Brett Brown's 76ers Still Searching For an Identity in January

Justin Grasso

Before the Philadelphia 76ers tipped-off the new NBA year, their head coach Brett Brown set some high standards for his squad. He mentioned the words "first-seed in the Eastern Conference," and many fans within the Sixers base had their ears perked up.

I mean, first-seed wasn't totally out of the question, right? After all, the Sixers were the only team to take the eventual NBA Champions, the Toronto Raptors, down to the wire in a seven-game series last year.

And in the eyes of many, the Sixers built up an even better roster for 2019, than they had in 2018. So to think the Sixers could grab the first-seed was surely realistic. However, setting the bar that high with such confidence could really come back and bite the Sixers' head coach if the team doesn't reach those heights. We knew that then, and we know that now.

On Monday night, the Sixers wrapped up their 41st game of the season, marking the official middle point of the year. After losing to the Indiana Pacers on the road for the second time this season, Philly picked up their 16th loss of the season.

With an overall midway record of 25-16, the 76ers aren't precisely where Brown expected them to be. Although the Sixers managed to take down the first-seeded Milwaukee Bucks during their first meeting, Philly is nowhere near the level Bucks are at standings-wise.

Currently, the 76ers are 10.5 games back from Brown's goal. Sitting in sixth place isn't the end-all, be-all for the Sixers, who are three and a half games back from second place. But hearing the head coach honestly admit the team still doesn't have an identity is worrisome.

Earlier in the year, Brown made it a point the Sixers won't know their true identity until Christmas day when they face the Bucks. After destroying the top dogs of the East, it seemed as if all is well in South Philly.

But then a four-game road skid happened. For a moment, it looked like the Sixers were ready to bounce back after collecting two wins at home, but since that Christmas day matchup, Philly has secured a record of only 2-6 over the last eight games.

If you ask Brett Brown weeks later if the team has found its identity, the answer will be honest -- but surely not satisfying. "We're still figuring some stuff out," Brown said, following Monday night's loss to the Pacers. "We miss [Joel Embiid] terribly. We're completely different on both sides of the ball. So, to sort of anoint 'this is who we are after the halfway mark,' it's difficult for me to do that."

The loss of Joel Embiid is significant for the Sixers -- no doubt. However, the team was built to survive without Embiid in case of an emergency, such as the one the Sixers are currently dealing with. At this point, though, with or without Embiid, the Sixers haven't seemed to have come close to figuring out who they are -- and that's a problem.

While the sky isn't falling, there will come the point where the 76ers need to honestly look in the mirror and realize they need to find their actual identity sooner than later. Because if things keep up the way they are, there won't be a jump in improvement from the last two seasons. In fact, the Sixers might even see some regression when it comes to the postseason if they can't figure out how to survive on the road.

It won't be easy for Philly to figure out their identity with a key piece such as Embiid out. It could take until he gets back out into the lineup before Brown can come up with a better answer in regards to who the Sixers are as a team. But if the 76ers can't figure it out within the next few weeks, it's going to be a tough road to the playoffs -- that's for certain.

Justin Grasso covers the Philadelphia 76ers for Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter: @JGrasso_

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