The Unstoppable Force Meets, Like, the Most Movable Object Ever: A state of the union before Sixers-Spurs

The Unstoppable Force Meets, Like, the Most Movable Object Ever: A state of the union before Sixers-Spurs

37 games. That's the disparity in win streaks between the Philadelphia 76ers, who have dropped 24 straight, and the San Antonio Spurs, who have rolled through their last 13 games, at the moment. It's a difference in current franchise realities that should be rather prominently on display when the two teams face off tonight in San Antonio in coach Brett Brown's return to the franchise he spent over a decade with. The Spurs are a nightmare matchup for the Sixers: Offensively fluid, with shooters and passers everywhere, capable of playing both at the breakneck open-court pace Philly favors and at the grinding half-court pace in which the Sixers quickly wither, and also defensively opportunistic, able to force teams into playing to their weaknesses and quickly turning mistakes into points at the other end. The results will not be pretty.

However, it might be worth watching anyway. If you've had the stomach to tune in to the last handful of Sixers games, you'll notice that the team has been playing better recently. Not well enough to win, exactly, but well enough to remain competitive, and well enough to see the subtle ways the team is improving, or at least adapting to their new surroundings. They've been defending better, they're finding ways to generate offense, and they might have even found a long-term keeper or two in their endless scrap heap and D-League shuffle.

Michael Carter-Williams is shooting and operating with more confidence, much more liable than at season's beginning to pop off a long two or a runner down the lane if given the space to do either. He's still got to work on the shots to be able to hit either with consistency, but just to see him taking them (and occasionally making) them at all is encouraging. He's also turned into the team's best rebounder, using his length and considerable ups to snare a staggering 8.3 rebounds a game since Evan and Spencer were traded, boarding in the double digits four times in the last eight games after doing so only three times before that this season. He's such a weapon in so many different facets of the game that even when he's shooting below 40% (as he now is for the season), he still manages to keep the team in a lot of these games without, obviously, a ton of help.

Meanwhile, Thaddeus Young has been given the mother of all green lights, and has turned into the league's most unlikely volume scorer, murking his field goal percentage in the process but turning him into an impressively dangerous playmaker on both sides of the ball. Since the trades, Thad is averaging an eye-popping 21.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.8 APG and 2.7 SPG--probably saving more than a handful of fantasy teams in the process--though he's only shooting 41% from the field and 30% from three, despite jacking 21 shots and a half-dozen triples a game. He's not only unrecognizable as the Thaddeus we knew and loved, but is putting up numbers unlike anyone in the league right now. We'll probably be a better team once Thad can get back to his high-efficiency, complementary self, but watching him put up numbers like this on such a depleted team is pretty spellbinding.

Thad and MCW are the only obviously above-average players on the roster right now, but we might have picked up a couple other keepers in big men Henry Sims and Varnado. Sims, a throw-in in the Hawes deal, has been an absolute monster--by Sixers big-man standards, anyway--at center for them, averaging ten points, seven boards and even nearly two assists a game for the size-deprived Ballers. He's a very good interior passer, a solid help defender, and a virtually unmovable presence in the middle of the paint. He's posted impressive double-doubles--16/13 and 18/15--in consecutive games against the Knicks and Bulls, two teams with no shortage of big dudes on the interior, just by being solid down low, outbattling for boards and putbacks with his size and strength.

Sims doesn't exactly have what you'd call a soft touch--he has a 1-12-foot jumper he's willing to unleash and an impressive array of offensive post moves, but not a ton of them seem to end with the ball going in the basket, as he's shooting just 43% from the field. And for a center, he's not tremendous as a shot-blocker--he's got just ten swats total since coming the Sixers, without the elevation to really get to a lot of shots at the basket. But he still manages to score at a decent-enough clip--14 points per 36 minutes--and he's a better shot-affecter than shot-blocker, pushing big guys out of position and at least giving opposing guards something to think about when attacking the basket. His PER of 16.0 is second-best among current Sixers--not saying a ton, but still. He's probably not a starter in this league, but we could do a lot worse for a backup once Nerlens Noel is ready to play.

Sims will have competition, however, from his current backup, the young journeyman Jarvis Varnado. The Mississippi State prouct has about the exact opposite skill set of Sims--he has a much more limited offensive skill set and a very odd-looking jump shot, but looks for his own shot so sparingly that he's still averaging 60% from the field, and is much less solid a post defender, but an absolutely dynamic shot-blocker, racking up over two blocks per 36 minutes. Neither exactly profiles as a likely core part of the Sixers' long-term plans, but it's easy to see either player getting minutes for this team next year. At the very least, it's fun to watch these players come along and give the team really good minutes, to make us feel like there's something being gained in all of these games of losing.

But yeah, about that losing. We're at 24 in a row currently, and that'll almost certainly become 25 tonight, and then 26 on Wednesday when we face the Rockets. The next four games will be a lot more winnable, against four sub-.500 East opponents (Pistons, Hawks, Bobcats, Celtics), but it's the first of those games, against Detroit, that the Sixers should really be focused on, since if they win that one, they'll have only tied the record for consecutive losses in a season (26, with the post-LeBron '11 Cavaliers) instead of owning it outright. Hard to be optimistic, considering how the Pistons have thumped them all season and considering some of the terrible teams they've lost to on this streak, but hopefully the Ballers' improved play of late portends a stronger showing this time out.

At the very least, I feel really good about the direction this team is heading in. The Sixers' pick in next year's draft will be a guaranteed top-fiver, and with the Pelicans going on a mini-tear of late, they've fallen to 11th in the tanking rankings--lower than some Sixer fans were hoping to be drafting with that pick perhaps, but mostly safe from somehow ending up winning the lottery and costing us the pick altogether, of late. Meanwhile, it's clear that none of Thad, MCW or Brown have given up on the season, still playing and coaching their hearts out, desperate for just one win to build off of.

I still think they'll get it before season's end, and even if they don't, I don't think they'll let it get them down enough to have any kind of long-term effect on their or the team's psyches. When I watch the Sixers play now, I don't see a team that's tanking, I see a team that just doesn't have enough good players to win games, but is trying like hell to prove otherwise. And I look forward to watching them again in tonight's likely 25th straight L.

After epically bad game, Odubel Herrera maintains he's 'making good swings'

After epically bad game, Odubel Herrera maintains he's 'making good swings'

Don't be shocked if Pete Mackanin gives Odubel Herrera the Maikel Franco treatment this weekend after Herrera's epically bad game Thursday afternoon.

Herrera, batting third for the first time since May 9, went 0 for 5 with five strikeouts in the Phillies' 2-1, extra-inning win over the Rockies (see Instant Replay).

He's the first player in the majors this season to go 0 for 5 with five Ks and the first Phillie to do so since Pat Burrell in September 2008.

(And no, that doesn't mean the Phillies are winning the World Series this season.)

Herrera is in a very bad place right now. He's hitting .226 with a .275 on-base percentage, and he has 28 strikeouts with one walk in May.

But you wouldn't know it from talking to him after the game Thursday. Herrera wasn't downtrodden or beside himself. He was typical Odubel, flashing a few smiles and remaining positive.

"I feel that I am making good swings but I'm just missing the pitches," Herrera said. "But I feel I am swinging the bat well. 

"I don't really know what it is exactly. But I am seeing the ball well. I don't know if it's when I charge at the ball or the timing of my swing. It's definitely at that point. Maybe it has something to do with the balance of the bat and my body. 

"Besides being positive, I have to check the video to see what I'm doing wrong and make some adjustment. But I'm staying positive, for sure."

Herrera and Franco, batting third and fourth, went 1 for 10 with seven strikeouts Thursday. They're both hitting below .230. They're supposed to be cornerstone pieces for the Phillies, so it's extremely troubling. Even if the Phillies were winning games recently it would be troubling.

Mackanin was elusive when asked if he'd consider benching Herrera Friday. But there's no real reason to believe it would do any good anyway. There's a fine line between giving a player time to clear his head and preventing him from having chances to bounce back.

"You know what, let me enjoy this. We'll discuss that tomorrow. Let me smile for a while," Mackanin said. 

"It's a tough decision. That's a tough decision. You wonder if he needs to be in there seeing pitches and batting or does he need time off? I'll think about that."

Herrera did say that he and Franco have leaned on each other during this rough period. They talk and try to motivate each other every day, but right now the results aren't there. Both are swinging wildly at too many pitches out of the strike zone and just making it too easy for opposing pitchers. When that's coming from the middle of your order, you're going to have problems scoring runs. 

On this date a year ago, Herrera was hitting .327 with a .901 OPS. Franco was hitting .260 with a .748 OPS.

Some of the struggles are because of pitchers adjusting to Herrera and Franco as the book on them expands. 

When asked if that's the case for his two young players, Mackanin referenced the Phillies' own adjustment to Rockies slugger Charlie Blackmon.

"I was pretty happy we got to Blackmon, that guy is a heckuva hitter and we pitched him really well today. There's an example of what you're talking about," Mackanin said. "Little by little, we're going to get there. We're going to start playing better."

Like Herrera and Franco, Mackanin has no choice but to think positive and hope for the best. It's a long summer, after all.

Instant Replay: Phillies 2, Rockies 1 (11 innings)

Instant Replay: Phillies 2, Rockies 1 (11 innings)

BOX SCORE

Tommy Joseph hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th inning Thursday to score Michael Saunders and snap the Phillies' five-game losing streak with a 2-1 win over the Rockies.

The win is their first victory in a game not started by Jeremy Hellickson since May 1. It also prevented the Phillies from being swept by Colorado.

At 16-29, the Phillies have the second-worst record in the majors. The Rockies, 32-17, have the second-best record in the majors.

Starting pitching report
Vince Velasquez pitched well, allowing one run over five innings to a stacked Rockies lineup, but he again had a short outing because of a high pitch count.

Velasquez put nine men on base and struck out seven. He threw 94 pitches, 70 for strikes.

After Velasquez's last start in Pittsburgh, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said the right-hander's secondary pitches simply need to improve, that he needs to be able to show more than just a mid-90s fastball.

On Thursday, Velasquez threw 72 fastballs, 14 curveballs, four sliders and four changeups. The Rockies swung through only two of those 22 off-speed pitches and went 4 for 6 when putting them in play.

Mackanin left Velasquez in to hit for himself with runners on first and second and no outs in the bottom of the fifth and Velasquez popped out on a sacrifice attempt. Many fans have already questioned the decision, but let's keep in mind Velasquez has handled the bat well. He's 6 for 17 (.353) on the season and tied for the major-league lead in hits among pitchers. He had an infield single in his first at-bat.

Rockies left-hander Tyler Anderson continued the theme of mediocre starting pitchers stymying the Phillies. Anderson allowed just one run on six hits over seven innings with seven strikeouts.

In the series, Rockies starting pitchers allowed three runs in 27 innings. They had a 1.00 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and more than a strikeout per inning. And these four starters — Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez, Tyler Chatwood and Anderson — entered the series with a combined 5.27 ERA.

Bullpen report
Edubray Ramos, Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, Luis Garcia and Jeanmar Gomez each pitched one scoreless inning. It's understandably been overlooked during the Phillies' skid, but the bullpen is finally in a groove. Over their last seven games, Phillies relievers have allowed just two earned runs in 22 2/3 innings for a 0.79 ERA.

Neris threw 10 pitches, all of them strikes. He's allowed one run in 9 2/3 innings since his meltdown at Dodger Stadium.

At the plate
Before the walk-off hit, Joseph stayed hot with a home run off the ivy wall in dead-center to start the bottom of the seventh.

Joseph is hitting .329 in May with six doubles, six homers, 15 RBIs and a .657 slugging percentage. The only first basemen in the majors with a higher slugging percentage this month are Yonder Alonso, Justin Bour and Paul Goldschmidt.

Joseph has now played 148 games with 498 plate appearances in the majors — slightly less than a full season. He's hit .255 with an .804 OPS, 28 home runs and 23 doubles. Those numbers are just above the league average for first basemen over that span.

Batting third, Odubel Herrera went 0 for 5 with five strikeouts. He's the first player in the majors this season to do that and the first Phillie since Pat Burrell in September 2008. Herrera is hitting .226 with a .275 OBP. 

Maikel Franco returned to the lineup after a two-game benching and went 1 for 5, singling up the middle in his first at-bat and flailing at a low-and-away, two-strike breaking ball to strike out with two on and one out in the eighth inning. He then struck out on three pitches to lead off the 11th.

Cameron Rupp walked three times, raising his on-base percentage from .330 to .345.

Up next
The Phillies start a three-game series at home against the Cincinnati Reds, who they haven't seen since the opening week of the season.

Friday, 7:05 p.m. — Aaron Nola (2-1, 3.52) vs. Bronson Arroyo (3-4, 6.75)

Saturday, 4:05 p.m. — Jerad Eickhoff (0-5, 4.70) vs. Scott Feldman (3-4, 3.99)

Sunday, 1:35 p.m. — Zach Eflin (0-2, 5.36) vs. Amir Garrett (3-3, 6.00)