HOUSTON — Finally, we’re in January.

This is the time of the year when I start paying close attention to the NBA standings. It’s also a time when we get a better idea of who are legitimate contenders or overhyped pretenders.

In the past, it also has been a time when the 76ers made strong pushes. Last season, the Sixers went 11-4 in January; they went 10-5 during the 2016-17 season.

Will this month be as good for the Sixers (23-13), who have the Eastern Conference’s fifth-best record with 46 games remaining?

Their first of 13 games starts at 8 tonight against the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center.

Be sure to keep up with the Sixers’ result and news at The Inquirer and Inquirer.com.

You’re signed up to get this newsletter in your inbox every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. If you like what you’re reading, tell your friends it’s free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @PompeyOnSixers. Thank you for reading.

— Keith Pompey (offthedribble@inquirer.com)

Schedule gets no easier for Sixers

There has been a lot of hubbub about how the Sixers concluded 2019 with three straight losses.

Well, things could get worse before they get better for an inconsistent team that is failing to live up to preseason hype.

Beginning tonight, they have five straight games against teams with winning records.

They face the 23-11 Rockets. Then the Sixers travel home for Monday’s contest against the 19-15 Oklahoma City Thunder at the Wells Fargo Center. They’ll remain home for Thursday’s contest against the 23-8 Boston Celtics before heading on the road to face the 22-12 Dallas Mavericks (Jan. 11) and 22-13 Indiana Pacers (Jan. 13).

The Sixers have a 2-0 record against the Celtics, who have the Eastern Conference’s second-best record. Boston, however, has won six of its last seven games since losing, 115-109, to the Sixers on Dec. 12. And we’re not talking about a bunch of nail-biting victories.

The Celtics defeated the Mavericks, 109-103, on Dec. 18. Then they rolled to 21-, 26-, 16-, 12- and 17-point victories in their next five wins.

So one could argue that the Celtics have improved since their second meeting with the Sixers.

One way or another, the next five games could be a defining stretch for the Sixers.

If they fare well, the Sixers will be back in the hunt for an Eastern Conference top seed. Their end-of-year struggles will be forgotten. But if continue to struggle, the Sixers’ Christmas Day victory will be considered nothing more than Fool’s Gold.

 James Harden (13) and the Houston Rockets will host the Sixers tonight.
Eric Christian Smith / AP
James Harden (13) and the Houston Rockets will host the Sixers tonight.

Starting Five

Ja Morant, a.k.a. Mr. Excitement

Zion who?

Maybe that’s a stretch. But you can get the point about how dominating Ja Morant’s rookie season has been.

The Memphis Grizzlies point guard is the overwhelming favorite to be voted rookie of the year. The second overall pick of June’s draft took rookie-leading averages of 17.4 points and 6.5 assists into Thursday night’s game against the Sacramento Kings. He was also second behind the Sixers Matisse Thybulle (1.43) in steals (1.04).

While Morant is bringing the excitement, Zion Williamson has yet to play a game for the New Orleans Pelicans.

The first overall pick completed his first full practice Thursday since having surgery on the meniscus in his right knee on Oct. 21. There is no timetable for his NBA debut.

Williamson was the preseason favorite to win rookie of the year.

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) averaged 17.4 points and 6.5 assists heading into last night's game against the Sacramento Kings.
Karen Pulfer Focht / AP
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) averaged 17.4 points and 6.5 assists heading into last night's game against the Sacramento Kings.

Important dates

Tonight: Sixers at Houston Rockets, 8 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia, ESPN

Monday: Oklahoma City Thunder at Sixers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBA TV

Thursday: Boston Celtics at Sixers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia, TNT

Jan. 11: Sixers at Dallas Mavericks, 8 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Jan. 13: Sixers at Indiana Pacers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Passing the rock

Question: When is it time to finally realize Brett Brown isn’t the guy? Every time we question Ben [Simmons] and his aggressiveness, Brett says he shouldn’t be, should give the ball up and hit the block. He may be a good [assistant] coach for [San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg] Popovich. But we have the team and it’s not performing. Change is needed — @tdav54 on Twitter.

Answer: What’s up, Rese? Brett Brown’s job security is a popular question. In regards to Simmons, I think sometimes the coach gives certain types of statements because he doesn’t want to call out his player. He knows Simmons has to shoot the ball more and remain aggressive. He actually said that after Simmons hit his second three-pointer.

But in regards to his job, I think things would have to go drastically wrong for Brown to lose it during the regular season. I think the Sixers will wait and see what he does in the postseason.

Like I told @ByCoreySharp on Monday, if they go 5-5 or 4-6 in the next 10 games, yes, that would be a terrible look for the coach, especially if players start to question his ability. However, who on this staff would be a viable replacement? Last season, Monty Williams would had been able to step right in and coach this team at a high level. This season, Jim O’Brien would be the best candidate, because he has had head coaching stops with the Pacers, Sixers and Celtics.

But none of the Sixers’ bench coaches have the experience needed to take over a championship-caliber team. And teams typically don’t bring in someone from the outside in the middle of a season.

So I think Brown has job security throughout the regular season.

Sixers guard Ben Simmons with coach Brett Brown during a break in the action.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Sixers guard Ben Simmons with coach Brett Brown during a break in the action.