On the 31st of May, down the pike in D.C.
Up three games to nil, moving on was guaranteed,
Thrashing through the lane...set to poster RoLo
The unstoppable force fell, disrupting their flow.
You could (I won’t, but you could) argue that whether or not Joel Embiid would need or not need knee surgery is the biggest story of the offseason. If the much bigger story is Ben Simmons being on the trade block, fine, but then this is the next biggest and it hasn’t really been treated as such. Let’s dive in.
When Joel Embiid took the fall that injured him in the playoffs, there was a solid night and day of panic for many fans. You remember....
First Daryl Morey tweeted out this Robin Hood tweet: “One O’Clock and all is well.”
At first we took this as a sign. We’ve avoided the worst! But then the morning rolled around without any updates from the team and we started to wonder if the tweet was about the RobinHood app or something else since Jo hadn’t even received an MRI by that point. The team’s plane was delayed. Eventually, it was revealed that Joel had a small tear in his meniscus:
Sixers center Joel Embiid has a small meniscus tear in his right knee and will be day-to-day, team says. He's out for Game 5 tonight.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 2, 2021
You were crestfallen and abandoned all hope. But...alas... Joel played and played well! In fact, he was mostly awesome.
Back in June, following the team’s Game 7 home loss to Atlanta, Daryl Morey told Crossing Broad’s Kevin Kinkead, the following, which aired on NBCS:
“I think we’re all super impressed what Joel was able to do, I mean he’s the heart and soul of the team and what he did every night for us will be forever be appreciated. In terms of like what’s next I know they're going through a full assessment of him right now the medical staff along with Joel and his very good team of advisors and the next step will be determined from that.”
“Joel is one of the smartest players I’ve ever worked with, and he likes to take lots of input from pretty much every top doctor in the country, and taking all that input the best decision will be made at that point.”
Over a month later, we got another update from Morey on the possibility of knee surgery, per Derek Bodner, The Athletic, on Twitter:
Daryl Morey says that Joel Embiid has been in the gym, and was in the gym today. Morey says that he's "not concerned about him medically at all," but did not confirm that Embiid will not have surgery on the torn meniscus in his knee. "He has a plan. He looks great."— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) July 30, 2021
Finally, upon signing his knew supermax contract (perhaps a little more evidence nobody is really worried about his knee), we got this, per Ramona Shelburne, ESPN:
[Embiid] suffered a tear in his right meniscus during this season’s playoffs but missed just one game and did not need surgery after the season, according to sources.”
So nearly three months after the fall, (which Doc Rivers seemed to confirm caused the injury amidst speculation last spring Joel may have had a preexisting issue) Embiid has apparently opted to not have surgery.
How do we feel about this?
On the whole, I think it’s very good news. I once had a knee problem and went to an orthopedic surgeon. He said something like “we believe the issue is with your right meniscus from the image, but it will be easier to tell if we go in and ‘scope’ it.” I hadn’t felt right in several months so I went for it. After I came to, they told me the meniscus was actually fine, and that they merely removed some scar tissue. I was on crutches for awhile, and I think it all turned out fine. But to this day, it’s not exactly the same as it was. Maybe a little “clickier.”
I’m not at all a doctor so you can throw this directly in the trash if you like, but I’m guessing this type of orthoscopic surgery was something they’ve considered.
Maybe a top surgeon even said something like “It’s a really small tear, we can get a better look at it if we go in with the scope, and either repair it if that’s what’s needed or at least remove some scar tissue to clean it up.”
And since that hasn’t happened, I’m going to guess that another handful of top doctors and advisors said something to the effect of “it’s such a small tear, and you never want surgery when you don’t need surgery, why don’t we take this offseason to rest it, rehab it, and see how it feels. The best case scenario is that it heals on its own.”
On the whole, it’s difficult to not see this as a positive. I actually assumed Embiid would get it scoped, so I think this means his rest/rehab program has gone well. The tear was in a place and small enough he hasn’t needed surgery. Let’s face it, no matter how good the surgeon, surgery is still someone slicing your body open with a knife. Avoid that when you can. That this path also allows for the opportunity to then have a full offseason to chill and work on his game is also great; less crutches and time with physical therapists means more time for video games, passing drills, and shot-work.
Now this is Philadelphia and we always want to know what the downsides are.
The downside is that as he starts ramping up, and getting back into game shape, some discomfort lingers. Star wide receiver Michael Thomas of the Saints waited nearly an entire off-season before opting to have ankle surgery and now will miss a significant portion of the upcoming season. That would stink for the Sixers if it came to that.
And it would be even worse if somehow the knee became aggravated or re-injured (knock so much wood) during the season. We’d start seeing stuff about the Sixers medical staff again on Twitter. I want no more of those days.
But despite my tendency towards pessimism on many basketball matters, I’m bullish here. I think it was truly a minor issue and that’s why Embiid looked so dominant at times during the playoffs. Perhaps following a big game there was some inflammation.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who had flashbacks to 2019. In two of the last three seasons, Joel Embiid was dealing with a knee issue and looked sensational in a Game 3 of round two, leading the Sixers to 2-1 series leads. And in two of the last three seasons, whether it was tendinitis, “the s*hits,” a meniscus, or a combination of things, he wasn’t nearly the same player in a monumental Game 4 that would have given Philly a commanding 3-1 series win. They lost both of those second-round series with his performance waffling. If it’s all merely a coincidence there should still be some lessons for everyone involved. You cannot go 0-12 in the second half during the biggest game of the season. Look at the swings from Game 3 to Game 4 in both the 2019 and 2021 season, seasons where only knee issues derailed an MVP caliber season:
So avoiding surgery and slowly ramping up will be huge here. Avoiding the temptation to push for regular season awards will probably be huge here too. This team will want a proactive, “an ounce of prevention...” style load management program in 2022. That’s absolutely vital. They know how good this team can be if Embiid is fully healthy. And they know they’ll be up against a wall if he’s dealing with a knee issue come May.
Lost in all of the discussion about Ben Simmons and how he shot from the line in the second round, and whether or not he’ll be traded is a) that Joel Embiid really struggled towards the end of that Hawks series; yes, he went 4-20 in Game 4, and yes, he tallied 21 turnovers in the final three games, but it’s almost assuredly because he wasn’t healthy B) who knows what might have happened had they advanced? It’s not unforeseeable that had the team advanced and found themselves in an absolute war of a series against Milwaukee, Embiid spending a majority of his minutes defending Giannis while also trying to score 40...sheesh, he might have aggravated an injury that was already limiting him. We learned about the risk of a full tear following an acute tear back in June.
I’m not saying it’s good they lost in the second round. But if I was Embiid’s doctor, I’d mention that there’s at least a silver lining here, no matter how much it hurts to lose. The knee got to start healing that much sooner without exponential risk for making it worse with another series or two.
Another year, another chance. Another chance to reshuffle priorities. Let the MVP go. Ignore the “he can’t play a full regular season” smoke. Rest every handful of games. Resist a handful of highlight dunks in traffic where it might be difficult to stick the landing. The only goal that should be left here is health and a pair of Finals MVPs during that new contract.