charlie... I love these guys. They have proven to me that they are a helluva baseball team. They care about each other and they care about winning. I told anyone who would listen that they are a resilient team, they come to play and they want to win. Charlie has them convinced that you don't get too high and you don’t get too low--you just play the game.

"He did it differently than I would have, but that’s what managing is all about."
In terms of praise from one baseball man to another, that's about as deep as it gets. After all, these are men from a different era and a different background than me or my friends in the writing corps. Charlie came from Buena Vista, Virginia, the oldest of 11 children and whose father was a Pentecostal preacher. Charlie's father hated baseball and thought his son was just wasting his time playing the game when he could be in church every day. But Charlie's dad had trouble sorting through his own demons and committed suicide when his oldest son was 18, leaving them with a $117 monthly pension from the government and forcing young Charlie to give up a college scholarships to play basketball and go to work.
This time baseball paid off. In 1963 he went off to play minor league ball in the Twins organization and then returned home to work in the local sawmill for $48.50 a week.
Green, from Newport, Delaware, just a short drive south on I-95 from Philadelphia, never had to give back a scholarship or work in the local sawmill. Instead, Green went to the University of Delaware in nearby Newark where he was a pitcher on the baseball team and got his first job after graduating in 1955 as a pitcher in the Phillies organization. Since then, Green has had a number of jobs in plenty of different cities, but they have all been in baseball.
Like a lot of folks, he was in it for life.
Still, I wanted Charlie to see the party. Considering he had been in pro baseball since 1963 and traveled all over the world, including Japan, where as a home-run hitting gaijin he was known as The Red Devil, and had been on the winning side of the World Series just once, it seemed like a good idea for him to see his players party first hand. After all, sometimes the World Series trophy lands at your doorstep twice in 125 years.
Instead, Charlie was content to sit in his office with the TV on with Dallas grinning in the corner.
"Champagne burns my damn eyes. I have some V.O. up here," he said.
I couldn’t resist though. The revelry after the glory was something I had wanted to witness my entire life. And with the party trudging through the first wave and most of the writers back in the press box typing away at stories attempting to make sense of it all, I waded back in.
Needless to say, I found what I was looking for.
When you're a kid and baseball is one of the few things that can keep your attention, the post-World Series clubhouse scene is one of the most mesmerizing events broadcast on television. Where else could you ever see something like that? Sure, some correspondent from a remote spot on the map could beam some form of chaos into your living room, but that is usually undecipherable. Why are people rioting in the streets? What or who are they angry with? Will anyone get hurt?
Better yet, who is going to clean up afterwards?
But after the final game of the World Series, everyone knows what's going on. From a soft chair in your home it looks like the wildest party ever--or at least the wildest party in which the authorities are not summoned. Think about it... where or when can a regular guy throw a party in which all the guests are allowed to scream as loud as they want, make a mess in which one takes a full bottle of champagne or beer to be shaken and sprayed on anything or anyone that moves, all while giving hugs to anyone in sight.
It's bedlam, only with the danger removed.
Even the best party you ever attended or hosted was tinged with an undercurrent of uncomfortability or fear. Maybe some people you don't know or don't like will show up. Isn't that always a drag? Sometimes it's even worse than the stress of worrying whether something valuable will be broken or a bunch of people might disappear in order to do something borderline illegal while rooting through your drawers. Who needs that? Who wants that?
Nobody. Nobody wants their home treated like the sleazy motel just off the highway and near a thicket of woods that rents rooms by the hour. It's difficult to get a good night's sleep in a place like that, what with the sticky floors, dirty sheets, graham cracker-thin walls that offer little privacy from the recreational activities of the meth heads next door, and the parking lot full of semi-trucks.
What a headache!
On television, though, following the clinching game of the World Series, it looks as if anything goes. Not only that, it looks as if people were forcibly crammed into every available space in the room complete with men and women in suits speaking into microphones in front of TV cameras covered with plastic. Spill something? Hell, who cares! Someone will be by to clean up.
But they can clean up some other time. Right now it's Charlie, Dallas, a bottle of V.O. and me. I’m a big ugly fly on the wall of the most exclusive club in Philadelphia sports history.
Charlie Manuel, Dallas Green and a bottle of V.O. The only souls to walk the earth that won the World Series for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Top that.

KHL player gets 8-game suspension in part for dirty hit on Max Talbot


KHL player gets 8-game suspension in part for dirty hit on Max Talbot

Max Talbot helped the Flyers beat his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the playoffs back in 2012. So for that, Flyers fans probably remember his short stint with the club mostly fondly.

And they certainly don't want to see him get destroyed like he did in a recent KHL game.

Talbot was playing in a KHL playoff game between Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and CSKA where some dirty stuff went down that resulted in a whole lot of penalty minutes.

Here's how NBC Sports' Adam Gretz described the craziness:

Late in the second period Panin briefly lost his cool when he delivered a devastating hit to the head of former NHL player Max Talbot, injuring him and igniting a scrum that resulted in Panin slashing former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Brandon Kozun in the head.

As you can see in the video above, Kozun was in pretty bad shape after the incident and needed a lot of assistance just to get off the ice. Talbot was also injured as a result of the hit from Panin.

It all happened shortly after Talbot scored what would prove to be the game-deciding goal. So it's nice to see Talbot still has something left in the tank.

As for his part in it all, Grigory Panin was hit with a whopping 50 penalty minutes during the game and slapped with an 8-game suspension from the KHL today.

>>KHLer gets eight-game suspension after attacking Talbot, Kozun [NBC]