Manchester, England played host to an NBA preseason game last night as the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 103-99. Here are some brief observations, from my seat three rows up behind the Sixer bench:
The 2013/14 Sixers may be terrible, but they play the right way
The Sixers lack talent. They are clearly in tank mode as an organization and currently fall several million dollars below the minimum team salary requirement. Some expect them to challenge records for NBA futility in their bid to land the No. 1 pick in the 2014 Draft.
They probably will win less than 20 games, but their players are not dogging it at all. Moreover, they appear to be having a good time and embracing the chance to fill roles that they are mostly under-qualified for: Spencer Hawes as a primary post-up threat, Evan Turner as a primary ball-handler who gets to shoot 15 times a game, Tony Wroten as a sixth man, Darius Morris as an NBA player.
Body language in huddles and on the bench is one thing you can pick up on when watching a game in person, and for the Sixers it was good last night. Players paid full attention to coach Brett Brown, who spent the game teaching as much as coaching – turning to his reserves and saying things like “see, we have to push the ball after made baskets!” during live action.
Above all, Brown and his team appear determined to run at every opportunity, and to move the ball as much as possible in the halfcourt. That’s good basketball, and it might make them semi-watchable this season.
Tony Wroten is particularly watchable
Tony Wroten was a bundle of energy on both ends – the Sixers’ best player on the night by some distance. He carries himself on the court and in timeout huddles with a confidence unbefitting an unknown bench player, and he may have reason to do so.
His hustle on defense and his one-man fast breaks directly off defensive rebounds were particularly fun to watch. His jumpshot and his ball-handling skills may need some work, but each time he entered the game he changed its tenor with his athleticism and activity. He reminded me of a slightly taller, slightly slighter Eric Bledsoe. Sixers fans will enjoy watching him even if no one else tunes into their games this year.
Kevin Durant looks better
Not just his haircut, which we covered here, but his actual basketball skills. His passing game out of the pick-and-roll looks better than ever. His skip passes to corner three-point shooters and bounce passes through the seams of a double team to the roll-man were right on the money time and again. He finished with 12 assists, but would have had many more if Jeremy Lamb had not shot 0-for-8 on mostly wide open threes.
Durant lacks the natural all-world passing and vision genes of LeBron, but he’s clearly worked on this aspect of his game. It will be especially key for the Thunder in Westbrook’s absence as opponents will drape multiple defenders over Durant just as Philly did last night.
KD also looked good defensively, expending a fair amount of effort fighting over picks and challenging shots at the rim. He’s no LeBron here either, but he appears to be getting better.
Referee Danny Crawford is excellent at his job
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of all last night was seeing Danny Crawford at work. He is what all refs should aim to be: accurate, consistent, in no rush to be the center of attention, and, most of all, respected by the players.
Sitting courtside you could hear many of his calls and interactions with players. Thaddeus Young at one point sought him out after a whistle to tell him “good call!” after being hit with a loose ball foul – the rarity of all NBA rarities. Crawford did not blink. He does not make small talk with players and does not talk down to players. He just does his job. Respect is due.
Manchester + OKC + Philly = empty seats
The crowd was announced as “a 13,472 sell-out.” There is one problem here: the Phones 4U Arena seats well over 13,472. The very same arena seated 16,979 at last year’s Great Britain vs USA Olympic warm-up. Large blocks of seating were closed and covered with black curtains in the upper tier behind each basket. There were also numerous empty seats throughout the lower block.
See this video recorded by yours truly:
Certainly, 13,472 is not a bad attendance for a preseason game. Indeed, few preseason games stateside ever draw a crowd as large. But the NBA will have hoped for better given how rare NBA games of any sort are in Britain. Moreover, when the Lakers played the Timberwolves in London three years ago the attendance was 18,689, so this is in one sense a step back for the NBA in the UK. Alas, this is the result of the location and the featured teams.
Whilst I support bringing top-flight international sport to any UK city outside of London, playing a night game in Manchester makes it hard for many fans down south to attend. The last train home from Manchester to Birmingham on a weeknight is at 10:07PM; the last train to London is even earlier at 9:27PM. The game did not finish until around 10:30, so would it be worth it for a Londoner to make the trek up north to see the first half only?
Furthermore, the prospect of seeing a good-but-not-iconic team missing one of its stars (OKC) and a downright terrible team (Philly) clearly did not grip the imagination of the casual fan. This is the bottom line. Had this been a marquee matchup between the Lakers and Heat, they could have sold the arena out several times over.
Next up, the Hawks face the Nets in London in a regular season contest on January 16. If nothing else, the crowd on that night is sure to be better than anything that Atlanta could muster.