For Philly sports fans, the summer doldrums have set in and there's simply not much to get excited about. There are no meaningful basketball or hockey games, and the Eagles don't report to training camp until July 24. That leaves us with the Phillies who, alas, have the worst record in baseball. So, naturally, fans in the City of Brotherly Love are spending this idle time speculating about our future sports landscape, particularly in light of the good offseason and draft the Eagles had and the Sixers' bold moves in trading up to select Markelle Fultz with the first pick in the draft and to sign J.J. Redick as a free agent.
In fact, the No. 1 topic of conversation and banter for talk-radio hosts and online commentators is which of our teams will be the first to make the playoffs.
The safest answer is the Eagles. They were in the hunt for the playoffs until almost the very end of last season and lost five games by six points or fewer. It is beyond dispute that the Eagles had a good offseason with the signing of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, running back LeGarrette Blount and defensive end Chris Long. They get a solid B+ grade for their draft, which included a potential top-flight pass rusher in Tennessee's Derek Barnett, a cornerback who led the nation in interceptions in West Virginia's Rasul Douglas, an exciting Darren Sproles-like running back in San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey, and two potential sleeper wide receivers, North Carolina's Mack Hollins and West Virginia's Shelton Gibson. If second-round choice Sidney Jones, of Washington, comes back from his Achilles' injury in great shape, either near the end of this season or next, it will be a solid A draft.
But does all of this mean that the Eagles are playoff-bound? As the great Lee Corso would say, "Not so fast, my friend." The problem for the Birds is that the Giants have improved, too, and both they and the Cowboys stand in the way of an easy trip to the playoffs. Of course, there could be two wild cards from the NFC East, but that hardly seems likely with the improved Cardinals, Lions and Buccaneers in the way in the conference. What also makes it less likely is that the Eagles have a tougher schedule this year, with nine games against playoff-caliber teams, as well as a matchup with the Carolina Panthers, who are likely to bounce back with the addition of Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey. In my view, there are only five to six fairly certain wins on the schedule: one or two wins against a Redskins team I think will struggle, and wins against the Bears, Rams, Chargers and 49ers. Could the Birds win some of the games against the nine playoff-caliber teams? Sure, but they could also lose some of the games I have marked as fairly certain wins (for example, San Diego). I believe 8-8 or 9-7 is the best we can hope for, and I don't suspect that will be good enough to make the playoffs.
The Flyers and Phillies seem to be the furthest away, but both have given their fans reasons for hope. The Flyers, thanks to some good fortune in the draft lottery, were able to draft Nolan Patrick, who seems like a real game-changer who might turn out to be Broad Street's answer to Sidney Crosby.
And, believe it or not, I feel there is light at the end of the tunnel for the Phillies — for the simple reason that baseball is still 70 percent about starting pitching. The Fightins have six young arms, all of whom have shown the potential to win at the big-league level. Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff (despite his winless record), Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Zach Eflin have all produced quality starts in the majors. Nola looks like a solid No. 2 or 3 starter, and Velasquez has often displayed top-of-the-rotation stuff if he can finally achieve some consistency. The Phillies also have a bevy of talented arms in the minors, including Jake Thompson, who at one time was considered to be their best prospect of all but is struggling at Triple A, and Sixto Sanchez, who is tearing up the South Atlantic League with an incredible stat line of 50 strikeouts and five walks for Lakewood. If four or five of these pitchers come of age at the same time, and if John Middleton spends the amount of money on free agents that I think he is ready to, we might see playoff action at the Bank sooner than most fans think.
But my choice for the first Philadelphia team to make the playoffs is none other than the 76ers. I must admit, I was never one to "Trust the Process," but I am now a believer. What turned the tide was the signing of Redick, who is a great pro and a dead-eye three-point shooter, and the play of Fultz in early summer league play. Though I realize that summer league games are many levels below regular NBA tilts, Fultz's ability to penetrate so quickly and effectively leads me to believe that he will create a lot of open shots, either dishing off to Joel Embiid or kicking it out to Redick for a certain three-pointer. With Ben Simmons and Fultz moving the ball and Redick and Embiid scoring the way they can, the Sixers will make the playoffs next season.