Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The State of the Sixers

Simmons and Emiid - 2020

The 76ers will play their 41st game of the season Thursday night when they travel to Boston to take on the Eastern Conference leading Celtics. Their record currently stands at an even .500, 20-20, and there are more signs for optimism than for pessimism for the first time in half a decade for this precocious up and coming talent laden team. Joel Embiid will almost assuredly make his first All-Star team after playing in 31 of the 40 games and averaging 24 points 11 rebounds and 2 blocks per game in 31 minutes. Ben Simmons, still considered a rookie after sitting out the entire year last year, has played as advertised. Simmons is every bit of 6 feet 10 inches tall and runs the point with vision and handle the likes of which NBA fans really have not seen since Magic Johnson retired.

As the Sixers cross the official halfway point of the season I wanted to reach out to my readers to let them know I still am following Philadelphia sports with a passion, but it has been difficult to find time and angles to write about. With the Eagles playing in the NFC Championship game this weekend I certainly could have provided some fluff about their marvelous season, but I do not pretend to know football well enough to report on it intelligently. So good luck to the Eagles this weekend and let’s keep our Ts and Ps with Carson Wentz for a speedy recovery.

I’ll tell you though, at times to the chagrin of my wife, I am fully invested in this Sixers team and their future. NBA basketball is exciting in Philadelphia for the first time since Allen Iverson was traded away 11 seasons ago. Having said that, it can be incredibly frustrating to watch this young team develop on the fly as they are prone to blowing big leads and making too many mental mistakes during crunch time. I have watched a significant amount of these 40 games and will impart with you my observations and opinions on the key players and management of this team.

What a Talent!

Joel Embiid – The Centerpiece

There is no limit to the amount of superlatives you can bestow on Joel Embiid. The 7’ 2” center from Cameroon is one of the few remaining big men in the league with a back to the basket post-up game. He can handle (relatively well for a man his size), he can shoot from mid-range, he can shoot from 3, he has tremendous vision and can pass better than expected, he rebounds well and is always active on defense blocking and altering shots. He has a tendency to leave his feet too quickly in anticipation of a block, but he should be able to clean that up. In an early win at the Los Angeles Lakers, Embiid put up the staggering line of 46 points 15 rebounds 7 assists and 7 blocks. Those numbers had never before been recorded in an NBA game.

Another thing Embiid may do better than any big man in the game is draw contact to get to the free throw line. With his skill set, opposing bigs have to stay in his face when he squares to the basket and he has developed a type of “swim move” you may have seen players like Kevin Durant and James Harden employ where he sees the defenders outreached arm in front of him and he brings the ball up to the shooting position right through that outreached arm to draw the shooting foul. His immense size also enables him to draw contact in the post and Joel knows how to shoot it from the charity stripe. He is shooting 79% on the season and is in the top 10 for makes in the league despite missing 9 games.

As far as chinks in his armor are concerned; he still has not been cleared by the Sixers’ crack medical staff to play on back-to-back nights. I am 32 years old and I play basketball on back-to-back nights. Something’s missing there. Embiid’s health will always be a concern, at least until he plays more than 60 games in two straight seasons, but that is something that is out of his control. Regarding what he can control, I’d like to see Embiid be stronger with the basketball. For such an immense man with obvious strength, he is constantly having the ball stripped from him when he is about to make a move. At times, it would appear that his body cannot quite catch up to what his mind wants him to do and he can look a bit gangly and out of control. I attribute this to having played just over 60 total NBA games since he was drafted in 2014 (and less than 20 during his lone season at Kansas). The guy did not pick up a basketball until he was 16 so expect him to get better as he gets more seasoned in understanding what he can and cannot do on the court.

Rookie of the Year Favorite

Ben Simmons – The Straw That Stirs the Drink

Simmons, along with Embiid, is a generational talent. The 21 year old Australian has a unique repertoire and is averaging 17 points 7 assists and 8 rebounds as the point forward for the team. At this time, Simmons best attribute is his ability to find the open man in a spot that best suits the player to make the next shot. His pass first mentality is a big reason why the Sixers have gone back and forth with the untouchable Golden State Warriors for the NBA lead in assists per game. Simmons has a variety of moves, most notably a behind the back dribble in traffic, that allow him to get free to make these passes. His height puts him at an advantage when smaller players attempt to guard him and his quickness, he has that ability to shrink the court he moves so fast, allows him to get by larger slower defenders. Simmons on a breakaway is really quite breathtaking.


Perhaps the most underrated part of Simmons game is his intensity. It has been on display of late after getting chippy with Marcus Morris of the Celtics in London last week as well as the dustup he had with Kyle Lowry at the end of the Sixers latest win on Martin Luther King Jr day. That grit can be seen on the defensive end of the floor where Simmons is active in passing lanes and in the paint blocking shots and cleaning the glass. Simmons ranks 8th in the NBA in steals at just under 2 a game and is also good for a block a game. Simmons demeanor on the court is often surly, which is a contrast to the affable Embiid who is constantly smiling and egging on a home crowd. I like Simmons having this mentality as he is all business on the floor and is not out there to make any friends with opposing players. I am more prone to respecting a Bad Boys Pistons mentality than an AAU Dwight Howard I’m out here to have fun mentality. It appears that Simmons and Embiid could be a good mix of both.

There is one glaring thing with Simmons, of course, the giant elephant in the room. The guy flat out can’t shoot a basketball. My theory is that his innate ability from the time he was very young made all of his handlers and coaches gloss over the fact that not only can he not shoot, but he appears to shoot with the wrong hand, and with god awful form at that. He was tall enough, fast enough, and strong enough to still dominate every league he played in until he got to the NBA. Now he’s running pick and rolls and every defender sags underneath and DARES him to shoot a wide open jumper from 15 feet away. Reluctant would be putting it mildly if we’re describing Simmons’ penchant for shooting a jumper.  If you’ve been following half as much as I have, then you know that Simmons shoots almost all of his shots within 8 feet or so of the basket and he does so with his right hand. Apparently, Simmons is right-handed but for some reason he shoots his jumpers, and free throws, with his left hand up and his elbow out. That is not a recipe for success as evidenced by his putrid 56% free throw shooting percentage (he is shooting 65% in January). Simmons will take and make the occasional jumper so it is confusing to me why he is not a bit more aggressive on offense but I believe that will come in time.

Lastly, Ben is just way too careless with the ball. He is 6th worst in the NBA at 4.0 turnovers a game (Embiid is 5th worst at 4.2). Ben’s turnovers seem to be mostly mental mistakes or caused by playing a bit too fast. He has a habit of leaving his feet before knowing where he’s going with the basketball and often times that leads to live ball turnovers and run outs for opposing teams. What makes matters worse is that it seems to happen more often when the Sixers are desperately trying to hold on to a lead late in games. Ben will need to clean that up but he is another guy that has only played 40 games in the last 2 years, so hopefully some seasoning can allow for these turnover issues to dissipate.

What Markelle is Kown For

Markelle Fultz – The What the F**k?

The Fultz situation has to be the biggest enigma in the NBA and it feels like it is barely getting any attention (luckily for the Sixers). This summer Bryan Colangelo, the Sixers’ GM, traded the number 3 overall pick along with another high lottery selection the SIxers owned from the Lakers, to the Celtics for the number one overall pick. They used it on the consensus number one selection 6’ 4” combo guard Markelle Fultz. The Celtics took Jayson Tatum out of Duke and while it is still too early to call, the Celtics have to be ecstatic with the way this trade is shaping up thus far.


Fultz looked like the guy who did it all for Washington in his lone season there in a few short outings in Summer League before he tweaked an ankle and sat out the rest of those games. Somewhere in between that time and the beginning of the regular season Markelle Fultz unlearned how to shoot a basketball. He played the first four games to start the season and had an almost shotput like form for his free throws and essentially refused to take an outside shot. Once again the Sixers’ crack medical staff have their hands on him after what they diagnosed as a “muscular imbalance” in his shoulder. The injury and subsequent loss of talent, to almost a Space Jam like level, is incredibly mysterious and disheartening for the fans. The Sixers’ management and lack of transparency regarding Fultz exacerbates the issue for all of us that care maybe a little too much about this team. By all reports he is healthy at this time but his shot is in such disrepair the Sixers are refusing to suit him up. It is scary and terrifying and just a sad situation that Fultz is in right now. Once again, Ts and Ps have go out to Markelle Fultz and his shot. He needs them.

Pass it to the Homie, Now You Hit It

Dario Saric - The Homie

Dario (it's pronounced "shar itch") plays a fearless brand of basketball and is effective at what he does. He is not an elite athlete but he makes up for that with a high basketball IQ that can be seen in the way he plays the game. He is the best offensive rebounder on the team and just has a knack for coming up with a tough rebound despite some physical limitations. He is another guy who can make great passes with ease and if his three point shot is falling you are absolutely in love with him. We saw it last season, and have seen some more of it this season, but Dario seems to play his best when the game is on the line. The Sixers were in the midst of yet another large collapse against the Raptors Monday when Saric stepped up and knocked down a big 3 pointer to give the Sixers some breathing room in their most recent win

The issue with Saric is not actually his issue. Too often Dario is the main option for a lineup that does not feature Embiid. Saric needs to be the second, third or fourth option and that is the plan when Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz are all clicking but right now the Sixers have to rely a little too heavily on the Croatian born power forward.

A Bonafide Shooter

JJ Redick – The Marksman

The veteran from Duke came to town on a one year $23 million deal. In his prior 11 NBA seasons he earned a little over $56 million. So this was quite the payday for a guy who really has put in the time and effort needed for an average at best athlete to thrive in the NBA. In his last 3 seasons, all with the Clippers, Redick made 200, 200, and 201 3 pointers. This season he has made 98 in 36 games. He is just a consistent pro. You don’t see a guy pull up on the dead run and make shots like JJ Redick can; the guy can just flat out shoot. My one knock is the careless turnovers I see too often from him in crunch time. When the Sixers get going bad, the turnovers seem to be infectious. As one of the few guys with big game experience on the team, you’d like to see more of a calming presence from JJ in the late game swoon situations.

Process Lifer

Robert Covington – The 3 Point Shooter?

RoCo is the only holdover from the dregs of the Trust the Process days and he got handsomely rewarded to the tune of 4 years $62 million about a month into the season. Covington was out to a blazing start leading the NBA in 3 pointers made for a stretch and the Sixers pounced to lock him up. The timing of the contract I felt to be somewhat odd. Covington has been a chucker of 3s since he came to Philly in 2014 but he has not exactly shot a high percentage, 36% for his career. After the torrid start that saw him shooting close to 50%, the Sixers went ahead and inked that deal. Covington shot 35% from 3 in December and is at 31% so far in January. He is perhaps the best perimeter defender on the team and with his size he rebounds well, so he is not a liability on the floor as far as intangibles are concerned. However, for the Sixers to truly contend they will need him to get that percentage up where Redick’s is at about 40%.

No More Rec League for TJ

TJ McConnell – The Sparkplug

Yes, you read that right. I can’t believe it myself. TJ McConnell the little white guy from Pittsburgh has officially made it in the NBA. I had a running joke with my buddies that TJ was still running at his local YMCA on Tuesday nights during the season just so he could get some burn. Well, TJ McConnell left the YMCA behind. This little pest (ask Demar Derozan) is just better than you expect him to be in every aspect of the game. He runs the back up point guard position and almost always provides a spark off the bench. He is constantly hounding opposing ballhandlers, usually playing full court defense, and can play passing lanes. His offensive game is really what makes him though. The guy has an uncanny ability to finish at the rim despite being overmatched athletically by virtually everyone on the court. He has a move where he circles under the basket and comes back out the other side to either find the open man or drain a 6 foot jump shot with remarkable ease. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I love TJ McConnell.

Playoffs or Bust

Brett Brown – The Really Cool Accent But Can He Coach?

In my best Brett Brown voice, “I like where we’re at as a team right now. We’re competing every night. We’re right there in the playoff picture. You have to understand we’re still an incredibly young team. Our two best players have never played a full NBA season and we’re finding a way to win games. Joel and Ben really have just scratched the surface of their talents and we’re still waiting on Markelle to find himself. Once we have our full compliment of players healthy and on the same page really I think the sky is the limit for this group.”

I like Bret Brown, you have to feel for the guy who lost 130 games in two seasons. I think he has the offense in a pretty good spot considering they were going to rely fairly heavily this season on Fultz’s playmaking ability. They are young and fast so it makes sense they run as much as they do, but it can’t come with the carelessness the Sixers usually play with. That being said, the jury is still out for me as to whether Brown will be leading this team when the Sixers are true contenders.

My two biggest knocks basically go hand in hand. The Sixers are dead last in the NBA in turnovers per game and the Sixers blow wayyyy too many big leads. I feel, to some extent, those two issues are a reflection of coaching. I’ve hammered home that Simmons and Embiid do not have much experience, but I have not seen much progress from them so far this season in taking care of the basketball. You just can’t win games by turning it over.  The blowing big leads thing is something you can’t quite put your finger on, but just know the Sixers are in their own heads when they enter the 4th quarter with a lead. They know a collapse is coming, the opposing team smells blood, and then Brown and his team only seem to make it worse by panicking. The Sixers were up 22 on the Celtics in London mid way through the second quarter and from there Boston went on something like a 75-35 run. It’s like the Sixers need to figure out how to stop the bleeding but they are hemophiliacs.

Brown has to do a better job of stemming the tide with timeouts. Too often he lets things ride and the Sixers continue to implode. Many times this season I will see a timeout during an opposing team’s run and the Sixers will come out of the timeout with a set piece that results in a turnover. It is poor execution and a lack of a sense of the moment for a team prone to making the same mistakes.

The Sixers have a tough remaining schedule in January that continues with another date in Boston tomorrow night and matchups with Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Milwaukee to name a few. JJ Redick has been ruled out for at least 10 days with a knee bruise and Fultz’s return is still a mystery. I said to a friend the Sixers would be hard pressed to get 5 wins in this January that has them playing 12 games. Well, they are currently 3-1 in the month and have won 6 of 8 after a rough month of December. They will most likely need to finish the season a game or so better than the 20-20 record they have so far in order to make the playoffs. I’ll be watching and it will be exciting.

Until next time..
10 9 8 76ers!








Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Sad State of Affairs

Looks About Right

I know it’s been quite a while but given the current state of the team I felt it incumbent upon me to give my loyal readers an update on the sad state of affairs that is the 2017 Philadelphia Phillies. Have any of you been paying attention? Holy shit! They are going in the wrong direction again!

After a 2015 season that saw the Phils win on the last day of the season to avoid losing 100 games and a 2016 season that showed clear signs of improvement, it was expected this young group of kids would continue to build on last year’s 71 win campaign.

Well, after the longest May of Pete Mackanin’s life (it still has a week to go), that even saw him get a 2 year contract extension, the Phils would have to play their final 118 games at 56-62 to finish ahead of last year’s pace. It wouldn’t be impossible, but from the looks of things right now it’s right next to it. My god, they have been a 5-alarm tire fire the entire month of May having dropped 20 of their last 24. Today, they have to be praying for a rainout so they can avoid getting bushwhacked for a fourth straight time by the red hot Colorado Rockies in South Philadelphia. I’ve joked with my buddies that any team that gets done a series with the Phils leaves town with the NL RBI lead. Ask Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, or Charlie Blackmon about the Phillies staff. The Rockies are in town for a four game set and have outscored the Phils 23-4 in the first three games. But let’s take a step back from the here and now.

With three days left in April, the Phillies were 11-9, had just won 6 games in a row, and had scored 95 (4.75 per game) runs while allowing 84 (4.20 per game). In the 24 games since they have gone 4-20 while scoring 93 (3.88 per game) runs and giving up 141 (5.86 per game). Ugly is the first word that comes to mind to describe the play. Undisciplined, sloppy, disinterested, and stubborn are a few more. In those 24 games the Phils have held their opponent under 5 runs just 5 times and there is plenty of blame to go around among the pitching staff. The starters have a 6.39 ERA in May while the relievers are checking in with a better than expected but still not great 4.46 ERA. The staff on the season is at 5.10 overall.

Jeremy Hellickson has the lowest ERA of any starter at 4.28. Jerad Eickhoff has been up and down and registers at 4.70 while Vince Velasquez (5.98), Zach Eflin (5.36), and Nick Pivetta (5.12) have for the most part struggled.  Eflin has had some solid starts but has been blown out his past few. In 19 starts , Velasquez, Eflin, and Pivetta have combined to pitch 105 innings while giving up 117 hits,  21 home runs, and 37 walks while failing to reach the 6th inning 11 times. The Phils are 4-15 in those 19 games.

Twenty-four year old Nick Pivetta may not have been quite ready for The Show yet, but early injuries to Clay Bucholz and Aaron Nola forced the Phillies’ hand. Pivetta was part of a memorable moment, for the wrong reasons, in Texas when Pete Mackanin decided to lift the youngster with 2 outs in the fifth inning of a game the Phillies were leading 2-0 at the time. Pivetta was most likely gassed having thrown 107 pitches through four and two thirds but for a guy that had yet to record his first major league win this was a cosmic karmic fuck up by Petey Mack. You don’t pull a guy in that situation when he is in line to win a game and has yet to give up a run!

What happened? Left hander Joely Rodriguez came on and here is the game log for the rest of the inning. One man was on first base when Rodriguez entered with 2 outs.

Choo to second on balk by Rodríguez.
Mazara walked.
Chirinos singled to right, Choo scored, Mazara to third.
Odor singled to left, Mazara scored, Chirinos to second.
Rua homered to right (366 feet), Chirinos and Odor scored.
Gallo struck out swinging.

You have to laugh at the immediate balk and walk. Then you can cry from there on out. I was actually watching when this happened. It went south quick.

Another memorable couple of Ls came at home against the Seattle Mariners who dusted up Phillies pitching for 21 runs and 32 hits… in a two game series. The Tuesday night opening game of the series saw the Phillies jump out 4 nothing in the first inning only to see that lead vanish by the middle of the 5th. Trailing 5-4 the Phils put up another crooked number and took the lead 9-5 giving themselves a second 4 run lead in the same game. After Jerad Eickhoff squandered the initial lead by failing to complete the 4th inning, the bullpen combined to allow 5 more runs (3 earned) and give the Phillies the terrific feat of blowing two 4 run leads in the same game in a 10-9 loss.

The very next game with Seattle still in town the score was tied at 3 after 6 innings courtesy of a quality start from Eflin. Then veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit entered the game and failed to record more than one out in the 7th. Benoit gave up 5 earned runs and gave out 3 free passes while recording that out in a game he essentially lost for the Phillies. After the game, Benoit had the nerve to criticize Mackanin’s use of the bullpen and the lack of defined roles for the relievers. Whether or not Benoit had a valid point is moot considering the explosive diarrhea he resembled on the mound that day. Here is a clip of Joaquin spouting off.

So what about the offense you say? Boy oh boy, do they stink at the plate as well. At least in May they have. When you think about the Phils offense you have to assume they will live and die with the guys that should be their best two hitters. Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco. Well, they’re dying here folks.

Odoobs, wow Odoobs. How many of you have been paying attention to his at bats this year? They are a thing of disaster. I’ve never seen a guy announcers discuss as “capable of winning a batting title” so absolutely clueless at the plate. The guy takes swings that you’d see your average little league rightfielder take against the best pitcher in the league. Then from time to time he’ll slap an 0-2 pitch in to left for a base hit and make you scratch your head, but make no mistake Odoobs does not have the correct approach at the plate (Where you at Matt Stairs?). After walking 10 times in April over 94 plate appearances, Herrera has eked out one walk during the entire month of May spanning 89 plate appearances. The nerve of this guy. Take it easy up there. His .205 average in May has his season average down to .231. His regression in his third year as the everyday centerfielder is not something you are expecting to see for a 25 year old who should be entering his prime.

Wild Swing, I Think I Love You

Maikel Franco has shown flashes of dynamic power over his still very young career but the only thing he’s done consistently at the plate is be inconsistent. He still flails wildly dislodging his helmet on far too many swings. His walk rate of 7.6% is in line with his career numbers and still far too low. In May, Franco is slashing a paltry .231/.292/.369 and the .231 batting average and .292 on base percentage are both improvements from April. The .369 slugging percentage which is 84 points lower than Ryan Howard slugged last year, is due to the fact that Franco has one home run in his last 82 at bats. The lack of power has been combined with an inability to drive in runs. Through 27 games, Maikel managed to knock in 25 runs despite his average hovering around the Mendoza line. Since then, he has driven in 3 over his last 14.  That kind of production is just not going to get it done.

Cesar Hernandez has cooled considerably in May after a torrent start. Tommy Joseph has come on of late after a slow start but has been inconsistent at best. The addition of Michael Saunders in the outfield has been a total non-factor. Freddie Galvis remains to be Freddie Galvis. Cameron Rupp has been serviceable and really just looks the part of a catcher if you ask me.

The lone bright spot, perhaps on the entire roster right now, has been the play of leftfielder Aaron Altherr. Altherr leads the Phils in home runs with 8 and had a stretch of 5 home runs in as many games including 3 straight games with a 3 run home run. Understandably, the power has cooled some since that outburst and Altherr has now gone 38 at bats without a home run. Nevertheless he has been drawing a few Jayson Werth comparisons due to his lanky frame and ability to hit for power. It remains to be seen if Altherr can continue to be an above average hitter but right now it’s what us Phils fans have to cling to given the current state of affairs for our ball club.

Until next time folks, whenever that may be.

Werth the Watch:

Cole Hamels started the season in typical Cole Hamels fashion but has been on the shelf with an oblique for a month. He was 2-0 in 5 starts with a 3.03 ERA in the early going.

Jayson Werth has been batting second and playing everyday leftfield for the first place Nationals. He's hitting .283 with 7 home runs and 16 RBI. He turned 38 last week and his gross paycheck every two weeks should average out to about $807,692 give or take a few bucks. He is in the final year of that contract.

Chase Utley is still starting about 75% of the games at second base for the 27-20 Dodgers. He bats 7th and has yet to hit a home run in 90 at bats. After a ghastly start that saw him batting under a .100 about a month in to the season he has turned it around some hitting .265 in May to raise his average to an even .200. It's the end of the line for Chase who is also 38 years old, but he's still out there doing it.

Chooch made it to town during that awful Mariners series and gave the Phils fans something to smile about. He's playing in about half the Mariners games and I'll do him a favor and not list his stats.

Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard are out of baseball.

Ken Giles has 12 saves and a 3.44 ERA as the closer for the best record in baseball Houston Astros.

Jim Eisenrich is hitting lasers at a local high school field twice a week just for fun.

Pete Incaviglia is smoking Marlboro Reds and hitting moon shot home runs in beer league softball.

Lenny Dykstra is face down in a ditch and having a laugh about it.

Friday, July 15, 2016

2016 Phillies at the Break

Maikel Franco has found his stroke.

At the All-Star Break, the Phillies have played to a 42-48 record through 90 games. That performance is borderline remarkable considering several factors. First of which would be that the Phillies were picked to win 66.5 games. In fact they were picked to be the second worst team in all of the Major Leagues. That projected win total would be a .410 winning percentage and their current standing has them winning at a .467 clip and on pace to win about 76 games. Vegas is generally not off on these kind of predictions by that many games so these young Phillies are certainly over performing through more than half the season.

Another noteworthy factor to the Phils’ pleasantly surprising season is the Jekyll and Hyde play of the ball club. Despite one of the worst run differentials in the Majors (runs scored vs runs allowed) this team came out of the gate winning at an unsustainable clip. On May 18th the Phils hit their high water mark of the season at 24-17 and they were right behind the Nationals for the division lead at the time. At one point, each of their prior 12 wins had come by a 1 run margin. This could not last, and it did not.

After that brilliant first month and a half the Phils stingy pitching fell apart and their bats fell even more silent than they had been. In the next 32 games the Phils went 6-26 and looked every bit the worst team in the league that we all kind of expected them to be. Aaron Nola fell apart. Vince Velasquez got hurt. The solid bullpen became a sieve and the bats are the bats, not very good. In those 32 games, which included 7 and 9 game losing streaks, the Phils were outscored 180-100 in total or 5.6 to 3.1 on average every night. The runs scored for the Phils were bolstered by some outlier games, they scored 8 twice and 10 once (in a game they lost!) so in the 32 games they scored 3 or less 21 times and 2 or less 17 times. Yikes.

But then something seemed to happen to cause a spark in Minnesota. After dropping the first two games in the Twin Cities to fall to 30-43 on the season, the Phils finally found their offensive groove. I picture Pete Mackanin having a conversation with Ryan Howard like the one in this clip, Howard is in the role of Crash Davis.  If he did, then it seemed to work. They won the getaway game in Minnesota and headed to San Francisco for the weekend where the Giants and their best record in the Majors awaited.  The Giants may have taken two of three in that series but the two losses the Phils absorbed were hard fought including an 8-7 extra inning loss on Sunday that saw the Phightin’s make several comebacks and show real signs of life on offense for the first time all season really.

With the confidence boost from playing the Giants tough, they rolled in to Arizona and returned the favor of a sweep to the Diamondbacks. From there they took two of three at home from the defending World Champ Kansas City Royals and followed that with a sweep of the hapless Braves.

So how did they turn around a season that looked dead in the water? It’s simple really. They started hitting and they started hitting home runs. In the 17 games since the rough patch, Mackanin’s bunch has gone 12-5 and mashed 23 home runs. For perspective, the Phillies managed 66 home runs in their first 73 games. They are hitting nearly half a home run more per game during this latest stretch.

Peter Bourjos has enjoyed some fairly unexpected success.

The Phils have done it with a collective of contributions. Most surprisingly, outfielder Peter Bourjos has caught fire after not doing much of anything at the plate through the first two months of the season. In the last 30 days, Bourjos is tied for 2nd in the NL with a .397 batting average. The man he’s tied with? Cesar Hernandez.  While Cesar and Bourjos have been doing it with a high average, Maikel Franco and Cameron Rupp have been doing it with power. Franco leads the team with 18 home runs, just a homer shy of top 10 in the NL and 3 shy of the top 5. Meanwhile, Rupp has come in to his own as the every day catcher replacing Carlos Ruiz. Rupp is hitting a stellar .287, has 9 home runs (5 in the last month) and is second among catchers in doubles (17) and third in slugging (.507).

Maikel Franco has done a nice job of righting his ship after really looking helpless at the plate during the Phils’ June swoon. The 23 year old Dominican third baseman reached a season low .235 average during that series in Minnesota and has been on the same tear his team has been on since.  He’s raised his average 24 points in that time to .269 and has been red hot in July while riding a still active 10 game hitting streak that has him with a ridiculous slash line of .450/.476/.875 for the month of July.

Too much of this look from Aaron Nola.

As for the Phillies most important pitcher, that’s another story. Aaron Nola has been the definition of awful for over a month now. After lowering his ERA to 2.65 with 6 shut out innings in Milwaukee on June 5th, Nola failed to finish the 4th inning for four straight starts. This hurts. Nola was looking like every bit the ace we’re hoping he can become through his first 12 starts of the season, but he has lost the pinpoint accuracy he is generally able pitch with and he was/is in danger of being sent down to the minors. In his last start before the break he gave up 5 runs in the second inning to the Royals and it looked like another very short outing was in store for the struggling 23 year old. He was able to pull it together and finish 5 innings without giving up another run and the hope is that an extended break, Mackanin skipped his start during the last series in Colorado, will clear his head and allow him to regain his All-Star caliber play from the first two months of the season.

With Nola struggling the staff has two pleasant surprises on it in Jerad Eichoff and Vince Velasquez. As noted before, Eichoff was acquired in the Cole Hamels deal and Velasquez in the Ken Giles transaction. Eichoff has been the most consistent starter on the staff and had his ERA down to 3.30 after winning 5 of 6 decisions before struggling in the thin air at Coors Field and giving up a by far season high 8 earned runs in Denver. Velasquez has returned from a brief stint on the DL and essentially picked up where he left off. In his three most recent starts he’s allowed the following run totals: 0, 2, 2 and has picked up the win in all three games. His record stands at 8-2 and his ERA is an impressive 3.32, leading all Phils starters. The most seasoned starter on the staff, Jeremy Hellickson, has been a solid calming presence and given himself some trade value with dependable start after dependable start through the first half of the season.

Classic Odoobs

I’d me remiss if I did not mention the play of the Phils’ lone All-Star Odubel Herrera. Odoobs is the new Shane Victorino (unfortunately without the arm). He is the guy on the team that other fans definitely do not like. He’s flashy and cocky. He is starting to hit for more power and already has 10 home runs this year after hitting only 8 all of last season. His average has finally dipped below .300 and sits at .294 after a rough weekend in Colorado for him. He will make bonehead mistakes in the field and on the bases but the 24 year old "El Torito" from Venezuela clearly plays with a youthful exuberance that has been missing from the stagnant Phillies for too long. He may lead the NL in bat flips as he likes to celebrate the home runs he hits.

Ryan Howard is literally and statistically the worst player in Major League Baseball. It’s sad and depressing but that’s all I can say about that for now. At least he is not playing much at all these days as he provides negative value whenever he does. He is second on the team in homers with 12. That's all he can do at even close to a Major League level.

My prediction for the rest of the season is that the Phils continue their Jekyll and Hyde ways. They don’t have the talent to sustain the offensive success but they have some arms and some bats that should make them a competitive squad when things are falling right. It’d be hard to imagine the offense of the past three weeks continuing but if it falls back just some it would still be much better than the lack of anything during the 6-26 stretch. I believe the Phillies will finish the season with 74 wins and Maikel Franco will hit 33 home runs.

It should be fun to watch this group continue to grow and even more fun when the talent in the minor leagues joins the big league club.

Werth the Watch

Cole Hamels - Cole was an All-Star for the first place Rangers and is their staff ace. His ERA was down to 2.60 but he's had two straight rough outings and he is now at 9-2 with a 3.21 ERA with 109 strikeouts in 112 innings.

Chase Utley - Leading off and playing 2nd everyday for the Wild Card leading Dodgers. Chase had 6 hits in a 14 inning game two weeks ago. 6 hits! He's hitting .263 with 5 homers and 27 RBI.

Jayson Werth - Werth bats second and plays left for the first place Nats. The Bearded One came on in June after a slow start and is hitting .252 with 10 home runs and 40 RBI.

Jimmy Rollins - Designated for Assignment by the White Sox, no longer in the Major Leagues.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

An Appreciation for Lebron James

As a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers it has been a tough decade and a torturous past three seasons. But that has not stopped me from following the NBA and the other teams and talents during that time. During the past ten plus years, I have come to have a serious appreciation for Lebron James. After witnessing what everyone on the planet not from Cleveland thought impossible over the past week, that appreciation is at an all time high.

Lebron James is my contemporary, in that he was born within a calendar year of me, and in nothing else. I still remember the first time I saw him play, I was a junior in high school and he was a senior from Akron, Ohio playing a nationally televised game on ESPN. He played against fellow senior Carmelo Anthony and won easily, you could see right then that he was ready for the NBA. That was 13 years ago. I’ve been watching him ever since.

During the first seven years in Cleveland he continually made those around him better and carried his team to heights that should not have been possible, unless of course, Lebron James was on the team. In 2007, when I was still in college, there was 22 year old Lebron scoring 29 straight points against a Detroit Pistons team that was in the midst of playing in six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. James finished that game with 48 points 9 rebounds and 7 assists while guys like Sasha Pavlovic and Drew Gooden played the crunch time minutes for a team Lebron would carry to the Finals. Turned out old Sasha, Larry Hughes, and Big Zydrunas Ilgauskas were no match for an in their prime San Antonio Spurs Big 3 of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs swept out the upstart Cavs.

The rest of Lebron’s first stint in Cleveland was spent much like the 2007 year, trying to will mediocre teammates to championships Lebron could not possibly win on his own. In 2008, the Celtics were a juggernaut and it was going to be tough for anybody to beat a possessed trio of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce.  In the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals Lebron played his most complete series to date and still lost to the Magic in 6 games. In that series, James hit a buzzer beating 3-pointer when down two with two seconds left in game two. He averaged 38-8-8 for the series. He had Mo Williams playing at an All-Star caliber level and kept Delonte West’s head screwed on tight for a whole year. Those are accomplishments maybe Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Michael Jordan pull off, not anybody else.

Even with all of his individual greatness and clear killer instinct in clutch moments Lebron was always dealing with detractors. 2010 was a good year for the Lebron haters, of which there are many. The season ended with a dejected Lebron ripping off his jersey storming down a tunnel in Boston after the number one seeded Cavs failed to reach the Finals for the third consecutive year despite being clear favorites. That series was the first chink in Lebron’s armor from my perspective. The guy was passive to the point that you could not help but question what he was doing on the court. This was a 6 foot 8 260 pound behemoth that could get to the basket at will, set up teammates, defend, and just overall enforce his will on a game and a series and it was clear that Lebron had checked out during that Boston series.

Lebron did not Handle "The Decision" Well

A month later came The Decision. What a travesty that spectacle was. James was a free agent that summer and somebody in his close knit inner circle of mostly his boys from his home town got in his ear that it would be a good idea to do a television show on ESPN to announce where he was going to go.* I watched because that’s just something I was in to, but I did not like how contrived and forced the entire thing was and it really painted James in an off-putting light. Once he accounced he was “taking his talents to South Beach” all hell broke loose in Miami. The Heat threw a literally insane welcome party for James and Chris Bosh who also came to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. While talking about the titles they would win Lebron literally started reeling off numbers saying “not 2, not 3, not 4,not 5, not 6, not 7” and Wade announced they were the best trio to play the game of basketball before they even played a game together. The arrogance and ignorance in those statements speaks for itself, but let’s just say it didn’t exactly get Lebron any new fans outside of Miami. And in Cleveland they were burning his jerseys and denouncing the King.

The whole teaming up with other superstars thing is not a new concept to the NBA. A lot of the hate coming at Lebron stemmed from his willingness to go play with Wade in Miami to have a better chance to win a championship. Cleveland’s front office was not exactly endearing themselves to Leborn with the cast of has-beens and never-will-bes they saddled him with.  I’ll concede that seeking out other superstars via free agency was not something you’d expect Charles Barkley or Karl Malone (shout out John Stockton) to go do, but then those guys never won a title now did they? Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen for all six and Dennis Rodman for 3 of his titles, both Hall-of-Famers. Magic Johnson played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, both Hall-of-Famers.  Bird, McHale, Parish – Hall-of-Fame. Kobe and Shaq. Duncan and any list of guys he’s played with from David Robinson to Kawhi Leonard. You don’t win in the NBA without  at least two superstars and Lebron went to Miami and came away with two championships.

Since The Decision, there has not been an NBA Finals played without Lebron James.  Lebron’s time in Miami appeared to be on cruise control as the game came easily to him there. A lot of credit has to go to his coach, Erik Spoelstra, for coming up with ways to maximize what James could do on the court in tandem with two other guys who were used to leading their teams. 

This Welcome Party Was Also Bad News

Lebron’s game was the picture of efficiency in Miami. He developed what we all said he needed to develop during his time in Cleveland, a low post game. If you haven’t been paying attention to the NBA for the past five years or so, you will notice that the game has morphed into a “pace and space” league. The three point shot has become the biggest weapon in the game and the speed to guard these three point shooters has forced teams to play “small ball” where Lebron is generally playing power forward and can use his skill set to do basically anything he wants on a basketball court.  With teams going small to match speed with speed James became lethal in the post as a scorer and a facilitator. It didn’t hurt that he was also an all-world defender. Watching the Heat defend the pick and roll in those years was a thing of beauty. The pick and roll has been and always will be the best play in basketball and the Heat were better at defending that with frenetic pace than any one I can recall seeing. The Heat defense formed like Voltron and James was the head.

James had shot over 50% from the field once in seven season in Cleveland. He did it all four in Miami and shot an incredible 57% his final two years there. For a guy that does not dunk more than 50% of his field goals that is just an incredible stat. I’m of the opinion that he recognized his true calling as a basketball player in Miami. He’s never had the jump shooting ability of Michael Jordan, but he has the same body as Karl Malone. He belongs on the block where he can play bully ball and wreak havoc on a defense in any number of ways.

His four finals appearances in four years in Miami were up and down as you would expect considering he won two and lost two.

The loss in 2011 to the Mavericks was puzzling.  He once again played passively, similar to his 2010 loss to the Celtics, and Dirk Nowitzki was playing at another level. Regardless of how well Dirk played the Heat should have won that series. Jason Kidd was playing 40 minutes and scoring zero points for that team. That loss was on Lebron for not getting it done.
James' First Championship

The next year he exercised his demons and put a firm beat down on the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder who were just a bit too young and unseasoned to compete in that Finals. “About damn time,” Lebron said when clutching his MVP trophy. Yeah, it was.

It’s hard to say a title was won by luck but the 2013 championship win for the Heat was awfully lucky. The Heat were down 3 with less than 10 seconds to go when Ray Allen hit a series saving three off of a ricocheted loose ball offensive rebound. The Heat still had to take care of business at home in game 7 against the Spurs but one bounce the other way and Lebron only has one title in four chances in Miami. Heat fans were famously pouring out of the arena when Jesus Shuttlesworth sent that game to overtime. Shame on those punk fans.

In 2014, the Spurs came back with a vengeance and steam rolled the Heat who looked tired and worse for the wear. James saw the writing on the wall in Miami between Wade’s chronic knee issues and Bosh’s scary health issues and had structured his contract in a way that allowed him to once again test the free agent waters.

I was standing in line in Chick-Fil-A in the summer of 2014 when texts started pouring in that Lebron announced he was going home to Cleveland. I said to the guy next to me that James was headed back to Cleveland. He already knew. That’s how you know a guy is a superstar.

Lebron Announced he was Coming Back to Cleveland with an Essay he Wrote

James framed his decision to return home as being for the city of Cleveland and the Northeast Ohio region. I’m sure some of that is true, but if we’re being honest, James real reason to come back home was because it presented him with the best chance to win more championships. When he left, the Cavs obviously fell on hard times and that allowed them to (luckily) acquire two number one picks. Kyrie Irving, from Duke, was a budding superstar point guard on the rise (Lebron had never played with that kind of talent at point guard) and the Cavs had just selected number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins when James said he was coming back. De Facto GM Lebron quickly sent Wiggins out of town in return for Kevin Love. Whether or not that was a good move has been rendered moot.

The past two seasons in Cleveland and in particular the past two Finals have all been taken directly from what can be considered the Lebron James playbook. After 40 games last season, the Cavs were 19-21 and had lost 9 of 10. A team that talented clearly had some inner turmoil going on if that was the kind of results they were putting up in the NBA’s LEastern Conference. During that awful run, Lebron, as only Lebron can do, took a sabbatical. A what? A sabbatical. That’s right, James took two weeks (mid season!) to rest and recharge his batteries reportedly in Miami. He came back and the Cavs reeled off 12 straight and 18 out of 20. People were fired up about his absence, but when he came back and led the team to that kind of success it tends to silence the nay-sayers.

It was a foregone conclusion the Cavs would make it to the Finals but still up in the air as to who they were going to play. The “shoot the lights out” Golden State Warriors made it through the difficult Western Conference after a stellar season and held home court advantage for what was Lebron’s 5th straight NBA finals appearance. Kevin Love was lost in the first round of the playoffs after he separated his shoulder. After a solid NBA Finals debut in game 1, Kyrie Irving broke his knee cap in the 4th quarter and that left just the chosen one to take on a team that had yet to be stopped all season.

With the Cavs down 0-1 in a series where they were woefully over matched, Lebron James cemented his legacy in my mind. The Warriors are a team that can go on a 12-0 run in 46 seconds, they are a team that can switch defensively on almost any screen and not lose a beat, they are a team that has perhaps the best two shooters in NBA history. The Cavs had Lebron and Matthew Dellavedova and Timofy Mozgov. James went to work.  In a league where you almost always see pick and rolls, ball movement, and finding the man for the open shot the Cavs shunned all of it.

Lebron James was the Cavs offense in a game two overtime victory. On more than half their possessions he would get the ball on the wing and go to work one-on-one against a bevy of different defenders. Andre Iguodala seemed to be the best one to slow him down, but if you consider 39 points 16 rebounds and 11 assists slowing him down then that can be your prerogative. Back in Cleveland in game 3, we saw another genius performance from the only guy on the Cavs who would even start for the Warriors. You could argue that James was the best player in the series and the Warriors had the next best five players. James threw up an insane 40-12-8 line in game 3 and miraculously had his team leading the NBA Finals all by himself.

It fell apart for the Cavs from there but if you didn’t walk away from that series thinking Lebron James was the best player on the planet and the best player since Michael Jordan you were kidding yourself or an outright hater.

Then came the 2015-16 season and more controversy. Lebron James wasn’t getting along with his second year head coach David Blatt and had him shipped out of town on the first flight to Tel-Aviv (Blatt was a coach in the Israeli League for 15 years). Was it that he wasn’t getting along or just didn’t like Blatt’s coaching style? It does not really matter, the fact is de facto GM Lebron had Blatt sent packing and hand-picked his predecessor in former Allen Iverson nemesis Tyronn Lue.  Was Lebron’s primadonna presence submarining the Cavs? Did his recruiting of Kevin Love and his lack of fit in the Cavs system hinder his chances for a title? Did Lebron overvalue Kyrie Irving and his talent? Lebron answered all those questions with a virtuoso performance in the 2016 NBA Finals.

Heading to Cleveland after getting spanked in games one and two in a rematch of the 2015 Finals the Cavs were dead in the water. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson hadn’t even played well and the Cavs were blown out of the building and it looked like Lebron’s 7th finals appearance would leave him with a 2-5 record on the game’s biggest stage. Steve Kerr was coaching circles around Tyronn Lue. Kyrie Irving was wilting in the spotlight. JR Smith forgot that he’s allowed to shoot the ball and Kevin Love was concussed. Even James had pedestrian stat totals.

Not Quite Human

After blowing the Warriors out in game 3 the Cavs had a shot to really make it a series and even things up in game 4 in Cleveland. It was not to be. The Warriors never allowed the Cavs to make game 4 a game and with a 3-1 advantage the series was  all but over. In fact, 32 teams had gone up 3-1 in an NBA Finals and all 32 teams won the championship. Only two teams had even forced a game 7.

The Warriors controversial and outspoken leader Draymond Green messed up in an already over game four though. After a tussle with James, Green fell to the floor and James stepped over him. While James stepped over him Green took a swipe at Lebron’s man area. Classic Draymond Green if you’ve been following him this year. Enough was enough and Green was over the threshold for flagrant fouls and he was suspended for game 5. Game 5 tipped this series on its ear.

Back in Oakland, Kyrie Irving got his groove back. Lebron was not going to be able to do this all himself and thanks to Kyrie he didn’t have to. In game five Kyrie Irving could not miss. In 40 minutes he scored 41 points on 17-24 shooting including 5-7 from 3 point range. Irving’s game is significantly different from what you see for the most part in the NBA today. He has a whole lot of Sidney Deane in him. Irving is a wizard ball handler in traffic and is easily a top 5 finisher and pull up jump shooter in the game. I’d like to get somebody to run a reel of how many times play-by-play announcer Mike Breen said the phrase “Irving, shakes, bakes, gets two” during the last three games of the series. Not to be outdone, Lebron matched Irving’s 41 points and added 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, and 3 blocks for good measure.  It was the first time in NBA Finals history two teammates went for 40+ in the same game. No big deal. The series would head back to Cleveland where the James gang would have a chance on their home court to force a game 7.

Game six was over before it even got started really. All the Cavs had to do was hold on, and the Warriors didn’t even make them hold on for dear life.  James was everything out of the gate and the Cavs were up 20 after the first quarter. After a reluctance to shoot jumpers due to a faltering shot James found something in game 5 and still had it in game 6. James shot 16-27 from the field and toyed with the Warriors in the 4th quarter making Tristan Thompson look like a world beater on impressive assist after impressive assist. Thompson went 6-6 from the field and I have to think James assisted on a minimum of 4 of those buckets, all dunks.

Then came game 7. A legacy defining game. A game that could have been considered the biggest game in NBA history, if not in the top 5. It would mean Lebron not getting it done yet again with Warriors winning their second straight title and capping off the greatest season in NBA history, or Lebron officially becoming immortal in the annals of the NBA. So there was little bit riding on this.

 For years and years Charles Barkley has said that jump shooting teams can’t win championships. Even though the Warriors proved him wrong in 2015, he was right on the mark in 2016 because the best jump shooting team of all time could not buy a three pointer in the second half of the biggest game of their lives. The Warriors clung to a 1 point lead heading to the fourth and the game got knotted at 89 all for what seemed like an eternity. The defense was ratcheded up as high as it could go and nobody was getting clean looks at the basket. It felt like the next bucket could win the game or at least put a stranglehold on who would win.  After more than 3 minutes of game time at the same score, Andre Iguodala got out on a break and looked like he’d be coasting in for the go-ahead layup with under two minutes to play.

                                                     Then Lebron happened.

Nobody Else in the World Makes this Block

Iguodala was taking off from just past the free throw line and James was still outside the three point line and closing in on the ball like a heat seeking missile. Iguodala got the lay up out and high off the glass. In came James soaring above the rim, his head even with it, as he pinned the ball against the glass an inch before it hit the backboard and it was a play that will live in infamy. I didn’t watch any Bill Russell Finals games but I have to believe that was the best block in NBA history considering the athleticism it took to do it and the magnitude of the situation in which it came . That was a “nobody else on the planet can make that block” block and that’s why you have to have an appreciation for Lebron James.

Irving wound up hitting the game winning three, and even Kevin Love played nice defense on Steph Curry in the waning moments, but none of it happens without The King. James finished with a triple double, just the third ever in an NBA Finals Game 7. I’ve written about it before but I’ll say it again. If the Sixers don’t have what it takes, I just want to watch greatness. This Finals was just that. There’s not much left for the detractors to discuss after an all time performance from an all time player and I’m just glad I got to witness it and say I watched James in his prime and there was nobody better.

The guy led the entire Finals in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. Read that sentence again, and then maybe one more time for good measure. There's barely adjectives that exist for a performance like this. Astonishing.

He was just locked in. Once he caught fire with Kyrie in game five, whether he said it to his teammates or not, you could see it on his face, he was in no way we’re going to lose this title! mode.

And he didn’t.

* I believe millions of dollars were raised for the Boys and Girls Club of America for that show so it was not all bad.