The Sixers, or, basketball in a vacuum

[Editor's note: We're excited to have the very talented Danny Nowell (you may know him from Magic Basketball) writing at HoopSpeak this season. He'll be contributing a couple times a week, please give him a round of applause.]

I turned on last night’s contest between the 76ers and Pacers so that I could gather a little intel for a post I had some pretty strong ideas about. Just recently, I was asked in an ESPN 5-on-5 whether I “bought” the Sixers as a legitimate team, and I sold on them. My idea was that the Sixers are currently straddled on the league’s most uncomfortable perch, neither strong enough to contend but also not bad enough to really use the draft and build their team. Not losing, but not beating anybody they shouldn’t. You’ve heard the line before—you’re either contending or rebuilding, and the in-between is where teams are misusing the mid-level exception, overpaying inefficient players, etc. I thought the Sixers were stuck there, boring and semi-relevant.

But then I watched them play. The actual state of the team is far more interesting than any tired sportsyak truism, and I think the way the Sixers are perceived has something to say about how viewers are treating the NBA today, and what the audience community wants out of a team.

First, the game. The Pacers were undermanned without Danny Granger and George Hill, but even still Philadelphia was impressive. In their best moments, they function as a fluid, team-wide extension of their best player, Andre Iguodala; like Iguodala, the Sixers as a whole lack any single top-end offensive talent, but they compete intensely and present a diversity that can be difficult for opponents to deal with.

Philadelphia can operate methodically in the halfcourt with Elton Brand and the newly-capable Spencer Hawes, or they can use their smothering defense to free up their young gazelles in transition. They go deep, bringing blue-chip young players Evan Turner and Thad Young off the bench. In short, the Sixers are a polished and entertaining product, full of productive players who still have upside and coached by a smart veteran who seems to have gotten the team to fully commit to succeeding as a balanced unit. So why doesn’t anybody care?

I don’t think my initial skepticism of the Sixers was particularly unique—it strikes me that this team has sort of fallen between the sofa cushions and that everybody is going to flip out when we find them during spring cleaning. The reason, I suspect, is because of the team’s utter lack of narrative momentum. “Narrative” might as well be the subtitle of every blog here in our little interbotz basketball community, but it’s over-exposed for good reason: Prominence in the league is now more than ever about the perception of interest over the quality of product. Narratives drive interest, because they give meaning to every contest. You can watch the Timberwolves start three or four of the wrong players and get excited to watch ROOOOOOBIO—that’s their story. You can watch the putrid Wizards try to “learn how to win” or “respect the game” because that’s their story. Teams who exist primarily in relationship to a narrative give fans a template for reaction; it’s easier to say whether Russell Westbrook seems  to be sublimating his ego than it is to explain why the Thunder aren’t getting the pick and roll looks they’re used to.

Of course, narrative is assigned or created in a variety of different ways. The Heat more or less created their own narrative, as have a few other franchises. Mark Cuban, Kobe Bryant and other prominent self-stylists have shown that you can take control of how you’re perceived, while a host of other teams have risen to prominence because circumstance or sheer incompetence has forced them into a position of interest. And that’s what the league’s about now. The draft and trade speculation, it often seems, are way more popular than any of the games themselves. Some fans prefer speculation and storylines stand in place of regular old basketball. When storylines coincide with basketball—when the Heat are actually good but still “choke,” when the Thunder service fraternity seems to actually be working—that’s when the sparks fly. But without the narrative? Well, that’s the Sixers. All squares are rectangles, but all rectangles are not squares; all compelling narratives have teams but not all teams have compelling narratives. And paradoxically, it seems as if the public imagination rewards a host of teams who–whether by circumstance or choice–exist more as storylines than as organizations built to play consistently good basketball.

All of which is to say I’m not sure what the Sixers have coming to them. I was genuinely surprised by their effort, and I’ll be excited to tune in again. But from the looks of it, their arena was nearly empty, and Kevin Love was dominating my Twitter timeline. This isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. Basketball is of course just another form of entertainment and people may just want to be entertained in different ways now. But I do think the the relatively staid treatment of teams like Sixers introduces a myriad of questions about how our perception of sports is changing. And I’m sure I’ll bore the hell out of readers in the future asking those questions. But for now, I’ll sign off with a thank you to the Sixers, who gave me an early, exciting reminder of how good it can be to just watch a damn basketball game.

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