NBA

Philadelphia’s future depends on Embiids’ health

May 23, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid before game one in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs against the Washington Wizards at Wells Fargo Center.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

49%. Can you guess how that number relates to Embiid? No, it’s not his FG%. Win percentage? Nope. It’s the percent of games he’s appeared in for Philadelphia since being drafted in 2014. He’s played in less than half of Philadelphia’s games! Embiid has been and will always be the centerpiece of this Philadelphia core. Because of that, Philadelphia’s future depends on Embiids’ health.

Where it All Began

Nov 8, 2013; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks center Joel Embiid (21) walks to the near end of the court during the second half of the game against the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas won 80 - 63.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid began his basketball career playing for the University of Kansas. He was a highly recruited prospect and figured to be a top draft pick in the 2014 NBA draft. He played only 23 minutes a game, an attempt to keep him healthy. Due to a back injury late in the season, he only appeared in 28 of a potential 35 games. The injury concerns surrounding Embiid caused him to drop to number 3 overall in the NBA draft, selected by the 76ers.

76ers fans would have to wait quite a while for his debut. He missed all of his first two seasons with back-to-back surgeries to repair foot injuries. When he finally did make his debut, it all seemed worth it. He averaged 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game in his “rookie” season. Unfortunately, after playing 31 games that season, he got injured again. He had to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery and wouldn’t return until the next season.

The excitement surrounding Embiid was there. He had a fantastic rookie year and looked like a future superstar. Injuries were the only worry. The problem with that is injuries were a big worry. For Embiids’ early years in the league, the 76ers were in the midst of the process. This means they were playing horribly on a nightly basis in an attempt to stockpile high draft picks. But that era was clearly coming to an end. With the impending return of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid for the 2017-18 season, hopes were high in Philadelphia. But it was already clear that Philadelphia’s future depends on Embiids’ health.

The Playoff Years

May 29, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) celebrates with 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) against the Washington Wizards in the third quarter during game three in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Capital One Arena.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in his career, Embiid was able to play over half of Philadelphia’s games in the 2016-17 season. With Ben Simmons’ great performance throughout his “rookie” year, Pair and the 76ers made their first playoffs in 5 seasons. This was an exciting time for 76ers fans. They had a team in the playoffs, but that team was also young and could compete for years.

The 76ers future looked set. With Ben Simmons and Embiid, they had a young core to build around for years to come. But heading into the playoffs, the team’s worst fear struck again. Embiid was once again injured, and for the first time, it could affect their playoff run. Seeing your star player injured in the playoffs is always a moment of reckoning for an organization. For the 76ers, it was even more than that; this didn’t feel like a one-time thing. There was a genuine worry that Embiids’ health would continue to be a problem throughout his career and could affect multiple playoff runs.

Luckily, his injury didn’t affect their playoff run too much. He missed the first two games against the Heat but quickly made his return and helped his team make the 2nd round in 5 games. The Boston Celtics beat them in the second round, but the team flashed their potential on this playoff run. The Simmons-Embiid duo was clearly a force to be reckoned with.

The next year the organization made some big moves to become contenders in the east. They added Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler, immediately vaulting themselves into the title race. Despite assembling an amazing roster, this 76ers team wasn’t able to get over the hump.

Embiid was once again dealing with injuries throughout the playoffs. He missed game 3 of their first-round series against the Nets and had to play low minutes in many games. He averaged only 20 points a game throughout this playoff run, well below his 27 points a game during the regular season that year. The 76ers ended up losing in 7 to the Raptors (more on that in one second), probably as a result of Embiid just not being himself.

Despite Embiid struggling, they took the Raptors (eventual champions) 7 games, and it came down to one of the most miraculous shots in NBA history for them to lose. This year was the 76ers best chance to date, so Embiid being hobbled all playoffs was terrible for them. It demonstrated very clearly that Philadelphia’s future depends on Embiids’ health.

The next season was an extremely down year for Philadelphia. Their roster had numerous glaring flaws, and they dealt with various chemistry issues throughout the year. In a spell of bad luck, this was the only year to date when Embiid played every playoff game for Philadelphia. Of course, it’s amazing that he was healthy. The bad luck part is this being their worst playoff year to date. The Celtics swept them 4-0 in the first round, but Embiid was healthy and dominant. He averaged 30 points, 12 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game in the playoffs. Ironically enough, the East was also wide open this year. If Philadelphia had been a better team, they could’ve easily made a run to the Finals.

The Present

May 26, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after scoring against the Washington Wizards during the third quarter of game two in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

That brings us to the present. Philadelphia was the one seed in the east this year and is playing the Wizards in the first round. The hiring of Doc Rivers and Daryl Morey has this team looking much better. They surrounded Embiid and Simmons with more shooters to unlock their games. They are in arguably their best position to make a Finals run in the Embiid era. But of course, Embiid had to miss game 4 with an injury.

Embiid left in the middle of game 4 against the Wizards. The 76ers were about to put the finishing touches on a sweep, but they lost Embiid and the game. Now with Embiid expected to miss game 5, his future for this playoffs is much more uncertain. This time he’s dealing with “knee soreness” and is set to receive an MRI soon. It’s impossible to know right now if this will be a big deal or not. But we only need to look back to the 76ers playoff run in 2019 to get a reminder of how this could go. The 76ers are on the brink of another promising year going to the wayside because of Embiids’ health.

It should be stressed that none of this is Embiids’ fault. Nobody can help being injury-prone. It’s just an unlucky situation for Philadelphia to have their star constantly dealing with injuries. Who knows, this knee soreness could also turn out to be nothing, and the 76ers are still able to make a deep playoff run.

Going Forward

May 23, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts in front of Washington Wizards center Robin Lopez (15) after a score and one during the second quarter of game one in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Wells Fargo Center.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

If it is serious, though, and they can’t make a Finals run, as a result, it’s just the latest promising season lost due to injury for the 76ers. Trying to build a championship team is extremely hard. Then you have to get lucky and be in the right window. The Houston Rockets built an amazing team a few years ago; unfortunately, it came at the wrong time. Championship teams are so hard to build, and championship windows are even harder to find.

The 76ers don’t just have to worry about building a team and finding a window; they have to hope all that lines up with a healthy season for Embiid. So far, they’ve had one season in which Embiid was healthy for the whole playoffs. That was also the worst out of their recent playoff seasons. 2019 might’ve been their best shot at a title. If they had a healthy Embiid and beat the Raptors, I think they could’ve won the title that year.

All that considered, the 76ers really have one option. They have to do their best to keep building championship-caliber teams. After that, it comes down to hoping everything breaks right. That could happen this year, or it may never happen. As of right now, they need to hope that Embiid is healthy and they can make a run this year.

The whole organization is holding its breath right now, hoping he’ll be OK. This isn’t the first time they’ve been in this situation, and it won’t be the last. This is what Philly will be going forward. Philadelphia’s future depends on Embiids’ health, and as long as he’s their best player, it always will.

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