2018 has been a magical year for Philadelphia sports fans, but on March 28, it felt like the city was all out of pixie dust. That was the night Markelle Fultz’s possibly cursed shoulder collided with Joel Embiid’s face, concussing the star center and fracturing his orbital bone.
“Save us, Nick Foles,” we cried to the heavens. Up until then, the Sixers had largely been a disaster whenever Embiid was absent. The team had gone 3-8 in games he had sat out this season, and sported a -4.4 net rating when he was off the court. The dream of the 3-seed seemed dead. Would Philadelphia even be able to maintain home court advantage? If Embiid missed any part of the postseason, was the season essentially over?
Immediately following the injury, Brett Brown said the team needed to “buy some time for the return of Joel Embiid.” To the pleasant surprise of everyone, the Sixers bought enough time for a Flavor Flav-sized clock. They finished the season 8-0 without their star center (9-0 if we count the Knicks game where he was injured and barely played), taking care of some inferior competition, but also outlasting LeBron James in the game of the year last Friday night, and absolutely steamrolling the Bucks in the regular season finale.
The Embiid injury that once seemed like a disaster has turned into something that could greatly benefit the franchise going forward. The most overt example is the play on the court. Our Tom West wrote a piece earlier this week covering this topic, so I won’t go too much into detail, but the Sixers have learned how to play without the man in the middle. They’ve cranked up the pace, unleashed even more threes, and focused the offense more around Ben Simmons and J.J. Redick. Even when Embiid returns, Philadelphia should be able to take the lessons they’ve learned these past few weeks and excel in the minutes he is resting on the bench.
Then, and I realize this is a cynical take, there’s the fact that the injury might have saved the Sixers a lot of salary cap space going forward. We are all aware of the clause in Embiid’s rookie extension that called for him to receive 30% of the cap (rather than 25%) in the event he made 1st-team All-NBA, which would equate to over $5M more each year. Based upon the votes being posted thus far, it seems like Embiid is going to make 2nd-team All-NBA.
Could a strong finish from Embiid, in which he was seen as the main reason for the team winning 16 straight to end the season, have been enough to garner him a 1st-team selection? Maybe, especially in light of the fact that voters are conflicted about whether Anthony Davis should be a forward or center. Embiid missing these last few weeks could have the effect of strengthening the roster for years to come.
Finally, there’s undeniably a feeling of relief knowing the team can succeed without Embiid. Look, Embiid is terrific, a truly generational talent on the court, a hilarious personality off it, and by all accounts, a wonderful person. But he has still played less than 100 professional games, and every Sixers fan was forced to hold their breath whenever he so much as stumbled or paused a second while lying on the floor. The team always had so much tied up with Embiid’s health, and everything seemed poised to crumble without him. He was the keystone piece in a precarious Jenga tower of success.
Now, an Embiid-less group keeps rattling off victories. Ben Simmons went head-to-head with LeBron and came out on top. Embiid is officially out for Game 1 of the playoffs and the Sixers are still 6.5-point favorites. Philadelphia is a -400 favorite in the series even though we have no certainty as to when Embiid is coming back. The Sixers can’t reach their ceiling without Embiid, but they can still reach a pretty high shelf.
Get well soon, Joel. You’re the best player on the team and talented enough to one day be the best player in the world. In a strange way though, we might look back on this injury and be glad it happened. Unless his absence costs the Sixers the Miami series. Then, Fultz’s shoulder is definitely cursed.