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Injuries happen, but it doesn’t have to go like THIS, does it? This is all so Sixers

Man, this is all so Sixers.

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We just can’t have nice things, right?

It was literally just nine days ago when Joel Embiid dropped 38 on the Charlotte Hornets and hung 31 on the Pacers the very next night.

At that point, the league’s leading scorer had surpassed both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic for MVP favorite. And it was just starting to feel as if he might really win this thing.

Oddsmakers clearly thought so, and the discourse had flipped dramatically ever since Embiid outplayed Giannis in Milwaukee earlier in the month, securing a huge win. Fans reasonably had their heart’s set on stealing second place from a Celtics group that went 5-5 during a key stretch the Sixers went 9-1.

Then came a fateful home game against the Chicago Bulls, a game which looked, on paper, like the team’s easiest win of the regular season remaining on their sick, deranged, unfair (wahh) back-loaded schedule.

That’s where things started to fly off the rails. If you’re familiar with the current injury situation regarding Philadelphia’s two best players, feel free to skip on ahead.

If you’re not, we’ll start with recaps on Harden and Embiid’s respective ailments and how they might have been mismanaged.

James Harden’s Achilles

In that first Chicago ballgame, the double OT loss on March 20, James Harden would appear to be in some significant pain. Starting in the second quarter, after a tough fall, he’d be slow to get up, and limp a bit.

By the second half, he was an absolute shell of himself, finishing an abysmal 2-of-14 with just five points in the 109-105 loss.

Many of us wondered why Doc Rivers continued to leave Harden in the ballgame if he wasn’t going to really play much on either end of the floor. He deferred his usual point guard duties to basically anyone else, and certainly wasn’t a big plus on defense.

Even just one of Shake Milton or Danuel House Jr. could have helped them secure a monster win in the standings, and simultaneously save James from some additional pressure on that tendon!

Harden missed 14 games with a right foot strain earlier this year. He strained it in the first quarter of a game vs. the Wizards in November, and would get treatment in the locker room, then somehow be permitted to play another 30-plus minutes on that foot, which would later cost him a month of play!

How many less games might he have missed if they’d simply pulled him as soon as he got hurt, playing things cautiously last November? Might they be in position for the two seed right now? They have the best record in the league since he returned to the lineup on Dec. 5. So what if he didn’t have to miss quite so much time?

Around January, James would pop up on the injury report with left (the other foot) heel soreness.

The 2018 MVP would miss the occasional second of a back-to-back, listed with “foot soreness,” or “injury management.” He got two rest days with those designations in this month of March.

Doc Rivers would admit after the double-OT loss vs. Chicago that he felt Harden’s foot was “hurting” during that game.

Why The Beard was permitted to total 47 minutes in that game is a wild question to have to ask this late in the year.

Why was he permitted to play roughly 30 more minutes, after first signs of clear discomfort on an achey foot, for the second time this season, leading to missed games? The team is pretty careful with Joel Embiid. Not so much with Harden, though, right?

If Harden had been pulled immediately after he showed signs of ailing, might he have been able to go for one of the last two road losses?

Curiously, now it seems James is set to return vs. the Denver Nuggets, even though Joel Embiid will not be active.

The Sixers likely don’t have the firepower to beat the West’s top seeded team with Harden at less than full strength, ramping back up.

The prudent thing last week was to pull him from the Bulls game. The prudent thing today is to give him one more night off.

It’s fair to wonder if the Sixers have the right process here for injury/load management.

Embiid’s calf

Just as we were coming around to the idea Harden’s health was the biggest story, we got another chartreuse and pink sneaker to the face.

Embiid looked pretty awesome vs. the Bulls last Monday. But he fouled out and couldn’t help the Sixers in the second overtime period.

Apparently, we’d learn Joel felt some tightness in his calf that Monday game, the first of two games they’d face the Bulls.

But in the second meeting, he would never emerge from the half. In fact, fans went nearly the entire third period wondering where the heck the front-runner for MVP was.

We’d later Zapruder the game and find this stuff:

The full quotes on that situation were included in this analysis here, thanks to reporting from The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Gina Mizell.

Even though Embiid had felt this calf on Monday, we’d get this odd “score differential” update for why he was not returning to a 28-point game, before later hearing it was in fact calf tightness.

The optics of the whole thing felt very... well, as our Paul Hudrick wrote, “man, this is all so Sixers.” And Hudrick is right.

If they knew he was dealing with a calf since Monday, they could have skipped the “score differential” bit and been more upfront.

The fact that now Embiid is missing a crucial showdown with Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets is all the evidence one needs to understand he’s genuinely limited here.

Embiid not being ready to go here is such a surprise that former Liberty Baller Derek Bodner now has to find a way to slow cook himself some Wilson:

So with news the calf is still a thing, it’s not simply hindsight to say Joel should not have played in both of the last two back-to-back road losses.

Many of us debated last week how the team should handle that slate.

With a back-to-back beginning in Golden State, before a trip to Phoenix which one of the two should Joel rest in we wondered?

With an MVP on the line, we know he wants to be out there for the showdown vs. Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets Monday. So, what was the best strategy?

If Joel sat vs. the Warriors (winners of 12 of their last 13 at home) they could have increased their chances at the more winnable game in Phoenix (losers in five of their prior six games, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, having already ruled out Deandre Ayton and Kevin Durant).

With the Cleveland Cavaliers hot on the Sixers’ tails for the third seed, that made the most sense in my opinion.

But since Joel opted to go in Golden State, then it made sense to rest him during the game vs. Phoenix. Embiid looked fatigued/achey right from the jump in that one.

The Inky had the postgame quotes from Joel himself:

“I’m going to need [a night off] pretty soon. It’s two things. Like I said, it’s all about [being healthy] for the playoffs. You know, like tonight, I was very sloppy. Usually when I’m sluggish and sloppy that means I’m tired. I’ve been playing a lot of minutes, I’ve been playing every single game.”

To make matters worse, Embiid logged 38 and then 32 minutes in each of the b2b.

The Crown Jewel of The Process was still in down by 18 with just over four minutes to play vs. the Suns!!! Holy orbital PTSD, Batman.

Per Woj, and Shelburne Monday:“Embiid did try to give it a go at the shootaround Monday morning, but the Sixers decided to give him some rest. Monday’s game in Denver is the Sixers’ third in four nights.”

Hopefully this is all more precautionary than a mounting issue, but Joel must be pretty sore to agree to miss this one.

Optics and the MVP race

Then on Monday, we get a bit of an MVP optics thing.

Joel, who hasn’t really done much if any campaigning for MVP, seemed to finally acquiesce, agreeing to speak with Shams Charania of the Athletic.

Joel hit on many of the “right” notes, reminding us he’s ultimately focused on a title, not the regular season awards.

But Joel did take the bait and found a couple ways to tacitly put Nikola Jokic down.

As our Sean Kennedy put it:

“While Embiid makes a point to mention Jokic deserved the award last year, bringing up defense and analytics right afterwards would seem to be another shot at the big man in Denver....The line about guys that have won two MVPs reads to me as yet another small shot fired at Jokic. While Embiid certainly makes efforts to be diplomatic throughout the interview, you can kind of see where his true thoughts on the matter break through for some mildly spicy content. Luckily, we get to see things play out on the court, rather than the page, tonight in Denver.”

Joel even “liked” this old tweet from 2018 about head-to-head matchups being the key to deciding who is the GOAT. Talk smack, back it up. Let the chips fall where they may.

But the timing here is pretty bad with the knowledge he isn’t healthy enough to play, after some apparent smack talk, and won’t get the chance to back that up on primetime.

Some bozos will inevitably claim he’s “ducking” Joker.

So the MVP odds have tightened with the news Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne reported that Embiid won’t suit up tonight with that tight calf:

And Joel’s recent comments will no doubt add fuel to the MVP discourse:

In my opinion, too many mistakes were made here.

All in all, the team, from the top on down to the stars, messed up.

If they knew Harden was managing some pain in his left foot for the better part of the last few months, they should have pulled him the second it was clear he wasn’t helping the team because of that issue.

It’s the second time this year they’ve let Harden play way too long on an injury.

For Joel, if they knew he was hurting Monday, why didn’t they let us know right away his issue popped up again on Wednesday at the half? Why didn’t he get a night off in Golden State? And if not that one, then at least Phoenix? Why was he allowed back into a game down 15-plus so late?

The star players probably have a fair amount of say with this stuff. But like an ace closer deep in the 9th inning, there needs to be checks and balances so they don’t overdo it.

But don’t worry, with Embiid out maybe we’ll get to see a fair amount of Dewayne Dedmon, you know, the player the Sixers finally used their last roster spot on after waiving Isaiah Joe.

I think Embiid fully intended to play when he made those comments, but just woke up feeling extra tight and is making the right, but very difficult call to sit out.

Ultimately, it’s disappointing but if Embiid isn’t right, a day of rest is better than letting him push on a developing soft-tissue injury. Hopefully the back-to-back runner up MVP is OK for the next home game vs. Dallas on Wednesday or Toronto on Friday. Hopefully tightness hasn’t evolved into a strain because those take time to heal.

I say just rest James one more night. And while you’re at it, maybe sneak in a rest day for Tyrese Maxey too. Dude has played six games in nine days, topping 40 minutes twice. P.J. Tucker (ankle) didn’t look great in Golden State.

Embiid can still come back and win MVP. This team can still win a championship. And if they do, we can all look back at this stuff and enjoy it as one of the many low points when nobody believed in this group. That will make it all the more fun.

The other way to look at it is the injury load mismanagement may wind up hurting Embiid’s MVP chances, and could cost this team a top two (or even three) seed. His subtle smack talk sure looks worse with him missing this ballgame too.

So for now, yeah man, this is all so Sixers.

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