No singular loss for the Philadelphia 76ers reveals anything about them not already known. That's sort of the problem. Theirs is a recurring shortfall that rears its head in almost every game: a talented but awkwardly built roster that will invariably fall short if left untouched at Thursday's NBA trade deadline.
And so it was during the Sixers' 116-95 loss to the Boston Celtics on Saturday night at TD Garden. They turned the ball over too often in the first half, laid bricks from three (7-of-33) and played their best basketball when Ben Simmons was given the freedom and space to attack downhill—so, in other words, during his stints without Joel Embiid.
The Sixers are a ghastly 9-17 on the road and have the Eastern Conference's sixth-best record. That's a far cry from where they're supposed to be, and the whole "They're built for the playoffs" excuse doesn't fly anymore.
Extenuating circumstances account for some of the Sixers' struggles. Their preferred starting lineup of Embiid, Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson is a defensive terror and outscoring opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions. Injuries have also limited them to 19 appearances, and Saturday wasn't one of them. Richardson is sidelined with a left hamstring issue.
It is likewise hard to get riled up over one loss to a Celtics squad the Sixers have already beaten three times this season. That Kemba Walker (knee) didn't play doesn't help the optics, but Philly beat up on itself in the first half, and Embiid will have better nights (1-of-11, four turnovers)—which is to say, not every game will be his worst of the year.
Once more, though, this isn't about Saturday's letdown alone. The Sixers are showing symptoms of larger, less forgivable warts.
Horford's performance is chief among them. He isn't moving with the same hyperattentive edginess on defense—in fairness, he has been dealing with left knee problems since last year—and has yet to find his groove within Philly's clumpy offense.
His 1-of-6 clip from deep Saturday night is a new normal. Since missing two games in mid-December because of his left knee, he's shooting just 27.2 percent from beyond the arc. The Sixers are a net negative with him on the floor since Christmas.
Philly cannot maximize its Embiid-Simmons minutes if Horford isn't a more viable threat from outside. Ditto for every other player on the floor during those reps. Providing floor balance is not Horford's responsibility alone.
Harris is on the hook, too, and he's riding his own roller coaster this season. But he's still the more steadying offensive force. More importantly, he'll have ample opportunities to score from a bunch of different levels. Horford doesn't enjoy that same flexibility.
Playing next to Embiid and Simmons so often relegates him to bystander duty. His touches compared to last year are fairly identical, and though his catch-and-fire volume is up, it has not exploded relative to 2018-19. The difference? His semi-similar shot distribution is coming in different ways, as ESPN's Tim Bontemps pointed out:
"In the six seasons prior to signing with the Sixers—split evenly between the Hawks and Celtics --- Horford was a pick-and-roll screener 22 or more times per game each season, peaking at 25 times per game, per Second Spectrum's tracking data.
"This season? Horford is down to 16 per game—and that's including the recent nine-game stretch Embiid sat out recently after undergoing surgery on his left ring finger, in which Horford saw a far steadier diet of pick-and-roll chances than he had previously."
None of this would matter if Horford were still capitalizing on his spot-up opportunities. He's not. He's canning 32.0 percent of his standstill treys, and just 29.3 percent since Jan. 1, down from 36 percent last season.
The Sixers offense is feeling the squeeze. They're 26th in points scored per 100 possessions and 28th in three-point accuracy since the turn of the calendar. Again: This isn't all on Horford. His cold streak is merely noticeable because it at times renders the three-man combination of Embiid, Simmons and himself unusable.
Staggering the minutes of Horford and Embiid might get the Sixers by during the regular season. It will be far less tenable in the playoffs. They didn't give Horford a four-year, $109 million contract ($97 million guaranteed) so they could separate him from Embiid. Those stretches factored into Horford's arrival—and Philly has played well when it's just him and Simmons on the court—but Embiid-less stretches will, in theory, be fewer and further between once the postseason tips off.
That problem isn't going away.
Nothing the Sixers do at the deadline will be too wholesale. They essentially can't trade Simmons after signing him to his rookie extension last July (poison pill), and the contracts for Harris and Horford won't incite a ton of interest.
Don't waste your time with Embiid trade scenarios. That's a call best made over the offseason, if it's made at all. Richardson is eminently movable, but he's the one starter who doesn't pose a substantive fit issue.
This absence of dispensable salary filler limits the Sixers' options. They have first- and second-round picks to dangle, but they're effectively confined to combining Mike Scott and Zhaire Smith without getting into overcomplicated three- and four-player-for-one hypotheticals.
Granted, this isn't nothing. The Sixers can take back a player in the $12 million range while using Scott and Smith as anchors. Their primary interests so far, per The Athletic's Anthony Slater: Davis Bertans, Robert Covington and Derrick Rose.
Roughly one of those players makes sense.
Bringing back Covington holds little value. He's neither a high-volume shooter nor capable of creating his own offense off the dribble. Rose's half-court probing and playmaking would go a long way, but he only exacerbates the Sixers' spacing issues.
Bertans is a near-perfect fit. He's having the best high-volume three-point-shooting season in league history by anyone not named Stephen Curry, and he can launch away off motion rather than strictly in standstill opportunities.
But putting him on the floor means pulling one of Horford and Embiid. Is that worth the player and draft equity it would take to get him? That's the question the Sixers will continue running into ahead of the trade deadline.
Finding the right fit isn't that tough. Playmaking shooters aren't a dime a dozen, but they're out there. Players like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Langston Galloway and Tomas Satoransky all fit the bill to varying degrees and shouldn't be untouchable. The Sixers just can't be sure how much anyone they land would move the needle when the acquisition doesn't profile as part of their closing lineup.
That shouldn't stop them. Having different options to juggle is a good problem—better than the one they're facing now: that they don't much look like legitimate championship contenders.