The Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid’s bill of health continue to display one of the most frustrating, and sometimes confusing, battles for the elite center’s on-court services.
On one hand, you have the Sixers, who are seemingly in dire need of Embiid on the court if they want to win any game at all. On the other hand, you have Embiid’s health; just as things are beginning to look up, some ailment flares up on the big man and he’s sidelined until further notice.
This time, with Embiid sitting two straight games due to back tightness and “load management” directly following 49 minutes on the court in a triple-overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia essentially gifted this round to Embiid’s health in their ongoing battle.
After playing 49 minutes on Dec. 15, Embiid missing Monday’s game in Chicago was expected. It was the first leg of a back-to-back contest, and the team generally likes to save Embiid for the home stint of those scenarios. The next night, however, at home against the Sacramento Kings, Embiid was a late scratch and sat out.
The Sixers lost both games, blowing a nine-point lead to the Bulls and a 16-point lead to the Kings. Both opponents who are among the league’s worst.
Here’s where it gets worse for Philadelphia, and why they can’t afford to mismanage Embiid at any other instance moving forward this season. On Wednesday morning, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Embiid could miss the Sixers’ next two games, and is hoping to return for the Christmas Day matchup against the New York Knicks.
So far this season, the Sixers are 1-6 when Embiid misses games. Their defense becomes porous, while their offense is a shell of itself if their shooters are having an off night. It doesn’t take an evolved basketball mind to see the impact Embiid has for Philadelphia when he’s on the court.
For that reason alone, it makes the Sixers’ reasoning for holding Embiid out of back-to-backs and particularly designated contests throughout the regular season tolerable. If the team’s goal is to make the playoffs, and more importantly win in the playoffs, they’ll need their franchise center to be on the court. Sacrificing a game here or there isn’t much of an issue in that regard.
Equally, when Embiid is on the court, the Sixers want to make the most out of it and get a win when they can. That’s what made the overtime loss to the Thunder a Catch-22. The Sixers were in the game, after a furious comeback that saw them end regulation on an 11-0 run, which was directly on the back of Embiid’s efforts. Subsequently, on national television and with a sold-out home crowd, the Sixers stuck with their big man (for better or for worse) and rode him until the game’s final buzzer.
After years of perpetual losing, blaming the Sixers for actually chasing a win would be a bit hypocritical. But if their goal is to have Embiid ready for the playoffs, they first have to actually get there. Until (if ever) Markelle Fultz returns, Embiid represents the Sixers’ only threat as a one-on-one scorer from multiple levels of the court. By keeping him in for 49 minutes, with his back clearly an on-the-record issue, the Sixers didn’t just lose one game: They lost three, with the potential of losing two more before Christmas.
There’s no guarantee that with Embiid in either of those games the Sixers would’ve held on to their respective leads, but it isn’t likely they would’ve settled for three-point attempts and given up shots at the rim nearly as frequently with their center on the court.
Because Embiid has been such a precautionary tale when it comes to injuries, the way the Sixers go about handling him will always be criticized to some degree. What the organization needs to avoid, though, is making the mess bigger than it needs to be. The team has a history of resting Embiid where they see fit, only to bring him back for a nationally televised game and then place him on the shelf once again afterward. Go back to his last game played in his rookie season: Embiid sat out three games with a knee injury leading up to the Jan. 27 contest against the Houston Rockets, aired on ESPN, and then following that performance the Sixers held him out for the remainder of the season.
Keeping the kid gloves on with Embiid is a defensible approach when executed properly. The bigger picture is preached and logic sets in. But mismanaging one game that can potentially lead to the Sixers being without Embiid’s services for the following four games is a mistake that cannot be glossed over. One step further, saving him purely for national spotlight in the midst of a losing streak is even worse.
Suggesting that a team rest their best player during crunch time of a close game is a tough ask, but when the narrative for Embiid has always been “long-term plan,” the idea that one game in December suddenly becomes a must-win is irrational. Four games in December, and mounting losing streak to boot, however, is no easy pill to swallow.
On the court, Embiid is invaluable to the Sixers and their process. At the moment, he doesn’t appear to be a player that you can throw out there every night from start to finish. And that’s okay. In order for Philadelphia to realize their full potential this season, they need to avoid botching how they handle their franchise player the way they did against the Thunder.
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