Joel Embiid is the last person anybody should trust to make a conscientious decision about his health. That’s true of most athletes, at least when it comes to choosing between the short term and the long term. They’ve spent a lifetime conditioning themselves to believe that the next game up is the only one that matters. The court, the field, the diamond, the rink — it’s where an athlete feels most alive. The NBA season offers 82 chances to live.
So, yes, Embiid wants to play without any restrictions. But what Embiid wants is irrelevant. What matters is what the Sixers need. And they need Embiid healthy, and available, for as many games as possible. Can they survive without him? Sure. Make the playoffs? Perhaps. With him, though, there is very little doubt that they can be the team that so many envision, the team that Vegas pegged at 42.5 wins, the team that was quivering with anticipation on Tuesday afternoon during its final practice before hitting the road for Washington and Wednesday’s start of the 2017-18 season.
“You can feel the atmosphere around here,” Robert Covington said. “It’s a lot different from previous years.”
They are a maddening team to project, these Sixers. Really, they are two different teams. The first one features a rim protector listed at 7-foot, 250 pounds with cotton-soft hands who averaged more points per 36 minutes last season than any rookie since Wilt Chamberlain. The second one doesn’t.
Anybody who offers a concrete prediction on the Sixers’ win total this season is essentially claiming medical knowledge superior to that of the fleet of medical professionals who have surrounded Embiid throughout his back injury, his foot surgeries, his meniscus tear. Because, really, even they don’t know what to expect. Nobody does, which is why the Sixers are acting the way they are: They understand how pivotal a player Embiid is, and they understand that he comes packaged in a body that is an extreme outlier with regard to the general population, such that the thing that gives him such dominant potential is also the thing that burdens him with such a unique level of risk.
Look back at what brought us to this discussion, Jan. 20 of last season, midway through the third quarter against the Trail Blazers. Embiid was approaching his 20th minute of action when he limped off the court at the Wells Fargo Center. (He would return briefly in the fourth quarter and finish with 22 minutes.) Granted, that’s more action than the Sixers seem to be expecting out of him on Wednesday, with Brett Brown’s estimate sitting somewhere in the teens. Yet the play itself would have unfolded in the first quarter the same as it did in the third: while dunking the ball, the momentum from his drive carried him too far under the rim, which caused his lower half to land in front of his upper half, which caused his feet to slip out from under him, which dropped him to the floor. Somewhere in that sequence of events, he injured his left knee.
Really, the critical moments came before liftoff, when Embiid beat Mason Plumlee with his first step at the top of the key and took three power strides down the lane before going up for the one-handed dunk. When that sort of body with that sort of mass goes into that sort of motion, there are a lot of Newtonian principles in play. The only way to prevent Embiid from injuring himself on that sort of play is to stick him on the low block and tell him not to move more than five feet in any direction. In other words, tell him not to be Embiid. Which brings us right back to where we started.
The only thing the Sixers fully control is the amount of second-guessing they’ll have to do if Embiid does go down. They are currently engaging in a time-honored ritual of our risk-averse species: the elimination of as much doubt as possible. It’s a sensible thing to do, especially when you consider the money they are now responsible for paying Embiid over the next five years. If they choose the most conservative iteration of every variable, they’ll at least know that there was nothing more they could have done, and they’ll at least be able to incorporate that knowledge the next time around.
As for this time around, it sounds as if you should expect the question about Embiid’s playing time to be a daily thing, same as it was throughout the early going last year. In many ways, it will be Brown’s load to bear. On Tuesday, the head coach was talking through the dilemma he’ll face in rationing his young star’s minutes.
“I learned a lot last year, where you think it’s smart to save four minutes for the end of game with him, but the canyons in between where he just sits there and sits there, and then he’s going to come in and save the day?” Brown said, “I don’t know if I like that … ”
But, then, a perfect solution does not exist. Brown likes to say that the NBA season unfolds in thirds. The Sixers have no shortage of plot lines for the first third of their schedule. But Embiid remains the biggest.