On the list of civic mysteries that defy ready solution, the recent stretch of success for the 76ers is right up there with the popularity of scrapple for human consumption and that whole parking in the middle of Broad Street thing.
Everyone has a theory and an explanation, but the fact is that a team that lost 17 of its first 24 games isn't supposed to experience any extended success, let alone something like the 10 wins in 14 games the Sixers have recorded in the last month.
It could easily have been 11 out of 14 after Friday's electric game against the Houston Rockets in the sold-out Wells Fargo Center. In fact, it would have been if not for the presence of James Harden, which is like saying that swimming the Atlantic Ocean wouldn't be so difficult if it weren't for all that water.
Despite the 123-118 loss, fans got to savor 32 points from center Joel Embiid, who continues to be a mind-blowing mixture of power, perimeter shooting, and personality. If you don't smile when you watch Embiid, there's a problem.
"You step back and say, 'Wow,'" coach Brett Brown said.
Embiid is the easy answer for what has lifted the Sixers recently, but he's been around all season, putting up good numbers in between the games he had to skip and the minutes he had to sit on the bench. And that answer doesn't explain the two wins last week when Embiid was out with a bruised knee, the first a comeback from 19 points against the Clippers and then a next-night road win against the Bucks.
No, there's something going on here, and when Brown grasps for straws of an explanation, he talks about a growing cohesion, a unified purpose, and, not coincidentally, his ability to look in the locker room and see the same faces for a change.
In the first three seasons of Brown's tenure, the bumpy on-ramp to the Process, he coached a total of 53 players, most of whom were merely passing through, and some of whom passed through hardly noticed. But they all had to be coached.
This season, the Sixers have settled into a recognizable rotation, and a style has begun to emerge. For the first time since Brown has been here, the Sixers have a half-court offense that is more than just five guys standing around waiting for the next thing to happen. They still run, but they don't have to run in order to win. Embiid is obviously a big part of that, but there is motion and purpose even when he's not out there.
A revolving door goes only in circles. The Sixers have stopped the carousel, and that might be Bryan Colangelo's biggest accomplishment to date.
"It's a heck of a lot easier coaching," Brown said. "There's no mystery. Your decisions are: Do you play Ersan [Ilyasova] a little more than Dario [Saric], or Dario a little more than Ersan? Do you play Sergio [Rodriguez] a little more than T.J. [McConnell] or T.J. a little more than Sergio? You've got some stuff on the wings. Is Nick [Stauskas] playing better than Gerald [Henderson]? Robert Covington is a keeper. He's in the game. Timothe [Luwawu-Cabarrot] comes in and gets a few minutes. So, the symmetry, and consistency and stability is what everybody craves. Players crave it, coaches crave it. It gives you a chance to have some semblance of order, and we've had that possibility more than ever this year."
The missing factor in his equation, of course, is the center position, and Brown may eventually have to be like Isaac Newton, who invented calculus because there wasn't anything in the existing math books to guide him.
"The variables in our five spot are obvious, but I don't think it's hurt us as much as I would have guessed," Brown said.
Well, not recently, anyway. The season began with Nerlens Noel out with a knee injury and the center position a binary proposition between Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. When Noel was ready to play, he was still shelved in order for Brown to experiment with using Embiid and Okafor on the court together. That didn't last long.
At the end of the holiday trip to the West Coast, Okafor went to the bench, Noel was returned to the rotation, and – shazam! – the streak of success took place. As was the case Friday, when both Embiid and Noel are available, they are together only when they slap hands to exchange the bench for the court. When Embiid is out, Richaun Holmes is the backup center to Noel.
This is only a snapshot, of course, just a station stop in the journey. The trade deadline could throw everything into disarray again. Noel seems to be the best fit now, but he is about to come off his rookie contract, will get paid by someone, and will not be happy playing 15 minutes a night behind Embiid once the big guy's restrictions are lifted. The Sixers have a real decision to make there. Okafor? He's an NBA player who will have a long career. Here? Doesn't seem likely.
Then, throw Ben Simmons into the equation and whatever arrives through the draft. The snapshot becomes distorted. The starting backcourt of McConnell and Staukas will be erased, at least as starters. Covington and Saric will slide down the rotation. The equation will change and Brown will have to adjust.
But for this one moment in the wearying Process, this has been fun. Chances are, it won't even be long remembered. Not after Simmons gets here. Not after what happens at the trade deadline and in the draft. Not after a summer of anticipation and another fall of new expectations. Nothing in the past lasts very long. It has been a great run, though, and if this group that becomes a mere midwife for the next group gets nothing else, they will have that.