Although it seems poetic, it's only coincidence that the 76ers are heading west exactly when most of their fans are heading anywhere but the Wachovia Center.

Somewhere along this trip, the Sixers had better find themselves.

With five games in nine days, the Sixers will cover a decent portion of the Pacific Northwest and West Coast.

Through 29 games - a little more than a third of the season - the Sixers are not the team they were last season, which would be a good thing if they had improved.

Instead, they have regressed.

Right now, the Sixers are one of the NBA's worst teams.

They appear on the verge of imploding.

After Tuesday's loss to the Washington Wizards, arguably the team's worst defeat of the season, power forward Elton Brand revealed a touch of his frustration. As he sat in front of his makeshift locker, his words came like steam from a kettle: Inside, he's boiling.

Brand's exact words were "certain guys didn't box out, didn't rebound, and weren't tough. Certain guys got a longer leash than others, so they played longer, and the mistakes were shown."

He seemed to be talking about reserve center Marreese Speights, whose forte is scoring, not defending.

Brand is visibly unhappy: He has been moved to the bench for the first time in his 10-plus NBA seasons. He is also the first player to publicly, straightforwardly criticize Sixers coach Eddie Jordan.

From Brand, that seemed a long time coming. The only question now is whether his negative comments will become the first of many, whether this season will continue its downward spiral, or whether, instead, the Sixers will lock down, which they have yet to do defensively.

Jordan said earlier this season that when the Sixers "finally get" his systems, it will be a "thing of beauty."

But will the Sixers tune out Jordan before this happens? This trip - with games against the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Clippers, and Denver Nuggets - feels like the season's crossroads. It feels as if the Sixers will either come home griping and struggling or will have turned a corner.

And around that corner would be better basketball.

The day after losing to the Wizards, Jordan kept his team out of the gym: no practice. Asked why he would give his players an extra day off, especially the way they had been playing, Jordan said he needed to regroup emotionally.

You have to think that when his players entered the gym Christmas Eve morning, the atmosphere was like training camp.

The game clock is dwindling on this season. It's not too late, not yet. But it's getting darn close.

As terrible as the Sixers' record is - 7-21 before their game against the Jazz - there have been many games, many stretches of play when it appeared they had figured something out. That's what has made this season especially painful for die-hard fans: continually thinking the team has climbed from the darkness of the Eastern Conference basement. There were the strong first three quarters on the road against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the down-the-stretch loss at the Dallas Mavericks, and, finally, the win stolen from the Boston Celtics in a sold-out TD Garden.

But after each of those games came disappointment - a couple of losses to the Wizards and back-to-back losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Charlotte Bobcats.

This team has too much talent to keep losing like this. Jordan, who has seemed confused about how to manipulate his roster, has to find something that works.

And this is the trip where it must happen. It offers challenge games - Utah, Portland, and Denver - as well as a couple of games that should be (and last season would have been) gimmes.

The Sixers are gone until next week. Most won't notice the absence.

If they come back the same team we've been watching, this season is a goner.

If, somehow, they finally figure this thing out, the rest of this season could be worth watching.

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Blog response of the week

Subject: The 76ers' first 27 games

Posted by: jimmy76er at 4:28 p.m. Tuesday

I've been following the Sixers since '83 and following them very closely the last 20 years. I've never seen a Sixers team do less with more. Again, I've never seen a Sixers team do less with more. I've seen a couple versions do more with less (with Allen Iverson and a young Theo and with Andre Miller/Iguodala two years ago). I've seen some teams that were on-paper and on-court disasters (the Shawn Bradley era). I've seen lots of teams where Iverson carried the offense, of course. But I've never seen a team that plays well in stretches and then just stinks at key times of the game. It's totally predictable! Guts of a game, as Zumoff says, and it's always the same: a key miss followed by a key make by the other team. Now Boston was the opposite, and another tenth of a second would've nailed it home on Saturday against the Clippers. But this team has more guys that can go for 20 than any team I can ever remember. Iggy, Lou, Brand, Speights, Young, Green, and now IVERSON. That's why I also believe they'll win more like 30 games. But oh will it be painful to watch. They have to trade some offense for defense. Even Billy King was able to do that!!!!!! Also, one last thing about their awful defense. I think Miller's offense contributed to fewer possessions in a typical game. I think this team rushes more shots now in games and those misses lead to even more scoring by the other team, hence the stat of already giving up more 110-point games then all of last year.

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Inside the Sixers:

Just Visiting

The 76ers' chances of turning their season around may hinge on this five-game, nine-day road trip. Here's the schedule:

Date          Opponent      Time

Last night    Utah             9

Monday       Portland        10

Wednesday    Sacramento    10

Thursday    L.A. Clippers 9:30

Jan. 3       Denver          8

Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at 856-779-3844