Under-the-radar players pushing Philly teams forward

USA Today Images

Under-the-radar players pushing Philly teams forward

Carson Wentz, Fletcher Cox, Malcolm Jenkins, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Wayne Simmonds, Claude Giroux ... the city of Philadelphia now has its share of big-time players. Stars, if you will. It feels good to say that because that was not the case all that long ago. 

Gone are the days when James Anderson leads the Sixers in scoring or DGB is starting for the Eagles. There's no denying that talent wins — ask any coach. You can draw up the greatest plays in the world, but if you don't have the players to execute, it doesn't matter. And while the cupboard is beginning to fill with lead actors, let's recognize those understudies who may have snuck up on us a bit to play a bigger role in their team's success than we thought. 

Patrick Robinson
He looked so lost in training camp this summer that many observers, including myself, thought he wouldn't make it to final cuts. He was playing on his third team in as many years and at 29 years old and entering his eighth season, he appeared on his way out of the league. But aided by a move to the slot and a better grasp of Jim Schwartz's scheme, Robinson slowly but surely improved. He's consistently covered well and been a sure tackler. 

Robinson's turnaround is one of the more remarkable storylines of the Eagles' amazing start. Pressed into duty because of injuries, the veteran Robinson and the youngster Jalen Mills have been perhaps the biggest pleasant surprise of the season.

Jake Elliott
Speaking of Eagles coming out of nowhere, when Caleb Sturgis went down after Week 1, it appeared the Birds would be going on the kicker carousel tour, populated by the likes of Mike Nugent and Nick Novak. But to Howie Roseman and crew's credit, they found a winner in Jake Elliott. 

The rookie, a fifth-round pick who was sitting on Cincinnati's practice squad, is a remarkable 8 of 9 from 40-plus yards, 5 of 6 from 50-plus and 1 of 1 from 60-plus. You might remember that 61-yard cannon shot to win the Giants game. 

Excluding a couple of missed PATs in the wet conditions Sunday vs. the 49ers, Elliott has been money.      

T.J. McConnell
While our Sixers focus has been on Embiid's play and health and Simmons' ridiculous skill set, one of the other players who catch your eye and admiration night in and night out was undrafted and given little chance of playing in the NBA out of college. 

McConnell surprised many when he stuck with the Sixers in 2015. Most thought he was nothing more than a "camp body" with no chance of making the team, even one with as little talent as the Sixers. So even after making the team initially, he was written off as just another name in a parade of guys who wore a Sixers uniform during that time. He'd be gone before you knew him, as the club did its best to fill out a roster while trying to lose to ultimately win. 

But each game, each year, McConnell showed his mettle. He's transformed himself into a quality NBA role player, not a novelty with great hair. The mere thought of him guarding a James Harden would have made you cringe a few years ago. But now he is that guy. He has also made himself a decent threat from the outside, something that was not in his arsenal until this year. He's done it through hard work, something not lost on his teammates.

Robert Covington
Covington, much like McConnell, was not drafted coming out of Tennessee State in 2013. And after signing with Houston, he bounced between the Rockets and the G-League, even winning the league's rookie of the year honors. But he was waived in October 2014. 

The next month, Sam Hinkie and the Sixers signed him. Covington came here with the reputation of being a standstill shooter. And while that is still a key component of his repertoire, he's diversified his game and is now one the better stretch-three defenders in the league. He will soon be paid big bucks.  

So while the stars get most of the shine, let's celebrate some of the better supporting acts in the city.

NBA stars taking notice of Sixers' rise

NBA stars taking notice of Sixers' rise

The Sixers have been rising steadily in the standings and players around the league are taking notice. 

The young squad improved to 31-25 with a victory over the Bulls Thursday. They have won six straight and have not lost at the Wells Fargo Center in 2018. That totals up to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, only two games behind the Wizards for the fourth spot and two games ahead of the Heat for the eighth. 

"I like them," Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler said at the All-Star break. "They've got a lot of great young talent. We do as well. But I think the way that they're going and how they play so hard and play so together, that's how you win basketball games. They're going to be really, really good for a long time."

The Sixers turned heads with a statement win over the Rockets in only their seventh game of the season. From there, they have defeated playoff teams, including a rare sweep of the Spurs, while struggling against sub.-500 opponents. 

They have 26 games remaining to make a postseason push. Of their upcoming opponents, only 10 games are against current top-eight teams in their conferences. Brett Brown has emphasized they can't take any team lightly. This is the time for the Sixers to maximize their schedule and show they learned from previous letdowns.

"They look good," Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard said. "Obviously as a young team, it takes time to learn how to win. ... The mature, really high-level teams, they find a way to get it done. I think for them, that's what their record shows. You play against them and it's hard to play against them. 

"They're really talented, they play hard, they play for a great coach. It's just those nights where you might not have it, having that understanding and that experience that'll lead you to more wins. I think once they get to that point, that's when maybe nine or 10 games that they've let slip, maybe they win those games."

The Sixers wrapped up the majority of their Western Conference schedule prior to the All-Star break. They have only the Timberwolves, Nuggets and Mavericks left to play. Those in the conference still are keeping an eye on the Sixers' progress, even if they may not face off again for months. 

"Everyone definitely sees the talent there," Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. "Any time you've got Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid to build around, they've got a very bright future. I think everyone had very high expectations, but it's hard to have high expectations with a team that's got a lot of first-, second-year guys that have never been in the playoffs. 

"But you can tell that they're going to be in the playoffs for, shoot, the next decade or so, probably be upper echelon pretty soon."

Leave the NBA playoffs alone

USA Today Images

Leave the NBA playoffs alone

You can't kill NBA commissioner Adam Silver for trying.

Last week, Silver announced to the media during All-Star weekend in Los Angeles that he's considering a change to the playoffs, where rather than the top eight seeds in each conference competing to determine a conference champ, playoff teams will be seeded 1 through 16.

More recently, ESPN reported that the league is kicking around a "play-in tournament" to determine the final two seeds in each conference.

Let's take these ideas one at a time:

Re-seeding the postseason may sound fun, and even kind of fair, but it completely dissolves conference rivalries that the league has celebrated for decades. Looking for the Warriors and Rockets in the Western Conference Finals? Sorry. Under the new format, there would be no more West Finals. Right now, those are the two best teams in the NBA. So you might see them in the Finals in that format — if they both get that far.

I could understand this argument in years when the disparity in balance of power is egregious. That's not the case this season. If the NBA season ended today, one team would reap the benefits of a 1-16 playoff format: the 9-seed in the West, the Clippers, who are a half-game better than Eastern Conference 8-seed Miami.

(Psst, right now the 5-12 matchup in a 1-16 format would be Sixers-Cavaliers. But let's stay on topic.)

As for the play-in tournament, this completely contradicts the re-seeding idea. The NBA wants the best teams in the playoffs, right? Is a Pistons-Hornets play-in game must-see TV? Or what's left of the Clippers vs. the Jazz?

And how long do you want the postseason to be? Last season, the playoffs lasted nearly nine weeks. It was only that "brief" because the Finals didn't go the full seven games. Adding another round could extend the NBA season into July (unless it corresponds with a shortening of the schedule). We have seen what happens in Olympic years when players don't get enough offseason rest and it ain't pretty.

I'm guessing this is a backhanded way for Silver to keep more teams from tanking for better draft picks. "Hey, you may be 11th in the conference, but you're one 3-game win streak away from a shot at the postseason!!"

I'm all for change, but in the case of the NBA playoffs, commish, I think we're good for now.