WASHINGTON — The 76ers braced for a season of uneasiness with the Ben Simmons saga.

They did not anticipate this.

The Sixers did not envision 17 different starting lineups before January, stretches without both Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, and a trend of losing to squads more decimated by injuries and health and safety protocols than them.

The Sixers began the 2021-22 season as one of the favorites to contend for the Eastern Conference title, having emerged from last season at the conference’s No. 1 seed.

But factors that raise the degree of difficulty on a nightly basis on the Sixers’ repeat bid for the conference’s best record are starting to stack up.

There’s no denying this season, so far, has been a major disappointment.

» READ MORE: Sixers can’t find a way past the shorthanded Atlanta Hawks, falling 98-96 and suffering worst loss of season

The franchise has experienced its “The Process” and ”Star-hunting” stages of their rebuild. They made eye-popping changes to their coaching staff and front office before the start of last season. And they have one of the league’s highest payrolls.

But the Sixers take a 16-16 record into Sunday’s 6 p.m. game against the Washington Wizards (17-15) at the Capital One Arena. They’re in eighth place in the East and have lost five of their last seven games.

That’s not a good reality for a team that has $100.5 million tied up in the salaries of Simmons, Embiid, and Harris. Team president of basketball operations Daryl Morey makes around $10 million and coach Doc Rivers brings in around $8 mill.

Teams with three maximum-salary players along with lucrative contracts for the top executive and head coach are expected to contend for NBA titles. But unless things change, the Sixers will battle just to avoid the play-in-tournament portion of the postseason.

This is a drastic drop for a team that was 21-11 and a half-game ahead of the Brooklyn Nets atop of the conference standings through 32 games last season.

It’s easy to point out Simmons’ unwillingness to play and the Sixers’ unwillingness to deviate from their steep trade demands as reasons for the decline.

The Sixers are a better team with Simmons, the multi-faceted All-Star. He creates shots for teammates, is tough to stop in transition, can rebound, and can guard all five positions.

The Sixers don’t deny they’re in a better position to win with him on the roster. That’s why their position has always been they’re not going to trade Simmons just to make a trade. They want what they deem is equal value for someone with 2016 first-overall pick, 2019 rookie of the year, 2020 steal champion, 2021 defensive player of the year runner-up, three-time All-Star, and two-time All-Defensive performer on his resume.

While Simmons’ absence has been immense, it can’t be ignored that the team has been plagued by injuries and COVID.

They were the first team impacted by COVID as Harris, Embiid, Matisse Thybulle, and Isaiah Joe missed a combined 27 games while in protocol. Now, they’re dealing with a second go-round.

» READ MORE: Sixers’ Doc Rivers on Ben Simmons’ absence: ‘You see the glaring holes that he leaves us’

Georges Niang missed the past four games with COVID. Andre Drummond and Shake Milton sat out the last three, while Danny Green missed Thursday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks. The Sixers also had last Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans postponed due to not having the mandatory eight available players.

Yes, Simmons’ absence and injuries/COVID outbreaks have made the Sixers less competitive. But it’s tough to use them as excuses for their recent string of bad losses.

Kyrie Irving, a seven-time All-Star, has yet to make his season debut for the Nets because he’s unvaccinated. However, Brooklyn took a conference-best 21-9 record into a Christmas night game against the Los Angeles Lakers. They’ve remained an elite team. They’ve also remained an elite team despite being more decimated than the Sixer by COVID.

Right now, a lot of teams are ravaged by COVID.

In fact, the Sixers’ last four games were against teams playing with fewer key players than them. They lost three of those games. Thursday’s 98-96 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, who resembled a summer-league squad, was their worst loss of the season.

» READ MORE: Sixers won’t go far without a consistent second option behind Joel Embiid

Now, the Sixers face a Wizards squad with starters Bradley Beal and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in protocols. Thomas Bryant (left ACL recovery) is also out, while Rui Hachimura (conditioning) and Isaiah Todd (right heel pain) are questionable.

The Sixers will then head to Toronto following the game to face the Raptors, another undermanned team, on Tuesday. And they conclude the three-game trip in Brooklyn Thursday night against the undermanned Nets.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this season plays out.

The Sixers will ultimately have to trade Simmons at some point. But they better replace him with a difference maker capable of turning this team into a contender, because it’s obvious that the Sixers, as they’re presently constructed, aren’t good enough to contend for the conference title.