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Brett Brown’s biggest mistake from the 2018-2019 season: Joel Embiid’s load mismanagement

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2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

This is the final installment of a three part Sins of the Past Countdown Series taking a look at what I think were Brett Brown’s 3 biggest mistakes of the 2018-2019 season, and what if any lessons can be gleaned for this year’s group.

Tomorrow is scrimmage day vs. the Grizz and basketball is officially back! So let’s wrap up our “there’s no basketball” content with the final installment of this series. In part 1 we looked at the third biggest mistake Brett Brown made a year ago, which was not enough creative off-ball action for Ben Simmons. In part 2, we focused on Brown’s second biggest mistake from last year: how the team just couldn’t stem the bleeding when Embiid would rest against Toronto.

That brings us to the third and final installment of our “Sins of the Past” series: Brett Brown’s biggest mistake of all from the 2019 season...

1) Joel Embiid’s load mismanagement

Listen Dave the injury stuff is particularly complicated. The league has feelings about rest games. It’s possible that Embiid, adopting a warrior’s mentality and intent to dispel notions of being injury prone was unwilling to miss games, especially since the team was so dreadful without him. Besides what can a coach do if a player says he’s fine and the medical staff says he’s clear to play? Plus the best arguments I’ve heard actually place responsibility on the front office and team owners!

I hear you, and don’t worry I agree with you. Before you bludgeon that reply section to tell me this wasn’t ultimately Brown’s responsibility it’s Embiid’s, or the medical staff’s, or the front office’s, or the owners’, here’s my rather healthy disclaimer.

For this series we’re focusing on Coach Brown’s share of the responsibility. But you’re right, the reality is that responsibility is an organizational issue and the majority of this share probably falls elsewhere.

But at least some of the blame should fall on the head coach, right? If Brown couldn’t persuade Embiid to rest more and didn’t have the authority to make the call himself (a real possibility) then he could have at least reduced Embiid’s minutes during grueling stretches of the schedule when he wasn’t feeling his best. That’s our focus here.

Vedy aggressive

At the end of the day, whoever you blame, this was a case of load management gone awry.

The superstar from Yaoundé burst out of the gate in 2018 on absolute fire; certainly in the All-NBA and MVP conversations. By early December he was one of the NBA’s minute leaders up there with some dudes who probably weigh 100 LBS less than him:

But by mid-December Embiid was feeling “fatigued” according to his head coach. Then by late December-early January he popped up on the injury report with left knee soreness, the same knee that required meniscus surgery back in 2017. Then a right ankle. He’d be declared a game time decision a couple of times but he almost always played. And dominated.

Like someone who’d spent a couple of years in pandemic-quarantine and was finally let out, he was playing a ton and craved even more. “I just want to feel like an NBA player,” he said. “I feel like I’m not an NBA player because I can’t play back-to-back.”

But by the end of January there was finally some evidence that he was slowing down in the second half of games. After mostly playing through that sore knee and ankle stuff Jo wound up on injury report with back tightness.

Rich Hoffman and Derek Bodner of The Athletic voiced concern over his workload while dealing with the back. Watching him play substantial minutes with visible and admitted discomfort, they hoped to see a few more rest games sprinkled in before the All-Star break. Per Hofmann on the Sixers Beat podcast the back issue was this “little black cloud that’s hovering over every game….”

And Embiid, who suffered a stress fracture in his back during his days at Kansas gave fans this scare by late January:

On Twitter an account @Bbiomechanics founded by Tommy Tempesta once noted that Kristaps Porzingis’ knees were touching as he ran, back around Christmas of 2017. A month after the Latvian superstar said he was feeling “so tired,” he tore the ACL in his knee. Two months before Embiid’s back issue started, the same account noted that Embiid was landing in a way that might protect his knees but place pressure on his trunk. [1]

He got one game off for the back but fresh off cautionary tales of agile bigs like DeMarcus Cousins and Porzingis (becoming fatigued while trying to keep pace in an NBA that can sometimes look like a 3 point contest on time-lapse film) getting hurt, fans began to worry:

I wrote in January of 2019:

“But the Sixers should now try and nip this nagging injury in the bud even if it means him missing a chunk of games before the All-Star break....

The fans don’t expect the team to limit Embiid. But it would not only be smart, it might be irresponsible and detrimental to their championship odds if they don’t....”

Narrator: they didn’t.

In fact, facing a grueling and important stretch of their schedule, the team increased Embiid’s workload. He was openly discussing how uncomfortable he was, but he also kept playing so well. Maybe it all seemed fine. Nobody is 100 percent anyway, let’s push.

With 7 games to go before the break, Embiid played through the aftermath of that tight back (as well as an illness) to the tune of 35.8 minutes per contest, up from his season average by then of 33.4 mpg:

Just at the point it was clear he wasn’t quite healthy and seemed a bit fatigued, the Sixers hit the throttle. They went 4-3 over a grueling stretch led largely by his sustained dominance. I think it bit them.

Knee tendinitis

You remember the rest. Embiid would play in the All-Star game before we learned he would be out indefinitely with knee soreness, but thankfully no structural damage. He’d only play in 10 of the team’s next 24 games and he looked like he’d gained weight, likely from all the prescribed rest for what they began calling tendinitis.

We don’t know if the knee soreness contributed to the back tightness, or the back tightness made the knee worse or changed how he landed. It just felt to many of us non-doctor fans like the perfect time to get the backup some burn. Who knows how far a bit of preventive medicine might have gone. Paired with the All-Star break they could have bought him two, heck even three full weeks off to get right for the stretch run.

After playing through the knee soreness and clutching at his back again after a scary fall vs. Milwaukee on April 4th, he looked seriously limited against Chicago one game later:

He’d miss the next couple of games and the team wasn’t even sure if he’d be available for the start of the playoffs. Rather than entering the playoffs fresh and rested he looked as sluggish as he had all year and was a true game-time decision.

He suited up but he really didn’t move that well for the first two games against Brooklyn then he sat out for game three.

Embiid played every game of the Toronto series and was a dominant +89 in his minutes but it also looked like he had come to terms with something disappointing: he could be the team’s defensive anchor and keep them in most games, but he was going to need Jimmy Butler to carry the offense. He just wasn’t able to be the consistent offensive and defensive force he was a few months ago. And no it wasn’t simply Marc Gasol’s perplexing defense or a stomach bug. If you saw him during the fall of 2018 you knew there was a big difference.

If Embiid was even a little bit closer to 100 percent heading into that series, I think they take game four at home then it’s Sixers in six and we don’t fear the Deer.

Fast forward

When people discuss the NBA hierarchy and say names like Giannis, LeBron, or Kawhi they rarely bother to add that Kawhi Leonard sits out every few games of the regular season. Being the best player in the finals is his priority. Featuring Leonard, the Spurs basically invented load management and the Raptors turned it into a science.

The Sixers as an organization haven’t quite earned that level of trust among their fans:

So what’s the approach this time around?

Hmmm... going from a near 5-month “off-season” to an intense playoff workload (even if it’s not quite 38 minutes) in a matter of weeks feels like 0 to 60 doesn’t it? As The New York Times has noted “players have about three weeks to re-acclimate their bodies to full five-on-five speed and physicality. But if they push too hard, injuries could become a serious problem.”

This is a series about Brown but ultimately it’s the team owners’ whose interest most closely aligns with yours or mine. Both Elton Brand and Brett Brown may want to go full throttle here in order to advance a round and keep their jobs. They know Embiid’s their best shot to stick around. But owners and fans will naturally have a longer view, there’s nobody to fire us.

The team won’t have any regular season grind to worry about so maybe that will help some but there will be new and unique challenges like finding ways to safely and gradually ramp up. The owners, the front office, the coach and the player need to work together here to find a better balance than they found last season. Embiid is rightfully referred to as the Crown Jewel of The Process and like an ace starting pitcher, he may never want to come out of the game. It happens to be the coach who has the unenviable task of predicting when that curve ball will finally hang. Last season they were a few pitches late. Now they’ll have another chance.

Footnotes

[1] How Embiid distributed his weight to reduce landing impact has actually come up before Like the time he talked about falling on purpose to avoid impacting his feet, per suggestion. Chris Herring, who wrote that last link observed “When he dunks, he generally appears to hang on the rim for a split-second longer than he once did, perhaps to avoid putting too much strain on one leg or foot.”