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The Sixers tried to out-talent the NBA in ‘19. Thanks to Ben Simmons and COVID, they can’t in ‘22. | Mike Sielski

The Sixers may not have Simmons, but they have chemistry this season. Pluck and heart won't be enough to carry them to victory against the top NBA teams, though.

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers appeals to referee Eric Lewis during Tuesday's game against the Bucks.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers appeals to referee Eric Lewis during Tuesday's game against the Bucks.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Their offensive star was Tyrese Maxey, and their defensive stopper was Paul Reed, and for a while Georges Niang couldn’t miss, and against the defending NBA champions, on the second night of a back-to-back, no one could deny that the shorthanded team’s collective effort was admirable. So as the regular season trundles along, the question that the 76ers eventually will have to start asking themselves is, how much is a loss like Tuesday night’s worth?

They themselves will tell you it’s worth plenty. Yes, yes, yes, their needle quivered at E by the end of the fourth quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks, and the 118-109 loss was disappointing, but not surprising. Even coach Doc Rivers and the 10 players he had available Tuesday seemed to know that it was unrealistic to think that — without Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Isaiah Joe, and, of course, Ben Simmons — the Sixers could sustain enough excellence over 48 minutes to beat the Bucks, especially after losing to the Knicks the night before. COVID-19 had cut a swath through their roster, and Simmons is still point guard non grata, which meant Tuesday’s outcome was predictable. You knew the Sixers would play hard. That is the nature of their team this season. You knew they were likely to lose. That’s the nature of the NBA and of Giannis Antetokounmpo, even if Reed stunned him and thrilled the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center by blocking one of the Greek Freak’s shots.

» READ MORE: Shorthanded Sixers’ inspired effort falls short against defending-champion Bucks | Analysis

“I was playing in the game, but at the time, I was like a fan,” said Maxey, who scored a game-high 31 points. “I was in awe. I was like, ‘Man, Paul Reed was competitive tonight.’ And stuff like that, that carries on. You remember games like this when you have Tobias and Joel and Matisse and Isaiah and Seth Curry, the guys out, and you’re still able to find success. No moral victories — we wanted to win the game — but it’s good to see guys play well. … When you get guys minutes, it builds confidence.”

That is the hope for the Sixers: 1) that the roster Daryl Morey tweaked and remolded in the offseason, adding Niang and Andre Drummond, is deeper, and 2) that these early-season challenges are building cohesion and togetherness within the locker room. It’s a feel-good theory, and it’s a far cry from the approach that created what was probably the best Sixers team of the recent past. Friday marks the three-year anniversary of the Sixers’ acquisition of Jimmy Butler, the first of the two major trades in a three-month span that sent away Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Landry Shamet and blew up a balanced roster.

First Butler arrived in mid-November, then Harris in early February, and Elton Brand banked that the team’s starting five, the NBA’s best in that 2018-19 season — Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Harris, and JJ Redick — would allow the Sixers to follow a familiar formula: Load up on top-end talent and see if it can carry the team to a title. Hadn’t the Boston Celtics won a championship that way in 2008 with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen — and with Rivers as their head coach? Wasn’t that the whole point behind the formation of Miami’s Big Three — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh — in 2010? Sure, the Heat lost in the NBA Finals that first season, but it won two championships thereafter.

» READ MORE: The Sixers’ Andre Drummond has quickly proved to be an upgrade over Dwight Howard

“That’s never worked,” Rivers said. “It hasn’t. Miami tried it the first year, and it didn’t work. I know people would say, ‘Well, they did.’ Well, no, it didn’t work. They had to figure out chemistry first. You don’t just throw a team together and think it’s going to work without coming up with some kind of team play and chemistry. …

“I had a team in Boston where we got it early. We were lucky. But talking to those guys, the first thing they said was the difference in the Heat the second year was they played together. They figured it out chemistry-wise. You obviously have to have talent to win, but you have to be a team to win.”

There is no denying that the Sixers, at least so far this season, are a team as Rivers defined it. But even with Embiid, Harris, Curry, and Thybulle healthy, the notion that the Sixers would withstand the firepower that the Bucks, the Brooklyn Nets, or perhaps the Heat can deliver is dubious at best.

These early November games can be fun and heartening for what they are, especially since, because Simmons refuses to show up and suit up, the expectations for the Sixers aren’t as high as they once were. They’re quasi-underdogs now. But the NBA regular season is a long slog to the playoffs, and unless Morey is able to trade Simmons for something of significant value before then, little will change for the Sixers this spring, in the games that matter most. You’ll applaud the effort, but not the unsurprising result.