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The Sixers need to shut down Joel Embiid...at least for round 1

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Brooklyn Nets v Philadelphia 76ers - Game One Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

This pains me to write but it does feels right. Joel Embiid just isn’t healthy and it’s not worth pushing the “crown jewel” of the franchise through the rest of this first round against the Brooklyn Nets in his current condition. I understand the context. Fans had legitimate hopes for a title run. All year long we had an MVP candidate and a Defensive Player of the Year Candidate and a First-Team All NBA starter in Embiid. He was routinely dominating offensively and holding together a shaky defense with his sheer will and other-worldly combination of size, timing and agility. The Front Office and the Coach are in win-now mode and demonstrated that publicly with their words and actions. But it’s time to move forward in the smartest way with all of the information we now have. That means doing what it takes to increase the chances the team wins a title...not a game or two. And whether that happens this year or in the future, a few days off is the best bet.

He is not the same player he was two weeks ago. On March 28th this dude put up 39 and 13 in 28 minutes. On Saturday he was a -17 on 5-15 from the floor and visibly limping. The truth is hiding in plain sight.

A long-term set back, a major swelling, a compensation injury, a rupture (all risks when you play with severe knee-pain) would be crushing. Kawhi Leonard dealt with quad/knee tendinitis early in his career and it eventually cost him a full-season and has now plagued him in some way since 2012. In 2016 he was limping noticeably after a full summer off. He knows this and so he rested every 3-4 games all year to manage it. It’s not to be taken lightly.

I get it. The stakes are really really high. There are outsiders, haters, networks and rival fanbases staring at what’s happening, hoping, and praying for the death of “process.” What would they love more than to see the Sixers lose in the first round as Embiid limps up and down the court? He’ll never be healthy. Simmons can’t carry you. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris will leave you. Or they’re not good enough to help you beat the lowly Nets and you’ll overpay them. Either way you’re doomed. You should never have tanked for these players! You need Ilyasova and Belinelli more than ever. Mwa-hahahaha.

But none of that is the end of the world if Joel is healthy. If his workload were managed better the Sixers could have made the playoffs with much lesser talent than they have and been a very scary team even as an 8th seed if Embiid were ready to rock now.

What would be a huge disaster is a major setback.

Embiid was wearing a huge brace that some doctors think might represent something much worse than soreness like arthritis. Even if this brace was strictly precautionary it seems Embiid’s body is sending very clear signals.

Knowing this franchise we should all at least prepare for the possibility we’ll learn it was something worse than we’re now being told for either gamesmanship or because #Sixers.

So who is going to be the “adult in the room” and do right by Embiid and the team here?

Joel himself?

Joel prides himself on being a warrior. He thrives in the spotlight. He plays huge minutes at well-under 100 percent to snag big games. He’s willing to hurl his 270 pound frame into the 3rd row of the stands on the second night of a back to back in order to beat the Knicks whose coach admittedly models the Sixers’ tank. Like a major league pitcher in the bottom of the 8th, he may do everything he can do assure his manager he’s got enough juice left in the tank to deliver the win. It should probably be on someone else to step in when it’s clear he isn’t right.

Brett Brown?

The owners have indicated a first round knockout would be very disappointing. When asked if coach Brown had any reaction to these comments, Rich Hofmann of The Athletic speaking on his Sixers Beat podcast on March 3rd noted Brett answered rather curtly “no I have no reaction.”

Hofmann described how uncharacteristic it was for the normally candid and descriptive coach to sound “so succinct.” Hofmann made a note that the moment was a little “awkward” and “strange.”

A couple of days ago, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that team owner Josh Harris “stopped short” of giving Brown a full vote of confidence. I don’t think anyone would be surprised, including Brown, if the Sixers were to fire him following a first round loss.

All that to say, coach Brown may be competing for his job and career. And given how many minutes Embiid played this year, and how few times he rested before his knee began acting up before the All-Star Break, we may not be able to rely on Brown here to do what’s best for the franchise’s long term future.

I’m certain Brown would bristle at this notion that he’d ever knowingly put a player he loves as much as Joel at risk for something serious. And that’s true. But it’s fair to wonder if Brown’s personal incentives are totally aligned with the “longest view in the room.”

If I were Brett, I’d be very tempted to push Embiid a little in order to steal this series back, especially if team doctors and Joel himself told me he was good to go.

Elton Brand?

Elton Brand may have more job security than his head coach. But he still (openly) answers to Josh Harris and David Blitzer the team’s top-dog Managing Partners. He is the face of the Front Office and he pushed in considerable “Process” chips to bring in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. He’s said that falling short of the Conference Finals would be disappointing. Losing with or without Embiid would reflect poorly on his decision making if all of the talent he acquired couldn’t beat a 6th seeded Nets team; especially if chemistry and continuity (which he sacrificed for his stars) was the team’s undoing.

Joel played way too many minutes early in the year and responsibility for that should go all the way up the chain. With Brand’s trades and comments about expedited windows to title contention, and his not-intervening to reduce Embiid’s workload earlier, it’s possible we cannot completely rely on Brand to step in and prioritize Embiid’s long term health.

Owners?

The owners have been here through all kinds of turmoil medically. Because of the way the team has handled injuries, lots of Sixers fans are wondering if Embiid might be worse off than they’ve let on as mentioned. To say that the team’s ownership hasn’t yet built up the trust to take care of their best players and be honest about what’s going on would be a major understatement.

But they have the most job security here and should know their legacy as owners and their financial investments in this team align rather smoothly with Joel Embiid’s long-term health. Here is a chance for them to demonstrate they have learned from past mistakes. It’s scary for fans to think about but they may be the best shot here to step in and convince Joel to take a few games off.

Game Theory

The Sixers made some mistakes earlier in the year. The smartest thing to have done was to play him less minutes and have rested him more nights over the first few months of the year. But some of that is said with the benefit of hindsight and the more important thing now is not to compound those mistakes by making more.

This is not the NBA Finals. It’s just the Nets. There is a long long way to go if the team wants to win the title. Overuse injuries don’t improve without rest. Ask Kawhi Leonard. Philadelphia is realistically looking at a 5 year window if it wants to rely on players like Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Embiid as cornerstones. You don’t want to risk that to beat the Nets.

I’m going to use a double negative for emphasis here, fair warning: there is never no risk to making things worse when it’s your knees. If this was an ankle issue it might be a different story. There is that stupid cliche in sports about how ‘you can’t make it worse it’s simply pain tolerance.’ That’s silly. Medical journals on tendinitis cite many of the increased risk factors and co-morbidities.

Looking ahead, their best chance to make the Conference Finals, (Brand’s stated goal) is to have Embiid healthy. If you push him now he won’t be healthier after another 6 or 7 hard fought games than he would be if you rested him now.

They wouldn’t beat Toronto (heck maybe not even Orlando) without the big fella. So if you can’t beat these Nets without Joel so be it. You weren’t going anywhere anyway and you can at least learn a bit more about some possible max-level free agents. That’s one silver lining. Maybe there is more information about your healthy core to be gained without the team’s highest usage star.

The team’s best chance to win the title this year and win a title in the future is to get him a few extra days rest now and hope the wheel improves. If he bounces back in time for a big game 6 or 7 or in time for round 2, then that’s great. But someone needs to be the adult in the room today and do the right thing for the crown jewel of The Process.