The 76ers invited media members to lunch in Center City on Wednesday, and there were certain topics that general manager Bryan Colangelo and coach Brett Brown were happy to discuss in detail and at length. There was Brown’s optimism about the coming season, given the measure of talent at his disposal. There were Ben Simmons’ clandestine workouts at the Sixers’ practice facility in Camden, where, according to Colangelo, he is “dominating the gym,” which is hardly surprising, given the gym’s lack of foot speed. There was the professionalism that J.J. Redick will bring, the Labrador-puppy enthusiasm of T.J. McConnell, a level of competitiveness that, both Colangelo and Brown insisted, they had never seen before among a collection of teammates.
When it came to Joel Embiid’s immediate and long-term future, though, the entrée was word salad, and the Sixers served enough to feed an army. They had six months — from March, when Embiid underwent knee surgery after suffering a bone bruise and a torn meniscus, until Wednesday — to craft and refine a clear-cut explanation for and accounting of Embiid’s health. They couldn’t do it. In the most memorable turn-of-phrase of the afternoon, Colangelo said the Sixers and their medical experts had Embiid “on a path that is a conservative path that, hopefully, will put him in a planned progression, if you will, to have sustainable, on-court success.” And yes, ma’am, I’d like the vinaigrette on the side with my euphemistic gobbledygook.
It’s difficult to appreciate how evasive Colangelo and Brown actually were about Embiid without setting the scene and describing how the event unfolded, so let’s do that. Once both men dispensed with opening statements welcoming everyone, the first question Brown was asked was basic: Where do things stand with Embiid? The first thing that Brown said, interestingly enough, was that once the season begins, he “will be avoiding this. It’s more not my responsibility to talk a lot about the detail or health of the players.” He lauded the franchise for its recent hire of Dr. Daniel Medina Leal as its vice president of athlete care, and he said he would be sitting down soon with Medina Leal to “get a roadmap” for Embiid.
“We just left the gym with him running around and getting shots,” Brown said of Embiid. “To be able to tell you specifically what I’m expecting to be able to get out of his next week, I’m not able to do that now.”
When will Embiid play 5-on-5?
“Soon, we will know,” Brown said.
After the entire off-season, you still don’t know?
“He has yet to play 5-on-5,” Brown said. “He has been under the care of our medical staff and strength and conditioning people. His cardio looks good. It looks like he’s getting in better shape. … But in regards to playing 5-on-5 basketball, we can’t give you a direct answer.”
Someone asked about the preseason and whether Embiid might suit up for the first, or any, of those games.
“Do you mind if I answer?” Colangelo said. He, too, immediately praised the hiring of Medina Leal, then referenced Embiid’s “hyper-conservative progression toward returning to basketball. … He probably needs to get in better 5-on-5 condition, if you will — what we call ‘full basketball activity.’ But at this stage, he’s not there. Will he be ramping that up throughout the preseason? Yes. How many games, we’re not certain. Is it every game? We don’t know.”
Had Embiid suffered any setbacks in his rehabilitation? Colangelo and Brown didn’t say he had, and they didn’t say he hadn’t. “The thing that you should probably hear the loudest,” Brown said, “is he is so invested in the notion that this part of his health is very parallel to his future and his ability to play at a level.” Of course, it was tough to hear anything above the din of obfuscation.
“I’ll just add the last thing on Joel’s health,” Colangelo said — in the only moment, during a 90-minute lunch, that he attempted to end the discussion of or stop questions about a particular topic. “It really is about creating an opportunity for him to have long-term sustainable health, not to get ready for the first preseason game per se or the second preseason game. Again, that progression is going to lead, hopefully, to a full season of competitive basketball without restriction. That’s the goal. That’s where we’re trying to get him. If that’s the path that’s directed, that’s what we’ll follow.”
With that, someone asked about Simmons, and 45 minutes passed without mention of Embiid. Finally, someone asked a pointed question of Colangelo: Shouldn’t Embiid have been cleared to play by now?
“It’s not about being ready for the first practice or the first game,” Colangelo said. “And he will be out there on the first practice and the first game. The question is how much, how little, if at all.”
In the span of those final two sentences, Colangelo pulled off the neat trick of completely contradicting himself. He will be out there. The question is if he’ll be out there at all.
What can Embiid do on the court now?
“Multi-drill scenarios,” Colangelo said.
What would he have to do to show you that he’s ready to play 5-on-5 or appear in a game?
“I actually have a document that spells out all those criteria,” Colangelo said, “and it’s too much to bore you with.”
The Sixers begin training camp Tuesday. They begin their preseason schedule in less than two weeks, on Oct. 4. Just a guess here, but their fans would have been happy with some boredom in exchange for more clarity. There is as much fogginess about when Embiid will play again as there was last season, when the Sixers’ public statements about his knee had the effect of stringing everyone along with the unfulfilled hope that he might return to the lineup at any moment. There is as much reason for skepticism about anything they tell us about any player’s injury or injuries, Embiid’s most of all. There are as many questions now as, if not more than, there were then, and one overrides the rest:
So, Philadelphia, are you ready to Trust The Planned Progression To Have Sustainable, On-Court Success?