What the Sixers are experiencing may not be unprecedented, but that doesn't make it any less...awkward? Weird? Bizarre? Is there even a good word to describe the twists and turns of their season?

26-8 when Joel Embiid plays - a winning percentage bested by only the Boston Celtics, who are regarded as the clear favorites to win the title.

They have outscored opponents by 8.7 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the court, per Cleaning The Glass. That would rank as the second best net rating in the league.

The recency bias overwhelms the memory of how good the Sixers were just a few months ago. And they passed the smell test, too - the advanced numbers rated them as highly as any team in the league, the resume-building wins were there, the point differential was excellent, the formula proved to be dependable.

Then, Embiid left the floor late in Philadelphia's loss to the Golden State Warriors on January 30. He hadn't moved well all game long, and then Jonathan Kuminga landed on his leg in a fight for a loose ball, sending a jolt of pain up the big man's body.

Embiid hasn't logged a game since.

The Sixers are 9-13 in that span. It's often looked much worse than that record indicates.

They've been outscored by 6.2 points per 100 possessions in those 22 games. If you would guess that that figure is near the bottom of the league during that span, step right up and claim your prize.

Some have watched this team get pummeled so many times recently that they, too, have been beaten into submission. Anyone wanna talk about Eagles free agency rumors or draft targets? How 'bout those Flyers? Hey, it's almost time to watch Bryce Harper tee off on misplaced breaking balls!

Others remember what this team was with its newfound depth following the James Harden trade, what the partnership between the reigning MVP and the increasingly dynamic Tyrese Maxey had become, and how inspired and lively the hoops was under new head coach Nick Nurse.

That group is begging for a reason to still believe.

I'll give them one - if Embiid can come back resembling something close to what he was before that fateful night in the Bay Area, this team is a sleeping giant in the Eastern Conference. Almost regardless of whatever seed they snag in the playoff picture.

It's a weird storyline to write. It's probably a weird storyline to read.

Imagine being a player or coach in the middle of it.

The trade deadline was about a week after the Golden State game. Buyout season commenced shortly thereafter.

None of Buddy Hield, Cam Payne, and Kyle Lowry have stepped on a game court with Embiid yet. All three have played at least a dozen games in Sixers uniforms.

The oddity of having been in Philadelphia for more than a month and not having played with Embiid manifests differently for each of them.

For Hield, it's getting used to one style of play knowing full well that that style will change dramatically when no. 21 returns.

"I just know that, right now, we just gotta win games until he gets back. When he gets back, it's going to be a whole different style of basketball. That's all I know. Right now, we're just trying to sustain this storm right now until he comes back. It's going to be a whole different kind of basketball," Hield said after Saturday's victory over the Charlotte Hornets.

"I've been on the other side where I've prepared to guard him, where we had to prepare to guard him, and the guy is in traps all day. So, what we're playing now is going to be a wholly different game."

For Payne, it manifests in having to learn a new section of the playbook to prepare for Embiid's eventual return.

"Now, it's a little different, man. We had some more plays today. We had Joel back, so we had some different plays and I had to learn a little bit more again...I had to learn 15 mo' plays. But, besides that, man, it was cool just to see him out there. I haven't seen him since I've been here, so it was cool to see him out there," the guard acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks told reporters at Sunday's practice.

Payne also knows to take some of the more lopsided defeats with the proper context.

"He looked pretty good to me. For my first time seeing him, he looked pretty good, man. He attracts a lot of attention out here. So, it's probably going to make our jobs a little bit easier...I talked to my dad about it. But, I'll piggyback off the New York game, like, 'Man, yeah, we missing 30 points out there. They get us over the hump, they get us about a hunnit and some''," Payne said with a laugh.

"But, for real, he great offense, but rim protection, that's huge. I know for me, just going against people that's seven-foot-plus, it's tough down there. Like Brook Lopez, it's tough down there sometimes. So, us to have that presence back is going to be huge."

It's a little different for the veteran Lowry. He's seen all the styles the game has to offer. If there's a play depicted on a clipboard, he probably knows it.

This wait is about the thrill of an opportunity if all goes as planned. It's about potentially going to battle with a star against whom he's often fought before.

"Yeah, that's the part about it. I haven't had the opportunity to play with big fella. I'm looking forward to that. All the things I hear - like, I see it, of course - but, you know, in person, it's a lot different. I think one thing that I've learned so far, his basketball mind is very sharp. Very, very smart basketball player. Smart individual," Lowry said after Monday's victory over the Miami Heat.

"So, we just got to be patient until he gets back. For me, I'm looking forward to the opportunity, you know? Part of the reason to come here was Tyrese and Joel. Those two were a big main reason for me to be here."

It's much different for the head coach.

For Nurse, getting through this stretch without Embiid is about compartmentalizing the downs so that they can eventually maximize the ups.

"I'm still in this mode that I think we're learning a lot about these guys. I think that a lot of them are getting pushed outside of maybe their normal roles. So, we're learning there. There's going to be a little bit of an adjustment period to kind of slide them back into those things, too, a little bit. But, for me, again, I sound like a broken record, I'm just trying to see who's playing the right way, doing the defensive schemes the way they're supposed to be done," Nurse said at Sunday's practice.

"I think some guys are being asked to take the ball on offense places they're not normally taking it. Some are building some things; I think we found a little bit more with Kelly and different ways to use him offensively where he can actually be some kind of option there rather than just cutting off of Joel or reading off of Joel or whatever. And some of the other guys are, some of the other guys are spacers and shooters. So, again, I think we're learning a lot.

I keep saying I want to make sure we're learning what we're supposed to be doing at the defensive end and if we're executing those things right. And, believe it or not, I think the mistakes, scheme wise, are getting less and less all the time. We're doing what we're supposed to be doing. I think it would show a lot more if we were scoring a little more."

Nurse sees the defensive progress beyond just schematic comprehension. He feels guys are improving their grasps of how to guard key assignments in accordance with the team's night-to-night game plans.

Acquired in the middle of the season or in Philadelphia for the entire campaign, player or coach, the Sixers are intent on maintaining their defensive principles regardless of Embiid's status.

That status may change in the not-too-distant future. According to Nurse, Embiid is taking part in non-contact activities during the team's practices. He is lifting weights, too. Nurse has never wavered in delivering optimistic messages when asked whether he believes Embiid will return this season.

And with each passing day, with each press conference quote, with each Embiid sighting at home games, that return strays further away from theoretical proposition and more towards a matter of "when".

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