Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Expectations escalate for Sixers as Butler arrives

You know it’s a big transaction when the team’s championship odds are sliced in half in Vegas. That’s about what happened when Jimmy Butler was traded from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Sixers. Philadelphia’s odds to win the NBA championship when from 30-1 to 16-1, and after coach Brett Brown declared the team to be “star hunting” over the summer, the team appears to have found its third star to go with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

The “star hunting” quote was going to loom over Brown until this kind of move was made. The Sixers were connected to LeBron James and Paul George in the summer and had been a popular trade destination for Kawhi Leonard. After striking out on all three, this season’s roster looked to be very similar to the one that lost in the second round in 2017-18. The franchise’s much-maligned rebuilding plan yielded the most wins in a season since 2000-01, but the consensus surrounding the organization was that one more star was needed to truly contend.

                                                        David Swanson/Philly.com
Among other things, Butler gives the Sixers a much-needed player to match up with the likes of Boston wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, both of whom played well in last year’s playoff series won by the Celtics in five games. He’s a versatile wing scorer that the rebuild lacked. Though there are some red flags that come with the acquisition. First and foremost, Butler can go to free agency next summer and until he’s inked to an extension, he can’t be penciled in for the long haul. Another obvious concern that will linger for the remainder of the season will be Butler’s chemistry and temperament with the abundance of young players on the Sixers roster. Butler grew unhappy with the culture in Minnesota, another roster loaded with youth, and it eventually lead to a toxic situation that reached a point of no return.

One of those young players whose career has not started according to plan is second-year combo guard Markelle Fultz. Fultz’s well-documented shooting struggles appear to be a part of a bigger mental problem that has hindered the early stages of his career after being selected first overall in the 2017 draft. While the internet has had some fun with the idea of Fultz and Butler clashing, it will be interesting to see how this impacts Fultz’s season and potentially long-term future with the Sixers. He’s started all 14 games so far this season, though with Butler now in as the third star, it’s fair to wonder just how big of a role Fultz will ever grow to see with the Sixers.

Whether Fultz hits his ceiling, is a colossal bust, or becomes something in between the two, there’s no doubt that 2018-19 gets a lot bigger for the Sixers when Butler first steps on the floor tomorrow night with the team in Orlando. Three stars seems to be the bare minimum to win a championship in today’s NBA, and in a wide-open East, a move like this certainly revitalized the fanbase after an inconsistent start marred by lots of struggles on the road. In making this move, the Sixers parted with pillars of “The Process” in Dario Saric and Robert Covington. Both are useful role players on cheap contracts and moving them for a star in the prime of his career with a player option to head to free agency next summer was a clear indicator that the organization is hitting the accelerator.

In a lot of ways, last season was the “happy to be here” year for the Sixers. The results of their rebuilding project were coming to fruition on the court and it led to a playoff berth and eventual series win against the Miami Heat. Losing to a longtime rival in Boston put a lot of those positive emotions aside though and had fans ready to take the next step. Fans grew impatient after the offseason did not net a star player. For at least the rest of this season, the Sixers have that star player and no longer is it just okay to make the playoffs or even win only one round. Expectations are as high as they’ve been in almost two decades, and now it’s time to see if they’ll meet them.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Evaluating the Eagles at the bye

The NFL trade deadline was yesterday and Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman did not go quietly acquiring wide receiver Golden Tate from Detroit for a third-round draft pick. The trade deadline coincided with the Eagles bye week which came exactly halfway through 2018, so there’s no better time to look back at how things have gone and look ahead and what’s to come than right now.

With eight games down and eight games to go, the Eagles sit at 4-4. If losses to Tampa Bay and Tennessee raised red flags, then blowing a 17-point lead at home against Carolina started to sound alarms. The previously reliable offensive line was struggling to protect Carson Wentz upon his return in week three against Indianapolis. Defensive backs were getting burned left and right. The offensive play calling got too pass-happy. The competency of yet another defensive coordinator was called into question. Injuries started to pile up. In other words, not much was going right.

Fortunately, the New York Giants and a team in disarray quarterbacked by Blake Bortles popped up on the schedule at just the right times. A blowout victory over the anemic Giants followed a loss to the Minnesota Vikings in an NFC Championship rematch and Bortles was just what the doctor ordered for a defense that blew a 17-point lead the previous week against Cam Newton and Carolina.

While there’s certainly been more bad than good in the first eight weeks, it’s not all gloom and doom for the defending Super Bowl champions. The defense has been widely criticized for its soft coverages late in games with leads. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has been ultra-conservative late which often led to teams methodically marching down the field and allowed Carolina to get all the way back. But they still had to earn the lead to begin with and the Eagles dominated a 5-2 Carolina team for three quarters without allowing a point. Wentz’s numbers have managed to improve from last year when he looked destined to be the MVP. Alshon Jeffery returned from a torn rotator cuff in week four and has looked every bit the part of the number one receiver the Eagles signed him to be in March 2017.

                                               Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Tate gives the Eagles a much-needed
additional playmaker on offense.
With running back Jay Ajayi, defensive end Derek Barnett and safety Rodney McLeod all out for the year, not much consistency at wide receiver beyond Jeffery and struggling cornerbacks, Roseman had to do something yesterday. But, he obviously wasn’t going to be able to fix it all. Trading for Tate probably made the most sense. Realistically, more than one move from the Eagles yesterday would have been asking a lot. The NFL trade deadline is usually relatively quiet compared to other sports. Therefore, getting help for your franchise quarterback was the move to make. The offensive line was not as problematic last season. The defense wasn’t blowing as many leads last season.  Banking on some positive regression while upgrading a position that the team was thin at was the logical conclusion for Roseman.

Moving forward, it’s fair to assume the Eagles still have their best football ahead of them. For as bad as the first half of the season seemed at times, they’re still in second place in a lackluster NFC East. The week 17 game at Washington may decide the division.  That’s one of five NFC East games the Eagles still have left to play. With some improvement on the offensive line, in the fourth quarter overall and situationally from coach Doug Pederson, the division can still be won. But how far things will go beyond that remain to be seen. Upcoming road games against the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams will be very telling. It was a bumpy ride in the first two months of the season, and as long as it’s a little less bumpy in the second half, they’ll be back playing at Lincoln Financial Field in January.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Four best teams left standing in October

Attendance is down in Major League Baseball, as are television ratings. It’s likely always going to be a regional sport now. The best player in the game having played in only three playoff games in his entire career and his team not winning any of them isn’t helping things. Sure would be nice if the Angels could figure it out eventually. However, with the NLCS getting started tonight in Milwaukee, and the ALCS starting tomorrow in Boston, the teams still vying for championship are the best baseball has to offer. Regardless of what kind of interest there is in both of these series outside of the four home markets, avid baseball fans in other markets couldn’t have asked for better matchups.

The best statistic to determine talent level on a Major League Baseball roster is run differential. It doesn’t take brain surgery to figure out that the teams that are better than most at scoring more runs than they allow are probably good.  Considering how long a baseball regular season is, it’s safe to assume the teams with the best run differentials by the end of the year are probably the best teams. The Houston Astros crushed just about everyone this year with a +263 run differential to lead baseball. For most of the year, it looked like the Boston Red Sox were going to flirt with the regular season wins record as they posted a +229 run differential which was second best. The Los Angeles Dodgers incredible depth finally took over down the stretch and their run differential was third best at +194. Milwaukee was further down the list, but still in the top 10 at +93.

When it comes to successfully rebuilding in modern baseball, Houston is almost certainly going to be the first team mentioned. We’re living in a baseball age fueled by analytics and advanced statistics and the Astros are ahead of everyone else when it comes to using and developing such metrics to find competitive advantages. Houston’s analytical edge is obvious enough to those within the game to where players for the Cleveland Indians were admitting the deck was stacked against them from the start of their ALDS against the Astros. Houston’s roster is also loaded so when you put it all together, you’re going to win a lot of games. From a talent perspective, this year’s group of Houston Astros is better than last year’s and last season was of course the first World Series in franchise history for Houston. We might be talking dynasty in a couple weeks because Houston’s core is in place and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

Boston is built for long-term success as well with a slew of young players in its lineup headlined by likely AL MVP Mookie Betts. They also have some guy named Chris Sale anchoring the rotation. The analytical arms race was on full display last fall when the Red Sox hired Alex Cora as their manager away from his bench coach position with Houston. This was coming off of a season that ended with Boston losing in four games against Houston in the ALDS. The Red Sox also flexed their financial muscle a little in the offseason with the signing of slugger J.D. Martinez. What better way to make a run at the Astros than hiring their bench coach to be your manager and signing the biggest bat on the free agent market.  Boston and Houston are both improved from last year and it will be a treat for all baseball fans to see the two teams square off in a best of seven series rather than a best of five this time around.

What a weird year it was for the Dodgers in the NL West. After getting within one game of a championship last year, Los Angeles entered as the clear favorite in the division in 2018. But for most of the first half, the Dodgers were underachieving, though many of the underlying numbers, including run differential, indicated they were a good team. Even after several trades, most notably one with Baltimore to acquire Manny Machado, the Dodgers remained on the outside looking in. Questions began to arise if the Dodgers were possibly too deep. Baseball teams play practically every day and good players often need to get in routines and be prepared to be in the starting lineup almost every day. But this wasn’t the case with the Dodgers because of their extensive depth, there were always players on the bench that would start for almost every other team. Eventually, they chased down the Colorado Rockies and won a tiebreaker game at Dodger Stadium at the beginning of the month to clinch the division. After a victory over the young and upstart Atlanta Braves in four games in the NLDS, the Dodgers are back where everyone thought they would be.

                                             Jeff Hanisch - USA Today Sports
Lastly, there’s the Milwaukee Brewers. If you’re looking for a feel-good story to get behind, here’s your team. Overshadowed by the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals for most of this decade, the Brewers are in the postseason for just the second time in the last ten seasons. They’re the only team of the four remaining that has never won the World Series. They’ve challenged conventional wisdom often this year by “bullpenning” games. Manager Craig Counsell is as new-school as it gets and his decisions had a lot to do with the Brewers winning 96 games to lead the National League. Their lineup also features likely NL MVP Christian Yelich and centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and his on-base percentage close to .400.

I’m picking the Astros in 6 and the Brewers in 7. But, this isn’t about who I think will win. It’s about the best teams in each league left in races to win four games before the other can and earn an opportunity to play in the Fall Classic. The playoffs in all sports can be a crapshoot. On any given week, teams can go cold and if it’s at the wrong time, they’re on the couch watching the rest of the postseason just like the rest of us. But these four teams all avoided such slumps in the Division Series. Whatever happens next, and no matter how many people are watching, is sure to be a great showcase for modern baseball.