Parsing the signal from the noise can be a difficult task in the first couple of months of the NBA schedule. For the Sixers, though, one bit of information is worthy of attention. They have played six games against the current top five teams in the Eastern Conference standings, and they have lost five of them.
Only one of the six games has featured Jimmy Butler in a Sixers uniform. Four of them came before the trade that brought him to Philly. He missed the Dec. 14 loss to the Pacers with a groin injury. But he scored 38 points in Dec. 5 loss at the Raptors. So, no, we don’t have a whole lot to go on when it comes to projecting how this team stacks up against the current top half of the playoff field. Which is why things are about to get mighty interesting.
Between now and New Year’s Day, the Sixers will encounter what is almost certainly to be their toughest five-game stretch of the schedule to date, starting with the two teams they have long figured they’d be chasing. On Saturday, they host a Raptors team that has already beaten them twice, including a 113-102 win in Toronto in which Butler, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons all suited up. After that comes a Christmas Day game in Boston, followed by three West Coast games: at the Clippers, at the Jazz, and at the Blazers.
The next month-and-a-half is going to be a test for the Sixers, in more ways than one. In the immediate future, it will fall on Brown to navigate this Christmastime crucible. But look a little further down the road and you’ll see that the biggest weight will be born by Elton Brand, the man responsible for getting Brown’s roster to a point where the conference finals become a reasonable hope.
The date to circle on the calendar is Jan. 17. That’s when the Sixers will travel to Indiana to kick off a stretch of 12 straight games against teams with winning records. Seven of those opponents currently have a winning percentage of .600+, and a seventh is LeBron James and the Lakers.
That arc of the schedule puts Brand in a sticky situation. The NBA trade deadline isn’t until Feb. 7, which means that most of that 12-game stretch will occur a few weeks before the pressure of the looming cut-off exerts its force on the decision-making processes of potential trading partners. Absent that leverage, Brand could find it difficult to strike a deal at an optimal price.
This might seem like a gratuitous worry for a team that enters the weekend at 21-12. But when you look at the Eastern Conference, you realize that the Sixers could easily find themselves in the position of doing significant damage to their championship aspirations before February arrives. In addition to preseason favorites Toronto and Boston, the top of the conference now features the 21-9 Bucks and the 20-12 Pacers, both of whom appear to possess staying power. The fight for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs is shaping up to be the sort of thing that could be decided by a couple of pre-Super Bowl losses.
When Brett Brown met the media prior to a blowout win over the Knicks on Wednesday, he faced a lot of questions about the current construction of his roster, and he did not go to great lengths to dismiss the notion that his is a team in need of help. Granted, it would not have done him any good to obfuscate. Basketball is very much a what-you-have-is-what-you-get kind of sport, and what they have should be clear to anybody who watches this team on a consistent basis.
Frankly, it should have been clear to anybody who applied a smidge of deductive reasoning to their personnel situation, both before the Butler trade and after it. In Markelle Fultz and Zhaire Smith, they are currently playing without two prospective members of the rotation. They suffered a net loss of another when they traded Dario Saric and Robert Covington for Jimmy Butler. They replaced Ersan Ilyasova with Mike Muscala, but the rest of the roster outside of the Big Three remains very much the same.
“I think some of it is a result of injury," Brown said on Wednesday. “I think some of it is a result of trade. You know, when we lost two players in Cov and Dario and you brought back one, there’s something that is missing just from a bodies standpoint there. . .then you get into some roster possibilities where we could fill it and we didn’t. We understand the flexibility that we have. We all are on the record as saying that this is a fluid thing, that we’re trying to grow our team and make it as good as it can be.”
Of the Sixers' 49 remaining games, 27 will come against teams who entered Thursday with a winning record. According to Basketball-Reference, their’s is the toughest remaining schedule of the top five teams in the conference. They need another wing. They could use a back-up center and perhaps another ballhandler.