Just thinking out loud here …
I’m not ready to buy what the Sixers are selling about Joel Embiid. At least, not what they are trying to sell. I’m not saying they are milking the benefits of the uncertainty of his situation for all they are worth. I’m saying that they would be silly not to try. If, that is, the uncertainty really exists.
What I’m trying to say is that you’d have to give me significant odds in my favor for me to bet you that the Sixers’ big man will not be in the lineup when they take the court for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Heat on Saturday.
But let’s try to make this a little less convoluted. Let’s start from the beginning.
After Embiid underwent surgery to repair an orbital bone fracture on March 31, the Sixers estimated his recovery at two to four weeks. That’s the only word they’ve offered on the situation, official or unofficial. At each of Brett Brown’s media availabilities, he is asked at least once for an update on Embiid. Each time, he says the same exact thing: We’ll just have to see. When asked if they have a timetable in mind, he says they really don’t.
Which, of course, is malarkey. Even if it is true in a legalistic sense, you have to stretch the bounds of credulity awful thin to think that the man whose job most depends on Embiid’s presence in the lineup has not engaged daily in the same sort of guesswork that currently consumes the rest of the Philadelphia region.
“Hey Doc, what are the odds that I have Joel for my first playoff series as an NBA head coach?”
“We’ll just have to see, Coach.”
“Cool. When he’s ready, holler at your boy.”
That’s not to say that the Sixers are engaged in some grand conspiracy. I don’t think that, behind closed doors, Embiid is taking off his mask and entertaining teammates by breaking two-by-fours across his face. It’s a serious injury, and there could be serious complications if he catches an errant elbow, and maybe the Sixers know that they are serious enough to preclude any thought of his playing.
But one thing we can say for sure is that it behooves them to make Miami think that it could go either way. Such gamesmanship might seem overboard if the player in question was anybody but Embiid or Ben Simmons. But the Sixers with Embiid and without him are two entirely different teams. They play at different paces, and lean on different sets, and rotate different personnel. Most significant, they play defense with entirely separate identities. Forcing the Heat to prepare for the possibility of Embiid and the possibility of not-Embiid is essentially doubling the opposing coaching staff’s work.
Again, I’m not saying it is a significant improbability that everyone’s professions of ignorance spring from a genuine well. But given this organization’s track record of messaging on injury prognoses, everybody in the building seems suspiciously on the same page. Included among them is Embiid himself. We have seen situations before in which he wanted to play against the medical staff’s wishes. In those situations, his rhetoric has generally been a bit more activist than it was Wednesday.
“Well, I think everybody knows me, and they know I love playing,” he said before the Sixers’ thumping of the Bucks in their regular-season finale. “And if it was my decision, I would probably play. But, actually, I wouldn’t say that, because I don’t think I am ready to play, because it still doesn’t feel all the way right.”
One thing to consider if Embiid and/or the medical staff are on the fence about his availability for the start of the series: What if the Sixers lose Game 1, and Hassan Whiteside goes off? Would that impact the decision about Embiid’s availability for Game 2? And, if it would, then what difference does it make if he is there for Game 1?
To be clear, this whole exercise is not one of idle speculation. It’s virtually impossible to preview this series accurately without some idea of whether it will include Embiid. On the one hand, the Sixers beat Miami, 104-102, without Embiid on Feb. 14. That was before Ersan Ilyasova joined the team, and before Markelle Fultz returned, and the game could have been a lot more lopsided if Miami had not outshot the Sixers, 40.7 percent to 25.7, from three-point range.
On the flip side, the Heat have won the last two games they’ve played, including a 108-99 win in Miami early last month when Embiid played just 28 minutes because of foul trouble. (He has finished with five fouls in all three games he has played against Miami this season.)
Embiid or not Embiid? That really is the question. I’m not saying he definitely is going to be there for Game 1. But I’m definitely not saying he isn’t.