Moore's prediction, 56-26 record, second seed in East, isn't being achieved

One 76ers all-star, Ben Simmons, called his team “soft.”

The other, Joel Embiid, repeatedly referred to as the franchise’s “crown jewel,” complained about his lack of involvement in the offense after a big first quarter during Monday night’s 137-106 thrashing by the Heat, saying, “I’m still trying to figure out what I’m asked to do.”

That’s not what you want to hear from the two best players on a potential championship contender.

Simmons, Embiid and the Sixers find themselves 31-20 and sixth in the Eastern Conference with 31 games remaining in the 2019-20 NBA season, which is nowhere near the expectations both inside and outside an organization that thought it could compete for a title.

Brett Brown’s Sixers are 5 1/2 games behind the second-place Raptors in the Eastern Conference. The No. 2 seed is where they need to be in order to get homecourt advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs. They must leap-frog the three other teams between them and Toronto to get there, too.

Meanwhile, general manager Elton Brand would seem to have few ways to significantly improve the roster by Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline. The only tradable asset with value is probably rookie defensive specialist Matisse Thybulle, who the Sixers want to keep.

It’s difficult to imagine a package involving underachieving reserve Mike Scott, second-year pro Zhaire Smith and a draft pick being enough to acquire a difference-maker. Former Sixer Robert Covington would provide perimeter defense the Sixers crave, but he’s an inconsistent 3-point shooter and the price tag might be higher than the two players and pick listed above.

The Sixers’ on-the-ball defense has noticeably slipped, in part due to starting guard Josh Richardson having missed two weeks with a strained left hamstring. Shake Milton moved into a starting spot and initially played quite well, but he’s been struggling to handle guards who can create their own shot.

Forward Tobias Harris is in the first year of a five-year, $180 contract. He’s a good player, but not at the elite level. Big man Al Horford, who is still trying to find his way alongside Embiid, is in the midst of the first year of his four-year deal worth a guaranteed $97 million. And he’s 34.

Simmons and Embiid are franchise cornerstones, though they are ideally suited to different styles of play — Simmons is best in a fast-paced offensive attack, while Embiid is more effective in halfcourt sets.

But trading one of them by Thursday’ deadline would be extremely surprising.

Help could be forthcoming in the post-deadline buyout market, but there are no guarantees.

The Sixers are just 11-13 over the past 24 games. Perhaps more worrisome is they are 6-5 without Embiid and 5-8 with him during that span.

Yes, he’s still trying to work his way back into game condition after missing nine games with ligament damage in his left ring finger. The Sixers went 6-3 with Embiid sidelined and are 1-3 since his return, having dropped three in a row by a total of 62 points — losing by 10 to the lowly Hawks, 21 to the Celtics and then 31 in a thoroughly uninspired outing against Jimmy Butler and the Heat.

The disparity between the Sixers’ record at home (22-2) and on the road (9-18) is a big concern. It’s clearly more difficult away from home, so losing close games to East playoff clubs Boston and Miami shouldn’t be the end of the world. Not being competitive, however, is hard to swallow.

And so is a pair of road drubbings by the Magic, and the double-digit defeat in Atlanta in which all-star starting guard Trae Young (39 points, 18 assists) seemingly did whatever he wanted.

The Sixers have allowed an astounding 380 points in the last three games, which is an average of 126.7, and those opponents have enjoyed far too many open looks and easy layups en route to shooting a combined 128 for 252 (50.8%). That’s a recipe for failure.

Do it again and they’ll get run out of Milwaukee by the NBA-leading Bucks Thursday night on TNT.

After that, home games with the Grizzlies, Bulls and Clippers lead into the all-star break, which is followed by the stretch run.

So what’s the solution? It looks like for the Sixers to salvage the season, it’s going to have to happen primarily — if not completely — with the players already in place. Or it’s not going to happen.

Tom Moore: tmoore@couriertimes.com; @TomMoorePhilly