Is This the Worst Sixers Season of the Post-Iverson Era? Comparing '12-'13 to '09-'10

Is This the Worst Sixers Season of the Post-Iverson Era? Comparing '12-'13 to '09-'10

You know this Sixers team has hit its low point when their badness is
getting national media attention. Zach Lowe of Grantland had an excellent column yesterday
calling out the hypocrisy of Coach Collins' recent throwing of his team
under the bus in his conference after the Orlando drubbing, pointing
out how unreasonable it was to complain about personnel moves and
on-court execution when, in fact, Collins has had a large (and some
would say final) say in just about all roster decisions made by the
Sixers in the last few years, and his inefficient offensive gameplan
puts his players in a very poor position to have any kind of sustained
success. (To which, just about every Sixers writer on the internet
responded: "THAT'S WHAT WE'VE BEEN SAYING FOR THE LAST TWO YEARS!!")


It's all fair, and it's pretty clear that even though the Sixers are
still only five games out of the playoffs, and tied for the ninth spot
in the Eastern Conference, their season is already good as over—minus
seeing whether or not The Funny-Looking Kid With the Big Hair makes an
on-court cameo at season's end. Without any expectation of a late surge,
it's officially OK to declare this season a tremendous
disappointment—very possibly the most disappointing Sixers season in
recent memory—and start to wonder: Is this the worst season we've had since AI left?


When considering this question, there's really only one season
to provide competition—2009-10, the Sixers' only season under the
stewardship of ex-Wizards coach Eddie Jordan. That year, the Sixers
finished with one of the worst records in the Eastern Conference, lucked
out in the lottery (though, in retrospect, perhaps not as much as we
thought at the time), and so lost their way as a franchise they needed
to bring in a hard-headed, experienced disciplinarian such as Collins
the next season to get the team back on track.


So which season was more despairing, more miserable, more impossible to see the positive in? Let's break it down.

1. Worse Overall Record.
The '09-'10 Sixers started mediocrely enough, winning five of their
first 11, before the bottom fell out and the team lost 12 in a row. They
showed a little life during a five-game winning streak in February, but
otherwise were consistently subpar for the entire season, ending with a
27-55 record.


Bad as this year's team has played recently, thanks largely to a
fools' gold 10-6 record to start the season, it'll be tough for them to
beat that record, as the team currently sits at 22-33, needing to go
5-22 for the rest of the season to match '09-'10's futility. Not
impossible, but harder than you'd think, especially with two games each
against the Bobcats and Cavaliers coming up.


Edge: 2009-10 (For Now)

2. Loftier Pre-Season Expectations.
Coming off two straight playoff appearances (and two first-round
exits), the Sixers were expected to contend for a playoff spot in the
East in '09-'10, but with point guard (and arguable team MVP for at
least one of the previous two seasons) Andre Miller departed for
Portland and sixth man Lou Williams taking over responsibility at the
point, nobody expected really big things from these Sixers. My old NBA
Preview issue of SI from 2009 (yes, I hold onto those, apparently)
pegged them to finish tenth, and in my own season preview,
I expected them to finish at around .500. They fell short of both of
those, natch, but expectations were never particularly high.


The same can not be said, sadly, for 2012-13. Most of us at least
expected the addition of Andrew Bynum to make the team nationally
relevant again, and thought that if a couple breaks went their way, they
could maybe reach up to first-round home-court advantage in the
playoffs. (Some wondered if they could even dethrone the Heat in the
East, and ridiculous as that kind of speculation always was, the fact
that it was there at all tells you something.) We expected the team to
be good enough to make people care again, and instead, they're more of
an afterthought than ever. That's pretty disappointing.


Edge: 2012-13

3. More Dispiriting Lack of Player Development.
At the end of my aforementioned '09-'10 preview, I predicted that this
would surely be the year that Andre Iguodala would become an All-Star,
and a franchise player. It made sense at the time, Iguodala coming off
his best offensive season in '08-'09, and showing flashes of being a
true big-game, give-me-the-ball player in the team's first-round playoff
series against the Orlando Magic. It didn't work out that way—'Dre's
scoring numbers sagged without Miller, and his ability in clutch
situations would consistently prove to be lacking. Thaddeus Young's
numbers also dipped considerably under Eddie Jordan, and Elton Brand
proved that '08-'09 was no fluke—he just wasn't the guy the Sixers
thought they were spending $80 million on in free agency.


If you're looking for a parallel to 'Dre on the '12-'13 season, it'd
have to be Evan Turner, who a couple ESPN pundits actually tagged as a
likely Most Improved Player candidate. They looked smart for a couple
months, but Evan slowed down in a big way in the New Year, his numbers
rebounding to earth so dramatically that you have to wonder if he's even
really evolved from last year at all. It's dispiriting, sure, but most
of our expectations were already fairly tempered with ET going into the
season—we've long since trying to predict anything with Evan—so it
doesn't really stand up to 'Dre proving that he just didn't have it.


Edge: 2009-10
 

4. Most Embarrassing Subplot.
The '09-'10 season, lest we forget, shouldn't technically even be
counted as part of the post-Iverson era, since Iverson was actually on
the team for most of that year. Ed Stefanski signed AI about a month
into the '09-'10 season, when it became quickly clear that the Sixers
didn't have the juice to be a post-season contender as previously
constituted, and he was greeted with the welcome of a returning hero,
hoping his scoring punch (and presumed newfound maturity) would be able
to redeem the Ballers' season. Instead, the slowed, aged Iverson proved
an almost entirely inconsequential presence, never scoring more than 23
in a night and going down for the season after just 25 games. The
signing was revealed to be exactly what it always was—a desperation
move.


Still, as embarrassing as that was, it's nothing compared to Bynum.
The bowling, the hair, the lawsuits...and all without so much as suiting
up for a game for the Sixers, at least not yet. The only way the
situation with TFLKWTBH could be any more humiliating is if he left the
Sixers holding the bag at the end of the year, which he very well may
do. It's some sickening shit.


Edge: 2012-13


5. Most Infuriating Individual Player.
Thank God that '09-'10 was the last season as a Liberty Baller for
center Samuel Dalembert, whose absolute refusal to play within himself
on offense and seeming inability to play smart on defense made him the
hardest-to-watch Sixer of the '07-'10 era. Sammy D did go on an
impressive rebounding tear at the beginning of 2013, but it rarely felt
like he was actually helping the team win games, and going into the '10
off-season, a lot of us were calling for moving Dalembert to be the
team's number-one priority.


Few of us could have guessed that the placer who would be brought in
to replace Dalembert—Spencer Hawes, who the Sacramento Kings
essentially swapped for Sammy D in Summer '10. After a couple years of
promising-but-inconsistent play, Hawes officially wore out his welcome
in Philly with his impossibly soft (or just insufficient, if you don't
want to make it an issue of toughness) play in the '12 post-season,
which has carried over into the '13 regular-season, where he still
refuses to rebound or play interior defense consistently and now also
holds the distinction of being grossly over-payed after signing a
two-year, $13 million contract. For me, I doubt I'll ever hate watching
any player as much as I hated watching Dalembert, but objectively
speaking, I acknowledge this one is anyone's game.


Edge: Even

6. More Demoralizing Coaching Drama.
As badly as the first and only season under Eddie Jordan went for the
Sixers, if you actually asked me to name three things that happened with
Eddie Jordan over the course of '09-'10, I doubt I could. All I have in
my memory is the uninspiring image of a well-dressed Jordan on the
sideline, looking mildly perturbed as the Sixers fumbled around with
their approximation of a Princeton offense that they probably were never
particularly well-equipped to run. Still, in terms of drama, the season
was fairly lacking, at least by 27-55 teams' standards.


You get the sense that Sixers fans will remember this season with
Coach Collins a little bit more clearly, though. The falling out between
team and coach has been an ugly one, and it's not even close to
through, with plenty of time and reason to get worse still before
season's end. Collins might even leave as his lasting legacy the Sixers
becoming the lowest free-throw-shooting team in NBA history, and poetic
as that may be, it's really not what we thought Collins would be
remembered for in this city when he was a Coach of the Year candidate a
couple seasons ago.


Edge: 2012-13

7. Less Excitement for the Future.
It wasn't until the Sixers landed the #2 pick in the lottery that it
seemed like 2009-2010 would be redeemable as a season—with regression
from Iguodala, Young, and even second-year forward Marreese Speights,
the lone real bright spot of the Sixers' long-term outlook that season
was rookie point guard Jrue Holiday, whose stat line was hardly
eye-popping—eight points and four assists on 44% shooting—but still, you
could just tell from his poise and his craftiness at 19 years old that
the kid was gonna be special. It wasn't enough to make us think the team
was gonna be just fine, but it was better than nothing.


Still, if there's one advantage the '12-'13 season really has over
'09-'10, it's the still-lingering feeling of hope. As miserable as the
season has been for the Sixers, at least they're not strapped with the
albatross-type contracts for Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala that the
'09-'10 was saddled with. Indeed, their two best players (Jrue and Thad)
are locked up with very reasonable contracts, and everybody else on the
team besides Jason Richardson sees their contract expire this summer or
the next. The team has legitimate young talent—even a 22-year-old
All-Star with the Damaja—and plenty of flexibility moving forward. As
bad as this season has been, the malaise doesn't have to extend to
future seasons, necessarily.


Edge: 2009-2010

So after evaluating seven categories,
it's 3.5 to 3.5 between '09-'10 and '12-'13. Does that mean the two
seasons are exactly equal in their misery, then? Well, not necessarily,
because there's still one huge variable still in play—The Funny-Looking
Kid With the Big Hair. If he plays at the end of the season, even if its
just in 15 games and he's not close to 100%, it could still be enough
to give this season a belated, underwhelming sense of
purpose—especially, of course, if he re-signs in the summer—that the
'09-'10 season will forever lack. However, if he never does suit up this
season, and never plays a game as a 76er, then the permanent black
cloud of that will make the season easily the most depressing of the
two.


Time will tell. And in the meantime, it's a reason—maybe the only
reason—to keep from writing off this season entirely just yet.

500 plate appearances in, Tommy Joseph an above-average offensive 1B

500 plate appearances in, Tommy Joseph an above-average offensive 1B

BOX SCORE

Tommy Joseph is making the Phillies' situation at first base quite tricky.

Joseph on Thursday continued building on his red-hot month of May by going 2 for 5 with a game-tying homer in the seventh and a walk-off RBI single in the 11th inning of the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rockies (see Instant Replay).

He's hit .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.

That'll hold off the eye-popping production of Rhys Hoskins for now (see Future Phillies Report).

Extending it further, Joseph has played 148 career games with 499 plate appearances in the majors. That's just a bit less than a full season. He's hit .255 with an .804 OPS, 28 home runs and 23 doubles. He's provided above-average offensive production from first base.

Most Phillies fans know Joseph's story — big-time catching prospect acquired from the Giants in the 2012 Hunter Pence trade, series of concussions, position switch, hot start to 2016 at Triple A, promotion, production.

It was a long, winding road for Joseph, and when he was asked Thursday if he expected to be this solid 500 plate appearances into his major-league career, he brought up health.

"My goals were to be healthy, to be able to play in 162 games and that's all I really want to be able to do," Joseph said. "That's something I haven't been able to do in my career and it's something that I'm looking forward to. I'm looking forward to the challenge to go through the mental challenge and the physical challenge and I'd say that's my No. 1 goal, that's my only goal. Because if I'm able to stay healthy and stay on the field then I'm able to enjoy this great game and getting to share it with my teammates."

As for the May adjustments, Joseph said the standard things about communicating with hitting coach Matt Stairs, working in the cage and staying consistent with his approach. His timing wasn't there in April but it's certainly been there in May.

"There's no telling what clicks in a guy, it's just a matter of making a minor adjustment sometimes, possibly getting better pitches to hit," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's no telling what it is, but he just looks a lot more comfortable at the plate."

Bullpen bouncing back
It's been completely overshadowed by the Phillies' recent skid but the bullpen has pitched very well of late. The unit that was overworked and criticized in April has combined to allow just two earned runs in its last 22 2/3 innings. On Thursday, six Phillies relievers — Edubray Ramos, Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, Luis Garcia and Jeanmar Gomez — pitched six scoreless innings.

Neshek made the play of the day, diving and landing on his head to snag a pop-up bunt attempt before turning and firing to first base for the double play.

"I said early on that I think it's one of our strengths," Mackanin said of the bullpen. "And after today you can see why I have a lot of confidence in them."

Neshek, who has pitched in the postseason for four different teams, said Thursday that he thinks this is one of the best bullpens he's ever been around. It's not lip service, either. The unit was terrible in April, there's no getting around that. But some of that really did have to do with the overuse. Setup men were entering in the sixth inning. Opportunities for holds and saves were few and far between. Roles were not defined.

Stuff-wise, repertoire-wise, there is a lot to like about the Phillies' bullpen. Neris, Benoit and Neshek all offer vastly different looks and have track records of success.

While Neshek didn't totally endorse Benoit's comments from a few weeks ago that everything would settle down once the relievers knew specifically which inning they'd pitch, he did say that he too feels most comfortable coming in during a hold opportunity.

"I think my numbers show that I'm best in those situations, coming into a hold opportunity when we're ahead," Neshek said. "We haven't had much of those lately."

The horrendous start to the season for the Phillies' relievers will skew their stats all season long, but it's nice to see that at least one aspect of this team is starting to get into a groove.

With a new mentality, Vince Velasquez takes nice step in right direction

With a new mentality, Vince Velasquez takes nice step in right direction

Vince Velasquez needed 94 pitches to complete five innings in yet another short outing Thursday ... but still, it was a nice step in the right direction.

Velasquez minimized the damage against a stacked Rockies lineup, allowing one run over five innings with seven strikeouts in a 2-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay). He avoided having that one big, meltdown inning. His pitch count still soared because the Rockies fouled off 28 pitches, but it was a promising sign that the longest at-bat of the day — 11 pitches to Charlie Blackmon — ended in a strikeout.

"Today was just huge on my part, even giving up the home run (to Trevor Story), just shutting down the majority of the guys," Velasquez said. "I gave up seven hits, but limiting the damage and getting out of the innings. These guys are just attacking.... I had a plan to attack the guys. You know, prior starts, changing game plans causes damage. So keep planning to attack and work your way around that.

"They're fouling off fastballs, it means they're late on them. I'm not changing my mentality. Why throw a curveball?"

Velasquez met with pitching coach Bob McClure last Sunday after his latest poor start Saturday in Pittsburgh. The key advice he was given was "stick to your strengths." Anybody who's watched Velasquez the last two seasons knows what his strength is: his fastball.

"Definitely. That's my go-to," Velasquez said. "[Before], I was just pretty much having second thoughts about certain pitches and again, just changing my game plan. If you shy away from that, things pretty much go away from you. That's where you get hurt. Today's mentality didn't change at all. I attacked guys with high fastballs in 0-2 counts. Story put a good swing on it and it ended up escalating out."

That was the one big mistake Velasquez made. He threw an 0-2 fastball right down the middle that Story hit out of the park. The Phillies have allowed the most 0-2 home runs in the majors this season (six) and the last two seasons combined (17). For reference, the Marlins have allowed the fewest over that span, just two.

But still, the high fastballs for Velasquez mostly worked on this afternoon. He induced 10 swinging strikes on 72 fastballs.

His off-speed stuff was a different story. The Rockies' first two hits of the day came on curveballs and they went 4 for 6 against his curve, slider and changeup. Colorado's hitters swung through just 2 of the 22 offspeed pitches they saw from Velasquez.

Manager Pete Mackanin said after Velasquez's last start that commanding his off-speed pitches is the key for him. His fastball is great, we all know that, but it just doesn't play multiple times through the order when the other team knows that pitch is coming in every key situation.

"The changeup was actually working a little bit [today]," Velasquez said. "It was down. That's just another pitch I need to work on a little bit more. But it's coming around. The curveball has a good shape to it but, again, it's just locating it."

It's important to keep it all in perspective when it comes to Velasquez. He's a power-armed 24-year-old who's still figuring things out. Most pitchers wouldn't be doing their jobs by going five innings, but with Velasquez it's a baby-steps approach — every small step in a positive direction being a sign that his dominant stuff can someday translate into consistency. 

He'll carry a 2-4 record and 5.55 ERA into his next start Tuesday in Miami.