The SportsTalk Shop: “Simplifying” Sixers Draft Options

There has been lots of debate (partially because of the lack of any other positive sports news) in the Delaware Valley over the last few weeks about the 76ers’ upcoming NBA draft selections.  There have also been varying opinions and radical mock-draft shifts—some of which have no possible way of coming true.

In order to help cut through the misinformation and get Sixers’ fans ready for the June 22nd draft, here are a few “clear-cut” things to know in helping you figure out what Philadelphia will do.

1) Remember Your Needs 

  • a point guard (or point-forward) who can run the offense
  • a guard who can DEFEND the opposition’s point guard
  • a wing player who can shoot from the outside & stretch opposing team’s defense
  • a lock-down defensive player

After years of selecting the best available player in the draft, the time has clearly come when the Sixers must focus in on filling their biggest needs and not necessarily adding the most talented player available when making your pick(s).  You are probably looking at adding at least three players who can fill these needs, which is very important when looking at what the team must do over the next few weeks (and not just in the draft).

2) Careful Evaluation of Your Options
The conventional wisdom is that the Celtics select Markelle Fultz with the first pick and Lonzo Ball (and his controversial father) would head to the Lakers with the second pick.  That leaves four most probable players for the 76ers to decide on.

Here’s a scaled-down scouting report from CBS on the first three players most likely to be available:

  • Jayson Tatum – can play right away .. quality jump shooter potential .. a multi-positional defender
  • Josh Jackson – great defender .. physically ready to contribute … needs a consistent jumper in order to become a tremendous player
  • De’Aaron Fox – great speed … true PG .. a jump shot away from being frightening

Notice a pattern?  All three of these options are missing one of the biggest needs the Sixers have right now.

Of these three, Fox probably has the most upside and can be the biggest impact.  However, 76ers President of basketball operations and General Manager Bryan Colangelo made the rounds on many radio talk shows and podcasts clearly stating that he believes Ben Simmons is unquestionably going to be the point guard—on offense—for his team for the foreseeable future.  Unless he’s purely posturing (and he likely could be), selecting Fox would create a log-jam, pitting two of the team’s biggest names at the same position on the floor.  However, if you’re willing to NOT have your offense run through Simmons, Fox would add speed and a very strong point guard defender to your team.

Tatum and Jackson are similar players with minor differences and each could enhance your wing players—although not guaranteeing that you’d fill the much-needed role of an outside shooter, which brings us to option number four—Malik Monk.

Monk may be the best pure shooter of anyone in the draft and he would fill one of your biggest needs for a long time.  However, Monk doesn’t give you much size, he’s not a great defender and may only be a one-dimensional offensive weapon if he can’t find a way to score off his own dribble.  Selecting him with the 3rd pick in the draft would be a reach in a year in which the 76ers MUST take an impact player.

3) The Trade/Free Agent Factor

The 76ers have tried many times to add an established veteran, either through free agency or via trade over the last couple seasons, which virtually no success in adding an established presence.   Between not wanting to play in Philadelphia to outrageous financial demands to not finding a good dealing partner, Colangelo and Company have not been able to obtain a standout star to help fill in some of the gaps.  If they could add one or two pieces to solve SOME of the above needs, then that would make your first round selection much easier to figure out.

There are a few names out there who I think would vastly improve the team:

  • The Clippers’ JJ Riddick ($ 6.9-million AAV) is an unrestricted free agent, a great character guy, a great long-range shooter –not a star–but someone who wouldn’t be overly expensive to add. Would he want to come to a team that’s still a few years away from contending is the issue.
  • Denver’s Danilo Gallinari has great size (6’10), is a great-shooter and would be a great “stretch-four” (allowing Dario Saric to be a potent weapon off the bench) and would give you an established veteran presence, but his AAV last year was over $ 15-million and will command even more combined with a long-term deal that might prevent you from adding any other pieces.
  • Otto Porter is the youngest of the three names listed here and is an unselfish player who would fit in brilliantly with Simmons, Embiid and whichever star the Sixers would draft. His AAV was under $ 5-million but is a restricted free agent, and my contacts down in the Washington area all would be shocked if the Wizards don’t make a big push to resign him—meaning the Sixers would have to drastically overpay to add him.

The 76ers also could trade away their draft pick, to either move down and get a player like Monk, or package that to trade for another established player—if their front office is willing to go that route.

Only the Sixers front office knows to what lengths they’ll go to add a free agent or two, and what other teams would require in order to obtain that much-needed veteran.  If you could unlock that mystery, you would know exactly what Philadelphia is looking to for this year’s NBA Draft.

For more on the 76ers, the DMV’s Markelle Fultz and other NBA issues, check out the latest “SportsTalk” podcast featuring CBS Sports Radio Talk Show Host/Reporter Jon Johnson at rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk

Behind the Mic: Activity Suspended

“Activity suspended” – believe it or not, that is one of the definitions of a vacation.  Well, I just returned from vacation and, trust me when I tell you, activity was not suspended.

Before I get into the details, I want to thank John Leone, Scott Barr, Jim Best, and Randy Kane for filling my blog space while I was away.  They did wonderful pieces on a variety of topics and you should take the time to go back and read them if you haven’t done so.

While they were helping me, my wife and I were sailing on a two-week cruise on the Harmony of the Seas for our “suspension of activities” after the football and basketball seasons.

The ship (do not call it a boat) is the largest sailing vessel on the seas.  6,000 passengers are on board each week.  There are seven different “neighborhoods” to be found throughout the five stories–

  • A royal promenade (think shopping mall)
  • Central Park (think New York with live trees, upscale New York restaurants, and expensive jewelry stores and a beautiful open-air walkway)
  • A boardwalk (complete with a merry-go-round, two dry nine-story slides, two restaurants, a hot-dog shop and an aquatic theater)
  • An entertainment area (think a major theater, an ice theater, a comedy club, a jazz club, and a karaoke bar)
  • The pool area and water park (think three water slides and three pools)
  • A sports zone (think zip line, miniature golf, surfboarding, a basketball court, and ping-pong)
  • A spa (think “suspension of activities”)

If you think that is enough to keep you busy, let me get to the entertainment:

  • Two full-scale production shows (Grease and Columbus, the Musical)
  • A headliner show (a ventriloquist in week one and an a cappella group in week two)
  • Two full production ice shows
  • Two aquatic shows featuring high diving from 10 stories above the theater pool at the back of a moving ship
  • A comedy club featuring two new comedians each week
  • Three game shows
  • A major casino
  • An art auction, etc.

And, of course, there is the food and drink.  There is always food – all the time, anytime.  In fact there are 25 different places to eat (at least that’s what I counted) and 37 bars (no, I did not try each one).

To attempt to see and do everything in a week, or even two, leads me to believe that Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, and the Cambridge Dictionary need to re-think their vacation definition when it comes to cruising – please drop “suspension of activity”.

It is much more restful at my desk.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. I will watch the NBA finals between Golden State and Cleveland. Now that should be great basketball.
  2. It is not easy to keep up with the sports scene on the ship. Upon returning, I realized the Phillies were 2-11 while I was gone.  I was glad I could not keep up while away.
  3. The 76’ers will get the #3 draft pick this year, so the franchise can continue to add good players. I just hope they add a player who can actually play and not be on the injury list for most of the season.  When will the Philadelphia fans finally see a competitive product?
  4. Parkland won the EPC baseball championship by beating Liberty. It was their 20th league championship, far more than any other school.  Congratulations!
  5. Once again, on Memorial Day, we will replay some of our most memorable football, basketball, and wrestling contests this past season (see schedule here). Everyone is a classic if you want to relive the memories.

Behind the Mic: Brotherly Love?

Philadelphia was certainly in the limelight this past week with the Democratic National Convention taking center stage.  All of the media had a presence there.  However, there was no national sports media.

I bring this up because Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza were inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, July 24.

I watched the great Griffey, Jr. play with the Mariners and the Reds.  His numbers were awesome – 630 home runs, 13 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Glove Awards, and the statistical list goes on and on.  He received 99.32% of the votes, the highest ever in Hall of Fame history.

Mike Piazza’s story was even more amazing.  As a favor to Dodgers manager, Tommy LaSorda, he was drafted in the 62nd round.  He went on to hit the most home runs by a catcher, bat .308 lifetime, and spent 16 years in the majors.  He was an All-Star 10 consecutive seasons.  He certainly repaid the favor – but mostly as a New York Met.

So what does this have to do with Philadelphia?  The ceremony in Cooperstown made me wonder who the last Philadelphia Phillie was to be inducted into the Hall.  I discovered it has been a while – 21 years to be exact.  On July 30, 1995, Mike Schmidt and Richie Ashburn entered that day.  And Philadelphia celebrated with an estimated 25,000+ fans showing up for the induction ceremony.

Twenty-one years is a long time.  And it will only get longer, it appears.  As you look at the list of “potential” Phillies to get a consideration, you come up empty.  Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Bobby Abreu will all probably come up short.  Jim Thome, Scott Rolen, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Curt Schilling could possibly get in.  Just not as Phillies.

And it’s not just the Phillies casting a pall over the Philadelphia sports scene.  The Eagles’ last Hall-of-Famer was Reggie White – 24 years ago.  The 76ers’ last was Charles Barkley in 2006.  And neither of these teams appears to be going to get someone in their respective Halls very soon.  Flyers’ fans certainly remember their Hall of Famers Bill Barber (1990), Bobby Clarke (1987), and Bernie Parent (1984), but their inductions were a long time ago.  Mark Howe was the last Philadelphia professional inducted in 2011 in The National Hockey League Hall of Fame.

So as much as we admire the Piazzas and the Griffey, Jr.s of the sporting world, Philadelphia fans would much prefer seeing one of their professional athletes in the limelight.  National politicians?  Not so much.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. The Phillies are batting .218 in their home games this year and are scoring 2.92 runs per game at Citizens Bank Park. That’s the lowest run production in any home park in the major leagues.  Buy your ticket and see no offense at all.
  2. Because July 31 was a Sunday, the Major League Baseball trade deadline was extended to 4:00pm on Monday, August 1. As I write this, phone lines around the MLB offices must be buzzing with activity.  Someone might want to trade for the LA Dodgers’ ball girl.  On Sunday, she caught a foul ball traveling at 108.7 miles per hour.
  3. If you need a Lehigh Valley reason to watch the Olympics, then let Joe Kovacs be that reason. Joe, a Bethlehem Catholic graduate, is a medal favorite in the shotput in Rio.  He won the world championships last year.  The final for shot put is August 18 @ 8:00pm.
  4. Sunday produced another great “Major” finish in golf. The PGA Championship came down to the final putt of the final match.  Jimmy Walker (no, not of “Dyn-o-mite” fame) won his first major.  Every major golf tournament this year was won by a first-timer.
  5. The Patriot League Football Media Day was this week, so the pads will be thumping between now and opening day or night. RCNTV has Central Catholic at Freedom on opening night, August 26.

The SportsTalk Shop: “THE” 76ers Pick

I try to maintain a “level head” when forming my sports opinions.  When fans rush from one extreme to the another (eg.,remember fans proclaiming the Eagles were going to the Super Bowl last year?), I try to take a step back and examine things objectively from all sides.

But…

I must admit, when the rumors were coming in hot and heavy for the 76ers to be “major dealers” (per ESPN) come the night of the NBA Draft, I was getting exciting for some major shake-ups and perhaps, finally, some resolution as to what this team will do with all the “bigs” they have in their front court.

So, when the team didn’t do anything – which slightly overshadowed the fact that they got the best player available in the country in Ben Simmons – I was initially disappointed with the organization.  But, as some time passed, I felt good about the team’s draft night and think we actually learned a few important facts about the Sixers and how the “Colangelo Era” will proceed through this rebuilding process.

BRYAN COLANGELO IS NOT HOWIE ROSEMAN
Not that any of Roseman’s moves this off-season are currently viewed as a “bad” move, but Roseman clearly had Chip Kelly issues and expediently removed all traces of Kelly’s influence with the Eagles following Chip’s departure.  Clearly, the Colangelos and Sam Hinkie could not co-exist, but I credit both Jerry and Bryan Colangelo for not stubbornly trying to undo everything that Hinkie tried to establish—just to prove themselves to the fan base.

I did start to get nervous when the rumors indicated the 76ers might deal Jahlil Okafor AND Nerlens Noel AND the 24th AND the 26th picks in the draft.  With a guard-heavy draft coming up, and the team owning three first-round picks over the next two years, there was no need to unload everything that Hinkie had built up just to make a deal for the third pick in this year’s draft.

NERLENS NOEL MIGHT HAVE MORE VALUE THAN WE EXPECTED
IF the 76ers were going to make a move to get the third pick in last week’s draft, I was perfectly OK giving up Noel for a potential starting guard (aka Kris Dunn).  But it seems that there was more interest in Noel than Okafor, which might be the reason the Sixers chose to hold on to both players.

Think about this…if you are the Sixers and Joel Embiid is healthy (or, if you’re any other team and already have an established starting center), which player would you rather have?

Noel is a shot-blocking/rim-protector guy who could back up Embiid and maybe play a little “four” against certain lineups.  And, IF Simmons turns out to be a major star, and IF Embiid is as good as some envision, wouldn’t Noel be a better complement than Okafor, who’s a major scorer, with not much defense, who can only play the five spot on the floor?

Since the Sixers are not going to win a championship next year (and I still have major issues regarding Embiid’s health), perhaps it was wise to hold onto Noel and see what shakes out, and wait until next year’s draft (or free agency) before deciding on a back court pairing to build your team around.

HOW MUCH VALUE DOES OKAFOR REALLY HAVE?
Before the draft, everyone, including me, seemed to think that trading Okafor would automatically get you the third best pick in the draft.  After all, the Celtics desperately needed a big man, and Okafor seemingly would have been a great fit.  But at the end of the day, Dunn fell to the fifth spot, meaning, if the Sixers were as aggressive in their talks as reported, two other teams other than Boston would have had an opportunity to pick up Okafor as an unproved talent…and passed.

High-quality guards were also selected at the sixth and seventh spots—which is interesting since CBS Sports reported before the draft that Philadelphia was very aggressively looking to move up and select a second “top eight” pick, but elected not to do so at the end of the day.

I still think he’s a valuable piece to the 76ers moving forward—mainly because I have very little confidence that Embiid will ever be the player most hope he’ll be (too many bad Jeff Ruland nightmares, perhaps, still fresh in my memory).   If you traded Okafor before knowing if Embiid can play, you might suddenly go from having too many scoring options at the center position to very little.

The best thing that could happen is that Embiid shows he’s healthy this year, but Okafor still gets enough minutes and takes a big step forward in developing his game during the 2016-17 campaign. If (there’s that word again) he increases his value,  a playoff-bound/post-player-starved team over pays to give you more than you would have acquired than by moving him this summer.

WHO’S DEFENDING WHO?
It was strongly hinted at after the draft that Simmons, who might be the team’s “point forward,” might be guarding other teams’ power forward, which brings us to another huge question regarding having all these post players in the first place…

Defense!

For argument’s sake, say Embiid is healthy, Dario Saric decides to play for the 76ers this year and no other forward/centers are moved.  Your potential “first eight in the rotation” could look something like this:
Ish Smith
Isaiah Canaan
Nik Stauskas
Ben Simmons
Dario Saric
Nerlens Noel
Jahlil Okafor
Joel Embiid

Question…who, among all these players, would guard the opposing team’s small forward?  Considering some of the league’s most dominating players play that position, it’s a question that probably won’t be answered this season (barring a significant move).  But developing some defensive stalwarts (in addition to another point guard, an outstanding long-range shooting guard, et al) have to be major priorities as you move forward with this rebuilding effort.

All in all, I think the 76ers make all the right decisions with this year’s draft.  I’m expecting some mid-level free agents to be added to the mix to help develop the younger players (both on and off the court) and the team should add more wins and have more interesting storylines to watch for this winter.

Put the Kris Dunn talk (and guards of a similar ilk) behind you–for now–and try to concentrate on taking the next “baby steps” as this process inches forward towards a better, brighter 2018 season.

Or 2019 … or 2020.

PROGRAMMING NOTE:   NBA & 76ers Beat Writer Tom Moore (Caulkins Media) will be joining us on this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” (live at 7pm, RCN-TV) to give his insights on the this year’s NBA draft.  The show will also be available via our podcast (rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk) on Friday.

The SportsTalk Shop: Biggest Philly/DC Disappointments

Many national pundits had the Eagles going to the Super Bowl this year, and the Nationals were odds-on favorites to win the pennant.

The Birds were flirting with what could have been a catastrophic 1-4 start to their season (it was looking that way following Sam Bradford‘s second red-zone interception in the first half against the Saints on Sunday).  That combined with the fact that the Nats had already crash-landed well before the MLB playoffs got underway last week, got me thinking about some of the major sports disappointments that both Philadelphia and Washington, DC residents have had to endure.

Without question, there have been some horrendous teams in both of these cities.  But I’m talking about having even the most stoic fans getting caught up in a frenzy, ready to ride a sea of momentum to glorious new heights, only to have one’s hopes dashed to smithereens, leaving you feeling emotionally drained when your team failed to live up to the extraordinary expectations.

Just how does this year’s Nationals season and the Eagles slow start compare with the other major sports catastrophes in the region?  For argument’s sake—and to avoid using up too much of the internet’s bandwidth–I thought I better limit my Philly/DC-based disappointments to not more than the last 15 years.

Here are my thoughts on what have been the “other” biggest pro sports disappointments for fans in the RCN viewing area.

The Phillies 2011 Playoffs
From December, 2010 until the final week of the regular season, it seemed like it was a magic carpet ride for Phillies fans.  Launched into a frenzy over the signing of Cliff Lee, the regular season and preliminary playoff rounds were a mere formality, and everyone wanted to see the “Aces” baffling hitters right and left en route to another World Series appearance…and presumed victory.

For reasons I’ll never completely understand, nor agree with, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel decided to play all of his regulars the final weekend of the season, instead of giving a couple blows to his everyday players, who had started advancing in years (by athletes’ standards, that is).  By playing their top players, and ultimately sweeping the series, the final three of those meaningless games (the Phillies had long since clinched the division title), the team missed an opportunity to rest its players, and knocked its opponents, the struggling Braves, out of the playoff race.  While the last three Phillies wins set a new club record for regular season victories for Manuel, it also gave rise to the hard-charging St. Louis Cardinals, a team the Phils did not match up against well, and positioned the Redbirds into the opposing slot to face the Phillies in the wild card playoffs.

Philadelphia’s tired hitters struggled to gain any traction against the Redbirds after the first game, and the team that everyone assumed would become the greatest Phillies team of all-time, went out with a game-five whimper—a 1-0 loss to St. Louis.  That team might have been the most talented club in the organization’s history on paper, but they failed to bring home a single playoff series win, and started what has become an incredibly long, drawn-out, rebuilding cycle.

The Redskins 2000 season
In 1999, the Skins were coming off a 10-6 season and had won the NFC East.  Mix in a renewed belief that the front office was “all in,” and that a promise of spending money in the offseason fueled the fervor that Washington was beginning to build another dynasty in DC.

They did, in fact, spend money and added some great players, including LaVar Arrington, Bruce Smith, Jeff George, Mark Carrier, Chris Samuels and–last and certainly not least flamboyant–Deion Sanders.  This complemented the return of the core of a talented offensive unit and a number of their defensive players.  Many expected another division title was a no-brainer with many people banking on Washington to at least get to the Super Bowl.  The Redskins won six of its first eight games, before the injuries set in to some of its key offensive players and…of all people, their kicker (sound familiar, Eagles fans?).   Then, Head Coach Norv Turner was let go (perhaps foreshadowing, Philadelphians, especially if the Birds don’t at least get back to 8-8?).

Instead of building on the ’99 team’s success and establishing a string of winning campaigns, Washington ended up losing six of its final eight games and failed to cash in on all the revitalized excitement that the ’99 team brought.

Marty Shottenheimer would then take over the head coaching reins for one fateful season the following year, going 8-8 that fall.  But the failure of 2000 started a seemingly endless cycle of revolving coaches over the last 15 years, with none of the seven subsequent head coaches to follow Turner owning a winning record while at the helm of the Redskins.

The Wizards’ “Michael Jordan Era”
After failing to win a playoff game for over 12 years, it seemed like the Wizards were finally headed back in the right direction when, in January 2000, Michael Jordan became the part owner and President of Basketball Operations.   Aside from his baseball experiment, everything that “MJ” had touched during his career had turned to gold.  His basketball playing career, his merchandising and advertisement campaigns…heck, I even liked “Space Jam.”  With his playing days finally behind him, he could focus completely on revamping the franchise using his acute basketball knowledge and business savvy.  Surely, Jordan would have the Midas touch to turn this franchise around and at least get Washington back into the NBA playoffs—whose eight-team format allows for even the most mediocre teams to have a shot at reaching the post-season.

In a short time, he made some positive moves by shedding payroll and unloading some of the dead weight that existed on the team and it looked like he was moving the franchise in the right direction.  Then came the 2001 NBA Draft and the selection of Kwame Brown (who ended up being traded to the Lakers after four inconsistent seasons).  Jordan brought in his former head coach in Chicago, Doug Collins, as the head coach, followed by his announcement that he, himself, would return as a player.

In his first year back (which followed his second retirement, for those keeping score at home), he battled injuries and the team he assembled was just not good enough to compete.  To his credit, he was active from a personnel standpoint prior to the 2002 season and tried to bring in headline names to improve the team.  While he continued to add talent and even agreed to take a reserve role for the betterment of the team (although he ended the year as the team’s top scorer), the chemistry never worked, and the team failed to finish at or above the 500-mark during his tenure, much less had a chance to make the playoffs.

Jordan was then unceremoniously fired as the team President and left the organization in disgust, pushing back the organization’s rebuild efforts for years.

The team finally has made great strides over the last few seasons, a trend I am fully expecting to continue this winter.  But the failures of Michael Jordan left Washington fans, along with MJ supporters around the world, with an empty feeling, and tainted the final on-court chapter of one of the greatest basketball players of all-time.

The 76ers 2001 Playoff Run
I know.   Philly sports fans could just as easily identify this team as one of its brightest moments over the last 15 years.

To be honest, I don’t remember glorious preseason expectations for the 76ers.  However, the way that the team played in the fall of 2000, led by the gutsy, and largely, very focused efforts of Allen Iverson that year, the 76ers quickly captured the attention of the entire Delaware Valley.  Iverson was living up to all his glorious potential, and the team won 41 of its first 55 games.  Even when starting center Theo Ratliff came down with an injury (he was initially supposed to miss 16-20 games per ESPN), it still seemed like the old-time Philly basketball mojo was flowing strong.  The Lakers were heavily favored to win the championship, but if Ratliff could get healthy, he could combine with Todd MacCulloch, Matt Geiger and Nazr Mohammed to form a formidable “hack-a-Shaq” tandem that could neutralize Shaquille O’Neil, and the Sixers speed could push the tempo and have an advantage against most teams in the post-season.

Until….

February 23, 2001, when the Sixers traded Ratliff, Toni Kukoc (one of just two players with NBA Championship experience) and others to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutombo.

Don’t get me wrong.  Mutombo is not only a wonderful person (he was incredibly gracious the few times I had the opportunity to interview him), a great humanitarian, and one of the best centers—when he was at his peak—of that era.  He was still one of the better centers in the game, but his slow, plodding-style kept the 76ers from utilizing its speed against Los Angeles in the championship round.  Furthermore, while that trade might have looked good on paper, the team never quite recaptured the swagger that it had before the Mutombo trade (the Sixers were 15-12 the rest of the regular season).

Iverson’s late game-one jumper and subsequent iconic stomp over Tyronn Lue became a sports moment few Philadelphians will ever forget.  But I remembered thinking when it happened, something along the lines of “yea, we weren’t suppose to be here, and we’re winning tonight’s game, and all things considered, we’re going to be proud of that moment.”  But the adrenaline rush soon subsided, and the O’Neil/Bryant pairing led Los Angeles to four consecutive victories, in which they outscored the slow-footed Sixers by 40 points in the final four games.

In retrospect, the Sixers certainly exceeded what most people had expected out of that team before the season started.  Much like the 1993 Phillies team, the entire Delaware Valley had gotten swept up in the blue-collar efforts and good vibes through that entire fall and winter season, but the feeling was never quite the same as the 76ers finished out their spring playoff run.  Did they overachieve?  Certainly.  It featured a tremendous team effort and the gritty performances of Iverson, Eric Snow, George Lynch and company.  But the team has never really been the same since, and what could have been still lingers among those long-time fans patiently waiting for the “Hinkie Plan” to develop.

Final Eagles game at the Veteran’s Stadium
If there ever was a time in my life when I thought I could bet the house—literally—on a game, it had to be the Eagles/Buccaneers game in January, 2003.  As someone who grew up—both as a fan and a reporter—at what had become an old, rundown ball field, I thought the “Vet” would work some magic one last time for its final professional football game.  And what a game it was.  The Birds were 12-3 coming in.  Donavan McNabb, the franchise quarterback, was living up to what Head Coach Andy Reid had envisioned when he drafted him.  The Birds had the defense, the offensive playmakers, and special team stars.  Even Mother Nature seemed to be helping out—and Tampa Bay had struggled mightily in cold conditions in previous games, and a wind chill in the teens seemed to be the final signal that the Eagles were finally going to advance to the Super Bowl.

Instead, Philadelphia looked flat, was manhandled physically and truly sent Eagles fans home dejected and with lumps in their throats—and not just because of the sorry way the team closed out its tenure at a worn-out stadium.

That game may be lost in an era of missed opportunities and “what could have beens.”  While optimists can say it was the golden era for Eagles football, one can also point examples of post-season futility.  During a ten-year span where the Birds won six division titles and finished second two more seasons, they lost two Wild Card games, two divisional round playoff games, three conference final losses and a pitiful end to the 2004 Super Bowl.

What are your thoughts on this list?  Should other pro sports teams be included, and where would you rank these, along with the 2015 Eagles and Nationals seasons?  Email your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we might just read your comments on an upcoming “SportsTalk” program.

The SportsTalk Shop: The End of the Innocence

The End of the Innocence
Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world….

But “Happily ever after” fails
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers dwell on small details
Since daddy had to fly

We’ll sit and watch the clouds roll by
And the tall grass wave in the wind
You can lay your head back on the ground
And let your hair fall all around me
Offer up your best defense
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence

–Don Henley, “The End of the Innocence”

This song came to mind the other day following a conversation I was having with some of our RCN-TV crew members about, strangely enough, the Philadelphia 76ers. At that time, there were rumors about potential deals the Sixers could make, and one of the more prominent ones discussed included Jeremy Lin coming to Philly. During our debate, one person said that Lin might be the best available player to help the team this year—to which I quickly jumped in and said that they’re not looking to acquire him to help the team win this year. I explained the, uh hem, logic, behind the philosophy that the 76ers don’t want to improve this year. In fact, having a significant improvement this season could set the franchise back years. Let me explain…

For folks not familiar with the peculiarities of the NBA salary “cap,” the 76ers are trying to peel away as much money as possible to try to clear cap “space,” so that they have funds down the road (aka, 3-4 years from now) to acquire big name talent. The flip side of that is there is also a salary “floor” where the team must spend a certain amount of money to avoid paying a penalty. What the Sixers are trying to do is find the most expensive (overpaid?) player(s) they can find to help them get to the salary minimum, but make sure they don’t acquire enough “quality” players so that the team struggles again this season and has a better chance of a lottery pick next summer.

The benefit of acquiring Lin or an expensive option like him (he has since gone to the Lakers) is that they could pick up a player with a big enough contract so that they wouldn’t have to add additional players to get to the salary floor. The Sixers are looking to avoid bringing in additional “better” players because higher quality players mean the team would win more games—which is clearly not something they want to do. To put it another way, the team would rather bring in one slightly better player with a huge contract (like Lin), instead of having to bring in, say, three quality players making less money to avoid running the risk of winning more games.

To people who are not familiar with this new, ‘unique’ strategy, this approach to building a sports franchise may seem somewhat bizarre. Yet most Philly sports fans have accepted and even embrace the “together we build” mantra and are perfectly willing to be successfully bad for the near future (although I don’t think some fans realize just how long this may actually take). If successful, it will probably be the mold that other teams use for years to come.

In full disclosure, I have basically been on board with this strategy from the beginning. Sure, I did a double-take when the team traded away their only premium piece in Jrue Holiday last year. And I certainly had to catch my breath in last month’s NBA draft when the team selected injury-riddled Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, who, if he plays for the 76ers at all, won’t be available until 2016. But when I stopped to consider “the plan” the team adopted, it all seemed to make perfectly good sense.

Until I said it out loud.

Is this really what professional sports is turning into…and what exactly are we grooming the sports fans of the future to accept?

If my son was a Sixers or pro basketball fan—which he is not—how exactly do I explain this “anti-winning” strategy to someone under the age of 16, and have it make enough sense to get them interested in the sport? Should we encourage our young people to ignore badly played basketball for the next two to three seasons because we really don’t want to win anyway? Do we put the parental control lock on the Sixers for three years until they become something worth watching? Or do we follow another team and show examples of how well they play only to then “bandwagon-jump” over to the 76ers when (if) they start having a winning season? This is the Delaware Valley after all, and the proposition of the third idea disgusts me.

In the meantime, the young people in Eastern Pennsylvania will find some other things of interest to them…the Eagles, Flyers, video games or what have you. Hopefully, they’ll somehow find a way to get excited about the sport of basketball and learn about the excitement of the sport by watching some local high school and college teams. And IF the team is good by the 2017-18 NBA season, possibly the novelty of a winning pro basketball team will attract older kids back to the sport.

Or perhaps we need to start teaching kids about all the business aspects of sports before we tell them to work on their free throw shooting or teach them how to figure out players’ rebounds-per-game averages. Maybe it’s time to sit our young people down and say that, while winning is stressed, and sometimes, over-stressed, at the lower levels, there are certain situations when it’s OK if we don’t go all-out and try our best to succeed.

Perhaps we should be having more adult-type conversations on how the modern sports world is evolving, and cut back on teaching sports fundamentals, the histories of our favorite teams and simply, having fun with games.

Maybe it is the end of the innocence.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: 4 Spring Observations

Most weeks, when I sit down to write my weekly blog, there’s one issue or topic that rises above all others, making my writing discussion decisions rather easy. However, as I sat down to started brainstorming (insert your own jokes here) about which topic to delve into this week, I found myself getting pulled in a few different directions. So instead of an in-depth commentary on just one issue, I have thoughts on four topics of conversation going on in the Delaware and Lehigh Valley areas.

1. The Flyers DO have a chance to advance.
I’ve been riding an emotional roller coaster with this team all season. From the coaching change early in the year…to weeks of spectacular play…to Craig Berube calling out his players for lackluster play right before the playoffs commenced…I really wasn’t sure what to expect for the Flyers’ postseason. I was leaning towards a Flyers series win over the Rangers in six games, but then I heard the ominous report on Steve Mason and was skeptical of any advancement. However, Ray Emery’s 31 saves in net on Sunday gave me and all Flyers fans hope and, just as importantly, tied the opening round series at one game a piece. Unless the Flyers sweep at home, they would have to win at least one more game at Madison Square Garden (Sunday’s victory was their first at MSG since 2011). However, the way Philadelphia was skating in game two and the quality shots they’ve been taking has made me a believer in this team, and I think they can win the series in seven games.

2. The weather is severely affecting the high school baseball season.
I know, the weather has made a mess for everyone over the last five months. During any given week, practice schedules change numerous times, game planning sessions are drastically shortened and young athletes are playing games at a rate in which the professional sports’ unions would be protesting in earnest if it was suggested they play a similar schedule. It hasn’t been fun for all the scholastic sports. However, in high school baseball, rules limit the amount of innings a pitcher can throw in a given week and the weather does give bigger schools and teams with more pitchers an inherent advantage. With most teams having to play four, five or even six games in a seven-day stretch, there are teams that simply don’t have enough quality pitching to compete. It addition to an uneven playing field, the games themselves are also affected. A “regular” pitcher may throw the first five innings of a game, but then may reach his innings limit, forcing someone who normally doesn’t pitch into emergency duty. The result? A 2-1 pitchers’ dual turns into a 15-13 slugfest (and then games that run too long might be cut short because of daylight issues early in the season). It’s not a fun way to play, but the local coaches and athletes have done their best under horrible circumstances.

3. It wasn’t pretty, but the 76ers’ season came to a merciful end.
It isn’t often that a professional sports team can guarantee how their season will unfold and then deliver on its promise. Armed with the “together we build” mantra and the preseason objective of trying to lose on purpose in order to enhance its lottery draft chances, the 76ers tied an all-time record for consecutive losses this past season. After stunning the world with a season-opening win against the Heat, the season quickly went south and the trade-deadline purge helped push the franchise to all new levels of futility. Ironically, their season closed out with a pair of wins – against Boston and a short-handed Miami team.

There were a few bright spots on the court: Michael Carter-Williams delivered some tremendous single-game performances and looked like he can run the point when/if the team ever makes a playoff push. Amongst the rubble of this horrific season, Henry Sims emerged as a serviceable big man who could be a key man off the bench for the team going forward. Tony Wroten also had more good games than bad, and role players like James Anderson and Hollis Thompson gave gritty performances throughout the season. The upcoming NBA draft will be key for the program to move forward, but even with a good draft, the Sixers will probably not be any better than a 30-win team one year from now.

4. High school lacrosse is finding its niche in Pennsylvania.
After becoming a sanctioned PIAA sport several years ago, the sport of lacrosse is gaining momentum. I have announced scholastic games in New Jersey where the sport has been around for decades. At many schools in the Garden State, lacrosse is as popular as basketball, wrestling or even football is at Pennsylvanian schools. While it will probably never ascend to that level in this state, the quality of play has drastically improved in eastern Pennsylvania. Most existing programs now have little trouble getting enough players to complete a quality team, and the skill level is definitely better than the first few seasons when lacrosse was labeled as a “club sport.” Finances and low enrollment numbers will keep many schools from starting a lacrosse program for the foreseeable future, but for the schools that have a team, the game is fun to watch and will continue to get better with improved competition.

How do you feel about some of these issues? What other sports events going on now should be discussed? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com to continue the sports conversations!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: The Art of the Tank

 

It’s been a curious season for the Philadelphia 76ers. New General Manager Sam Hinkie initially drew sharp criticism because of his limited amount of “media time” he presented fans when he first came to the City of Brotherly Love. That bitterness soon turned to optimism once he started his plan for the future for his NBA team, which brings us to today’s topic.

Tanking.

First of all, let me be clear about this. On a recent “RCN SportsTalk” show, a fellow disagreed with me in stating the 76ers were tanking. I don’t think the players are trying to lose, nor are they doing anything on purpose to keep the 76ers from winning games. This is not a point-shaving issue. This is about Hinkie putting the Sixers in a situation when they have very little hope of winning games, so that they improve their chances of getting a higher pick—and better players—in the draft for the next few seasons.

Hinkie unleashed his strategy with a vengeance when he traded his only All-Star caliber player, Jrue Holiday, on Draft Day 2013. He has continued his game plan by trading nearly every player making significant dollars, which not only enhances the team’s propensity to lose, but also clears cap space so that the team will be able to —one day—sign quality free agency to compliment the players the team selects in the draft.

The 76ers also seem to have handled the marketing nightmare of trying to attract fans and season ticket holders during a period in which they are unabashedly trying to lose—and lose royally. They adopted the slogan, “Together We Build”, and even the team’s announcers have done an admirable job of dismissing the monstrosity of what is happening on the court, with promoting what the future may hold DURING their game broadcasts.

This artistic strategy to reboot the franchise was fully embraced by the Delaware Valley area. Every few years, whether it’s the Sixers, Phillies, Eagles, or, to a much lesser extent, the Flyers, the call inevitably rises for a team to “blow themselves up” and start over. Phillies fans have been asking/hoping/praying/demanding for this for some time, and unless the Spring Training results are a complete aberration of what’s to come, they’ll probably be correct in assessing there will not be any postseason games played in Philly this fall. From time to time, a team–if they’ve failed miserably in their retooling effort—must start anew. Last summer, and even through the majority of the 76ers season, the fan base has celebrated this strategic approach to completely gut the team, in an effort to be good three, four, or even five years from now.

Alas, all is not cozy among basketball fans in the Delaware Valley.

Apparently, the 76ers have been too successful—at losing.

There’s now a growing minority of fans that have now seen enough of the horrific defeats. The Sixers have failed to cover even the most gargantuan of line spreads to some of the other weaker teams in the NBA. Plus, the fact that this team is setting all-time records in futility is now starting to irritate die-hard basketball fans. This past week, the team shattered a franchise record for consecutive losses and few would dispute the team has an excellent chance of breaking the league’s consecutive-loss record of 26 set by the Cavaliers in 2011.

There also seems to be some surprise when we as journalists are asked by fans if we expect the team to make the playoffs in the next two years and I, and others, say “no way.” The art of “tanking” is not a guaranteed process, and it will take time—AT LEAST three years, minimum. And even then, you need the team to draft wisely—for every draft pick. Plus, you need to find a way to entice quality free agents to come to a situation that requires a player, who only has a handful of seasons to play this game, to show patience. You need to avoid injuries, you need chemistry to magically develop among the new players, and a little bit of luck is also a requirement. And even then, there’s no guarantees the team will win a championship.

Meanwhile, blogs, websites, tweets and columnists are all having fun with the plight of the lowly Sixers, and “#Winless for Wiggins,” and “#LowSeedForEmbiid” have been trending anytime the team is in the news. Talk show hosts are beginning to hear their audience saying “enough is enough” of all the lackadaisical play, and I’ve heard more than one fan echo, “We really don’t have to be THIS bad, do we?”

My response to these people…isn’t this want you wanted? In fact, Philadelphia fans have been begging for a demolition of your sports teams for years. As soon as a team peaks, or shows very little promise for the next season, the fan base’s instinct is to call for a complete overall of the franchise. It doesn’t matter what the sport is, nor the level of recent success a general manager has had. The call for a MAJOR overall of the 76ers has been requested…and granted, and the Sixers organization has brilliantly executed that strategy. Fans, like it or not, have gotten exactly what they asked for.

Remember this, when the Phillies are eight games under .500 in mid-May.

Are you on-board with the Sixers’ “tanking” this season? Which players would you like the team to obtain via the draft and free agency? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us Thursdays live at 6pm on RCN-TV as we discuss local, regional and national sports issues each week.

 

Is this the best time of sports year? – The SportsTalk Shop – March 4th

Is this the best time of sports year? Andy Williams (ask your parents about him if you don’t know who that is) may disagree, but if your sports-interests cross over many different areas, it’s hard to find a better several weeks of the calendar year than the time period we’re currently in – especially in the Eastern PA region. Consider:

  • If you’re a Flyers fan, this is traditionally the time of year in which you start to get your line rotations down and start looking forward to potential matchups for the post-season. The Flyers are also quick to try to tweak-and-improve heading down the stretch run. Things are never dull when you’re talking hockey this time of year in the Delaware Valley region.
  • Spring training is a time when hope springs eternal. Whether the Phillies are looking to return to the post-season, or hoping for a miraculous turnaround, the exhibition season is a time when you’re technically in first place for a month, you have younger and/or journeymen players hitting .400, mop-up men with ERA’s under 3, and areas where the “what ifs” of an organization show glimmers of hope that your team could actually be in the hunt for the playoffs. Even when the current core of all-time Phillies greats succumb to Father Time, and a World Series appearance is not a realistic outlook, spring training, at the very least, gives us a look at what’s to come—even if it’s just to grow envious of the people in short-sleeve shirts and shorts.
  • We may not have a perennial #1 team in the NCAA men’s or women’s basketball tournament, but the Big 5 is still one of the greatest city battles in the country. We’ve been blessed by having some great teams offer us some exciting runs in March Madness, from Mark Macon’s Temple team getting to the Sweet 16, to the outstanding guard play of St. Joe’s in the Big Dance a few years ago, to the hard working Liberty HS grad Darrun Hilliard, now establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with at Villanova, as the Wildcats look to continue knocking off some of the top teams in the nation. And let’s not forget the efforts of a team from Bethlehem just about this time a year ago making some national news by slaying the mighty goliaths of Duke. The beauty of the structure of league tournaments & March Madness gives even passive basketball fans a rush of excitement by seeing your local teams, whether you’re from that school or not, beat a couple teams this time of year.
  • Unless you covered the 76ers in the 1990s (like I did) and used this time to hope for horrible play (and often got your wish) for a chance at more ping pong balls in the lottery, this is also an interesting time of year. If the team has had any kind of success, you’re looking to make a push for the playoffs and maybe surprise some people with some upset series victories (as the Sixers did last year and again in 2001). Even when the team has hovered around or slightly below .500, there’s usually a few interesting storylines, young players to watch, et al to keep your interest and give us some semblance of hope for the following season.

So what do you say? Is this the greatest time of the sports year or not? Hey, even football fans have those involuntary “voluntary” camps sprinkled in and also previews of potential draft choices to chomp on right now. Let us know via email at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and/or post a comment below, and we’ll see what is YOUR favorite sports season.

The SportsTalk Shop – February 4th

“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

That might just describe the state of Philadelphia pro sports right now. With the Flyers (as of this writing on 2/4) mired in last place in the Atlantic division, the 76ers six games under .500 and out of the top 8 playoff spots, and the Phillies coming off an off-season in which they did not acquire a “big name” power bat, following a season in which they finished out of the playoffs and a very mediocre 81-81, it’s easy to be pessimistic.

Those are the bad numbers … now, let’s check out the other side.

First, the Fly Guys are currently just 2 points behind the Rangers and 3 points away from the last playoff berth with one of the most aggressive front offices in all of sports. You know they will make moves (for better or for worse) to try to ride the ship and improve some areas in need of strengthening, especially help on the power play. They’ve also had more than their share of injuries and you can hope that would balance itself out with other teams, especially with the very aggressive four-games a week schedule teams have to endure because of the lockout. And about that condensed schedule, it does make it easier for a quicker reversal-of-fortunes than in normal years. Given continued solid performances by Ilya Bryzgalov in the net, a “hot” week or two could give the Flyers a 10 to 12 point bounce which should calm the anxiety of some of South Philly’s most loyal fan base.

The Sixers, of course, have their big man Andrew Bynam soon to make his long-awaited debut in Philly. He will certainly need time to adjust to his teammates and the new offense, but maybe the team doesn’t need him as much as fans think—at least right now. They certainly need a reliable — and consistent — presence in the paint. But even at 10 to 14 minutes a game to start will help with the team’s depth up-front. I also think his return will light a much needed fire under some other members of the frontcourt (see Spencer Hawes & Lavoy Allen) that have shown flashes of solid play, but not on any kind of regular basis. The team has been gelling better of late with all the new pieces to this year’s team. If their play improves, it will allow Bynam time to get his legs back to as-good-as-its-going-to-be condition for the playoffs, at which time he will have to step and deliver his much need his in-close to the basket skills.

And for the Phillies, who open spring training on February 13th, it is true that Ruben Amaro Jr. spent less money this offseason than the majority of other teams in baseball. He did, however, address every need the Phils had, albeit with some very questionable players. But his moves give the Phils some extra depth that he didn’t have last year at this time. For example, if Dom Brown slips again going after a routine fly ball and breaks his wrist, John Mayberry again can’t establish plate discipline until July, or Delmon Young develops an affinity for Tony Luke’s cheese steaks, the team does have a young stud in Darin Ruff, just chomping at the bit for a chance to bring his big bat to the Bank. The Phillies also have a multitude of options for the bullpen—the candidates for the remaining roster spots NOW have some big league experience. And if all of the options for the corner outfielders and third base positions fall apart and/or if health issues once again crop up for Halladay, Utley and/or Howard, Amaro still has an ace card to play. The team is roughly 7-million under the cap, and the team didn’t go over the luxury tax in 2012, meaning the team can go over in ’13 and not be penalized too harshly. With free agents-to-be like Utley, Halladay, Ruiz and others coming off the books at the end of this season, it wouldn’t surprise me if a big addition would be made during the year, if the team needs one.

Do you think any of these teams and make run for the postseason, and which teams have the most upside? Post a comment on our blog here or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us for the hottest local and national sports conversations live on Thursdays at 6pm on RCN-TV. Don’t forget, Villanova and LaSalle surprised us with some rays of sunshine over nationally ranked teams a few weeks ago. It isn’t that far out of the realm of possibility that the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies all make the playoffs this season…even if optimism’s not burning brightly here on these cold February nights.