The 76ers find themselves in a tough spot in regards to Joel Embiid.
The team would love to rest the All-Star center, who is dealing with back tightness among other minor ailments. However, the Sixers are in the midst of a grueling 12-game stretch and their success depends mostly on him.
If they don’t play him, the fourth-place Sixers are in danger of slipping into fifth place in the Eastern Conference during the demanding stretch. If they are unable to overcome that, they could be denied home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoff in April.
But if they do play Embiid, there’s a chance he gets banged up even more. The result could be the franchise player not being close to 100 percent healthy toward the end of the season and into the playoffs.
So the Sixers' medical staff and the ownership must decide what’s most important. It’s common knowledge that, left up to him, Embiid will opt to play no matter what. Something about missing his first two seasons and 51 games in his third season has him in a play-at-any-cost mode. He hates not being out there helping his teammates.
That’s why he shrugged off his ailing back in the team’s last two contests versus Oklahoma City Thunder and at the Indiana Pacers.
He said his back felt “pretty tight” after finishing with 31 points, eighth rebounds and six assists in Saturday’s 117-115 loss to the Thunder at the Wells Fargo Center.
“I have to keep getting treatment on it,” Embiid said, “and it’s going to get better.”
Playing 33 minutes, 40 seconds, he looked more comfortable as the game went along after initially lacking mobility. Embiid had a heating pad on his back whenever he went to the bench.
Despite the injury, he was two assists away from posting his second triple-double of the season in the 120-96 victory in Indianapolis on Thursday. Embiid had 22 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, and three blocks in the third straight nationally televised game.
It was obvious he was in pain. The All-Star center moved gingerly on the court, especially in the first half, and used a foam roller and rested on his back on the baseline the first two times he exited the game. Afterward, Embiid utilized the heating pad when he went to the bench.
Playing Embiid Thursday led to Sixers being ripped by one of the franchise’s all-time greats.
“Let me just say this about the Philadelphia 76ers, they got to be the stupidest organization in the history of sports,” Hall of Famer-turned- analyst Charles Barkley said on Inside The NBA at halftime of Thursday’s game. "They got a franchise player who’s had a bad back and is injury-prone. He can barely walk and you got him out there playing a regular-season game.
“You have to be the stupidest organization.”
Embiid said after the game that he didn’t want to let his teammates down or surrender home-court advantage. As a result, the 24-year-old said he had to play to give his team the best chance to win.
It’s hard to argue his rationale, considering his impact on the team.
The Sixers are 1-2 in games Embiid has missed this season. They defeated the Detroit Pistons, 117-111, on Dec. 7, thanks to a 38-point outburst by Jimmy Butler. Then the Sixers suffered a 129-95 setback to the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 30. And, on Jan. 11, the struggling Atlanta Hawks escaped with a 123-121 victory.
To put his impact into context, consider what happened in the two games following the Sixers' 34-point setback to the Blazers without him. Embiid averaged 35 points, 18.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks as they won road games against the Los Angeles Clippers (Jan. 1) and Phoenix Suns (Jan. 2) by an average of 5.5 points.
A league MVP candidate, Embiid ranked in the top seven in the NBA in scoring (27.0 points per game, seventh), rebounds (13.2, fourth), and blocked shots (2.00, tied for fifth) after Saturday’s game.
The Sixers may decide that resting Embiid is best for this season’s end result. It’s better to have him healthy for the playoffs than win a couple of more games in the regular season. But the Sixers have to be careful about resting him in their next 10 games. Those games could go a long way to deciding the top four seeds and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The fifth-place Boston Celtics are playing improved ball. The teams could trade spots -- fourth and fifth place -- with a few Sixers losses combined with Boston victories. The Celtics, who were 27-18 as of Friday, have underachieved through their first 45 games. They have enough talent to contend with the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors for the Top 2 spots.
Should the Sixers get by the first round, it would also be tough for them to advance by winning a playoff series against the Bucks, Raptors or Celtics without home-court advantage. Their best bet would be to face the Pacers in that scenario. The Sixers have won two of three games against the Pacers this season, with both wins coming in Indiana. The fourth and final game of the season series will be March 30 at the Wells Fargo Center. They are a half-game behind the Pacers for third place after Saturday’s loss.
So without home-court advantage, the Sixers have a great chance of getting knocked out in the first round unless they do something major at the trade deadline or in the buyout market. Right now, they are not deep enough to go far in the playoffs.