The Immediate and Big Picture Ramifications of Joel Embiid's Injury
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News keeps on dripping out about Joel Embiid’s health, and it keeps on not being good. A pair of similar reports from Jason Dumas and Shams Charania indicated that Embiid is dealing with a more serious injury than what was initially assumed to be a Grade 1 LCL sprain.
Sources: The knee injury 76ers star Joel Embiid suffered April 20 is considered to be more serious than a Grade 1 LCL sprain. He is currently doubtful for Game 1 vs. Boston.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) April 29, 2023
There is no other way to put it other than that this is dire news. If it is indeed “more serious than a Grade 1 LCL sprain,” that likely means it’s a Grade 2 LCL sprain, which is typically a 4-6 week recovery timeline. Even if the Sixers somehow manage to push their series with Boston to a sixth game without Embiid, that game would take place three weeks from the date of Embiid’s injury. Embiid coming back on or before that date would require some combination of incredible guts and extreme recklessness – it would mean incurring a meaningful risk of a significant long term knee injury.
That said, it wouldn’t surprise me, given how badly Embiid wants to play, if we do see Embiid in some capacity in this series. But based on the reporting that has come out, I would be shocked if we see him before Game 3 or 4, and even then, I would expect a considerably hobbled Embiid. If the Sixers don’t look competitive in the first few games of the series without him, it wouldn’t surprise me if Embiid never plays in order to avoid further injury risk.
In an effort to make sense of all of this, let’s dive into the short and long term impact of Embiid’s injury.
The short term
Embiid not being in the lineup against Boston means that the Sixers will have to undergo a complete identity shift on both ends of the floor. If Embiid were playing, the bulk of their offense would be based around forcing Boston to make decisions on how they guard Embiid in post-ups and isolations. They would spread the floor around him, and force Boston to either double team him or let him score one-on-one.
Without him, they’ll turn to a spaced-out, guard-heavy attack that involves switch-hunting for their best players. Nearly every offensive possession will involve a pick and roll for either Harden or Maxey. On defense, they’ll go from a drop coverage to a switch-everything scheme with Paul Reed and P.J. Tucker at center.
Embiid being out opens up opportunities to get funky with lineup combinations. Obviously, Tucker will see considerable time at the five, and it would not surprise me in the least to see the Sixers close games with a Maxey-Melton-Harden-Harris-Tucker lineup; the Celtics are small enough that you can get away with it defensively, and it would open up the floor on offense to allow Harden and Maxey to hunt isolations.
With Tucker playing center and Melton occupying minutes on the wing, it would make sense for the Sixers to plan for some Shake Milton minutes, as well. They will obviously need the shot creation, and Melton and Tucker having to shift upwards positionally will open up guard minutes for Shake.
Let’s be very clear, though: the Sixers’ offense in this series is entirely dependent on how James Harden plays. In order to have any chance whatsoever in this series, Harden will have to have the type of offensive output that he’s had during his best stretches of the season.
Perhaps I’m being unreasonable given how unlikely the Sixers’ chances of winning this series are, but I’m putting a lot of pressure on Harden to perform in this series. If I’m going to feel remotely comfortable paying Harden a long-term max contract this offseason, I’m going to need to see him look competent against a strong playoff opponent. When this series begins, Harden will have played nine games in the last five weeks; if he can’t look healthy and spry given that light of a workload, he likely just doesn’t have it anymore.
If Harden can summon the physical and mental capacity to somehow win this series, he will become a beloved figure in Sixers history. If he no-shows, fans will gladly show him the door this off-season as he presumably signs with the Rockets. If it’s somewhere in the middle – a respectable performance in a 6-game series loss – I imagine that fans would unenthusiastically hope that he comes back. For the most part, I think it’s safe to say that fans are hoping for a reason to believe in Harden; a big time performance in this series would give them that.
The formula for the Sixers winning this series is this: Harden has his best playoff series in years, Maxey goes up a level and wins them a game or two on hot shooting alone, Reed looks competent, and the Sixers muck up the game on both ends with gimmicky strategies and funky lineups. It’s a long shot, but I think I would be more surprised to see them get swept than I would to see them win.
This Boston team is not the juggernaut that many Sixers fans think they are. They have proven over and over again that they are vulnerable. They just had four consecutive wire-to-wire games against the Atlanta freaking Hawks. They have a ton of bad habits, blow a ton of games, and have no idea who their best five-man lineup is. If there’s been one thing that’s consistent about this Sixers team all year, it’s that they’ve been a huge pain in the ass for other teams to put away. They fight and fight unlike many Sixers teams of the past. I certainly would not pick them to win the series, but I think there is just enough reason to think that the Sixers can hang around.
The big picture
Let’s talk about the big picture ramifications of this Embiid injury.
There is no other way to say it other than that this completely fucking sucks. It’s unfathomable that Embiid has somehow once again put together a mostly healthy regular season only to get injured in the first round of the playoffs. By the looks of it, this is his worst playoff injury yet – he missed only one game in the 2021 playoffs, and two games last season. I’d be shocked if he only misses two games this year.
There aren’t a lot of lessons or even logical takeaways to be had here; it’s not like Embiid’s string of injuries can be analyzed and learned from to be avoided in the future. It’s not like they were the result of overuse or exhaustion – Embiid was 100 percent healthy heading into the playoffs for each of the past three years, and simply suffered fluke injuries in the first round.
The upsetting reality is that, while most of us agree that Embiid’s skill set / talent is good enough to lead a team to a championship, he will never earn the respect of the public until he actually does it. He will always have the “great player, but…” label attached to him until he has that deep playoff run.
There is still plenty of time for Embiid; he’ll only be 30 next year, and is still firmly in his prime. Dirk didn’t win his first championship until 32. Olajuwon didn’t win his first title until 31. There is no juggernaut, present or future, looming in the Eastern Conference – in fact, this is the third consecutive year that the playoff bracket has broken out quite nicely for the Sixers. If the Sixers keep this roster together and he can avoid fluke injuries in any of the next 2-3 years, he will have his chance at a deep playoff run.
But the weight of the disappointment just keeps becoming more and more crushing. This was the best season he’s ever had, for the best team he’s ever had. He would’ve had the opportunity to slay his past demons by beating Boston, and would’ve had an underwhelming Conference Finals opponent had he gotten by them. This was a storybook-type path for Embiid to ascend into the level of respect that only the true greats have gotten.
But it wasn’t to be. Perhaps there is still a miracle waiting for him – perhaps his teammates heroically get past Boston and we get to see a nearly-full strength Embiid rejoin the team in the Conference Finals and NBA Finals. If that happens, it would be one of the most memorable championship runs in Philadelphia sports history. But unfortunately, the more likely scenario is that we once again are left with a crushing and anti-climactic ending to another season that inspired lots of hope. It appears that this may be another season of “what-ifs” – and it is absolutely crushing to watch such a great player’s career turn into one giant “what-if.”