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Can the Sixers actually make some kind of playoff push?

Can the Sixers actually make some kind of playoff push?

Boy, it doesn't take much, does it? It was barely a week ago that the Sixers had suffered a humiliating fourth-quarter collapse in Utah that left them 7-24, having lost each of their last four games, and six of their last seven. Noel was disgruntled, Okafor was running (well, jogging) rampant, Covington hadn't hit a three since the LiveJournal era. We were in last place, and about one more deflating L or depressing post-game scrum away from turning our attention to learning our Malik Monks from our Josh Jacksons for next year's draft. 

But four contests later -- three Ws, and a fourth that easily could've been -- and all of a sudden, we're talking postseason again. That's thanks to one Joel "The Process" Embiid, who not only has played the All-Star part of late (six straight games with 20+ points, averaging 24-7-3-2 over that span), but is trying to get the Sixers thinking big picture with his post-game rhetoric: 

Ridiculous, right? Even after their not-really-even-a-winning-streak, the Sixers stand at 10-25 for the season, 13th out of 15 in the Eastern Conference. They're 7.5 games back of the Bucks and Wizards for eighth place. Meanwhile, there have been teams that have won as many games as the last three Sixers squads combined and still missed the playoffs -- we're really gonna shake that off and make a premature run at the postseason with this unbalanced, inexperienced roster? 

And yet, the thought tempts. OK, so there's five teams separating them and the postseason -- that's not insurmountable, is it? All of these teams (Washington, Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, Orlando) are so roundly underwhelming that each seems one injury and/or losing streak away from throwing in the towel on the season altogether. The Sixers have 47 games remaining in the season; could they possibly go 27-20 the rest of the way? Is there a chance 37 wins might be enough to sneak into the playoffs in a perpetually unremarkable East? 

The allure of a playoff run feels at least partially more plausible than it would have ten days ago, because two key personnel adjustments have made this feel like a different Sixers team. Nerlens Noel has swiped Jahlil Okafor's rotation minutes from him as if Jahlil was inattentively dribbling them on the perimeter, while T.J. McConnell has scrapped his way into being our PG1, a role he inherited with Sergio Rodriguez's ankle injury and has locked down in the games since. 

Nerlens and T.J. have undoubtedly breathed new life into the Sixers, or at least have kept Jah and Sergio from sucking out all the old life. Noel is playing the classic, rim-running Tyson Chandler role for the Sixers on offense, a perpetual threat for a lob or putback -- forcing the defense to account for him on every possession, and shooting 60% in the process. Rather than mire the offense like Okafor with his plodding post-ups, he makes life easier for everyone, and still ends up scoring at a higher (and far more efficient) rate. Defense has been slower-coming for Nerlens this season, but he's learning what to do and where to go, and his irrepressible handsiness means he's still responsible for nearly three steals per 36 minutes -- an insane rate for a big man. 

McConnell, meanwhile, has given the Sixers' offense a spark it hasn't had since the early halcyon days of Ish Smith 2.0. T.J.'s court vision is virtually peerless, as we saw in his 17-dime game in Boston, and while he's not as good a shooter from range as Rodriguez, he's much craftier in and around the paint, much more aggressive attacking the basket, and much better at remaining a nuisance for opposing PGs on D. With the two players upgraded in the rotation, the Sixers are quicker, smarter and exponentially friskier. Combined with Embiid's continued progress and Ben Simmons' likely imminent return, it's enough to make you wonder if this recent Philly run could actually sustain for the rest of the season. 

Unfortunately, the odds are against them in even more ways than the obvious ones. As good as T.J. has been in his five games as Sixers starter, his lack of outside shooting remains a weakness that teams will increasingly exploit in the days to come. You already saw it start in Sunday's Brooklyn game -- the Nets went under on every pick, and the driving lanes (which T.J. would use to kick out to shooters, drop off to Joel/Noel or scoop in his own layup) that were there for him in previous games were virtually non-existent. 

Consequently, he had just 4 points on 2-11 shooting -- he only attempted two triples, missing both -- and a middling six assists. It's why point guards who can't shoot are getting increasingly phased out of the modern NBA, and why just last year, Ish Smith lit it up for Philly in his first couple weeks before plummeting back to earth for the season's remainder. If Timothy John can't make defenses pay for sagging off him, it's gonna be difficult for him to stay effective as a starter, and you'll likely see the Sixers' surging offense (107 PPG the last four contests, eight higher than the team's average) begin to recede along with his productivity. 

It's hard for me to believe that we've seen the last of Jahlil Okafor in this rotation, either. As much as the evidence -- visual, statistical, anecdotal, karmic -- suggests fairly unequivocally that Philly is better with Nerlens on the floor and worse with Jahlil, the Sixers still have too much wrapped up in the No. 3 overall pick of 2015 to write him off as a sunk cost. I fear that Noel's excellent play of late merely upgrades his status as a trade chip for the Colangelos, and the fact that Okafor would likely net little more than a fellow prospect disappointment or mediocre rotation player seems to suggest he's not going anywhere anytime soon. 

And even with Noel still in tow, we'll likely end up leaning on Jahlil some in the weeks to come, as our currently luxurious scheduling gets more and more cramped. The Sixers will play an absurd six back-to-backs in the next month, which likely means at least six games with Embiid riding the pine, and possibly more. The Sixers are only 2-8 when Joel sits, and even with the team's improvement around him, it's hard to imagine that winning percentage getting much better with him out in 2017. We'll need Jah to pick up some of the slack, but that hasn't exactly been his forte of late -- our third-string center hasn't posted a positive plus-minus in a single game since December 11. 

And about that Simmons guy -- his return is undoubtedly a great thing for the Sixers franchise, but are we sure it's that great for their 2016-'17 win-loss record? His insertion into our rotation should make for some exciting high-low big-man play and some awesome fast breaks, but it'll shrink the floor to us to a brutal degree -- especially if his minutes come at the expense of PT for Ersan Ilyasova, the sweet-shooting PF whose on-court presence actually makes the largest difference in our offensive and defensive ratings. With Simmons' stroke still looking iffy and Covington yet to really snap out of his funk from distance, expect things to get awfully crowded for Embiid down low in the days to come, and our offense to suffer greatly as a result. 

So yeah, the road to postseason basketball in 2017 is gonna be a bumpy one. The Sixers almost certainly won't make the playoffs this season, and I'd still say their chances of even getting to 30 wins are pretty slim. But that's totally fine -- the fact that the Sixers aren't already close to mathematically eliminated from the discussion at this point in the season has to be seen as a positive, and Embiid talking tough about the Sixers not writing off May basketball as a possibility is exactly what we want to hear from our franchise player. It's a silly discussion, but that doesn't mean it's not fun to have. 

The Process may talk about the playoffs being the goal, but the real goal is to be able to say those things and not have everyone in the building roll their eyes so hard they burst a blood vessel. And this year, for the first time since Our Once and Always Dark Lord took the throne, that goal actually seems achievable.

Jerry Jones goes after Roger Goodell over Ezekiel Elliott suspension

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Jerry Jones goes after Roger Goodell over Ezekiel Elliott suspension

Jerry Jones, the NFL's most outspoken troll, just wants to watch the world burn.

After weeks of talk and escalation, the Cowboys' owner is ready to go to war with Roger Goodell and the league's other owners over Ezekiel Elliott's suspension.

According to an ESPN report, Jones threatened the commissioner on a conference call after Elliott's suspension was announced, saying, "I'm gonna come after you with everything I have. If you think (Patriots owner) Bob Kraft came after you hard, Bob Kraft is a p---y compared to what I'm going to do."

For weeks now, Jones has tried to disrupt talks of a contract extension for Goodell, promoted objectively bad pizza in the name of football, and landed himself in hot water with the other owners. So much so that there has reportedly been talk about removing Jones as the Cowboys' owner.

It's hard to pick a side here. Jones — the long-lost twin of Emperor Palpatine — and Goodell — a man with rulings more inconsistent than Pete Morelli. You don't really want to root for either of them, but it is fun to think about the extremely unlikely chance that Jones loses the Cowboys. 

Cowboys just another inferior opponent to Eagles

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Cowboys just another inferior opponent to Eagles

It was only a few weeks ago when it appeared this first meeting between the Eagles and Dallas Cowboys was shaping up to be a battle for NFC East supremacy. Now that we’re here, the Cowboys are just trying to save their season, and the Eagles just want to take care of business against an inferior opponent.

That’s not a stretch. Are the Cowboys a good team? Well, they’re not bad, at least based on their 5-4 record. They certainly would be a lot better were it not for injuries and suspensions. But as the team is currently constructed right now, Dallas is not on the Eagles’ level.

Name one thing the Cowboys do better than the Eagles in 2017? That’s going to be a struggle, because aside from maybe punting, or maybe having a marginally superior pass rush, or maybe running the football before Ezekiel Elliott was sent packing, there’s really nowhere Dallas possesses an edge at this point.

Doesn’t mean the Cowboys won’t pose a threat to the Eagles or even win on Sunday night. It’s simply a difficult scenario to envision when we break down the matchup on paper.

QUARTERBACKS

We’re probably going to be having this debate for many years. One-and-a-half seasons certainly isn’t enough to settle it. That being said, there’s no question who’s playing better right now, as in ‘17. Carson Wentz might be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player through 10 weeks. Wentz has thrown for more yards (2,262 to 1,994), a higher yards per attempt (7.8 to 6.9), and found the end zone with greater frequency (23 to 21) – including rushing touchdowns – compared to Dak Prescott. The Eagles’ signal caller also has just one more turnover (7 to 6) and 26 fewer yards rushing (211 to 237). Ultimately, the stats are all pretty close, but Wentz also has the more important number over Prescott right now: Wins, eight to five.

Slight advantage: Eagles

RUNNING BACKS

It’s safe to say that any combination of Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Rod Smith (not to be confused with Broncos great Rod Smith) is a massive drop-off from Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys simply can’t replace the explosive element Elliott brought to their offense, not with this collection of has-beens and one nobody, anyway. Not one of those ball carriers has the pure ability of a Jay Ajayi at this stage of their careers, and the Eagles wouldn’t swap LeGarrette Blount or Corey Clement with Dallas, either. Fun fact about the Cowboys backfield: The unit’s leading receiver is Smith with 38 yards.

Clear advantage: Eagles

WIDE RECEIVERS AND TIGHT ENDS

Zach Ertz is leads both teams with 43 receptions, 528 yards receiving and six touchdowns, and he even missed the Eagles’ last game. Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor are second and fourth, respectively, with 500 and 428 yards receiving, and tied for second with five touchdowns each. The Cowboys’ top receivers haven’t been as effective at getting down the field or in the red zone, though it’s a deep group. Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Cole Beasley are essentially possession receivers at this point, and even speedy Terrance Newman is averaging a career-worst 11.8 yards per catch. Dallas’ best deep threat has been Brice Butler this season with 10 receptions for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Otherwise, the vertical game has been nonexistent.

Advantage: Eagles

OFFENSIVE LINE

In retrospect, the Cowboys’ issues this season were easy to see coming. The retirement of right tackle Doug Free started a game of musical chairs up front, while the departure of guard Ronald Leary in free agency hurt the unit’s depth. Going from guard to tackle has been an adjustment for La’el Collins, and whether at left guard or left tackle, Chaz Green has been an abject failure. Dallas needs Tyron Smith healthy and covering Prescott’s blind side for this to even have a prayer of working. Meanwhile, the Eagles’ O-line keeps on ticking despite losing Jason Peters, which is a credit to Halapoulivaati Vaitai’s development. Peters or no, this continues to look like the best unit in the league.

Advantage: Eagles

DEFENSIVE LINE AND LINEBACKERS

The Eagles may have the best front four in the NFL, or one of them at least, but don’t discount the Cowboys here. Dallas is tied for fifth with 29 sacks, and Demarcus Lawrence leads the league with 11.5. The defense isn’t great against the run – 4.3 yards per carry allowed is tied for 23rd – but Lawrence, David Irving and Tyrone Crawford can all get after the quarterback. Of course, it’s not as if the Eagles aren’t scary rushing the passer, with just four fewer sacks, plus Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and company boast the No. 1 run defense as well. Even if the lines are considered even, there’s going to be some separation at linebacker, as the Cowboys are without the heart soul of their defense, Sean Lee (hamstring).

Slight advantage: Eagles

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Despite a solid pass rush, teams have thrown on the Cowboys’ secondary. In terms of opponents’ quarterback rating, Dallas ranks 23rd (96.4). It’s a young backfield, with rookies Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods and Chidobe Awuzie – the latter returning from a hamstring injury – in outsized roles. The Eagles are young at corner themselves, with Ronald Darby finally back from an ankle and rejoining Jalen Mills, but have seasoned safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod over the top. The unit will give up some ground, coming in at 26th in terms of yards per game (249.4), yet is ninth in quarterback efficiency (81.2). Teams throw against this group because they have to, not because they want to.

Advantage: Eagles

SPECIAL TEAMS

At one point, Dan Bailey may have been the best kicker in the league, but he’s coming off his worst season as a pro and is now sidelined by a groin injury. That was the Cowboys’ primary strength on special teams. Now unreliable Mike Nugent is handling the kicking duties. Dallas punter Chris Jones has been pretty good at pinning opponents deep, which is nice, because he’s getting a lot more opportunities this year. The Eagles routinely grade among the top units in all phases, and will get the nod over most opponents, even if there is a Pro Bowl kicker.

Advantage: Eagles

COACHING

Jason Garrett is the reigning NFL Coach of the Year. He doesn’t call the plays. He doesn’t run the defense. Heck, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones probably decides when to call a timeout or throw the challenge flag. Yet, Garrett has hardware saying he’s the best. To his credit, there is a good staff in place around him, particularly defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. But as of now, Doug Pederson is well on his way to winning Coach of the Year in ’17, and will do it while actually running a team, nor are there any weak links on his staff. With an unconvincing 62-49 record, including playoffs, we’ll go ahead and chalk up Garrett’s 2016 campaign as an anomaly.

Advantage: Eagles

OVERALL

The Cowboys went 13-3 in the regular season in ‘16 on the strength of a dominant offensive line, punishing ground attack and well-coached defense. While the latter is still in place, even that aspect of the equation benefitted from ball-control offense. But Dallas’ line is an injury away from being in shambles, and the NFL’s reigning rushing champion is suspended. That leaves a young quarterback with aging weapons and adequate protection at best, and a defense that can rush the quarterback but does little else. Meanwhile, the Eagles have the best record in the league right now at 8-1, and they were firing on all cylinders heading into their bye. This is a week-to-week sport, so everything can change in the blink of an eye on Sunday night. Going in, however, there’s no denying which side is superior.

Distinct advantage: Eagles