Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
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Two months ago, it’s not too likely that many would’ve had this Jan. 15 game against the Minnesota Timberwolves circled as the most crucial must-win game of the Sixers season. And truthfully, “must-win” is way too strong for any regular season game of 82 -- particularly one in January when your team is already comfortably in playoff position. But damned if circumstances haven’t coalesced to give this game outsized significance on the Sixers’ schedule. Not a “must-win,” but a “really-fucking-better-do-good” maybe.
Of course, this is largely because this is the return of Dario Saric and Robert Covington (and yes, fine, Jerryd Bayless) to the Wells Fargo Center, for the first time since they were swapped for Jimmy Butler in a controversial, emotional trade that has only become more hotly debated in recent weeks. That trade didn’t mark the end of the Process, as some erroneously claimed, but it certainly marked a fork in the Process, one whose new path led to higher expectations, increased scrutiny, and less of a bad-vibes buffer within either the locker room or the fanbase. For better or worse, summer camp is over, shit is real now, and everyone is acting accordingly.
That all made Jan. 15 an automatic calendar alert for Process Trusters worldwide from the day the trade went down in November: Of course we were gonna show up to properly acknowledge two of the Core Four (even if, as it turns out, only one of them is likely to actually play in the game). But the Sixers’ play of late, combined with what’s coming up for them after the Wolves head back to Minnesota, means that tonight’s game will be about more than just an all-smiles reunion: It’ll also be our last, best chance to get the team back on track -- in terms both practical and spiritual -- before shit gets even realer than it has for Philly all season.
Virtually nothing about the Sixers has looked right the past three games -- losses to the Wizards and Hawks and a Shamet-thin victory over the Knicks. The defense is lacking, the chemistry is off, the energy comes and goes. Ben Simmons has still been stellar and Joel Embiid has still gotten his numbers when active, but not only has this not looked like a team ready to take on the Celtics of last year’s playoffs, this has looked like a team that’d have trouble given the Celtics of this year’s regular-season calamity much of a challenge. Hell, this is a team that just gave Emmanuel Mudiay a shot at hitting the most soul-crushing shot in Process history for the second time. Things are bad.
And the player at the center of all this current Sixers misery? Of course, none other than Mike Muscala Jimmy Butler. Not that Jimmy has been entirely complicit in the Sixers’ losing: He’s averaged 23 and 7 the last three games, including a 30-point night against the Hawks in which he got to the line 14 times. But his shot selection has become increasingly questionable -- he’s dominating the ball in the half court, maneuvering into double teams and inexplicably refusing to shoot threes -- and where he once seemed to be trying too hard to fit into the team, he now looks increasingly unconcerned about fitting in at all. What’s more, he hasn’t really dominated on defense the way Sixers fans might’ve hoped, and while he still gets where he needs to go on the court, his game looks increasingly reliant on will over athleticism. It’s concerning enough for a 29-year-old guy we might soon be offering $200 million that certain pundits have been suggesting it might already be time to think about moving him.
But more realistically, the Sixers are gonna hold onto Jimmy Butler the rest of this season, and the worry about his next contract is one for the summer. There’s still plenty of time to get him realigned with the rest of the Sixers, plenty of time to find ways to balance his needs on offense with those of Simmons and Embiid, plenty of time for him to find a comfort level on the court with these guys where it doesn’t have to be all either acquiescing to the team’s ball-sharing, post-heavy offense or upending it entirely with wing isos. But it’s kinda gotta start tonight, before things spiral totally out of control with this team’s overall juju -- and before the schedule gets too tough for the Sixers to be able to easily regroup.
You’ve probably heard it run down in detail plenty of times already, but to reiterate once more: The Sixers’ 12 games after this are @ IND, OKC, HOU, SAS, @DEN, @LAL, @GSW, @SAC, TOR, DEN, LAL, BOS. That’s 12 straight games against teams over .500, most of whom will likely be favored against the flailing Sixers over this brutal stretch. Brett Brown said before the second Wizards game that he hoped this would be a chance for the team to pile up big, easy wins to work up their swagger before facing the league’s elite, but now we’re just trying to stave off total malaise before the hard part of the schedule even starts.
So it’s on Jimmy Butler and the Sixers to basically get right tonight, against a solid-but-undermanned (and under .500) Wolves team, before starting a stretch of the season in which such get-well-soon games will be extremely hard to come by. But it’s also on us to kinda act our Process age on this one, too -- we need to make sure Dario and Cov feel the love tonight for our spiritual and karmic health, to be sure, but we also need to make sure our own guys (Jimmy in particular) don’t feel underappreciated by comparison. If all goes well tonight, it’s a chance for the team to both make peace with the past and embrace the possibilities of the future, with the complete support of the fanbase behind them.
But of course, things could go the other way too. The Sixers could fail to cut through the quasi-despondency that’s seemed to engulf them in recent days, with neither the presence of Dario and Cov or the nearly 20,000 deep-in-their-feelings fans at the WFC snapping them out of their funk. Jimmy could go 5 for 17, forcing shots in the half-court and falling completely out of sync with the overall team offense. The Timberwolves could leave with the win, the momentum, and the enduring affection of Process Trusters, wondering why we ever deemed it acceptable to trade two of our OGs for this disruptive outsider. And from there, it’d be pretty tough to keep this team together for the crucible they’re about to be put through.
I don’t think any of us hoped or expected that we’d be in this fragile a place as a team by the time of Dario and Cov’s homecoming -- we all wanted to believe that by this point, we’d be thriving to such an extent that we could almost root for our old guys on their new, likely lottery-bound roster, just so they could save face a little. But now, the Sixers need a feel-good win as desperately as they’ve needed one all season, and while we can’t help with the win part, hopefully we can at least set the table for the feeling good. Cheer the hell out of the two Sixers greats, RTRS legends and Process immortals on the visiting squad, but then let the guys in red, white and blue know that they’re still our one and only. When the last dance is over tonight, this Sixers team is still the one we have to go home with -- and if things get sour before then, it could be a real goddamn long rest of the season.