Bears

Are the Sixers a legit threat?

747042.png

Are the Sixers a legit threat?

For 76ers head coach Doug Collins, his team's opening-round series will be somewhat of a homecoming, though not necessarily a happy one. The Illinois native, who once coached the Bulls, are up against the squad with the NBA's best record and the comments of second-year swingman Evan Turner, a Chicago native aside, Philadelphia isn't "dodging a bullet," even with reigning league MVP Derrick Rose still trying to regain his previous form.That said, the Sixers have played the Bulls tough in the past, and their blend of pressure defense, transition basketball, athleticism, balanced offense and low turnovers do pose some problems. At the same, it doesn't help Philadelphia's case that Turner provided some added motivation by publicly stating that the Sixers preferred facing the Bulls to the second-seeded Heat.Regardless, let's take a look at how the Sixers stack up to the Bulls, as well as some of their strengths and weaknesses:Backcourt:Jrue Holiday, one of the league's more underrated young players, is a solid defender, but while his size poses problems for many opposing point guards, Rose is a different animal and has had his way with the UCLA product in the past. On the other end of the floor, Holiday does make Rose work, but when he opts to get into a one-on-one battle, it stagnates the Sixers' offense, as his playmaking is more valuable to the team and he's an inconsistent outside shooter.Turner was inserted into the Sixers' starting lineup in the second half of the season, but Collins recently moved him back to the bench in favor of former starter Jodie Meeks, who's primarily a spot-up shooter. Turner will still see plenty of minutes at both wing positions -- he also routinely initiates the offense -- and while he's also a promising young talent, the Bulls have the personnel to effectively defend the Ohio State product.Lou Williams, a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, is the Sixers' leading scorer and one of the best instant-offfense players in the league. But like Holiday, Turner and All-Star swingman Andre Iguodala, if he dominates the ball too much, it can be a deterrent to Philadelphia's offense. The Sixers' lack of a true go-to scorer will rear its ugly head against the Bulls, as they have strong perimeter defenders and even aside from Rose, can keep Philadelphia occupied on the other end, with the likes of Rip Hamilton and Kyle Korver both being top-tier outside shooters.Frontcourt:The small-forward battle between All-Stars Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng will be crucial, as both are among the top perimeter defenders in the league, as well as being key secondary scorers for their teams. The difference is, if Deng isn't scoring at a high level, he's still valuable to the Bulls and often times, they can find point production from other sources. In Iguodala's case, he'll need to be effective on offense consistently -- as both a scorer and a playmaker, as well as a rebounder for size-challenged Philadelphia -- to keep the series competitive.At power forward, veteran Elton Brand, a former Bulls draft pick, has seen better days. As valuable as his leadership is to the young Sixers, he's no longer the 20-point, 10-rebound threat he was earlier in his career, but if he can keep fellow Duke product Carlos Boozer from going off, while giving Philadelphia a semblance of a low-post scorer, he's done his job.Rookie Nikola Vucevic is the Sixers' starting center, having replaced injury-prone Spencer Hawes in the lineup, but like Meeks, he's basically a token starter, though he's shown flashes of ability in his debut NBA season. If Hawes can knock down outside shots, facilitate action as a passer and compete on the boards, as he did early in the campaign, when he was discussed as a Most Improved Player candidate, the Sixers will have a chance to not let the battle at center get out of hand, but the defensive and rebounding prowess of Joakim Noah and Omer Asik simply might be too much.Like Williams, backup forward Thaddeus Young is a de facto starter for the Sixers. He's the one player the Bulls really struggle to match up with, as his combination of quickness, rebounding ability, athleticism and perimeter skills give them fits on a regular basis, although he'll also be facing a size mismatch inside. Lavoy Allen, a second-round draft pick, fared well in the Bulls' loss at Philadelphia early in the season, and while he's an active presence on the interior, his lack of experience will likely come into play.Conclusion:With talk of Collins losing his team in the second half of the season -- the Sixers appeared to be running away with the Atlantic Division before a collapse that saw them limp into the East's final seed -- there's no reason to think the Bulls' combination of size, depth and talent, as well as added motivation spurred by Turner's comments won't win out, especially against a team that doesn't have a dominant scoring presence. While some of the games should be competitive, the Bulls should win the series handily, even with Rose still trying to regain his rhythm, though if Philadelphia can force turnovers, get into transition and find some offensive chemistry, their odds improve.

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

roquan_smith_bears_ilbs_season_preview_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

Three questions for Bears ILBs: What kind of an impact will Roquan Smith make?

Pre-camp depth chart

1. Danny Trevathan
2. John Timu
3. Joel Iyiegbuniwe

1. Roquan Smith
2. Nick Kwiatkoski
3. Jonathan Anderson

1. How good can Roquan Smith be?

Making sweeping observations from shorts-and-helmets practices in OTAs is often a fool’s errand, but Smith looked the part while running around the practice fields of Halas Hall after being drafted in April. His quickness and instinctiveness stood out — as they did at Georgia — and his football intelligence and work ethic were praised by coaches and teammates. 

“He’s learning well,” Trevathan said. “He’s doing a good job of learning. He’s learning the little things that you need to learn in this defense. Now it’s all about putting on a show and going out there and rocking.”

And that’s what’s going to be fun to watch in Bourbonnais: How does Smith play with the pads on? Chances are, the answer to that question will be “well,” setting the eighth overall pick on a path to being a mainstay of this defense for years to come. 

That’s not to say Smith doesn’t have plenty on which to work during training camp. But he left Georgia as a sort of “safe bet” in the draft, and nothing he’s done to this point has changed the view of him that he’s likely going to be a good one. 

2. Can Danny Trevathan stay healthy?

In terms of size and athleticism, Trevathan and Smith profile similar to NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, the inside linebacking tandem that was the spine of the San Francisco 49ers defense during Fangio’s time there. But for Trevathan and Smith to reach that lofty bar — or even to come close to it — Trevathan needs to be more available than he was his first two years with the Bears.

This isn’t questioning Trevathan’s toughness — far from it. That he returned for Week 1 of the 2017 season 10 months after rupturing his patellar tending (an injury that can be a career-ender) was impressive, and that he was immediately productive upon returning was even more extraordinary. But Trevathan missed three games in November due to a strained calf, and coupled with a one-game suspension and the seven games he missed in 2016, the 28-year-old has only played in 21 of 32 games since signing with the Bears. 

Trevathan is confident he can improve his production in 2018, given he wasn’t able to participate in last year’s offseason program practices. He’s entering his third year in Fangio’s defense and feels better prepared after going through OTAs and minicamps this year. It’s just now about him staying on the field to make sure that work pays off.

“I’m more comfortable with this defense, I’m more comfortable with the guys and the calls that we make,” Trevathan said. “I take pride in being correct and working my tail off and making the defense better. And the more that I can be out there — which I plan on being out there a lot — it’s going to help us tremendously.” 

3. How big a role will Nick Kwiatkoski have?

The Bears didn’t draft Smith because they felt like they absolutely needed to upgrade over Kwiatkoski, who’s acquitted himself well in 25 games since being picked in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. But Kwiatkoski has dealt with some injury issues, and for as solid a player as he may be, the Bears’ defense needed (and still needs) more great players. Drafting Smith gave the Bears a shot at adding a great player.

It also leaves Kwiatkoski in the same spot he was in a year ago, when the Bears entered the 2017 season with Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman as their unquestioned starting inside linebackers. Smith still has to earn that starting spot, but the safe bet is he will, relegating Kwiatkoski again to reserve duties.

And that’s a positive for the overall health of this defense, having a player good enough to start ready to play if needed. But it also raises this question: What do the Bears do with Kwiatkoski if he’s one of their four best linebackers, but isn’t one of their two best inside linebackers? 

So for the purposes of watching training camp practices, seeing if Kwiatkoski gets any reps at outside linebacker will be an interesting storyline to follow. 

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

0716-kyle-schwarber.jpg
USA TODAY

Nationals fans sent Kyle Schwarber from hero to villain in monumentally entertaining Home Run Derby

WASHINGTON, D.C. — How could someone like Kyle Schwarber play the villain?

The fan favorite who’s always quick with a smile — or an Uncle Sam costume on the Fourth of July — Schwarber doesn’t fit the mold of a loathsome target of boos. But he made quite the heel turn in the minds of Washington Nationals fans Monday night, and of course he knew it was coming.

Schwarber went from getting cheered by the legions in attendance at the Home Run Derby to getting booed when he took on, and eventually lost to, hometown hero Bryce Harper in the final round.

“I was down in the tunnel saying, ‘If we get to the finals, Harp, they’re all going to be against me. I think they’re all going to be against me,’” Schwarber said Monday night. “And then I went out there and got booed after they all got pumped up for me. That’s just the beauty of it, and I was happy for Bryce that he won it in front of the home crowd.”

Harper delivered an incredibly memorable baseball moment Monday night, catching up to Schwarber’s 18 home runs with a ridiculous display of repetitive power to win a Home Run Derby for the ages. The format of this event, revamped a couple years ago, made for a dramatic and hugely entertaining evening. Harper smacked nine homers over the final 47 seconds of the final round to tie Schwarber, then bested him in bonus time. Unsurprisingly, the home crowd was going ballistic for their boy.

But earlier in the night, it was Schwarber getting all the cheers, when he made his own last-second comeback to beat Philadelphia Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins in the second round. Schwarber was pumping up the crowd, pumping his fists and screaming while putting on a show of his own to catch and pass Hoskins' 20 home runs and advance to the finals.

How quickly the locals forgot.

By the finals — during which Schwarber looked understandably exhausted — the crowd had turned on him, trying to get every advantage for Harper.

“As soon as I got done with that round, I told myself that he had it,” Schwarber said. “I knew that he had the home crowd behind him, and I knew that he was a very prolific power hitter with a great swing. For him to come in and do that and started getting down to the wire, all of a sudden he started racking them up one at a time. You kind of just accept your fate there.”

Perhaps the night could’ve ended differently for Schwarber had he listened more closely to the advice of his teammates, Javy Baez and Willson Contreras, who were quick with Gatorade, a towel and words of encouragement on Monday. Baez hit 16 home runs in his own first-round appearance, though Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Max Muncy knocked him out.

“I was just telling him to slow down,” Baez said. “He was kind of rushing a little bit, that’s why he was jumping to the ball.”

“They were actually giving me really good advice that I didn’t take because I was really dumb-headed,” Schwarber said. “‘Make sure you take some pitches and get the pitch that you want.’ At the end, I felt like I was swinging at everything. I was just running out of gas. I felt like I had to put up as many swings just to try to put a couple out.”

Schwarber was totally content with losing out to Harper’s home-field advantage. Though as his homers flew out deep into the right-field seats Monday night, you couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like if Schwarber was instead taking aim at Sheffield Avenue and getting his own home-field advantage from Cubs fans.

The North Side hasn’t played host to the All-Star Game since 1990, so perhaps Schwarber will still be slugging the next time the Friendly Confines are the site of the Home Run Derby.

“That’d be really cool one day if the All-Star Game’s at Wrigley,” Schwarber said, “and to participate in the Derby, that’d be fun.”