The 2017-18 Sixers: Trust the Process.
The 2019-20 Sixers: Take our word for it.
That was essentially the message coming out of headquarters as the Sixers gathered for their first full-scale practice since before Christmas with the team mired in a three-game losing streak that has dropped them to sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Of course, that’s easy for them to say. They’re not the ones who have had to watch themselves play over the last week. For the rest of us, patience might be a virtue, but, man, is it an expletive-laden one.
The good news is that the players in the locker room seem to understand that the commissioner does not consider a team’s estimation of itself when doling out playoff seedings. You’d much rather hear players talking about a lack of accountability in the locker room — as Josh Richardson did in the wake of the Sixers’ 115-97 loss to the Pacers on Tuesday — than shrugging their shoulders and losing themselves in Alanis Morisette’s live set on Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.
"We sat down and talked this morning," Ben Simmons said after practice on Thursday. "We all know why we are here and what we want to get out of being here. That is a championship, and we have to hold each other accountable."
Joel Embiid offered a much more tepid endorsement of Richardson’s assessment, saying, “I don’t want to say what goes on inside. Everybody has a good spirit and we know we are going to get out of it.”
But in the next breath, he offered some thoughts on the Sixers’ offensive struggles that sounded suspiciously like a call for more accountability, albeit a rather self-centered one.
"We got to look at ourselves and see what we can do better individually," Embiid said. "We got to help each other even if that means being outside of your comfort zone as far as to help the team win, meaning if you got to space (the floor) and shoot it, you got to do it. We need everybody to buy into that."
In that quote alone there’s enough material to keep the professional between-the-lines readers working double-shifts between now and whenever the Sixers win again. But Embiid has said similar things before, some of them less veiled, regarding Simmons’ hyper-selective shot selection. The instructive thing about the comment is that it points to what is more likely the real cause of the wild variability of the Sixers’ performance this season. Rather than a lack of effort or a lack of enthusiasm about mere regular season games, what they lack more than anything is cohesion.
The two longest tenured members of this group, Embiid and Simmons, have played 195 games together in the regular season and playoffs. Tobias Harris has been with them for barely a third of that total. Halve that, and you have the number of games Josh Richardson and Al Horford have been in the fold.
Over in Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton have been on the Bucks roster together for more than 450 games. Eric Bledsoe has been there for 199, and Brook Lopez for 130. In Toronto, six of the Raptors top seven minutes-getters have been with the team for at least four seasons. The Heat don’t fit this thesis as neatly as the other three, but, then, they just lost to the Wizards by 18 points. Besides, the Sixers are attempting to assimilate a mix of personnel that is far more unorthodox than sticking Jimmy Butler in the middle of a ready-made supporting cast.
“At times it is clunky,” head coach Brett Brown said. “It is an unusual set of talent that we have. Should it be clunky I think it should. Should it have been ironed out maybe a little sooner than Jan. 2, possibly. But is it something I am really worried about, I am not. I am far more excited about the possibilities and the potential than about this team doesn’t fit. I am not seeing it like that. I am not seeing it like that.”
As Brown noted, the Sixers’ growth has been far less linear than you probably expected back when Elton Brand first got the gang together. Maybe that shouldn’t be as puzzling as it seems, given that Embiid and Simmons had yet to figure each other out after two seasons together when Al Horford and Josh Richardson were added to the mix. The whole thing would be a lot more concerning if stretches like the current one were not counterbalanced by the Sixers’ 5-4 record against the five teams currently ahead of them in the standings.
“You look back a week ago and we were beating Milwaukee by 30," Simmons said. “So everybody was saying how good we were then."
Granted, Simmons may have a bit of a selective memory issue when it comes to reading reviews. The last time anybody felt comfortable enough to rave unquestioningly about the Sixers’ supremacy was late October when they were 5-0. Since then, they’ve looked very much like the team we’ve seen over the last month or so, with periodic reminders of their potential brilliance interspersed between stretches of mediocrity long enough to make us doubt the last reminder we saw.
Right up until the Sixers play their last postseason game, there will be reason to wonder whether things might be different should a variable or two change. At the moment, though, they don’t have much of a choice but to continue to see it through.
“We’ll be fine,” Embiid said. “We are going to be fine.”