The latest reminder of the importance of these next couple of days came with six minutes remaining in the first quarter against the Raptors. The Sixers were in the early stages of their fourth and final regular season matchup with one of the Eastern Conference’s foremost contenders, and waiting at the scorer’s table to check into the game were T.J. McConnell, Jonah Bolden, and Furkan Korkmaz. Shortly after this first wave of subs took the court, things took a turn toward the expected. By the end of the first quarter, the Raptors held a 12-point lead that would grow to 17 by halftime, and the Sixers were headed toward a 119-107 defeat in front of a frustrated home crowd.
Elton Brand watched most of this unfold from his usual spot behind the baseline. At one point during the first half, a fan in the lower seating bowl spotted the Sixers general manager and loudly reminded him that the NBA’s trade deadline was two days away.
“We’re losing by 20!” the fan yelled. “It’s national TV!”
Brand acknowledged the fan with a rueful laugh, then returned his attention to the game.
Know this about the Sixers: They are well aware of the reality of their current situation. Things might not be as dire as they looked Tuesday night -- JJ Redick was sidelined with nausea, while fellow starter Wilson Chandler continues to recover from a quadriceps injury -- but they are hardly ideal. The fact that the franchise’s chief decision-makers have readily acknowledged these things should hearten fans as they project this roster forward into the postseason. They will do something. Exactly what, and exactly when, are the operative questions.
The Sixers are fortunate in the turn the NBA has taken over the past month or so, with borderline playoff contenders such as New Orleans, Memphis, and Orlando settling down toward the bottom of their respective conferences' standings. Like last season, when the Sixers ended up signing Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova after both players were bought out by the Hawks, the marketplace currently offers ample opportunity for some sort of package acquisition. Their wish list is threefold: 1) a two-way wing who can play defense and knock down an open three-point shot, 2) a rim-protecting big man who can keep the defense afloat when Joel Embiid is off the court, and, 3) a two-way guard who brings a more complete skill set to the court than the Sixers are getting from T.J. McConnell.
Each of those aforementioned teams boasts expendable pieces that can check off multiple needs without eating into the Sixers' payroll flexibility for next season. The ideal scenario might be in Atlanta, where a package of Taurean Prince and Dewayne Dedmon would give the Sixers the wing and the big they lack. In Memphis, guards Garrett Temple and Justin Holiday would help to solve the problems that have plagued coach Brett Brown’s reserves on the perimeter this season. And the Pelicans feature a three-point shooting big man in Nikola Mirotic and a three-point shooting wing in E’Twaun Moore who would both slide into significant roles in the Sixers' current rotation.
“I think the species, the flavor, it’s always ‘best player available,' " Brown said before Tuesday night’s loss. "I don’t know what the trades are going to produce. To think you could just go into the supermarket and choose what you want doesn’t happen. That doesn’t happen, so you deal with it. But when you talk about qualities, that’s what most comes to my mind.”
The Sixers have been working toward this moment for months. After the mid-November trade that brought Jimmy Butler into the fold, Brand said he was confident he would be able to make an impact with the team’s remaining unfilled roster spot. In the end, patience would pay off.
Now, the day of reckoning is near. Brand and his lieutenants accompanied the Sixers on their recently-completed road swing, where they spent their days making phone calls and poring over scouting reports and projections in an ongoing attempt to round out a Sixers roster that remains a couple of key pieces shy of complete championship contender.
“Everybody came to the West Coast with us, and they bunkered into rooms, and you just felt very prepared,” Brown said. “I felt as I saw them and I coached the team, we’re with them, we’re able to talk, and as I saw the work they were putting in, you felt confident that there’s not many scenarios that are going to surprise us.”
Thursday’s deadline might not be the finish line, of course. Last year, Belinelli and Ilyasova both joined the team in mid-February after the Hawks failed to trade them. Wesley Matthews, a veteran wing recently acquired by the Knicks, is one name who has a decent chance at a buyout after Thursday.