The 76ers have the best winning percentage in the entire NBA, now at 6-1. Of course, the schedule hasn’t exactly been murderer’s row. But things are about to get a bit more grueling. The team is preparing for a stretch where they’ll play 11 games over the next 18 days, including not one, not two, not three, but four back-to-backs. They’re set to play a whopping 17 games over the next 29 days, with five total back-to-backs! Tom Thibodeau eat your heart out:
It’s all part of the reduced travel COVID-19 protocol implemented by the NBA in order to enhance player safety. So what does it mean for the team’s current way-too-early MVP candidate, Joel Embiid?
How many of these games will “The Process” play in? How many total minutes will he log?
We all know Embiid’s lengthy injury history, and he must be disgusted it’s discussed as much as it is, given how healthy he was last season. He broke the navicular bone in his foot twice, he once suffered a stress fracture in his back at Kansas, he broke the orbital bone in his face twice, he’s dealt with back tightness, and some at-times-debilitating left knee tendinitis throughout his career. He’s played in just 238 NBA games, since entering the NBA in 2014.
Now in his 7th season, he’s matured a lot and taken dramatic measures to enhance his body to prepare for the rigors of an NBA season.
Here was some stuff Embiid had to say about the subject recently. This from over the summer, per Ky Carlin of SixersWire USA Today:
“This my seventh year. I’m getting up there. I guess I’m getting old. I’ve learned a lot and I feel like this summer is the one that I really focus on it. By just having, you know my own chef, nutritionist, my own PT, and massage therapists, just doing whatever I can to take care of my body so I’m able to play 20 years here in Philly.”
This is great to hear. A tremendous sign, and no doubt, part of why he’s an early season MVP candidate. But does this mean he doesn’t need load management? And if he does, how much?
What might Doc Rivers be thinking?
76ers coach Doc Rivers coached Kawhi Leonard a season ago. Leonard logged his standard (ish) rate of 57 out of 72 total regular-season games. It was a similar rate as Leonard played in his championship seasons in both San Antonio and Toronto, both years where he missed plenty of regular-season games (managing his chronic quad/knee issue) but he won Finals MVP in each of those years. It’s Leonard’s program and it works and anyone who has a problem with it or whines about preferential treatment or the extra rest he requires is probably just jealous or confused. Top five players who win chips deserve to be accommodated.
As for Doc’s thoughts on Embiid recently, per Rich Hofmann of The Athletic:
Joel Embiid is averaging just over 33 minutes.— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) January 4, 2021
Doc Rivers: "That's fine with me. He can handle it. He played almost 37 the other night, I didn't like that but that's gonna happen. You go through the year and that evens out. That 34, 33... just know where I'd like to keep him."
Daryl Morey’s recent thoughts on the subject
Morey hasn’t specifically addressed this issue publicly much. So I listened to some podcasts featuring him and found some stuff he’s said about load management, as it pertained to his former big man in Houston, Yao Ming, who had a lengthy injury history, but was often dominant when on the floor. From The Ringer, back in 2018:
Bill Simmons: “Yao is somebody that coulda been one of the best 40 players of all time.”
Morey: “Well it’s actually one of the things I remember with our owner [Leslie Alexander]. When Yao got hurt in the second round of the playoffs against the Lakers I thought we could beat ‘em, took ‘em to 7 games even without Yao....I was talking to Mr. Alexander, I said ‘Hey, y’know, poor Yao...’ he’s like ‘yeah I really feel bad for Yao, although what about the fans?”
Simmons: “If you knew then what you know now, he’s playing 60 game seasons, 29 minutes a game, during the regular season, and you’re saving him?”
Morey: I think you have to, although the West was tough at the time....”
Interesting. I wonder if Embiid will play that equivalent this year....
Here’s the full context audio:
Leslie Alexander’s comments foreshadowed how Sixers fans would feel following the 2019 season when Embiid was significantly limited, mostly because he logged too many minutes in the season’s first 3-4 months.
And here is another conversation Morey and Bill Simmons had on the same theme from a different podcast, again from The Ringer, this time 2019:
Morey: “[Yao Ming] played a lot both ways, he was obviously one of our best players so he played a lot so yeah it was definitely, definitely would have done things differently if I teleported back then.”
Here’s that full clip, reference to Yao being overworked comes at the end.
The situation isn’t identical, as Yao was playing year round, with massive obligations to his China National team, whereas Embiid works out with trainer Drew Hanlen over the summers rests, and plays videogames. But one gets the sense, listening to Morey talk about load management, that he’d be a little more aggressive in dolling out rest if given another shot.
And that could have implications for a potential MVP candidate with an injury history like Embiid’s. It represents a chance for Daryl to learn from something he considers a mistake from his past if he thinks the Yao situation and the Embiid situation might be at all similar.
Remember two years ago, when Embiid was an early season MVP candidate like he is now?
"I love playing against guys that you guys might say they're better than me, just to prove you guys that they're not."— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) January 22, 2019
Joel Embiid, on the fringes of the MVP conversation right now, continued to make his case in #Sixers big win on Monday night:https://t.co/qNjHJbMIVo
With all due respect to James Harden, here is the case for Joel Embiid as NBA MVP | David Murphy https://t.co/bCpxKIkdtZ— Philadelphia Inquirer Sports (@phillysport) January 22, 2019
It was super fun while it lasted. And one got the sense both Embiid and the franchise were eager to cast aside the reputation he had at the time that he couldn’t make it through a regular season healthy. But it just felt like he was logging too many minutes to many fans.
Here is what I wrote back in January of 2019 for Liberty Ballers:
“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....
They might take note of how the Toronto Raptors manage their star Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has a lengthy injury history. He’s missed 165 games out of a career possible 602, the vast majority related to the quad/knee tendon that cost him almost all of his age 26 season. Now Leonard sits roughly every four games for the Raptors. He expects to be rested so it’s not a surprise and when he suits up he’s fresh and looks terrific.
It’s time to transition from proving Embiid can remain healthy during the regular season grind to proving the team can win a championship wit him as their catalyst.”
The Sixers went the other way and actually increased Embiids minutes before the 2019 All Star break. Following that he was diagnosed with left knee tendinitis and never looked right again that year. Embiid was a shell of his 2018 self by the time they faced Toronto in the second round (one in which he still was a +89 despite the physical limitations stemming from the knee injury).
He’s that good, so the idea of having him at 100 percent for the playoffs is so tantalizing it hurts.
I believe playing him too many minutes was Embiid’s, the franchise’s, and Brett Brown’s biggest mistake of the last several years, aside from front office personnel decisions.
So what can we expect this month?
Joel addressed the subject of his body and his minutes recently. Following a sweep of the Hornets, in a game where he only logged 25 minutes, due to the success of the full roster, Per Ky Carlin again:
“It’s gonna be great,” Embiid added. “Especially when it comes to back-to-backs. The last time I didn’t play [against Cleveland] we had a bad one, we should be 7-0, but we had a bad one. Nights like tonight (Monday), it just gives me the energy and not having to take on a lot of physical toll and all that stuff is great....”
“It puts me in a position to play and being able to play all these back-to-backs and just feeling good,” he added. “With everything I’ve been doing off the court, off the grid, I can’t wait to keep on doing it.”
And while it’s exciting that he’s feeling good and an MVP candidate one again, it’s important the superstar and the franchise not make the same mistake again.
So what’s it gonna be?
It was an especially short off season and there are ton of upcoming games. If the Sixers scratch Joel every four to five games the way Leonard’s teams do, they may not win on those nights. For the team with the best record in the league to get throttled by the Cavs suggests the Sixers may not fare as well as Toronto or Los Angeles has sans “The Claw.” But it should’t matter. They should implement a routine load management program anyway. The downside is some extra losses. The upside is preserving the health of one of the league’s few best players, and getting the chance to feature Ben Simmons surrounded by some shooters like everyone has been clamoring to see. It might hurt the fans who want to watch Joel. It might disgust Joel who feels good enough to play. It might cost them in the playoff standings. But home court isn’t what it once was without fans anyway. And heading into the playoffs without both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons healthy is likely a first round exit anyway. Ask Boston.
Target a Finals MVP, nothing more. It’s a marathon not a sprint and there’s no shame in jogging at this stage of the race and sprinting later.