Sunday, March 29, 2015

Evaluating the Philadelphia sports landscape

The NBA and NHL regular seasons are coming to a close.  The MLB regular season is about to begin and the NFL is in the midst of its offseason with the draft about a month away.  The Sixers and Flyers will not be in the playoffs in their respective leagues.  The Phillies season is right around the corner and the Eagles have been arguably the most active team thus far in the NFL’s offseason so why not take a look at what the future holds for each of the four teams.

                                                            Yong Kim/
Ruben Amaro Jr's days as Phillies GM could be numbered.
Phillies: We’ll start with the worst one.  The Phillies could very easily be the worst team in baseball in 2015.  General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is in the final year of his contract and appears to be a lame duck.  Amaro received an extension prior to the 2011 season and after failing to win a championship after a 102-win season in 2011, the Phillies plummet towards the bottom of the majors has Amaro and the Phillies organization staring at a very uncertain future entering 2015.   The upcoming season is Amaro’s last on the aforementioned extension he received in 2011.  After holding on to veterans and failed attempts at one final playoff run from 2012-2014, over the winter Amaro half-heartedly committed to a rebuild moving Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo for prospects.  However, Amaro was unable to move the big contracts of Ryan Howard and Jonathan Papelbon and his biggest trade chip Cole Hamels is set to be the opening day starter for the club.  The Phillies farm system remains barren despite the trades of Rollins, Byrd and Bastardo.  Amaro appears to be a lame duck general manager with little to no plan of making the team relevant again.  When the Phillies will get back to becoming one of baseball’s elite teams is a huge unknown.  But it’s certainly not going to be within a year or two.

                                                    Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Ron Hextall is being patient in digging the Flyers out of
the mess of bad contracts Paul Holmgren left them with.
Flyers: I did not expect the Flyers to make the playoffs this season.  But they’re in much better shape than the Phillies.  Elevating Ron Hextall to general manager after last season was a much-needed change.  Paul Holmgren had lost his touch and contracts like Vinny Lecavalier, Scott Hartnell and Ilya Bryzgalov were all examples of that.  Hextall was a part of the Los Angeles Kings front office and helped build the team that has now won two of the last three Stanley Cups.  There was a time this year where the Flyers were within four points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.  But Hextall refused to pull the plug on win-now moves to try to sneak in.  I’m not sure Holmgren would have done the same thing if he were still calling the shots.  The Flyers defense has been average at best ever since it became apparent Chris Pronger was not going to play another game in orange and black.  However, the Flyers have lots of young talent within their organization on the blue line headlined by prospects Shayne Gostisbehere and Samuel Morin and last year’s first-round draft pick Travis Sanheim was also a defensemen.  But, Hextall is being very patient with his prospects allowing them ample time to develop before calling them up.  At the trade deadline, Hextall moved veterans Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn to pick up more draft picks and now has seven picks in the top 100 in this summer’s draft including two in the first round.  While it stings seeing the Flyers miss the playoffs despite strong seasons from Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, Hextall appears to have a plan of drafting and developing talent from within rather than inking players to big contracts and hoping for the best like Holmgren did.  It will now be two of the last three years in which the Flyers miss the playoffs, but there are certainly brighter days ahead.

                                                   Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Chip Kelly is building the Eagles his way after gaining
full control of personnel in January.
Eagles: Chip Kelly took the NFL by storm this offseason moving LeSean McCoy and Nick Foles and letting Jeremy Maclin walk as a free agent to reunite with Andy Reid in Kansas City.  Kelly has taken a lot of criticism for letting lots of players he inherited upon taking the job in 2013 go and in the case of Maclin and DeSean Jackson, getting nothing back.  But the Eagles defense has improved significantly so far this offseason with the additions of cornerbacks Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond and inside linebacker Kiko Alonso.  With Trent Cole gone and Brandon Graham re-signed and set to start as an outside linebacker, perhaps Graham could finally blossom into the player the Eagles thought he could be when they moved up in the draft to get him in 2010.  The Eagles still need a safety to play next to Malcolm Jenkins after watching free agent Devin McCourty head back in New England to stay with the Patriots, but there’s no doubt they have gotten better on defense.  There are fair questions as to how they will succeed on offense with a glaring hole at wide receiver and an injury-prone Sam Bradford at quarterback.  But regardless of who the wide receivers are or who the quarterback is, we know the Eagles are going to run the ball a lot and bringing in DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews after the McCoy trade to go with the “swiss-army knife” Darren Sproles as Kelly commonly refers to him as, suggests that.  They should have a lethal rushing attack behind an offensive line, which is still very strong despite the release of Todd Herremans.  Last season, Lane Johnson was suspended for the first four games and Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis missed time with injuries and LeSean McCoy still finished third in the NFL in rushing.  As someone who many doubted could even coach in the NFL, Chip Kelly deserves the benefit of the doubt after two 10-6 seasons with mostly Andy Reid personnel.  Until he fails, I’ll remain confident he can succeed.  We’ll certainly have a better idea of how to judge this team after the draft but when you haven’t won a playoff game in six years, why not change things up? 

                                                               Yong Kim/
Sam Hinkie has proven to be a very bold decision maker
since taking over as Sixers General Manager in May 2013.
Sixers: Tank 2.0 is coming to a close and maybe the summer will bring Sixers fans more of a vision as to where the team is headed.  Nerlens Noel has had a fantastic rookie season and could be the second straight rookie of the year for the franchise.  We all know last year’s rookie of the year is no longer with the Sixers as Sam Hinkie moved on from Michael Carter-Williams at the trade deadline acquiring the Los Angeles Lakers top-five protected draft pick which becomes top-three protected next year if the Lakers retain it this year.  Hinkie has certainly shown the ability to sell high as the value for players like Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, and most recently Carter-Williams may never be as high as what Hinkie got for them.  But I think most would agree Noel’s upside is higher than Carter-Williams’ ever was and should be a part of the rebuild moving forward.  Joel Embiid should be ready to play in summer league.  The Sixers could add as many as four first-round picks to their roster in June’s draft.   Brett Brown has done a great job in his first two seasons as many thought in either season the Sixers could potentially set the record for fewest wins in a single season.  That hasn’t happened and as the roster begins to take shape and young talent continues to develop, perhaps many of the Sam Hinkie skeptics will lessen their criticism.

Three teams in the city right now seem to have plans to get to the next level, which is encouraging.  There’s only been one championship in the last 30 years in Philadelphia so some new thinkers were necessary.  It’s time for the Phillies to realize that.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Selection Sunday: A Day like no other

Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis is
the site of this year's Final Four.
The NCAA tournament is the best postseason tournament in all of sports.  The continual unpredictability of the three-week event is what makes it madness.  It all begins on Selection Sunday where in just a couple hours we will hear the field of 68.  Conference tournaments around the country are finishing up and tickets are being punched. This is when you know…it’s March.

There’s a constant buzz when you’re flipping channels on Selection Sunday watching the end of the conference tournaments.  Some teams are stealing bids, some are making their final statements before the big dance, while others are sweating it out until the evening hope their season was good enough for an at-large bid.

In recent years ESPN has released a new 30 for 30 after the selection show and after its analysts break down the field.  One year it was “The Fab Five”, last year it was “Requiem for the Big East”, and tonight it is “I Hate Christian Laetner”.  That adds to the excitement for me along with filling out my bracket, which I almost always start right after the Selection Show.

Then comes to waiting game.  To me the tournament always starts on Thursday.  I know there are two games on Tuesday and two games on Wednesday but to me those “First Four” games in Dayton are a tease.  I’m a fan of a 64-team field with no games until Thursday.  The play-in games don’t add much for me.  Granted Virginia Commonwealth made a run to the Final Four as a “First Four” team three years ago but to me if you can’t get in as one of the first 64 teams, you don’t belong in the tournament.  So to me Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are quite the drag before things get going in earnest on Thursday.

But Selection Sunday certainly isn’t a drag.  Most of the conference tournament championship games keep you on the edge of your seat much like the Selection Show and seeing the bracket revealed and ESPN always reminds you how great March Madness is with a new 30 for 30 after the Selection Show.  It’s a day of anticipating the best postseason tournament in all of sports and it’s worth enjoying because once the madness starts, it doesn’t stop.