The next three weeks could make or break the 76ers

When faced with questions about a team’s upcoming schedule, most people in the NBA will go to great lengths to avoid saying anything interesting. They’ll instead offer platitudes and clichés about respecting each opponent and taking things one game at a time.

Joel Embiid is not like most people in the NBA.

When Embiid was asked about the daunting gauntlet of games facing his Philadelphia 76ers over the next few weeks, he reacted with a grimace and a raised eyebrow — followed by a smile — and acknowledged the challenge that lies ahead.

“I’m excited,” Embiid said after beating the New York Knicks on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. “We’re going to see how good we are and how good we can become — or how bad we are.

“I think the next three weeks are really going to shape our season. … It will be exciting. It will be a good test.”

Embiid is right. The next few weeks will go a long way toward determining the way Philadelphia’s season will play out. Beginning with Jimmy Butler welcoming his former team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, to Philadelphia on Tuesday night, the Sixers’ next 13 games will have them play on national television 11 times and face 12 teams with winning records — and a combined overall win percentage north of .600.

For a group that is still trying to find itself two months after the Butler trade, it will be a clarifying moment — one that will, as Embiid said, show Philadelphia and everyone else just how good this team is and can be.

“I think the level rises,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “I think our talent rises, and I look forward to playing some of the elite.”

For Philadelphia to survive, it will need to rise. The numbers say the Sixers have been fine — they enter Tuesday’s game 10th and 11th in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively, with the elite teams in the league generally residing in the top 10 in both categories — but those statistics have been garnered against the league’s second-easiest schedule to date.

That won’t be the case these next few weeks, which feature a series of daunting challenges, including a four-game West Coast trip, seven games against Western Conference playoff teams (including two against the West-leading Denver Nuggets, two against the Los Angeles Lakers — with LeBron James potentially back for both — and another against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors) and matchups with fellow East contenders in the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers.

In theory, it is a stretch Philadelphia should be able to handle, given its talent. Then again, the Sixers are coming off a three-game stretch in which they lost to the Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks and barely escaped with a win over the now 10-32 Knicks, who were playing without two of their best players, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter.

“It’s arrogant and a mistake not to put everybody in that category,” Brown said. “We learned that against Atlanta and Washington. I feel a little reckless even talking about this thing … the NBA is the NBA, and I try to disregard records … [that] was proven the last three games. You can’t get a more blatant reality test than what we’ve just been through.

“So my mission remains the same: to grow our defense and help our group coexist.”

“We’re going to see how good we are and how good we can become — or how bad we are.”

Joel Embiid on 76ers’ next 13 games

That is a task that remains easier said than done — on both counts. Brown was asked again Sunday about Butler’s fit offensively, something the All-Star has challenged Brown over, as ESPN reported recently. While Brown reiterated that he had no issues with the exchange, he pivoted to what he considers a bigger problem: his team’s defense.

“I’ve got no problems with any of it,” Brown said. “I think where the thing pivots is if this isn’t seen as typical. I don’t agree with that. It’s happened many times, and this is the first time it’s public, and by my standards it’s fine. I’m the instigator. I think where it goes completely north is we should be talking about our defense, and we’re talking about our offense.

“Just dig into the numbers with him on the floor, and we are royalty. We are among the elite.”

Brown has a point. In the past 16 games, the Sixers have the league’s sixth-best offense but only the 21st-ranked defense. The Sixers went 9-7 in that stretch, which came against nine teams with sub-.500 records. That doesn’t inspire confidence that things are poised to go better as the Sixers enter one of the most difficult sections of a schedule any NBA team will face this season.

Combine that with Philadelphia’s ongoing depth issues in the wake of sending out two starters (Robert Covington and Dario Saric) in the Butler trade, the lingering questions about team chemistry and the team’s wait for an update on Markelle Fultz‘s condition, and, as usual, the Sixers find themselves surrounded by plenty of noise.

Brown was quick to point out that his team has thrived so far despite all that noise. Philadelphia enters Tuesday’s game fourth in the East and 12 games over .500. But even Brown conceded that there are plenty of legitimate questions for his squad to answer.

“I think if you look at our record, you realize the Earth isn’t falling, the sky isn’t falling, and still we are a ways away from being a fluid sort of whole team,” Brown said. “There are issues that you can talk about with the defense. There are issues you can talk about with the depth. There are issues you can talk about coexisting in our team sort of ecosystem — those are all true.

“But it’s not anything in my opinion that warrants panic. It’s part of growing a team. It’s part of delivering a team to what matters most.”

When the Sixers traded for Butler two months ago, it was thought to be the move that could get Philadelphia to what matters most: the top of the Eastern Conference. Adding a veteran such as Butler to a pair of emerging young stars in Embiid and Simmons was supposed to be the piece that put the Sixers over the top.

So far, though, there isn’t a definitive answer to whether it has. The next few weeks should provide one — one way or the other. Surviving, let alone thriving, against this schedule will solidify Philadelphia’s standing among the East’s elite. If the Sixers struggle, however, it will only create more questions about this group’s viability as a challenger this season — just as the NBA’s trade deadline next month is rapidly approaching.

Only one thing is for certain: By this time next month, we’ll know exactly who the Sixers are. Just what that is remains up to them to determine.

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