Last night, as on most nights, the Sixers were much better with Joel Embiid on the court. He turned the ball over seven times, yet still managed to end up on the positive side of the ledger. It’s a testament to his versatility; even when his offense sputtered, Embiid offered resistance on defense, scooped defensive boards and remained in motion to create space for his teammates.
Regulation came to a close with Embiid a hair over his 24-minute restriction and the game tied up. He sat on the bench to start overtime, but once the Grizzlies created a sliver of separation he returned to the game. He played the rest of the overtime session, which ended with both teams still knotted up.
He never saw the court in double overtime, finishing with 27 minutes played. Plenty of people — Process trusters and critics alike — were incensed at the team’s decision to withhold him from the lineup. Embiid was right there with them, kicking a chair in the bench area out of frustration.
Joel Embiid kicks bench in frustration after Sixers doctors sit him down for second overtime period due to minutes limit pic.twitter.com/cZMUDEWIdv— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) November 24, 2016
But the choice to hold Embiid out of further action was the correct one.
The stakes for a Thanksgiving Eve date with the Memphis Grizzlies are low. This game was never going to make or break the year for a team like the Sixers. Though the organization has a stated goal of being better right now, their gaze remains on the long-term. Embiid and Ben Simmons, the team’s most prized players at this stage, are in the infancy of their development.
More pertinently for Embiid, his body and bones are going through their first test at the pro level. The effects might not be immediately apparent, but his minutes restriction is designed to protect against wear-and-tear, to ensure he’s able to finish this season, not just start it. While it hurts to pull him in a winnable game, managing the stress on his feet is designed to allow him to impact as many games as possible over the long-term.
The foot injuries are infamous, but the spinal stress fracture that kept him out of the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments at Kansas is important in this story. His stress fractures make sense as far as injuries go; men his size are generally more prone to injury, and he only just began playing high-volume basketball over the last few years of his life. The fractures are his body’s rejection of a drastic ramp-up in activity (during continued physical growth to boot).
“How much is too much?” is an inherently unanswerable question as it relates to Embiid or any other injured person. There are industry standards, studies, and data to support a plan for rest and rehab, but you can’t scan a bone and know exactly what to do.
The Sixers had two years plus to develop their plan for Embiid, and even they have quickly shuffled through limits since the season began. His minutes restriction jumped from 12 to 15 to 20 to present day’s 24 in a little over a month. The psychological effect that has is obvious -- observers see a line trending steadily upward, naturally expecting it to continue on the same path. Even if they appear the same on the stat sheet, playing five minutes of basketball fully rested is not the same as playing five minutes in double overtime, having logged more minutes than you have since you were an amateur.
Athletes walk a thin line between “toughing it out” and exposing their bodies to supplementary injuries. Lest we forget, Embiid was a game-time decision as recently as last Saturday, when an ankle injury threatened to hold him out of a date with Phoenix. It was Embiid who allegedly convinced the training staff he was good to go. He can’t act independent of their guidance, but he clearly has a voice in the process.
While it felt like a hard cap when he was pulled after overtime, the Sixers have been fluid in attacking this dilemma. Playing him in overtime against Memphis, the team showed willingness to test his limits. Their application of the restriction has been less a rule and more a guide; he played 26 minutes in the team’s first win, an overtime battle with the Indiana Pacers.
When they have a chance to responsibly add a couple extra minutes, they’ve done so. When performance dictated reevaluation of the situation, they’ve upped the ante several times. He’s frustrated, but even Embiid can see that the team is looking out for him:
Joel Embiid on the doctors not letting him play: "I tried, but they care about me."— Jake Pavorsky (@JakePavorsky) November 24, 2016
In that context, it’s hard to find fault with sitting him in a double overtime game. They see his potential, they know what he’s been through, and they’re doing their best to make sure he’s able to capitalize on his otherworldly talent. It doesn’t have to feel good, and frustration at having to watch the team’s best player sit down the stretch is justified. But until the doctors say otherwise, it’s the right move.