One quiet evening in early November, the Orlando Magic played the Philadelphia 76ers.
Two winless squads unmatched in their profound ability to stay competitive for 2.9 quarters before letting the hinges fall off, Tony Wroten’s 27-point performance (a rim-rattling 3-pointer away from matching his career high), Elfrid Payton’s pick-and-roll mettle churning garbage into gold, K.J. McDaniels perpetually suspended two feet in the air, Brandon Davies scoring 20 points on 11 shots, Henry Sims – in what would have been the pinnacle of his NBA career – nailing a potential game-winner only to be silenced by a buzzer-beating Tobias Harris jumper giving Orlando the win, all culminated into a singular wave: #LeaguePassAlert.
We didn’t know much. But at least we knew it didn’t matter. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
It was a triumph of the nonchalant, a nod to tranquility amid vast uneasiness. Everywhere, loathers of high stakes rejoiced: it was the game we had all been waiting for. Bottoming out the Eastern Conference together, the Magic and 76ers (now a combined 1-9) have now vaulted into contention for this year’s League Pass favorite.
The NBA’s peripheral tier has more entertaining squads than the 76ers and Magic, to be sure – the Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans both fit the gleaming upstart bill just fine. Those teams really are on the brink of something, though, and while the added pressure likely won’t cause their offensive firepower to stifle, each win and loss is tethered to too much consequence for even the nastiest of alley-oops to ease fan tension.
Imagine how much less fun the Magic would be if we expected them to crack a playoff spot? Instead of eyeing Aaron Gordon’s perpetually smiling face while he gallops up and down the court, we’d be like, *shudder* complaining about Ben Gordon’s shot selection. Contemplating a blustery future is more fun than the humdrum stuff of incremental improvement.
By March, a slew of losses and their insignificance in the playoff hunt will make the Magic and the 76ers a non-story. In early November, though, a season with no preordained plan sets the table for a viewing experience with no worries.
Tony Wroten’s stat-line, a perfectly gaudy spectacle, says it all: 27 points, eight assists, five steals and two blocked shots, with four fouls and nine turnovers. He is leading the league in steals. Wroten’s ball handling, tight and quick, has aided a driving game that produces 12 points per game – sixth-highest in the NBA, according to SportVu. Consider Wroten’s four triples last night (one off his career high), and the Sixers analytically inclined front office has to be smiling at his ardent support of the analytics movement.
He’s really very diligent about it. In fact, in an effort to normalize data-driven practices with a larger NBA audience, Wroten can often be found flinging corner three’s to fans in the stands, during live action no less! No one in Row 1 has taken a shot after one of Wroten’s passes yet, but it’s not for a lack of trying on his part.
In all seriousness, there’s more behind that turnover than an overzealous assist attempt. How often do you see the ball skirt from deep inside the strongside baseline into the opposite corner? The ball’s path was fraught with hazards – four Miami Heat players and the bottom of the backboard –but Hollis Thompson was actually in position to catch it before he moved. The execution was off, yes, but the idea was there.
One of the nice byproducts of being as irrevocably bad as the Sixers are is that they’re free to take risks and try to unearth new oddities in the game; angles and crevasses that, inch by inch, change how the game is played. A few more minutes in the oven and that pass could work.
Four months into the season, when this year’s host of championship contenders find their identity, the developing tics in Orlando and Philadelphia won’t feel so exciting. Even now, a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers may wield a superior product but, five games into the season, it’s impossible to watch them without drowning in the muck of What It All Means. Until they figure it out, the NBA’s entertaining bottom dwellers double as a necessary release valve of momentary, unadulterated fun; the vital DNA strands of any worthy League Pass favorite.