Thursday night, the Philadelphia 76ers lost to the Toronto Raptors at home, 114-109. The Sixers dominated the first half and led by as much as 22 in the second half, but coughed up most of the lead in the third and were done in by a superlative 45-point DeMar DeRozan performance (and a much less-than-superlative performance by the game's referees). It was their eighth loss in their last nine tries, dropping them to 14-17 for the season (see observations).
And yet, the loss wasn't nearly as frustrating as the sequence that preceded it.
After a report from the reliable-if-not-quite-objective Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that the Sixers expected Joel Embiid to sit the next two games against Toronto, Trusters of the Process were despondent but accepting. As ridiculous as it seems that our franchise center should have to miss two more games (four total) as penance for the physical toll of having played 49 minutes in the triple-OT game against Oklahoma City a week ago, well, it's hardly unprecedented with JoJo. As long as he was back for Christmas — the Sixers' first game on Dec. 25 in over a decade, a marquee showdown against the Knicks — Sixers fans could live with a couple more DNPs as he got his back right.
But as Gameday One against the Raps approached, Embiid had not officially been ruled out. Late afternoon, Embiid remained officially listed as "Questionable," not out. Then, with just hours to go before tip, Embiid was suddenly and surprisingly upgraded to "Probable," though the team still allowed that it would have to be a gametime decision. Those in attendance at warmups say Joel looked good, with the appearance of a man who certainly intended to play.
Then, with a half-hour to go: Nope. No Embiid. Back pain, sitting this one out. What, you thought he was going to play or something?
To call it infuriating would be an insult to infuriating things. Now, of course it's hardly shocking that Embiid was never certain to play, that his back would flare up at the last minute, that he'd look good but not actually be good. All of that is understandable.
What's much harder to comprehend is why the Sixers would have enough faith in his availability to bump him up all the way from Questionable to Probable if that happening with Jo was still such a large likelihood. A cynical person would say that the Sixers feigned optimism with hours to go to help ensure that fans actually showed up for their Thursday night home game, since this Philly team ain't exactly been giving their Phaithful much reason to watch them sans JoJo of late. A non-cynical person would say ... well, it's actually kind of hard to remember, since it's been a long time since this team gave us reason to consider the non-cynic's perspective.
As frustrating as it could be when Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie went years in between medical updates for his players, at least he managed to avoid situations like this. He never suggested Nerlens would be ready by February when there was never any reasonable expectation Nerlens would be ready by February. It's inexplicable why the Sixers felt it incumbent on them to upgrade Embiid's status to get Sixers fans' hopes up, only to yank the WFC floor out from under them a half-hour before tip.
If they left him as questionable and it turned out he was ready to go, who (except maybe the Raptors' coaching staff) would've been upset by then? Even if they'd just said "Gametime decision," and made it sound a coin flip, that would be irritating but forgivable. But going all the way from rumored-out to Questionable to Probable — you better not do that unless you're damn confident in Embiid's ability to go, failing him slipping on a wet spot and breaking his femur during warmups. There's just no reason to. Aside from the cynical one, anyway.
And the Sixers played really well last night! Well enough to win, even — though they, y'know, didn't. But they moved the ball well, Dario Saric was absolutely brilliant (18-10-9 on 7-10 shooting, with an absolutely huge offensive rebound off a missed free throw in the final minute), Robert Covington got back in the shooting groove (5-12 from deep) and Ben Simmons went 9-14 from the field after attempting just six shots the game before. It was a fantastic effort against a better team. But it was a loss, and afterwards, it wasn't enough to shake the feeling of betrayal from our front office and coaching staff.
Look, who knows why they thought listing Jo as Probable was a good idea. Maybe they really did get a better medical prognosis than expected. Maybe Joel himself insisted he was good to go. Maybe his back acting up pre-tip really was a surprise to all concerned.
But the alarming thing with this franchise right now is how little of the benefit of the doubt they've earned. Between overextending JoJo last year and not revealing (or not realizing) the extent of his injuries until he was somehow out the whole season, to badly bungling Markelle Fultz's shoulder situation early this season, to making the Noel and Jahlil trades both in the name of public perception rather than asset management, there's just no reason to assume that the front office has the best (or even the smartest) intentions with any move they make. And it's getting harder and harder to trust the process when you can't even trust that the dudes pulling the strings have either the team or its fans as their top priority.