Examining the team about nothing
On opening night, as the feisty, semi-injured Sixers were trying to gut out a season-opening win against the really, really genuinely-injured Pacers, the Comedy Central program South Park was simultaneously airing its 252nd episode. South Park premiered on August 13, 1997, less than two months after the San Antonio Spurs used the first overall pick of the 1997 NBA Draft on Tim Duncan. In the 17 years since then, South Park has essentially become television’s equivalent of the Spurs: extremely consistent, occasionally brilliant, and, as evidenced by the Oct. 8 Lorde-centric episode, still entirely capable of winning it all. Fittingly, South Park has won five Emmy awards for Outstanding Animated Program in the same span that the Spurs have won five championships (though unlike San Antonio, South Park has gone back-to-back. Spurs burn?)
The 76ers, meanwhile, just kicked off their second season of the Brett Brown era. As you may have heard by now, they’re in the process of “tanking,” in an attempt to build a Spurs-like model of success. But unlike the Duncan-led Spurs, and unlike South Park, they’re far from a runaway success out of the gates. Instead, they’re much closer to resembling the earlier seasons of an even more popular, much less animated comedy series: Seinfeld. Seinfeld notoriously premiered to low ratings and a mixed critical reception – but like Josh Harris and the rest of the Sixers’ current management, NBC displayed the patience necessary to let the show evolve into one of the most revered sitcoms of all-time. Remember that in Seinfeld’s first season, Kramer was much sleazier (and, uh, was named Kessler), George kept his temper in check, and Elaine wasn’t even present for the pilot episode. Seinfeld became the show it’s remembered as by taking baby steps in its search for an identity, and even if the Sixers’ current steps are closer to those of the fetal development process, they’ll need to follow a similar path to actualize what Seinfeld was able to achieve: nearly decade-long dominance.
It helps that their cast is starting to assemble – and they seem to have found themselves an A-lister in Nerlens Noel. Through his first four games as a pro, Noel has established himself as an SNL-era Will Ferrell: constantly compelling and entertaining, no matter the quality of the sketches surrounding him. His length makes it seem like he’s covering more space on the defensive end than he actually is, and on Monday night, he sealed James Harden in a glass case of emotion. Like Ferrell, Nerlens isn’t a guaranteed must-watch event on his own (see Land of the Lost, or rather, don’t). But pair him with a Steve Carell (overreacting right here, but BRANDON DAVIES?!) and you’re going to start churning out classics like “The Chinese Restaurant” in no time.
The only thing that episode lacked was Kramer, a.k.a. the show’s necessary wild card element. The Sixers may have one of those as well in Tony Wroten 1.5. (After opening night I wanted to give the 6-foot-6 guard a full-digit upgrade, but then he remembered how to turn the ball over.) Wroten, 21, has the same basic approach to the game of basketball as he did last year, relentlessly attacking the rim without abandon. But instead of going for the big play, he’s converting more measured layups and waiting for the big play to find him, while racking up assists in the process (a largely underrated statistic for Sixers guards, considering the shooting around them). It’s like watching Nic Cage reign it in for a nuanced, dramatic performance in The Weather Man after going bat-shit in The Wicker Man. Would I watch a movie of Will Ferrell, Nic Cage, and Brandon Davies doing a Steve Carell impression? Yes. Yes I would. Sure, the rest of the roster – from Chris Johnson to Hollis Thompson to Alexey Shved – is probably closer to extras on the diner set than fan favorite recurring characters like Newman or Tim Whatley, but that’s more forgivable when you’ve got potential leads like MCW and Embiid waiting in the wings as mid-season and late-season additions, respectively.
And much like we can’t ignore Larry David’s writing or Andy Ackerman’s directing when discussing Seinfeld, let’s also take some time to consider another small detail that makes modern-day Sixers games marginally more watchable – Comcast’s broadcast duo. I only hope the team’s short-term woes don’t force Marc Zumoff into early retirement, because when they finally break through, there’s going to be years of pent-up Zumoff energy let out all at once, and it’s going to be glorious. Meanwhile, Malik Rose continues to represent a quality gap over predecessor Eric Snow (who infamously fell asleep in the middle of a broadcast once). The Philadelphia native (Overbrook High, Drexel) and two-time NBA champion is a delight, insightful but playful, a perfectly chill ying to Zumoff’s eruptive yang. He only erred once this week, by my count, when he weirdly, vehemently insisted that Malcolm Thomas’s cheap shove of Roy Hibbert on opening night was a “frustration foul, not a flagrant foul.” Malik, to quote Diamond Joe Quimby, “it can be two things!”
You can forgive Malik the odd outburst, however, when he has to watch and dissect such an inconsistent product every night. On that note, think how Sam Hinkie must feel watching these games. He’s like Lorne Michaels in the mid-90’s, watching stone-faced from on high as Ferrell/Noel does his thing, praying that at least one of the players around him turns into a Tina Fey and helps salvage an ugly era. At that time, Seinfeld was flourishing, while SNL was never quite able to re-establish itself as NBC’s other comedic powerhouse. It’s too early to say which direction the Sixers will go in – they’re not even The King of Queens yet – but more often than not, a cohesive and unified vision will lead to success.
Drew Stone is a guy from Pennsylvania who writes the things you just read. One of his childhood memories is betting a friend that rookie John Salmons would have a better career than Kobe, and he feels validated that at least Salmons is still in the league. Follow him on Twitter at …