The Sixers’ recent funk figures to continue against one of the league’s best teams tonight, but most Philadelphians have their attention focused on the sideline. Joel Embiid is set to miss his sixth straight game when the Sixers play San Antonio in South Philly this evening, and will not make the trip for tomorrow’s contest against the Orlando Magic.
This wouldn’t necessarily raise any eyebrows if not for The Process’ standout performance against the Houston Rockets on national television. His dominant offensive showcase was sandwiched between two stretches of games missed due to knee woes, and was only possible because Embiid told team doctors he was able and willing to push through that evening.
As his absences pile up in the wake of that 32-point effort, the decision to let him play looks curious at best, and a vanity play for a national television audience at worst. There’s nothing wrong with the caution they’ve showed before or after that game. In fact, I’d say Sixers fans are on board with making sure he’s 100 percent before he’s back out on the floor, particularly since this season is still just another gradual step toward their broader goals. But since they won’t admit to a setback following that game, the decision to play him will be overanalyzed to death.
There’s a lot of gray area here. Sure, it’s ultimately on the medical staff to rein in Embiid if they feel he shouldn’t be taxing his body. But he’s a human being, not a workhorse or livestock, and you can’t completely take away his agency in deciding whether he should play or not. Remember, this is a kid who had to sit on the sidelines for two years and at different points had issues handling the long road back. The team is walking a fine line between protecting him and angering him if they use the kid gloves too much, particularly if he believes he’s healthy.
Without more information, it’s impossible to say whether they made the right or wrong decision. So long as Embiid comes out of this A-ok, it’ll be looked back on as just another bump in the road. It’s when you consider some broader health questions across the team — continued knee soreness for Jahlil Okafor 11 months after a procedure that typically has a six-week recovery, a last-minute elective surgery for Nerlens Noel just before the season, the initial lack of clarity on Jerryd Bayless’ eventual season-ending wrist injury — that doubt starts to creep into the back of your mind.
Still, Embiid has been a continued presence at the team’s practice facility, and all signs indicate he would suit up if the team decided to lower their caution even a little bit. The NBA’s All-Star break begins next week, with the return of Ben Simmons potentially looming once it concludes. A playoff appearance might have felt within reach during an en fuego January stretch, but loading up to attack the 2017-18 season with gusto should be the team’s priority.
With that out of the way, I suppose it’s worth acknowledging the team still tasked with taking on the Spurs tonight.
Filling the Embiid-sized hole in the rotation has been nearly impossible for the Sixers, and their play on both ends of the court has suffered accordingly. Brett Brown and his players have harped on a need to pick up the intensity on the defensive end of the court, where the Cameroonian’s absence is currently being felt the most.
There’s no rest for the weary with the Spurs in town. San Antonio ranks in the top-five for both offensive and defensive efficiency (as it seems they always do under Gregg Popovich), quietly humming along in their first year without Tim Duncan since the mid-90’s. Their quest for the West’s top seed will likely be futile -- thanks, Kevin Durant -- but they’re just four games back of the pace-setting Warriors, an impressive feat in its own right.
The good news for Sixers fans optimistic about a win? Kawhi Leonard was a late scratch before San Antonio’s loss to the Grizzlies on Monday, and his status for tonight’s game remains in doubt. The Spurs are banged up right now, and Leonard’s absence would allow Robert Covington to do a little more freelancing on the defensive end, in addition to making his life easier attacking San Antonio’s defense.
As always, however, the fate of the Sixers will primarily rest in the hands of the big men left to pick up the pieces. Richaun Holmes is questionable due to illness, so Noel and Okafor are likely to be all the Sixers have to hold down the fort.
That combination has struggled to get much going lately. Even when Noel has been able to contest shots with regularity and Okafor has flashed dominant stretches of play on offense, their anemic rebounding has been a big factor in the Sixers’ recent losing streak. Big men of different sizes and calibers have feasted on the offensive glass during Embiid’s layoff, and both players need to make a concerted effort to lock down the glass if they hope to get a win tonight.
Here’s hoping for a more compelling game than Monday’s snoozefest against the Pistons. The Sixers and Spurs tip at 7:00 down in South Philly, and you should keep an eye out for a bespectacled man on the sideline: