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Top of the Key: The 76ers Suck – Hey, Cool

brewsters-millions1We are halfway through the 2013-2014 season, so it’s time for a tanking checkup. The Sixers have come down from their heady start and plateaued as one of the worst teams in the NBA just as they were designed to be by tank-and-rebuild mastermind Sam Hinkie. I detailed the strategy at length here and the formula, for better or worse, remains the same: lose to win. Down is up. It’s like Brewster’s Millions with tall people – Hinkie doesn’t want the measly million dollars. He wants to burn through thirty mil in a season to get the big prize.

Clearly it’s a flawed system. Until the NBA revamps the draft lottery, teams must decide whether to make a three or four year run at going deep in the playoffs, or to field a subpar squad, pile up losses and rebuild through the draft. Only a few teams have the money and prestige necessary to lure top-tier free agents – Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Brooklyn and Dallas spring to mind – the rest of the league needs to get star power on cheap rookie deals and extensions.

A few things have developed in SixersWorld since the season tipped off:

1. Michael Carter-Williams is a certified talent. He is big, fast, smart and, most importantly, a straight baller. (Definition of “baller”: Passes the eye test; possesses that ineffable ability to get buckets; rebounds and loose balls seem to magically bounce his way; is the kind of guy you’d want to have on your team on the playground; see: Paul Pierce, Allen Iverson, Dennis Johnson, Kevin Love, Phil Jackson, Charles Barkley, Pat Riley, Manu Ginobli, et al).

tumblr_lsm36z1yUo1qm9rypo1_1280MCW’s shooting – the biggest knock on him coming out of college – is better than expected and should improve.  He will win Rookie of the Year honors, barring a herculean second half from Victor Oladipo. I don’t think Sam Hinkie, or anyone for that matter, dreamed he be this good this soon. It justifies the surprising Jrue Holiday draft-day trade and gives us a solid building block moving forward. Bonus: he seems like a really good kid.

2. Brett Brown looks like a franchise-changing coach. The players love him, and despite their record, he has all the signs of being the kind of coach we could grow with for years. I asked Matt Bonner what he thought of Brown (a former Spurs assistant under Popovich) and he said that they “miss him terribly.” A ringing endorsement. Continue reading →

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Top of the Key | The Art of the Tank: Controlling the Uncontrollable

hawesThat’s not how it was supposed to happen.

The Miami Heat were meant to come to Philadelphia and dismantle the 76ers in nothing more than a glorified scrimmage. The Heat are the repeat champs and Lebron James is by all accounts the greatest player in the world. The Sixers, on the other hand, are a collection of cast-offs and underachievers. They traded their only star in the off-season for an injured prospect and made headlines earlier this week by being projected by Vegas oddsmakers to win 16.5 games this year. Out of 82. I’m no mathematician but that’s not going to get us into the playoffs. What it will theoretically get us, though, is a lottery pick in next year’s historically loaded draft. ***Kids, take a moment to watch these highlights of Andrew Wiggins. Diagnosis: FILTHY.***

The Sixers are under new management and don’t have any interest in mediocrity. The plan is: suck really bad, load up in the draft (we have two other first round picks via trades), sign some free agents and make a run at the title. No more first round exits. And while you won’t hear the word tanking coming out of anyone’s mouth in the front office, the marketing campaign for this year’s squad is “Together We Build.” So I’m guessing “Bear With Us” was already taken? How about “Check Out Our T-Shirt Cannon?”

Together-we-build

Apparently everyone is on board for the 76ers full-scale renovation–except the players. Last night they stunned Miami (who were without co-star Dwayne Wade) and virtually every basketball writer in the universe. Rookie Michael Carter-Williams, whose shooting and ball handling skills have been called into question by pundits like Bill Simmons, led the team with the following stat line: 22 points, 12 assists, 9 steals (an NBA rookie first game record), 7 rebounds and only 1 turnover. That is an incredibly good first game for the 22 year old–if the game had gone to overtime we’d be talking about a rookie getting a quadruple double in his first game ever, against the defending champs. Borderline historic.  Evan Turner and Thad Young looked spry and smart. Spencer Hawes ran around and looked interested in playing basketball. Everyone hustled, got out in transition and created turnovers. The Heat were coming off a back to back and the Sixers jumped on them early, going up 19-0 and holding on with tenacity.

Now, let’s come back down to earth. Continue reading →

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Top of the Key: The Sixers are Going to be Abysmal Next Year – and That’s a Good Thing

Dave Hartley – bassist for The War on Drugs, mastermind of Nightlands, and all-around hoops enthusiast – weighs in on the basketball scene for us periodically in his Top of the Key column. This week, Dave presents an analysis of why the Sixers’ 2014 roster is not unlike the Fleetwood Mac album Penguin.

Capsule:
1. The 76ers have a new GM and a new CEO, both of whom are fully onboard with advanced metrics and Moneyball-style statistical analysis
2. We traded our only All-Star for the most talented player in the draft (who is recovering from a torn ACL) and a 2014 draft pick (this is big)
3. We’re going to lose a ton of games next year, which should get us an additional high draft pick in 2014
4. Experts are calling the 2014 draft the best in decades

Conclusion:
We’re going to have boat loads of young talent and a ton of cap-space to potentially lure a big name free agent

Metaphors:
1. To get your basement really clean, you generally have to make a giant mess first, pull out those old boxes, dig through that pile of trash, sweep the cat litter into a big pile, stir up tons of dust
2. To fix that nagging wrist injury sometimes you have to re-break the bone and set it properly
3. Fleetwood Mac had to get worse after the departure of Peter Green (the Kirwin, Spencer, Welsch, Weston years, etc.) before they got better (eponymous, Rumours, Tusk, Mirage, etc.)
4. The Sixers are about to release their Penguin Continue reading →

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Top of the Key | Blokkervil River: Rethinking Basketball Nicknames

Basketball nicknames, once a proud tradition (The Big Dipper, Wilt the Stilt, The Round Mound of Rebound, Pistol Pete, The Hick from French Lick, Plastic Man, to name a few) have fallen on hard times. D-Wade? T-Mac? Timmy? C-Bosh? Are these even nicknames?

Ok, so Birdman (Chris Andersen) and the Red Mamba (Matt Bonner) are GOOD, but overall we’ve gotten lazy when it comes to bestowing flowery and colorful ‘nom de hoops’ on our hardwood heroes.

Here is a fresh batch of aliases for our Finals-embroiled competitors. You’re welcome, sorry.

Lebron James = THE BLADE RUNNER

Is he really human? Or is he a cyborg? It’s hard to tell sometimes. From the day he stepped on a basketball court Lebron has had a laughably superior set of physical and mental abilities. What makes me really suspect he’s inhuman, however, are photos like the one above.

He’s not breathing through his mouth–he’s not even winded. Unless his nasal passages are as oversized as his biceps, something is wrong here. Fire up the Voight-Kampff machine. Continue reading →

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Top of the Key: Hoops, Pinball and Bilateral Neuropathy – Talking with Todd MacCulloch

Photo by Jim Capale | ESPN.com
Photo by Jim Capale | ESPN.com

I know what I like: voices in harmony, major seventh chords, and thick, spacey drones. I like science fiction. Hard science fiction. I like basketball and I love to play pinball. They are simple things and they give me pleasure, especially when they unexpectedly overlap. At one of these intersections stands Todd MacCulloch, former NBA Finalist and pinball champion. Talking with him on the phone recently was a joy; I found him to be intelligent, humble, forthcoming, and extremely generous with his time (you can read the full transcription of our conversation here).

His path has been unconventional. Like most Canadian youths, Todd fancied himself a hockey player, but his rapidly increasing height had other ideas. In high school he committed to basketball and “got noticed as a 6’9″, 6’10″, 6’11″ skinny kid from Winnipeg that had decent footwork and a decent ability to catch the basketball.” By his senior year he was seven feet tall and being recruited by colleges all over America. He chose Washington and powered them to the sweet sixteen in 1998, leading the nation in field goal percentage three consecutive years (one of only two players ever to accomplish the feat).

Todd finished college, got his degree and was projected to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Disappointingly, though, he was taken 47th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers: “I think the perception was that I was too slow to compete at the NBA level”. About this and other setbacks, Todd is refreshingly honest: “I slipped to the second round and was crushed. I thought I had failed and that they had forgotten about me and that I wasn’t a very good player.” Being drafted that late generally means you show up to training camp and fight for a spot. It can mean playing overseas and ultimately never making an NBA roster.

To regain his confidence Todd joined Steve Nash on the Canadian National Team to try for a spot in the 2000 Olympics. In the qualifying competition they upset a number of teams and earned a trip to Sydney, but it was his performance against the third Dream Team that changed the course of Todd’s life. Continue reading →

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Top Of The Key: Let Bonner Shoot

Dave Hartley's protest beard is growing in nicely

Top of the Key is our occasional sports column written by Dave Hartley, bassist for The War on Drugs, frontman for Nightlands, and an all-around music and basketball enthusiast.

On Sunday Matt Bonner, his brother Luke Bonner, Tim Showalter (aka Strand of Oaks) and I snuck into The University of Pennsylvania’s historic Palaestra to get a few shots up. It was my first time shooting hoops with an NBA player (Matt plays for The San Antonio Spurs), so I was nervous. It should also be noted that Luke is seven feet tall and played professionally in Europe and in the D-League. He can dunk, quite easily. Thankfully the lights were dim so my woefully atrophied basketball skills were partially cloaked. Matt’s insanely automatic long distance jump shot glowed in the dark, though. He set his feet, aimed, and drilled shots from downtown as nonchalantly as walking up to a salad bar for seconds. Truly something to behold.

Ok, I should back up. Last year Adam Granduciel and I interviewed Matt for Paste Magazine because Matt loves music (specifically a bunch of bands on Secretly Canadian, home of both The War on Drugs and Nightlands) and we love hoops. It was a great opportunity for us to ask questions that we thought were never asked of professional ball players. Continue reading →