It was not a normal day at the Wells Fargo Center. All the way up through tipoff, the air felt thick with a gravity that, over the last several seasons, has not had much of a chance to exist. It was the weight of expectation, and for the first time since the Sixers announced the culmination of their Process, its palpable presence swirled through the concrete corridors that surround their home court.
As he stood behind a lectern in a conference room an hour-and-a-half before the start of the back end of a back-to-back, Brett Brown sounded like a man who sensed what was coming. Earlier in the afternoon, the head coach had learned that he would again need to cobble together a lineup that did not include his 7-foot-2 star. By itself, this was hardly a development one would categorize as dire in nature. Joel Embiid's absence has been more rule than exception since he first stepped onto the court in a Sixers uniform, a reality that everyone from Brown to Ben Simmons to Kings head coach Dave Joerger pointed to when discussing the manner in which his presence impacts his team's identity on both ends of the court. Even before this week, Embiid had watched five of the Sixers' first 26 games in street clothes, and they'd ended up losing four of those.
This time, though, something different was in the air, a friction that caused a certain strain in the vocal cords of those doing the talking. Maybe it wasn't all a function of Embiid's absence. Maybe it would have been there even if the big man himself were. The Sixers had lost eight of their previous 11, four of them games in which Embiid played 32-plus minutes. The last two weeks had seen them stumble against a quartet of teams that entered Tuesday with losing records. Three of them were of a caliber more commensurate with the teams that took the court during Brown's first four seasons at the helm than the current edition, the Suns at 11-21 and the Lakers at 10-18 and the Bulls at 9-20. That last defeat had come just the night before, in Chicago, dropping the Sixers under .500 for the first time since the third week of the season.
Throughout the first two months of the season, Brown had projected the air of a coach who was comfortable with what he was seeing. Just a few days earlier, he'd been asked to evaluate his team's performance during the first third of its schedule relative to the expectations he had on Day 1, and he'd responded that, if anything, the Sixers were ahead of where he thought they would be at such a juncture. Any realist would have nodded along.
By Tuesday, Brown's tone seemed to have changed. When a questioner suggested that the Sixers might simply be in the midst of one of those rough patches that all NBA teams must endure — injuries, shooting woes, tough road losses — Brown pivoted to a different message.
"It's, 'Are you playing good basketball?' is where I set my sights," he said, and then he detailed the ways in which the Sixers were failing against that benchmark.
Instead of emphasizing concrete shortcomings such as turnovers and fouls, Brown turned his focus toward team defense, using the word "deteriorating" to describe their tumble into the bottom half of the league in points allowed per possession. This naturally led to more questions about Embiid's impact on that end of the court, and then to an attempt by Brown to walk the thin rhetorical border between acknowledging the obvious and making excuses.
It is a tough spot, that tightrope. Brown maintained his balance as well as anyone could have, considering the circumstances. Still, he spoke like a man who wasn't quite sure about what to expect out of that night's game. This was notable because that night's opponent was one of the NBA's basement dwellers, a Kings team in the early stages of a rebuild similar to the one the Sixers began four years prior. On paper, the matchup seemed an early Christmas blessing, the opportunity for one of those "get-right" performances that good teams in bad slumps sometimes need. Yet it had been several weeks since the Sixers had consistently looked like one of those good teams, and they were now attempting to turn it around without their best player.
"It's really tough," Brown acknowledged. "It's really hard."
The danger of reading too much into the lows of a season is as real as reading too much into the highs. All of this could prove to be unfounded psycho-babble. Anytime Embiid spends a game on the bench, the central question of his career resurfaces, his eventual return understood to be something less than a given. Two weeks from now, he could be back on the court and the Sixers could be playing like the team they were for most of November, and we could look back on all of this as a false alarm.
But after the Sixers went out and suffered a convincing 101-95 loss to a 9-20 team, two things seemed clear. One, they are a dramatically different team without Embiid, first and foremost on the defensive end of the court, both in one-on-one matchups against bigs such as Zach Randolph, who dropped his second-highest point total of the season, and as the last line of defense against guards who attacked the rim with confidence throughout the night. Second, and more significant, they are a team that at the moment looks incapable of getting to where it wants to go without him.
After Tuesday night's loss, the most efficient distillation of the situation came from one of the team's youngest players.
"We've got to learn to play without him," Ben Simmons said. "When he's in, it's great. When he's not here, we still have to play and compete … "
The official status on Embiid's balky back remains day-to-day. For the Sixers as a whole, the prognosis is much the same.