Joel Embiid could — COULD — be back for the end of the regular season and the playoffs, and that would change the postseason dynamic in the East.
Embiid underwent surgery on his torn left lateral meniscus on Tuesday, the 76ers announced, and added crucially that "He will be re-evaluated in approximately four weeks."
That implies he might be able to return for the end of the regular season and the playoffs, if his recovery goes well. Embiid had a displaced flap in that meniscus, if the surgery trimmed that section (removed it), the usual recovery time from that is 4-6 weeks; however if it were repaired (stitched back together), the timeline for a return is much longer. While we don't know what happened in the operating room, the official word from the 76ers implies they trimmed the damaged section.
Embiid had been the frontrunner to repeat as MVP this season — averaging a league-best 35.3 points per game with 11.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.8 blocks a night — but that race is now over as he will not play in the required 65 games to qualify for the award (the time missed would have knocked him out in the minds of voter anyway). He also now will be out for the All-Star Game, where he had been voted a starter.
Embiid status and the likelihood of return could impact the 76ers at the trade deadline: Do they make moves to bring in more shot creation to make a run at a ring this season, or do they keep their powder dry for this summer when they will have max cap space and can make a big splash to remake the roster and challenge next season and beyond? League sources told NBC Sports that the latter has always been more likely, that the 76ers are eyeing big offseason moves, but the results of this surgery could alter that perception.
At 30-19 on the season, the 76ers have slid to fifth in the East and, without Embiid, it's more likely they would slide farther down the standings than climb back up past teams like the red-hot Knicks or the Bucks and their new coach Doc Rivers. That would mean Philly would start the playoffs on the road and have a gauntlet of teams to beat to reach the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond.
With Embiid back, fully healthy, rested and playing like an MVP next to breakout All-Star Tyrese Maxey, that is not out of the question. It would be a steep mountain to climb, but not impossible. But it won't happen without that peak Embiid, and we don't know if we'll see him.
We will know a lot more in a month.