Just four games into the season and Joel Embiid seems to be dealing with a minor knee injury. The runner up MVP candidate in 2021 apparently banged knees in the season opener. He’s not one to make excuses, but the issue seems to have at least contributed to a slow start. Is it fair to be concerned? Before we decide, let’s round up what we know.
Last season Embiid averaged 28.5 points per game, 10.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists. This season he’s putting up 19.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. The assists are up. And actually his blocks are up as well (1.4 denials last season) to 2.3 so far. It is silly to compare statistics using a four game sample. But both the eye test and the comments we’ve heard recently make it seem like there is at least a minor issue limiting Joel’s play.
We first learned of the issue when he popped up on injury reports ahead of the home-opener. The team lost to the Nets and Embiid failed to dominate winnable matchups, prompting questions. Embiid finished with 19 points on 15 shots as Brooklyn got away with defending him using a combination of Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Nets closed the game on a 16-1 run. That’s how you knew something was off.
Embiid’s warrior mentality
[Update, ESPN Insider Ramona Shelburne reported via “NBA Today” that Embiid told her he couldn’t walk for two days following the season opener. Per Shelburne, “...there is a sense that maybe he should sit a game or two to get that knee right because it’s a meniscus injury, it’s flared up after the knocking knees with (Jonas) Valančiūnas.”
As of now, the team has listed Embiid as ‘questionable’ for tomorrow’s game vs. Detroit with right knee soreness.]
After the Nets game Embiid talked about the issue, which seems to have lingered.
“It’s all right. Hopefully it gets better, but it’s all right.” Is that why he sat most of the 4th in that 114-109 loss? “Yeah, yeah. It happened (in New Orleans). I got kneed right into (the knee), so it’s been sore - extremely sore. But I think I‘ll be fine.”
“We will see, Embiid continued. “After last game, that was a pretty hit by the big fella. We’ll see how it feels tomorrow, but I’m not planning on sitting. I want to keep playing as long as there’s not any big damage.”
He played so we can safely infer there is no “big” damage.
Embiid was listed as questionable ahead of the Thunder game but he played. He logged season highs in minutes (33), points (22), boards (9), and dimes (6). The Sixers won 115-103. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve wondered if Embiid would even play then watched him dominate.
But Joel made the rounds on Twitter attempting this track-down block and landing a bit awkwardly. Why take this type of risk in this type of situation if a new injury to the knee you spent time rehabbing just cost you mobility and minutes in the home opener?
Sixers announcer after this Josh Giddey, Joel Embiid collision:— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) October 25, 2021
“No offense to Giddy, I could care less. But this guy (Embiid), you don’t want to see him fall awkwardly because you worry as a Sixer fan.”
Embiid was again questionable ahead of the Knicks game listed with “right knee soreness.” He has a history of lower-body and knee injuries so hearing that he is dealing with an (even a minor) issue to the same knee that was injured five months ago (and likely required a fair amount of attention this off-season) is a concern.
Embiid once again suited up but this time the Sixers were trounced by the Knicks 112-99 Tuesday. The TNT Broadcast wondered at times if Embiid was fatigued. It was the first time the Knicks have defeated Philadelphia since 2017.
The Process gave a valiant effort, although he did make fans nervous a few times:
Joel seems mostly intent on injuring himself tonight so maybe it's for the best he probably won't be playing in the fourth anyway.— Andrew Unterberger (@AUgetoffmygold) October 27, 2021
After the game, Embiid talked to reporters in New York about the knee.
“That’s not an excuse, but I don’t think I’ve played like this, at least at the start of the season, in any stretch in my career. It’s not an excuse, but i’m going to keep pushing and hope for the best.”
Coach Rivers doesn’t sound concerned at all
For what it’s worth, Doc Rivers does not sound concerned.
“Just when you get hit in the kneecap, it gets tight, sore, tough to bend,” said the head coach following the loss to Brooklyn. “Absolutely hurts your mobility. I thought I could see that throughout the game. You don’t get injured by playing with it. It just doesn’t feel great playing with it. He’ll be fine.”
The best news is that Embiid continues to play in games he’s listed as questionable. That implies this may not be a big deal. But still....
The humble bloggers opinion
Joel Embiid, one NBA personnel man said ‘his knee didn’t look great. Looked like he was dragging a little bit.”— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) October 27, 2021
Great opportunity for the Sixers to be cautious with their superstar. https://t.co/QQy6CHo2Tv
Ultimately, this does not sound like a very big concern. If this were another player, it wouldn’t have motivated me to write this piece. But this is arguably the best per-minute player in the entire NBA when healthy, who has had plenty of trouble staying healthy. So you’ll forgive me for monitoring this situation very very closely.
Per SNY’s Ian Begley, one NBA personnel man noticed that Embiid’s knee “didn’t look great” in New York.
Embiid sometimes speaks like he has something to prove.
Joel Embiid on his knee: “It’s not an excuse. I’m just gonna push through.” #Sixers— Ky Carlin (@Ky_Carlin) October 27, 2021
When he says he is not going to make excuses and he is going to push through discomfort you can tell he is willing to do whatever it takes to win. But this is a marathon and not a sprint yet Embiid appears to be sprinting through four games. And periodically stopping to rub his knee.
Maybe take a game off soon or at least ease off the throttle in blowouts?
As ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne penned last season following Embiid’s awkward knee injury in Washington (a hyperextension and bone-bruise):
“But something he could control in the second half of the season was making sure everybody realized that he was the best player in the world.”
And then he forgot to fall like a tree on the night of March 12.”
Before that game last March, which may well have cost Joel the MVP trophy, Embiid had had a rather lengthy lay off because of a close-contact COVID protocol break (the barber incident) around All-Star Weekend.
His coach said he was going to keep a close watch on Embiid hours before the big man went down:
Doc Rivers on Joel Embiid: "He hasn't played a game, hasn't had a practice in a week. It'll be interesting to see how he performs tonight and how we perform with him. Obviously we're going to throw him out there, but we have to be careful watching him move and stuff like that."— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) March 12, 2021
That brings us to today. If the team knows that Embiid had a long off-season without a ton of full-court hoops, allowing that meniscus to heal properly, if they’re already noticing his “mobility” is limited, if he is still going to protect the rim like a man possessed up 13 with 90 seconds remaining in the 3rd game of the year, all just days after admitting to Shelburne he had trouble walking, then the impetus falls on the team to be conservative where the star player may not be so inclined.
It’s a cliche but the season truly is a marathon. Kawhi Leonard didn’t win the championship in 2019 proving many points during that regular season. He sat out every three or four games, formulaically. Kevin Durant only appeared in 35 regular season games last season, and just 12 playoff games. KD only needed half of a season to convince both ESPN and SI he’s the best player in the world. Nobody cares what KD did in December of 2020. If Embiid is having trouble walking for multiple days, the optimal protocol here isn’t to push through for statement games in October. If Embiid is not doing everything in his power to peak physically come the Spring, the organization might want to chat with the supermax star about the ultimate goal.
No doubt Embiid wants to step up while Ben Simmons is out of the lineup. But an ounce of prevention in October could be worth it’s weight in golden rings come June. Let’s see if Embiid sits out against Detroit or Atlanta to nip this one in the bud.