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The Sixers Are Breaking Down, but They’re Not Broken

Joel Embiid’s injury is the latest setback in yet another chaotic season, but when was the last time anything was easy in Philly?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For every gray cloud, a silver lining. For every new moment of heartstopping panic in the City of Brotherly Love, a reminder that the sky hasn’t really fallen. The 76ers played a basketball game on Thursday, and they won it, and nobody lost a limb, or spontaneously combusted, or committed securities fraud, or inadvertently uttered an incantation that opened a door to the Hellmouth under the center-court logo at Wells Fargo Center.

Sometimes, you need to celebrate the small stuff.

Brett Brown’s team has had a shaky and bracing week; this feels like par for the course in the four-month psychological thriller that has been this Sixers season, a Cape Fear–ass campaign that began with championship expectations but has now wended its way through more chaos than every other would-be contender combined. In the past 10 days, Philly has built big leads over Brooklyn and Atlanta, then blown them completely, requiring Joel Embiid superheroism to eke out wins over bad teams. It has been blown out by the pace-setting Bucks team that it was kludgingly constructed to topple, and been beaten soundly by a Cavaliers team with the NBA’s fourth-worst record.

It has lost All-Star Ben Simmons to a lower back injury that, in keeping with time-honored civic custom, raises questions over how it was managed in the first place and comes steeped in uncertainty moving forward. And, in a cruel cosmic punch line to the set-up posed by Ringer colleague Paolo Uggetti on Monday—“How Much Can Joel Embiid Carry?”—Philly has also lost its All-Star center to a left shoulder sprain, sending him to the sideline for at least a week.

That leaves the Sixers in nearly uncharted territory: According to Derek Bodner of The Athletic, Philly had played just one game in the last three seasons without both Simmons and Embiid before Thursday’s win over the Knicks. It also leaves them in a very bad place, considering that all the iterations of the Sixers we’ve seen over the past three seasons—and man, it feels like there’ve been 3,000 of them—have been outscored when both All-Stars are off the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass.

The 76ers had enough to beat the dismal Knicks, with Tobias Harris turning in arguably his best game of the season and Al Horford (15 points, nine assists, seven rebounds) once again looking pretty good when he’s allowed to be a center. Whether they’ll have enough to stay afloat on a four-game West Coast road trip, one that will include meetings with the Clippers and Lakers, is a different matter altogether; I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but Philly’s had some problems on the road this season, with a .300 away winning percentage that is by far the worst of any playoff-bound team.

And so the Sixers continue to exist in a grimace. That Embiid is out is scary, but an MRI reportedly revealed no structural damage to his left shoulder, which is a hell of a lot better than the alternative. Simmons’s back problems are even scarier, given he’s Philly’s best ball handler and its best perimeter defender. But while the Sixers’ interim lineup won’t be nearly as talented as their best five, it might fit together more cleanly, which isn’t nothing; a theoretical redistribution of touches to Harris and Horford at higher usage in their optimal positions, more time off the ball for Josh Richardson and more time on it for rising sophomore Shake Milton (averaging 13.6 points and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 15-for-22 from 3-point range since the All-Star break), with Glenn Robinson III filling gaps on the wing (hey, we found Glenn’s role!) could help Philly at least tread water for a spell.

That’s not overwhelmingly likely—those no-Simmons-Embiid lineup numbers are real, and backed up by the eye test—but it might be enough to make lemonade. The Heat—led by old pal Jimmy Butler—have lost seven of their last nine, with a negative net rating since the trade deadline. Miami is now 13-18 away from home (not as bad as Philly, but still), and sits mere thousandths of a percentage point ahead of the Sixers in fourth place in the East. The Heat own the head-to-head tiebreaker, so the Sixers will have to finish with a better record to take that final home-court spot in Round 1 of the playoffs. Being without Simmons and Embiid will obviously make that a lot harder. Having a notably easier season-ending slate, though—Philly’s got the fourth-softest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon, while Miami sits in the middle of the pack—might make it a bit easier.

Of course, that would presume that anything is ever “easy” for the Sixers; it’s hard to remember the last time that felt true. (Even the 16-game winning streak on which Philly ended the 2017-18 regular season happened while Embiid missed most of it because he broke his face on Markelle Fultz’s shoulder.) Every positional tangle, every grinding lineup, every fit-related concern traces back to some wince-inducing antecedent, some original sin of organizational dysfunction that feels impossible to escape.

When Harris disappears, it’s impossible not to think of the price Philly paid for him—not just the five-year, $180 million deal he got in free agency, but the package Philly sent to the Clippers last season to get him, including sniper Landry Shamet and the rights to four draft picks. Horford’s struggles are especially galling since Philly paid $109 million for him in free agency this summer, a massive outlay for a 33-year-old shelled out in hopes he’d knit the team’s disparate threads together. Whenever Richardson sputters, you think back on the summertime sign-and-trade that brought him in and shipped out Butler, for whom Elton Brand traded Process darlings Robert Covington and Dario Saric because the Sixers needed a pick-and-roll ballhandling guard who could shoot.

They needed that because Fultz—the guy they thought would become a star next to Simmons—lost his ability to shoot somewhere between summer league and training camp, and has really only just started to rediscover his game. Brand was in position to make the Butler trade because his predecessor, Bryan Colangelo, burned himself. Colangelo was in charge before him because he’d been placed there after his predecessor, Process architect Sam Hinkie, resigned before his longest-view-in-the-room experiment come to fruition.

Every gripe traces back to another, like a couple that’s been together for 25 years. You’re not actually arguing about remembering to use a coaster; you’re just resuming the fight you never resolved that weekend you saw Apollo 13 in the theater, already and perpetually in progress. It gets hard to exorcise certain ghosts after a while. With no real present-tense options besides “try to get healthy and maybe sign, like, Tyler Johnson off the buyout market,” the Sixers have to find a way to survive for now, and just get comfortable living with what they have.

And here’s the crazy thing: They might be able to. I no longer believe these Sixers are title-caliber, but if they get the Good Asshole Embiid and Swiss army machete Simmons healthy by mid-April (and the Heat keep scuffling), it wouldn’t surprise me at all if full-strength Philly proved an awfully tough out in the playoffs, and maybe put the pain of expectation on someone else’s shoulders for a change. It’s hard to find the upside to living in a perpetual panic. If there is one, though, maybe it’s that one day you start to think less about how the sky is always falling, and more about how that means that it’s never actually fallen.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Al Horford joined Philadelphia in a sign-and-trade. He signed a free-agent contract with the 76ers last summer.