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Silver linings playbook: Embiid dealt with plantar fasciitis recently, but looks more spry each game

Just a few games into the season, and we were forced to wonder if we should be concerned about Joel Embiid’s health — or at least his conditioning — after dealing with an infamous ailment.

San Antonio Spurs v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

It was just over a week ago now that a few of us at Liberty Ballers were wondering maybe this is the year it all comes together for the Sixers. Can we get a mulligan on the start? Having now fallen to 1-4, some fans are channeling their Process roots.

Were we projecting some of the success the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies were having? Even Daryl Morey appeared on the Rights to Ricky and admitted he and Elton Brand sometimes wonder if an anvil is about to drop when things are going oh so swimmingly.

(It’s funny he’d project so much optimism on the pod, while apparently knowing Joel Embiid hadn’t done much more than lay on his couch for the better part of two months with plantar fasciitis).

Now just a few games into the season, it’s not all clap your hands or ring that bell, brother, just yet, as the Sixers look like they need a few weeks off to strategize and practice. Maybe learn some basic transition or passing sets.

But looking for positives in a wretched start, the three key items on our wish list this year were Joel Embiid staying healthy, James Harden getting healthy and Tyrese Maxey continuing to ascend.

We may have nailed two of them, but last week we got a sneaky Friday news drop, regarding Joel:

Sports Illustrated once called Plantar “the most maddening injury in sports.” Jeff Pearlman wrote:

“Generally, the pattern goes like this:

Stage 1: Athlete is diagnosed with plantar.

Stage 2: Athlete insists he’ll return in a couple of days.

Stage 3: A couple of days pass.

Stage 4: Athlete plays for the first time, oh, a week after diagnosis, and the pain is worse than ever.

Stage 5: Several weeks pass.

Stage 6: Several more weeks pass.

Stage 7: The foot begins to feel better. The athlete attends a first practice and re-aggravates the injury. He ices. He warms. He stretches. He is fitted for insoles.

Stage 8: Athlete makes a highly publicized comeback, steps awkwardly and finds himself back in the trainer’s room.

“It’s the worst,” says Chris Burgess. “The absolute worst.”

The good news is that the Sixers have used past tense when discussing this thing; instead, suggesting that since Joel had to rest the ailment so much, he couldn’t keep in top form.

With phrasing like this, you’ll obviously have flashbacks from the 2018-2019, Jimmy Butler season, when Joel battled knee tendinitis. But when he returned, he looked heavier and slower. Was it still the knee? Was it the conditioning? Was it the s—ts? Ultimately, it didn’t matter, as he wasn’t the same player out on the floor.

Now, the team says the issue has mostly resolved, but clearly, dealing with it took a major toll on Embiid, who began the season a step or two slow.

Joel opened up about it with reporters recently.

“Still trying to work my way back,” Embiid said, after their third loss to the Spurs. “Coming into training camp, I hadn’t done anything in like two months, so it really slowed me down. Still trying to work my way back and hopefully everything goes back to normal.”

Interesting. Hopefully, the part that isn’t back to normal yet is just his wind and not the foot.

“It started when the team was out in L.A. out of nowhere,” Embiid said. “I just thought it was ... whatever, soreness. Over time, it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. And then it got to the point where I couldn’t walk and it was really painful. But I’m fine. There’s no need for excuses. We’ve just got to play better. We’ve just got to be better. Slow start, nothing to be concerned about it. Fairly new team. We’ve got to find a way.”

It’s not uncharacteristic of Embiid to share a bit about what’s been hampering him, and then quickly downplay it, so as not to make excuses. In fact, it’s a pretty common thing to do in the NBA, period.

Doc Rivers made an adjustment to his rotation as a response, last weekend. It seems he had his eye on his top gun’s conditioning, specifically.

“Yeah, it’s obviously not what we went into the season wanting to do,” Rivers admitted, after pulling Embiid a little more quickly than usual for his first rest.

“But we felt like for Joel, conditioning-wise — because he didn’t have work up until training camp — that this is a better way to play him right now,” Doc continued. “And it’s probably going to last a couple more weeks until we feel like we can get him in better shape.”

During the TNT Broadcast when the team battled the Milwaukee Bucks, the crew reminded us Joel falls a lot but he often falls on purpose, seeking to protect those (surgically repaired, and recently throbbing) feet.

Now with the benefit of hindsight, it makes more sense what we saw in the preseason, and this year’s early going. He’s been falling more than his normal amount. And some of the spills look flat out awkward.

Either he’s still feeling some discomfort, or he doesn’t want to flare up something that has recently subsided (I’d guess a bit of of both). So he’d rather fall on his butt.

But Joel would rather focus on hoops. He wants them to be better on D.

“Defense. We’ve just got to be better connected,” he recently told reporters. “We’re not guarding the ball well, and that’s on all of us. Some of the stuff that we’re doing, we need to work on it more. Like I said, it’s a fairly new team. Like I said before the season, it’s going to take time to get everybody on the same page. We’ll be fine.”

His son Arthur came to his second ever game vs. San Antonio. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get the win, although Embiid did drop 40. So if he’s not feeling great yet, he can still take over a ball game.

“It’s great,” [having Arthur at the game],” Embiid said. “I wish we would’ve gotten a win for him, but it’s great. I think it’s his second game, so it’s great having him.”

To this writer’s eyes, Embiid has looked a bit more spry each game. So I’m beginning to think he is in fact feeling better. And maybe the team wasn’t obfuscating when they said the main issue is his conditioning now.

If you’re looking for reasons the Sixers look so bad to start the year, it could be that they didn’t get the chance to practice for a couple months with their best player, who then came in necessarily lacking his wind, since he had to rest an often chronic injury. But Embiid has been falling awkwardly a bit less, and looks more spry with each passing loss game.

Let’s knock on plenty of wood that the plantar is truly in the rear view and that Jo can ramp up conditioning wise. But it may take some time either way.

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