I’m not sure there are many lessons you can take from this most recent Sixers loss. No doubt, the raw numbers were ugly, starting with the 123-96 margin on the AT&T Center scoreboard. Mostly, though, this was one of those games on an NBA team’s schedule that you just have to ignore when it comes to any sort of bigger picture evaluation. The Sixers were playing the second leg of a back-to-back after flying 1,500 miles and crossing time zones; they were facing the best coach in the NBA in the finale of a six-game homestand; they had a star player in Jimmy Butler who had just made his return from a groin injury the previous day. Back-to-backs are tough enough. The Sixers had already lost three of their first four nightcaps of the season, the lone exception an overtime win in Charlotte. In short, this was not an ideal situation for the squad.
And yet ...
While there may not have been a lot of viable takeaways to glean from this sort of stinker, there was at least one: Everybody has long known that this Sixers team needs help, that the current roster is highly unlikely to be the one that they will carry into the postseason, that it is only a matter of time before Elton Brand and his overlords add another viable rotation piece to the fold. None of that insight was revealed in this particular loss. Rather, the wrinkle that came out of Monday was more of a reminder than anything that there is something to be gained from making said addition sooner rather than later.
Ever since the Sixers added Butler via trade in mid-November, the conventional wisdom has said that Brand and Co. can afford to be patient and let the trade market unfold and, if need be, wait until the buyout market heats up if that is what is required to avoid sacrificing a significant asset in return for a rotational piece. The basis for that sort of thinking goes something like this. They still have 13 games remaining against the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Hawks, Suns and Wizards. Win 10 of those games and they’d need to play just .500 ball against the remainder of the schedule to get to 50 wins. That’s hardly a daunting proposition. Last year, they were 25-25 on Feb. 3 and ended up with 52 wins and the No. 3 seed. This year, they are even better.
Lately, though, there has been plenty of reason to question the assumptions that are baked into that sort of projection, starting with an observation that is as unsettling as it is indisputable: the Sixers are just an injury way from a midseason funk that could dramatically impact their chances of securing one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
To a certain extent, you can say that about any NBA team, just as you could have said it about the Sixers at any point over the last calendar year. But not to the extent that you can say it now about this particular roster. Before, such a concern was mostly limited to the superstars: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and, since mid-November, Butler. But a couple of different developments have extended the potential for calamitous disruption to aging players like JJ Redick and Wilson Chandler.
First, the Butler trade required the Sixers to part with two bodies in exchange for one, thereby thinning their overall depth even while improving their top-line talent. Second, the ongoing Markelle Fultz situation has, at the very least, deprived Brett Brown of another NBA-caliber athlete to eat up minutes.
You saw the impact play out in the two games that Butler missed with his groin injury, both of them losses. Furkan Korkmaz, T.J. McConnell and Landry Shamet all have their strengths, but the Pacers had Domantas Sabonis, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans coming off the bench, and the gap between those two trios is the kind of thing that can more than erase the advantage the Sixers hold on the top end of things.
Really, there is a third development, and that’s the increased competitiveness of the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff field, particularly at the top end of the second-level teams. Indiana has improved with the addition of Evans and the continued emergence of Sabonis. Milwaukee has improved with the additions of Brook Lopez and an actual NBA coach. Even last season, the gap between the Sixers and those two teams was smaller than we tend to remember given the way the year ended. When the Sixers are healthy, they belong at the top of that group. But take Redick or Chandler away, and the proposition becomes a lot dicier.
Despite the fact that Brett Brown pulled his starters with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter against the Spurs, Butler ended up playing 30 minutes in the second leg of a back-to-back while coming back from a core injury. That’s notable. So, too, is the fact that Embiid and Simmons both played 29 minutes.
The grind is only going to intensify over this next month. After Wednesday’s game against the Knicks, the Sixers will play five straight games against teams who were projected to be playoff contenders at the start of the season. Four of those games will be on the road: at Boston, at Utah, at Portland, at the Los Angeles Clippers, with a home game against the Raptors. The second half of January features a stretch of 12 straight games against teams who currently have winning records, nine of them against teams that rank among the top 9 in winning percentage at .600-plus. The Sixers are 1-4 thus far against teams who currently have a winning percentage of .600-plus. They are 3-7 against teams who currently have winning records.
The notion that the Sixers can simply coast to a top-four playoff seed is one that will be tested over this next month-and-a-half. That’s not to suggest that they should deviate from their approach of prioritizing the long term over the short. As we saw over the weekend, trades are complicated, and expediting them at this juncture can require the sacrifice of a valuable asset (Wizards, Kelly Oubre). At some point, though, the Sixers will need to entertain the thought of sacrificing some future potential value in exchange for a piece that could fortify their rotation for this looming stretch and maximize the likelihood that they enter the postseason with as much margin for error as possible. Like Trevor Ariza, any potential target would seem unlikely to factor significantly into the Sixers long-term plans. But could a player like the Bulls’ Justin Holiday or the Lakers’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope make a significant impact on their rotation for the rest of this season? At this point, there would seem to be little doubt.