The Sixers have a tricky tightrope to traverse over the final week-and-a-half of the 2022-23 NBA regular season.
Joel Embiid is neck-and-neck with Nikola Jokic to win his first Most Valuable Player award, while the Sixers are jockeying with the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers for playoff seeding. However, both Embiid (calf) and star guard James Harden (Achilles) are nursing injuries that have caused each of them to miss recent games.
While the Sixers might be tempted to trot Embiid and Harden out for a final MVP push or a last-gasp shot at the No. 2 seed, they should be prioritizing both players’ health above any awards races or playoff seeding. They’ll effectively be drawing dead in the playoffs if Embiid and Harden aren’t healthy, and they need to act accordingly.
Embiid initially suffered his calf injury against the Chicago Bulls last Wednesday. Although the Sixers initially said he didn’t return in the second half because of the score differential—they entered halftime with a 28-point lead—they later revealed that he had “mild right calf tightness.” Embiid proceeded to play both nights of the Sixers’ back-to-back set against the Golden State Warriors on Friday and Phoenix Suns on Saturday before missing Monday’s showdown with Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.
While the decision to rest Embiid was an enormous letdown—particularly after he took some not-so-veiled shots at Jokic during an interview with Shams Charania of The Athletic—the Sixers were wise not to let the MVP chase take precedence over his health. According to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Embiid “tried to participate in the morning shootaround” ahead of the Nuggets game “but was unable to go.” When reporters asked him how he felt afterward, he replied, “Not good.”
Meanwhile, Harden has missed the Sixers’ past four games with Achilles soreness after playing nearly 47 minutes in the double-overtime loss to the Bulls last Monday. He participated fully in Monday’s shootaround prior to the Nuggets game, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, but the Sixers erred on the side of caution and held him out as well.
Both Embiid and Harden are listed as questionable for Wednesday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks. After the loss to the Nuggets, head coach Doc Rivers said he was “optimistic for James” playing against the Mavericks, but he was less certain about Embiid.
After the Sixers’ blowout win over the Bulls last Wednesday, Rivers implied that both Embiid and Harden likely would have played through their injuries if it were a playoff game. But with the playoffs rapidly approaching and the Sixers fading out of realistic contention for a top-two seed in the East, they’ve decided to play it safe with their two stars.
“We don’t want him playing if it’s sore,” Rivers said about Harden. “If it’s sore enough, we still won’t play him Friday. We’re at that point, probably earlier in the year, everybody still plays. We’ve gone in the playoffs two years in a row with injuries, and we all know you don’t win in the playoffs when your key guys aren’t healthy. Period. So we’re going to do whatever we can to be healthy.”
With only seven games left in the regular season, the Sixers are 2.5 games behind the Celtics for the No. 2 seed and two games ahead of the Cavaliers for the No. 3 seed. They own the tiebreaker over the Cavs and have already lost the tiebreaker to the Celtics, so they’re effectively 3.5 games behind Boston and three games up on Cleveland.
The Cavs have home games left against the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets (who’ve been playing the spoiler role to perfection lately!), along with two road games against the Orlando Magic. Unless they start resting players, they figure to go no worse than 4-1 or 3-2 over that stretch. Meanwhile, the Sixers’ final seven opponents are all either jockeying for playoff or play-in seeding, so they should all still have something to play for.
The Sixers don’t appear all that concerned about whether they can jump to No. 2, stay at No. 3 or fall to No. 4, though.
“We respect everybody, but we like our team,” Rivers said Monday. “We’ve just gotta get healthy. And rhythm helps, too. When you don’t have guys, you know, our bench has taken a major hit over this stretch because half our bench is starting. So it’d be great to get back to our normal rotations where we could have everybody, where we could have the right rotations in the second and the beginning of the fourth quarters.”
Falling to No. 4 would likely lock in a first-round matchup against the frisky New York Knicks before a second-round clash with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Staying at No. 3 would mean a first-round series against either the Brooklyn Nets or Miami Heat before a second-round battle against the Celtics. Either way, if the Sixers aren’t beating the Knicks, Heat or Nets, they sure as hell aren’t beating the Bucks, Celtics or Cavs in back-to-back series.
Embiid and Harden aren’t the only Sixers who’ve missed time lately, either. Jalen McDaniels is nursing a right hip injury that caused him to miss four of the Sixers’ past eight games, while Danuel House Jr. missed two games with a shoulder injury before returning Monday against the Nuggets.
At this point of the season, the Sixers know who they are. They’ve figured out their identity and their rotations. (Thankfully, Rivers didn’t wait until the last week of the season to try out Paul Reed as the main backup center this year!) It’s now just a matter of getting to the playoffs in one piece and letting the chips fall as they may.
That might mean more Dewayne Dedmon minutes over these final seven games. Not because the Sixers need to “see what he can give” them, as Rivers said after Saturday’s loss to the Suns—Spoiler alert: he’s dust and should not be in the playoff rotation—but because a well-rested Embiid is the key to their championship chances.
It will be a huge bummer if some relatively meaningless late-season games ultimately cost Embiid in the MVP race, there’s no denying that. But his best chance to prove his superiority over Jokic and every other player will come in April, May and June. Getting him, Harden and the rest of the team to the playoffs in one piece should be the Sixers’ foremost priority over this next week-and-a-half, even if it means resting players and potentially losing some otherwise winnable games.