During SB Nation's blogger conference in Las Vegas this summer, I had the pleasure of playing ball with a few folks from the SBN NBA network. It was unbearably hot (even at 8 am in the morning) so I can hardly remember who won, but I do remember guarding Mike Levin of SBN's Philadelphia 76ers site Liberty Ballers (who claims that he and Rohan of At The Hive won "more often than not").
Anyway, with the Golden State Warriors playing the Sixers tonight, I figured I'd get back in touch with Mike for a Q&A about a team that only makes one trip a year to Oracle Arena and has a few intriguing talents that have been discussed on this site once or twice.
GSoM: Liberty Ballers contributor Tanner Steidel wrote that the Sixers' big win against the Suns was due in large part to their defense, but their offense seems to be a work in progress at this point. What would you attribute the Sixers' offensive struggles to right now - simply a matter of needing more time to gel after the lockout or some bigger problem with this unit as currently constructed?
Mike Levin: The Sixers aren't a good offensive team. They have a few pieces who are good at certain things (Spencer Hawes' passing, Elton Brand in the midrange, Thaddeus Young on the offensive glass) but they don't run anything near a cogent offense. Most plays aren't diagrammed, it's closer to pick-and-roll isolations while spreading the court. Ugly, garbage pail kind of stuff. They're best in the open court where Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala, and Thad can work. "Middling" can describe this unit until they have a bonafide stud to pull them from mediocrity (hopefully Evan Turner).
GSoM: You noted in your pessimistic preview of the 2011-12 season that the Sixers will need to bring in a "significant talent" in order to become a contender. Without necessarily listing players, what is the most glaring hole in the roster that you think a significant talent could fill or complement the current roster in a way that would move the team closer to contender status?
ML: A big man. Hawes has been surprisingly and hilariously awesome in the first three games but he's got a limited offensive game and can't do much of anything on the defensive end. Until they have a top 10 frontcourt player, there's no chance the Sixers make it out of the second round. As a team they need to improve on their jump shooting, though Iguodala has been absolutely killing it from beyond so far this year (9-13 through three games), it's completely unsustainable.
GSoM: There are some people who have pegged Jrue Holiday as a candidate to have a "breakout season". In the short time that you've watched him thus far this season, what might be the biggest improvement NBA fans can expect to see from him?
ML: Jrue's actually had a rough go of it in the first three games of the lockout-shortened season, not taking care of the ball or displaying his normally solid shot selection. I'm extremely confident this is just a rust issue and he'll return to form shortly. His jumper has surprised everyone coming out of UCLA and if he can hold onto that as a legitimate weapon (a la Chauncey Billups), his court vision and agility will be that much deadlier. He's not a guy that's going to "break out" per se - steady and consistent improvement is what I expect of Jrue at age 21. I'm hoping he can become Deron Williams minus the chinstrap.
GSoM: A few of us at GSoM were interested in Thaddeus Young as a free agent target because, statistically, he's solid defensively. And watching the way the Warriors are playing defense under Mark Jackson now, it seems that Young's length and athleticism might have been a good fit. However, in your preview of the Sixers' season, you note that Young needs to "improve his defense". What specific improvement do you think he needs to make?
ML: Thad's relatively useless in the post because bigger 4's can out-muscle him and get anywhere they want to. On the outside, when guarding 3's, he tends to get happy feet which messes with his footwork and allows quicker forwards to get by him. He's much better offensively as a 4 (because of the minus jump shot and handles) but superior defensively against 3's because of his athleticism and length you mentioned. Basically, the definition of a tweener - perfect for Golden State! Want him?
GSoM: I'm sure many of us at GSoM are at least somewhat familiar with Nikola Vucevic from his Pac-10 days at USC. But what is something that might have surprised you about Vucevic in his short time thus far as a pro (in both his preseason and regular season performances)?
ML: Not terribly surprised by Vuc thus far. He looks like a solid backup to Hawes, which isn't exactly a glowing endorsement of the guy. His offensive game is far from exemplary and when he is forced to move around defensively, he looks lost and scared. I'm fairly confident he'll become an NBA-average first big off the bench, something the Sixers already have a couple of and not exactly what I was hoping for in a first round pick. Can't fault the kid though, he does some useful things (passing, paint position) that would serve a better team well.
Also check out Liberty Ballers for a recap of the Sixers' 102-99 loss to the Utah Jazz last night.