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Years since a Phillies catcher batted leadoff before Andrew Knapp did so Sunday

Fish ‘n Chips

Posted by Eric Fisher On July 5

The 76ers came up empty in their “star-hunting” expedition. LeBron James signed with the Lakers. Paul George remained with the Thunder. Kawhi Leonard, at least for now, remains a member of the Spurs.

In fact, it appears as if the 2018-19 Sixers will look a lot like the 2017-18 version. They re-signed veterans JJ Redick and Amir Johnson at steep discounts from what they were paid last season. The only players who have left, thus far, are Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli.

The impact of the departure of Ilyasova and Belinelli shouldn’t be minimized. Acquired after being released by the Hawks, Ilyasova and Belinelli were important figures during the 16-game winning streak at the end of the regular season. But neither is irreplaceable. Belinelli’s outside shooting will be missed, but his defensive shortcomings were exposed during the playoffs.

The Sixers have filled the wing with veteran Wilson Chandler and draft-day acquisitions Zhaire Smith, Landry Shamet and Shake Milton. How soon any of the three rookies is ready to contribute is uncertain.

Having relatively the same roster isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, if healthy, should continue to improve – and both are already dominant at times. So should the versatile Dario Saric. Any contribution from Markelle Fultz would be an improvement over his rookie season.

It would be a major disappointment if the Sixers don’t finish next season near the top of the Eastern Conference. With the departure of James from the Cavaliers, the power shifted even further to the Western Conference. The Raptors finished first in the Eastern Conference last season, but will their success continue under a new coach? The Celtics remain the Sixers’ biggest obstacle to finishing first in the conference.  The Pistons and Bucks seem to have improved, and the Pacers made several moves, but will any of those teams surpass the Sixers?

The Sixers’ hunt didn’t produce any new stars, but they still have several stars in the developmental stages. They need a player like Leonard to compete with the best teams in the Western Conference, but the roof isn’t going to cave in because they didn’t acquire an impact player via free agency or trade.

*****

BIG SPLASH: Although the Sixers publicly declared that they were “star hunting,” the Flyers were the team that acquired the closest thing to a star. The Flyers moved quickly to reacquire left wing James van Riemsdyk at the start of free agency. Selected second overall by the Flyers in the 2007 NHL Draft, van Riemsdyk was the top wing available in free agency.

The Flyers have been missing a high-scoring left wing, although Claude Giroux’s move to wing alleviated some of that concern last season. Adding van Riemsdyk, who scored a career-high 36 goals last season with the Maple Leafs, addresses that missing element and solidifies the Flyers’ top two lines. If the Flyers keep Sean Couturier, Travis Konecny and Giroux on the top line, van Riemsdyk could join Nolan Patrick and either Jakub Voracek or Wayne Simmonds on the second line. With no offense intended toward the versatile Michael Raffl, the top two lines look much more formidable with Giroux and van Riemsdyk on the left side.

This isn’t the same van Riemsdyk the Flyers traded away after three mediocre seasons. During his six years with the Leafs, van Riemsdyk became a better player. He still isn’t terrific in his own zone, but his goal-scoring ability fills a need for the Flyers and provides a significant upgrade to their top two lines.

*****

WILD WEST: The talent in the NBA has definitely shifted to the West. With LeBron James signing with the Lakers and DeMarcus Cousins signing with the already-stacked Warriors, the Pacific Division looks stronger than ever.

However, the Lakers could turn out to be a bust. Among the players they signed as they transformed their roster were Rajon Rondo and the mercurial Lance Stephenson. They are added to a team that already had Lonzo Ball, along with his family baggage. Lakers head coach Luke Walton certainly has his hands full – and that’s before James tries to assert his influence as the team’s real coach.

*****

AWFUL ENDING: Is there a worse way to decide a winner than by the use of penalty kicks? At least the NHL limits the use of shootouts to the regular season. Soccer, on the other hand, allows games on its biggest stage to be decided by penalty kicks.

Penalty kicks also affect the way teams play in regulation and overtime. For example, Russia went into a defensive shell against Spain in the Round of 16. It simply tried to put so many players back on defense that Spain couldn’t penetrate its fortress. Basically, Russia was playing to get to penalty kicks. This created boring soccer (which some would say is redundant). The strategy worked because Russia was able to win on penalty kicks despite being vastly outplayed throughout the entire game.

                               *****                               

ARC OF A DIVER: While I’m bashing soccer, the diving and feigning of injuries during the World Cup is embarrassing. The faking during the Brazil-Mexico match during the Round of 16 was particularly egregious. Neymar might be among the best players in the world, but the Brazilian star should be ashamed of his histrionics, which included writhing around on the ground to the point that those not initiated to soccer’s acting world might have summoned an ambulance with EMTs. Those more familiar with the men’s World Cup – the faking of injuries is rare in women’s soccer – weren’t surprised to see Neymar running full speed moments later. He certainly was well enough to use his speed to set up the goal that sealed Brazil’s 2-0 win over Mexico.

Neymar is far from the only faker. Players fall to the ground as if shot by a sniper after experiencing less physical contact than a hockey player receivers during a line change. It seems as if the main strategy during the World Cup is to flop to the ground to try to draw a foul call from the referees. The acting often overshadows and detracts from the beauty of soccer, which is why FIFA should crack down on fakers with harsher penalties.

*****

UNION LEADER: The Union (6-8-3), hovering just outside playoff range, exercised their contract option for 2019 for veteran midfielder Haris Medunjanin. A steady player, the 33-year-old Medunjanin started all 34 games last season, registering 12 assists.

*****

FIGHTING FOR FIRST: The Soul (7-4) enter the final weekend of the Arena Football League season tied for first place with Albany and Baltimore. The only AFL team not tied for first place is Washington. The defending-champion Soul travel to Albany for a game Saturday (6 p.m.) that could determine homefield advantage during the playoffs. The return of quarterback Dan Raudabaugh in time for last Saturday’s 49-48 victory over Baltimore certainly bodes well for the Soul’s fortunes this weekend against Albany and during the postseason.

Eric Fisher, who has been covering sports for nearly 30 years, never faked an injury during his one season of varsity soccer.

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