There’s no use in sugarcoating it — the Sixers are in the midst of an embarrassing road trip.
Up until now, they could excuse away the occasional bad loss in Orlando or Washington as just an “off night.” The last three games have been simply dreadful, and the postgame comments haven’t instilled much confidence.
GM Elton Brand will be working the phones in earnest before Thursday’s trade deadline, but there likely isn’t a move he can make that’ll turn this thing around. He needs the players he already acquired to play at the level that was expected.
The Sixers are 31-20 and sitting in the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s fair to point out that the East is much better than expected.
The Raptors are on a serious run and haven’t felt the sting of Kawhi’s Leonard’s absence as much as anticipated. The Jimmy Butler-led Heat, who throttled the Sixers in the second half Monday, have been one of the biggest surprises in the NBA. The Celtics and Pacers appear to both be more dangerous than first thought.
While all that may be true, the Sixers are still underperforming.
Joel Embiid hasn’t quite figured out his place this season. Ben Simmons has been playing at an extremely high level recently but has also had issues with Embiid in the lineup at times this season. Them not appearing to be on the same page with their teammates doesn’t help anything.
Josh Richardson has been a decent fit, but he’s struggled to stay healthy, missing 13 games this season. When he returns, he should give the team a boost. Perhaps he’s an even more important piece than we all thought.
Brand also doled out almost $300 million to re-sign Tobias Harris and steal Al Horford from Boston. Neither player has lived up to that billing recently and their contracts will likely preclude the Sixers from adding a true difference maker.
Brand acquired Harris at last year’s deadline because he thought the combo forward would be a strong complementary piece to Embiid and Simmons. It made sense. Harris was his enjoying his finest pro season, averaging 20.9 points and leading the surprising Clippers into playoff contention.
When Brand signed Harris to a near-max extension this offseason, he was supposed to be a reliable scorer that could benefit from opponents packing the paint. That hasn’t come to fruition — at least not consistently.
Speaking of consistency, Horford has lacked it to a maddening degree this season. It was a bit perplexing when Brand pulled the trigger on signing a 33-year-old to a four-year deal. In theory, though, you could understand Brand’s thinking in signing his former teammate.
With all the time Embiid has missed during his career, the Sixers haven’t always had the most reliable backup center options. Horford was a great insurance policy who could theoretically play next to Embiid. During his three-year stint with the Celtics, Horford hit 38.2 percent of his threes. But with the Sixers, he's at 32.2 percent and hasn’t looked comfortable offensively all season.
It’s hard to imagine either player going anywhere before Thursday. Brand doesn’t seem likely to give up on either Harris or Horford. Even if he wanted to, what team would take on either of those contracts while giving you something of value?
We’ve seen flashes from both players. The Sixers don’t beat the Lakers on Jan. 25 without Harris pouring in 29 points. You saw on Christmas what Horford can do against the likes of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo defensively.
But the Sixers didn’t dish out almost $300 million for flashes. They need the players they thought they were signing to show up. They need Embiid and Simmons to be on top of their game and playing cohesively. They need to be healthy.
There likely isn’t a move that puts the Sixers over the top. They need the guys that are already here to step up.
With 31 games left in the season, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Tune in to the NBA Trade Deadline Show on the NBC Sports MyTeams app Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EST for analysis of all the important moves around the NBA.