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Ben Simmons is struggling. Seth Curry is returning. The Sixers need to find out who they are. | David Murphy

How far behind are the Sixers in an Eastern Conference led by James Harden, Kevin Durant and the Nets? With Seth Curry on the verge of returning, we can finally get back to figuring them out.

Sixers' Ben Simmons drives on Celtics' Tristan Thompson  during the 1st quarter at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday.
Sixers' Ben Simmons drives on Celtics' Tristan Thompson during the 1st quarter at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Seth Curry spent his Wednesday night looking more like an anonymous bystander than the player who could soon get the Sixers’ season back on track. He wore a jean jacket and a white mask and sat patiently on the far outer corner of the home team’s socially-distanced bench. In an ideal world, the game that unfolded in front of his eyes will be the last of its kind, a showdown between two championship aspirants that revealed almost nothing about the future that awaits either team. In the visiting corner, the Boston Celtics, minus their best player. In the home corner, the Sixers, playing a seventh straight game without their full starting lineup.

This is the NBA in 2021, and it isn’t all that bad. We’ve seen an electric rookie point guard playing 20-plus minutes per night. We’ve seen a third-year shooting guard continue his emergence as one of the NBA’s best scorers off the bench. We’ve watched a couple of second-round draft picks log a couple hundred more minutes than they otherwise would have gotten. In a weird way, the last couple of weeks have only added to the number of reasons to feel good about the long-term future of this team.

Yet an NBA season is a short-term affair, and things are far less rosy on that front. Whatever Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers really think about their failed pursuit of James Harden, the Nets’ acquisition of the superstar has created a devil of an obstacle. It’s difficult to envision many scenarios in which they can give Brooklyn a series. I suppose there is some possible world where Ben Simmons magically transforms into the sort of dominant downhill scorer that the Sixers need. But Wednesday’s 117-109 win marked another day in which that world remained undiscovered.

The Sixers are in a funny spot, and not just because of the ongoing fallout from Curry’s bout with COVID-19. In Simmons, they have a player who brings so much to the court that Morey could have justifiably assumed him to be the golden ticket that guaranteed the acquisition of Harden. Yet the thing he doesn’t bring is the thing the Sixers most need, and it is unclear where else they might get it.

Simmons entered Wednesday night’s game attempting fewer shots, and making fewer of them, than even his lackluster career baselines. At 12.3 points per game, his scoring average is 25% lower than the marks he’s posted in any of his three previous seasons. Despite the relentless focus on his shooting outside of the paint, his biggest shortcoming remains his finishing ability around the basket.

Against the Celtics, this puzzling deficiency was again on a display. During a first quarter in which Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris combined to score 22 of the Sixers’ first 25 points, Simmons had a couple of hard, aggressive drives result in weak, off-balance misses. In the third quarter, he picked up his fifth personal foul after a backdoor cut and a full head of steam resulted in him bouncing off Jaylen Brown. Despite the questionable call, it was another trip to the rim where he looked like a player punching below his weight.

» READ MORE: Joel Embiid’s 42 points power Sixers to 117-109 victory over Boston Celtics

For now, the only way forward is to figure out who the Sixers are as a whole. The first two weeks of the season offered plenty of reason to think that they are better than we initially gave them credit. When the Sixers were racing out to a 6-1 start, many pinpointed Curry as the reason, due as much to the attention that his shooting drew as the points that it directly created. It would be unfair, then, to lower our opinion because of a stretch where he was not present.

It’s a fact that the Sixers starters with Curry were outscoring opponents by an impressive 15 points per 100 possessions. It’s also a fact that they had yet to play a game against a legitimate title contender. Wednesday night could have been that game, but the Sixers decided to hold Curry out another game to give him more of an opportunity to regain his conditioning. Plus, with the Celtics missing Jayson Tatum, what would the matchup really have told us?

Whenever Curry returns — Friday’s rematch against Boston is the next opportunity — the Sixers will need to get to work reclaiming the time the pandemic has cost them. If Morey and Rivers are going to make the moves that need to be made at the trade deadline, they first need to know what’s needed. The Nets may seem to be an unstoppable force, but, keep in mind, Morey is coming from a situation in which he was forced to contend with the Warriors.

“Once we get everybody back, we can resume work,” Rivers said before Wednesday’s game. “This is not a team that’s been together, so we just need to resume work together to start growing.”

Embiid, who finished Wednesday’s game with 42 points, remains the reason to think that a formula exists. In order to find out what it looks like, the Sixers need to quickly put this early interlude behind them.

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