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January 17, 2019

Sixers' upcoming schedule may end up determining future of Sixers core three

Sixers NBA

Before Tuesday's game against the Timberwolves, Brett Brown had a chance to take a break from questions about Jimmy Butler, Robert Covington, and Dario Saric to offer his thoughts on the team's newest signing. And it was his description of Corey Brewer, brought in on a 10-day contract to give a depleted bench a little bit of help, that offered a window into where the Sixers are as a team right now.

"The sort of standards and the qualities that Elton and I talked a lot about was one, just character into the locker room," Brown said on Tuesday evening. "A really sort of close second and third was can he guard?... You look at the character, you look at his defense, you look at his ability to shoot the ball, and then it's all draped under, he won two national titles at Florida. He won an NBA championship. He's a 12-year veteran, he's good people, it all sort of fit. And we're happy to welcome him into our team."

With the Sixers on the verge of the toughest stretch of schedule they've had in recent memory, an absolute gauntlet of starry teams around the league, it was character, and not production that Brown and the Sixers' brain trust prioritized first. That says a lot about what the Sixers need to survive this stretch of basketball, and how they'll do it.

For those who haven't seen it laid out, here's what the next month looks like for Philadelphia. It is not pretty, and all the bolded games will be carried on national television.

Date Opponent 
 Jan. 17@ Indiana Pacers
 Jan. 19vs. OKC Thunder 
 Jan. 21vs. Houston Rockets
 Jan. 23vs. San Antonio Spurs 
 Jan. 26@ Denver Nuggets
 Jan. 29 @ Los Angeles Lakers
Jan. 31 @ Golden State Warriors
 Feb. 2@ Sacramento Kings
 Feb. 5vs. Toronto Raptors
 Feb. 8 vs. Denver Nuggets
 Feb. 10 vs. Los Angeles Lakers
 Feb. 12 vs. Boston Celtics

That makes 12 games against a group of teams that will challenge them in different ways, and in some cases they will be teams getting reinforcements. The Warriors will have DeMarcus Cousins playing for the first time this season Friday night. LeBron James is nearing his return for the Lakers, which transforms that matchup instantly. Boston is flashing its ceiling, with Gordon Hayward showing signs of life in recent weeks. San Antonio has been on a tear over the last month and a half, and James Harden is destroying everything in his path right now.

Even the game you used to count as a gimmie, the matchup with the Sacramento Kings at the end of the trip out West, is a likely dogfight. The young Kings get up and down the floor and come at you in waves, and they won't give the Sixers an easy one as they dream of returning to the comfort of Philadelphia at the end of a brutal trip.

The cherry on top of this is the amount of media scrutiny this team will be under during this stretch. There will be more local media members around the team than ever, with the Eagles' season wrapped up and the Flyers a constant afterthought. There will be reporters and T.V. people from each of the major networks swarming the team for weeks, all looking to see how close this core is to contention, and more critically, what shape this locker room is in.

It may not always feel like it, but the Sixers have the talent to compete with just about any team in the league on their best night. They have rarely gotten Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler all going in the same game, and yet the Sixers have had the seventh-best offense in the league and the 13th-best defense in the league since December 1. They are not far from being top-10 on both sides of the ball, a typical signifier of a team that can compete deep into the playoffs.

But if you've followed this team at all since Butler arrived, you know it's not as simple as numbers on a piece of paper. There have been public complaints about role, private battles about the style of offense, and an ever-present fight for control of the team between the team's franchise center and the player they're trying to please enough to have him commit to Philadelphia long-term. Those are the dynamics to watch over the next few weeks.

This group will admit to this. I asked Brown whether he felt the team was where they need to be mentally heading into this stretch, and whether they were as together as they need to be.

"It would be wrong for me to say after you lose to Washington and Atlanta, and don't sort of finish off the Knicks, to say oh yeah, we're great," said Brown before Tuesday's win against Minnesota. "We're going through our own issues of rotations, play calls, and the lion's share of shots... I feel like what we do have is honest communication. There's no head fakes, no mystery of what we need to do to get that thing you just said, that is the holy grail. That is the bottom line. Fighting every single day for the soul and the spirit of the team is maybe the most important thing I can do."

To that end, there have been signs that this team is trending in the right direction in terms of on-court cohesion. Butler and Embiid featured in a nice stretch of basketball Tuesday without Simmons, and they settled into a nice mix of plays that benefitted both players.

Here's one of those — a fairly standard dribble handoff between Embiid and Butler, where they work the two-man game until Butler knocks down a three.

Embiid and Redick run this all the time to great success, and with Butler's dynamism, there's no reason he and Embiid can't do the same. Except, of course, Butler doesn't like coming off of the DHO's, according to his head coach.

And that's important to acknowledge — just because you're good at something or capable of doing something doesn't mean it has to be something you enjoy. You can show guys numbers, you can point to trends, and you can try to convince them doing something a certain way is a winning formula. But ultimately, everyone has preferences for one reason or another. You can't force people to be players they don't want to be.

By the same token, the wins and losses during the upcoming schedule for Philadelphia absolutely matter, but the context matters too. Are they succeeding using Brown's (and Embiid's) preferred style of play or struggling with it? Are they incorporating more Butler pick-and-rolls, and how is the team performing when they implement them? Is everyone getting enough shots, and if they aren't, how are they performing on defense?

You can pick your own metrics through which to judge the next month, but for me, what matters is what they all make of each other on the other side of it. While people have expressed their reservations about the Embiid-Simmons partnership moving forward, myself included, I do believe that those two guys understand that they need each other to some degree. Maybe they aren't best friends or a perfect fit, but they understand they are privileged to come into the league and grow together with another major talent. 

Butler, on the other hand, has always marched to the beat of his own drum. He does not have the same ownership of the program that Embiid has built over time, but I'm not sure that matters to him. He has always wanted to win and makes that quite clear whenever he can, but he wants things to be a certain way, catered to his talents to a certain degree. That's perfectly justified based on his resume, but depending on the day or situation, that puts Butler at odds with the coach, the star center, the point guard, or any number of other people impacted by his preferences.

For this group to win, someone's going to have to sacrifice for the greater good. These are ultimately just regular season games, and if the Sixers make serious noise in the playoffs, nobody is going to give a damn if they went 0-12 or 12-0 against this gauntlet of teams in late January.

But during this run against the league's best, the Sixers' core three will have their willingness to work together tested. They won't just waltz into the gym and be able to out-talent their opponents. There needs to be sacrifice, buy-in, and an understanding that even if the results don't come, they have to believe they're building toward something bigger than themselves and stick together if things get tough.

With as little shared experience as they have together, it would be naive to take that as a given. I am excited to see where we stand a month from now, and I believe the true colors of this group will reveal themselves, one way or another.

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