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Three weeks after announcing that Joel Embiid would be sidelined for the rest of the season by a meniscus tear and bone bruise in his left knee, the Philadelphia 76ers announced Wednesday that their sensational rookie center will undergo surgery “in the coming days” to repair the torn meniscus.
ESPN’s Marc Stein first reported Wednesday that Embiid was “very likely” to go under the knife to repair the injury, which he suffered just over two months ago during a game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Sixers beat man Derek Bodner reported on Feb. 11 that Embiid had experienced “a low-grade tear” of his left meniscus that was “not expected to require surgical intervention,” but the 76ers said on March 1 that a follow-up MRI of the knee revealed that while “the area affected by the bone bruise has improved significantly, while the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced,” prompting the team to change Embiid’s designation from “out indefinitely” to “out for the season.”
Player and team “had been exploring treatment options” in the weeks since that change, according to Stein, before finally settling on surgery. The team said Wednesday it will release more details on Embiid’s predicament, including a timetable for his return to action, after the surgery is completed.
The initial Embiid news came on the heels of the 76ers announcing they had shut down 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons for the remainder of what would have been his rookie season due to continued complications in his ongoing recovery from surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot. So, all told, not a great month for Philadelphia and its hoped-for franchise-changing frontcourt talent.
The 76ers selected Embiid with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, but missed the first two seasons of his professional career with foot injuries before finally getting healthy enough to play this season. Even operating under a minutes restriction intended to preserve his body, Embiid was a revelation in the first half of the season, a one-man wrecking crew who almost single-handedly elevated the long-moribund Sixers from the ranks of the NBA’s worst teams to something approaching respectability on the court.
Through 31 games, Embiid averaged 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.1 assists in just 25.4 minutes per game. Extrapolate those numbers over 36 minutes of floor time, and you’re talking about a level of per-minute production only matched in years past by guys like Kareem, Shaq, Ewing, the Admiral and Anthony Davis. Focus on just the scoring and rebounding in players’ rookie seasons, and the list of comparables turns up just two players: Wilt Chamberlain and Walt Bellamy, both Hall of Famers, both of whom entered the league more than 55 years ago.
Through the first half of his first season, Embiid looked every ounce a generational talent. He marries balletic footwork with brute force on the block, featuring an array of pivots, counters and spins that have evoked comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, and that have tortured opponents into sending him to the free-throw line once every 3.2 minutes of floor time, a monster rate). He’s also got a deft enough touch from the perimeter — a 36.7 percent mark from 3-point range on 3.2 attempts per game — to force defenses to respect him 25 feet away from the rim, giving his Sixers teammates more space to operate in the half-court than they’ve seen in years.
The 7-foot-2, 275-pound Embiid pairs that offensive game with defensive skills that already have him profiling as arguably the most effective rim protector in the league this season. The Sixers allowed a microscopic 99.1 points per 100 possessions with Embiid been on the floor — a mark that would make Philly the No. 1 defense in the league over the course of the full season — compared to conceding 108 points-per-100 when he sat, a bottom-10 defensive rating, at the time of his injury.
As much fun as Embiid’s unveiling was, both on and off the court, the good times didn’t last. After a face-up drive and dunk during the third quarter of a Jan. 20 meeting with the Blazers, Embiid went down hard and came up limping:
The injury was initially diagnosed as a left knee contusion. After suffering the bone bruise and missing three games, the Sixers allowed Embiid to take the court for a nationally televised game against the Houston Rockets. He wouldn’t return to the floor after that, despite the team consistently reporting that he’d only miss a game or two at a time.
Three weeks after Embiid sustained the injury, Sixers beat man Derek Bodner reported that Embiid had also suffered a tear in the meniscus in his left knee. Only then did Sixers general manager Bryan Colangelo confirm the tear.
After the Sixers said they expected Embiid to miss their first four post-All-Star-break games, Embiid said he was frustrated by the way the team handled the dissemination of information about his injury, according to The Intelligencer:
“I was told I was going to kind of miss two or three weeks, so I wasn’t happy with the way it was handled,” Embiid said. “I thought keeping my name out there was going to literally have people think about me all the time instead of just saying when I was going to be back. So I’m happy that they did that today and said that I’m out for the next four games.”
During the press conference announcing the end of Simmons’ season, Colangelo acknowledged that he should have said Embiid was out “indefinitely” rather than list him as “day-to-day” after learning of the meniscus tear. After myriad questions had been raised about the Sixers’ recent tendency to make injuries sound like no big deal before suddenly announcing that they were, in fact, big deals — like Jahlil Okafor needing more than six months to recover from a meniscus surgery the team said would put him out for six weeks, and point guard Jerryd Bayless being listed as sidelined by a “sore wrist” for almost two months before being brought back for three games prior to undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a torn ligament, and the shifting sands underneath their assessment of Simmons’ foot injury — Colangelo insisted that the 76ers haven’t been playing fast and loose with the truth when it comes to the health and well-being of their players.
“There was no effort to deceive fans, deceive the media,” he said. “Injuries are unpredictable.”
Including “minor” meniscal tears from which you expected a player would come back four games after the All-Star break, but that turn out to be “more pronounced” than you’d initially feared, prompting season-ending surgery.
Given the Sixers’ predilection toward eyebrow-raising injury decisions, or at least eyebrow-raising communication surrounding said decisions, you can understand why Philly fans would harbor significant anxiety about how the franchise will proceed with Embiid here, as crystallized by Kyle Neubeck of Liberty Ballers:
The Sixers need to evaluate if anyone involved in the process to rehab Jahlil Okafor’s meniscus after surgery last March should have any say in Embiid’s path forward. Okafor is still dealing with problems a year later for what is typically a 6-8 week injury recovery, and we shouldn’t be having the same doubts about Embiid’s knee in August, let alone this time next year.
Philly sits in 13th place in the East, 8 1/2 games out of the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot with 12 games left to play. The Sixers own the NBA’s fifth-worst record at 26-44, two losses ahead of (or behind, depending on your point of view) the Orlando Magic for fourth-worst, and an attendant bump in draft lottery odds. Having already won more games this season than they had at any point during Sam Hinkie’s tenure, there is no compelling reason for the 76ers to continue trying to be good right now … and, in fact, Colangelo’s trade-deadline moves (trading power forward Ersan Ilyasova and center Nerlens Noel for packages unlikely to make a meaningful present-day impact, failing to find a home for long-rumored trade bait big man Okafor, shutting down Simmons) indicate he’s not particularly interested in that either.
The most sensible path for the Sixers right now is, once again, to tank — to burn as few calories as possible on winning, thus improving the odds that their own pick will return a top-three pick in June’s draft. Maybe they’ll get really lucky and bump the Los Angeles Lakers out of the top three, ensuring that L.A.’s first-round pick goes to Philly to satisfy the conditions of the three-way 2015 deal in which Hinkie flipped Michael Carter-Williams to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Bucks sent Brandon Knight to the Phoenix Suns, and the Suns shipped the Lakers’ top-three-protected 2017 No. 1 to Philly. (Rough, rough deal, Bucks and Suns.) Two more top-five picks, plus likely post-Embiid Rookie of the Year Dario Saric, plus hopefully healthy versions of Embiid and Simmons would seem like a pretty solid place to start building something special.
As ever, though, so much about projecting Philly’s future depends upon Embiid actually getting a clean bill of health moving forward. After two years of wondering what he’d actually look like on the court, we got 31 games of evidence suggesting that he can be a league-wrecking two-way force on par with some of the very best big men in recent memory … but we only got 31 games of it, none of them topping 30 minutes of floor time, and none of them coming in back-to-back sets. (This is why many Sixers fans would have vastly preferred taking pennies on the dollar for Okafor, an offense-first pivot who struggles to protect the rim and defend in space, to shipping out Noel, who has shown when healthy that he can make a legitimate impact as a defensive anchor and a rim-running pick-and-roll dive-man at the center spot.)
We know now that “The Process” was worth the wait. We still don’t know, though, if the 76ers will be able to trust him for the long haul — and, sadly, we won’t get to resume the business of finding out until the start of the 2017-18 season, at the earliest.
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