Joel Embiid has had a relatively healthy season. Given his history of knee and foot problems, Embiid has been able to stay away from trouble this season. Well, that was the case until Wednesday night.
Embiid collided with teammate Markelle Fultz while going for the looseball during the second quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers game against the New York Knicks. Fultz’s recently healed shoulder crashed into Embiid’s face and the big man immediately went down and remained on the floor for quite some time.
Joel Embiid is out for the game with a facial bruise after colliding with Markelle Fultz on this play. pic.twitter.com/UzAfiuygig— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 29, 2018
One day later, the Sixers announced that their main man would be out indefinitely with an orbital bone fracture and a concussion. Given that the playoffs begin two weeks from now,, Embiid’s injury raises several questions at the back of every NBA fan’s mind.
We’ll take a look at those questions and break down the effects of Embiid’s injury to the Sixers’ current play, their playoff run and their future.
The Playoff Picture
ESPN still says that the Sixers will beat the Cavaliers for the third spot in the Eastern Conference. Likewise, Basketball Reference also picks the Sixers to finish behind the Raptors and the Celtics in the East. According to the latter, the Strength of the Sixers’ Remaining Schedule is the weakest in the East at -2.19 which means they have the easiest remaining schedule among all Eastern Conference teams.
Philadelphia has eight games left to play in the regular season and half of them are going to be played on their home court. Six of those games are against teams which are out of the playoff contention, including two against the Eastern Conference cellar dwellers Atlanta Hawks. The Sixers playoff bound opponents are the Cleveland Cavaliers ( April 6th ) and the Milwaukee Bucks ( April 11th ). Both of these games are on the Sixers home floor.
The game against the Cavs is probably the most crucial game in the Sixers’ remaining schedule. Cleveland is currently just half a game ahead of the Sixers in the standings at 45-30 against 44-30 ( As of March 29th ) and there is a possibility that both could end up with the same win-loss record.
To have a shot at beating the Cavs in a tie, the Sixers must beat them on April 6th because right now, Cleveland leads the season series 2 games to 1. Likewise, a win over the Cavs on April 6th could break a tie between both teams and put the Sixers ahead of them in the standings. A win over Cleveland almost ensures that the Sixers finish third in the East.
Who Will The Sixers Face?
There would be a big difference between finishing third or fourth, assuming the Top two seeds don’t change. If the Sixers finish fourth, they will most likely play the #1 seeded Toronto Raptors in the second round. If they finish third they will most probably play the #2 Boston Celtics in round two.
The Raptors are playing at full strength and are their stars are healthy right now. Boston meanwhile expects Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart to be back in the middle of the first round of the playoffs, that is if their recovery goes 100%. So between a healthy Raptors team and a Celtics team that will have just gotten Irving and Smart back ( or still playing without one or both ), then it would be better to face the Celtics.
If there’s any consolation of sorts for the Sixers, it is that whether they finish three or four in the East, they will not play the Cleveland Cavaliers until the Conference Finals. That should be good news, especially for Dario Saric who doesn’t want to play against LeBron James. Given how good the King is playing this season, I mean who would want to play his Cavs early in the playoffs, especially now that Kevin Love is back and hitting his shots?
Of course, there is also the worst case scenario. The Sixers could struggle without Embiid and they fall outside the Top 4. That would be a disaster but it’s not impossible too. The Sixers are just 4.5 games ahead of the 8th seeded Milwaukee Bucks so there is still a mathematical probability that the Sixers could go down to as low as #8. However, even if they lose all their remaining games, the Sixers have already booked themselves a playoff spot. And that’s already a big achievement for this young team.
Playing Without Embiid
Going to the playoffs is already a given. Now it’s a matter of positioning for the Sixers. The goal was supposed to win 50 games and finish third in the East. But now that goal has been threatened by Embiid’s injury. So now, the Sixers’ fate will depend on how they will play without their big man.
The Sixers are a very different team without Joel Embiid. With Embiid on the court, the Sixers’ offensive rating is 111.4 points per 100 possessions. Without him, that number drops significantly to 101.8 per 100 possessions. Defensively, the Sixers allow just 99.7 points per 100 possessions with Embiid manning the middle but they give up 105.7 points per 100 possessions without him.
Now do the math. The Sixers go from a +11.7 in net rating with Embiid playing all the way down to a -3.9 without him. A 15 point swing without just one man is too much for any team, much more for a young and inexperienced team like the Sixers.
However, the addition of veterans like Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova via the buyout market has given the Sixers’ line-up more depth and allows them to play without a traditional center on the court. Saric or Ilyasova can play the five if the Sixers don’t play a big team. Despite that though, both players don’t provide the same kind of rim protection that Embiid does. So while it’s going to work in some games, it’s definitely not a daily fix that’s going to sustain a playoff run. For the Sixers to go deep in the playoffs or even win a series, they need Embiid back.
When Will He Be Back?
According to a medical update by the Sixers, a CT scan revealed that Embiid suffered an orbital fracture of his left eye which needs surgery in the next couple of days. Likewise, although he passed the locker room concussion assessment tool, Embiid was placed in the NBA’s concussion protocol after experiencing symptoms after being cleared.
The Sixers have not set a timetable for Embiid’s return, calling him ‘out indefinitely. However, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported that pending the result of the surgery, Embiid could be out for two to four weeks. The NBA playoffs begin on April 14th so if Lowe is to be believed, Embiid could be back as early as the start of the playoffs or at most in the middle part of the first round.
Lowe’s report agrees with a past article from instreetclothes.com which talked about facial injuries and orbital fractures in the NBA. Written by Jeff Stotts in 2015, the article estimates the time frame of a return from an orbital fracture to be three to four weeks or and average of 13.6 games.
Stotts’ article noted that there were instances when a player missed just 5 games or less after orbital fracture surgery but in majority of the cases, the player missed more than 5 games with four of those payers missing 10 games or more.
Impact on The Sixers
It’s not the end of the world for the Sixers. Embiid’s injury is both good and bad for the Sixers. In the short term, the timing of Embiid’s injury couldn’t have come any worse. Not only have the Sixers made the playoffs for the first time since 2012, they were winners of seven straight games ( now 8 as of March 29th ) when the injury happened. So If Embiid didn’t get hurt, the Sixers were in a good rhythm and peaking just in time for the start of the playoffs.
The good news is that it’s not the kind of injury that has hounded Embiid in the past and which cost him his rookie season and many more games. Like we said earlier, the timing is bad but the Sixers are in no danger of missing the playoffs. Also, getting to the playoffs was their main goal before the start of the season. Surpassing that has been a bonus and we all know that this success is only the beginning.
The Sixers have recently gotten Markelle Fultz back from a long absence due to injury to his shoulder ( and injury to his shot ? ). If Fultz returns to his old form and Embiid plus Simmons stay healthy next season, we know that the Sixers are going to be one of the favorites in the Eastern Conference. Who knows, LeBron might complete the process there. So given what the future holds, there’s plenty to look forward to next season.
The fans have trusted the process and the wait has been worth every minute so far. The Sixers have established the foundation. All that needs to be done is to keep the team together, keep them growing and keep them healthy.
Embiid has proven himself to be an All-Star and perhaps one of the Top 5 centers in the NBA. Ben Simmons is likely going to be named Rookie of the Year and will be an All-Star too in no time. Markelle Fultz is now healthy and hopefully, he will live up to the expectations. Dario Saric’s shooting and Robert Covington’s defense have improved vastly. The program ( or the Process ) has nowhere to go but up.
It’s not the end of the world for the Sixers. It’s not even the supposed injury curse on the franchise. It’s just a minor setback for this up and coming team and it just so happened that it came at the wrong time. But if the Sixers and their fans were able to wait all those years trusting the process, what’s four weeks compared to that?
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