When the 2019-20 NBA season finally resumes in Orlando, the Philadelphia 76ers will be sitting in the No. 6 spot in the Eastern Conference with eight games to play. They're tied in the loss column with the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers and two games back of the fourth-seeded Miami Heat. If current matchups hold, the Sixers would play the Celtics in the first round. If it's not Boston, it'll almost certainly be Miami or Indiana.
Either way, Philly is in for a fistfight right off the bat.
In one way, you could argue the Sixers don't have much to lose in these playoffs. They've been disappointing all season -- one of the worst road teams in the league -- and a first-round loss for a No. 6 seed, or even a No. 4 or 5 seed, is not anything that would typically surprise anyone.
But the Sixers aren't your typical lower seed. Beginning with the 2018-19 season, contending for a championship became the expectation both inside and outside their locker room. General manager Elton Brand moved all in with blockbuster trades and behemoth contracts, and not a single one of them is beyond reproach.
You could argue that Tobias Harris' five-year, $180 million max deal and Al Horford's four-year, $109 million deal are two of the worst contracts in the league. Paying Harris felt, and still feels, a lot like chasing a bad bet with an even worse one -- a cornered franchise trying to simultaneously mitigate the loss of Jimmy Butler and justify the hasty, shortsighted trade Brand probably never should've made for Harris in the first place.
Horford, meanwhile, was added on the premise that he would protect the Sixers during their non-Joel Embiid minutes, when they had traditionally gone in the tank. That's an outrageously expensive insurance plan for an effective backup who was never going to be a good fit alongside Embiid, further crowding interior space and exacerbating an already ill-fitting roster.
Interesting side note: In the summer of 2018, just prior to Brand being promoted from vice president of basketball operations to general manager, the Sixers traded big man Richaun Holmes, who they had signed to a minimum contract and would've been a perfect backup for Embiid, to the Suns for cash. Holmes is now in Sacramento on a one-year, $5 million deal, which The Athletic's John Hollinger recently identified as one of the 10 most valuable contracts in the league.
To be fair, teams get rid of nondescript players who blossom elsewhere all the time, but this reflects a pattern of head-scratching moves in Philadelphia. For instance: On a team dying for shooting, last summer Brand could've signed, just for argument's sake, Malcolm Brogdon for $25 million less than Horford, or Bojan Bogdanovic for $35 million less.
Ben Simmons and Embiid might not be a particularly complementary duo, but the one common ground they share is the need for shooting. This is not hindsight. This was always obvious. But over the past two seasons, Brand has either traded or discarded JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Landry Shamet, Dario Saric, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova.
Why Brand hasn't completely prioritized shooting in an effort to properly support Simmons and Embiid is looking more and more like one of the league's great screw-ups. And yet, it's Simmons and Embiid, both as a duo and to a lesser degree individually, who are constantly under indictment for any Sixers struggles.
If Philly is bounced early from this year's playoffs, the question will again be asked: How long can Simmons and Embiid coexist if the Sixers have true designs on winning a championship? Simmons needs a pace-and-space system similar to the one in which Giannis Antetokounmpo thrives in Milwaukee. Embiid needs a more traditional inside-out partner that doesn't crowd his room in the paint and dissolves double teams rather than encouraging them.
Along with coach Brett Brown, whose clock is also ticking, Simmons and Embiid are the lone pillars remaining of Philly's infamous process. Sam Hinkie, who started it all, is gone. Yes, Hinkie piled up draft picks through years of intentional ineptitude, but the fact is the Sixers either missed or gave up on almost all of them. Michael Carter-Williams. Nerlens Noel. Jahlil Okafor. K.J. McDaniels. Dario Saric. Jerami Grant. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Markelle Fultz.
They're all gone.
Hinkie was famous for approaching the draft as the inexact science that it is, seeking out a plethora of picks knowing only a few are going to hit. Simmons and Embiid have certainly hit, and one could still contend this is a championship team with the exact right parts around them. But the Sixers, courtesy of all the aforementioned, big-name moves, are in a financial prison of their own making. They have no cap room. Neither Harris nor Horford represents a positive asset. All their meaningful draft picks have been vaporized.
If Simmons and Embiid don't end up working together, they separately become the Sixers' most -- or really their only -- valuable assets. Breaking up this duo might become the only way to validate the process, but deciding on which one to keep and which one to trade would be a nightmare dilemma, which is why it will always be easier to try to force them to fit.
The question remains: How long can Philly hold on to that hope? If these playoffs don't go well, even under unique conditions not exactly conducive to fair evaluation, will the search for a new answer begin in earnest? That doesn't mean Simmons or Embiid will be traded this offseason. In fact, that's almost impossible to imagine. But it does mean Brown will likely be gone, and with him yet another tie to the process.
The Sixers will likely try to reason that some other coach will be able to solve the Simmons-Embiid riddle, but in reality it's not all that complicated a riddle to solve. They need a supporting cast that's as specific as it is obvious, and they've seriously crippled their ability to add those pieces. At this point, they simply need Embiid and Simmons to individually improve to the point they can render all traditional fit factors moot.
That's not impossible. We know how talented these two are, but we also forget how young they are. In truth, it's the process that feels old. It already felt like it went on for ages, and now it feels like we've been waiting for the results for almost as long. That's not to say the Sixers haven't delivered any results. Last season they were this close to the conference finals.
But that's the problem with championship expectations: They eventually become the root of frustration. And when teams get frustrated, they get antsy. And when they get antsy, they make moves. How long until trading Embiid or Simmons becomes the only move left? Officially starting the clock on that decision makes it feel like the Sixers actually have everything to lose in Orlando.