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Sixers, Embiid bungling load management again? I’m floored!

Do Joel Embiid and the Sixers have the right injury management approach in place to navigate the rocky road ahead?

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Joel Embiid has missed five of the 76ers’ last seven games due to injury and the team is just 3-4 in that span. They’re now five games back from Boston for the East’s top seed, and 1.5 back from Milwaukee for the No. 2 seed. A healthy Embiid out there certainly might have changed that.

So where do things stand on the injury front now? Sighs.

Embiid’s injury update and an all-too-familiar song

Embiid first returned to the team’s lineup after missing the 76ers’ prior four games with an ankle issue. He summarily dispatched the Chicago Bulls and looked right.

But then in his next game back the 76ers got trounced at home by the New Look Knicks and Joel was spotted limping around, (allegedly) padding stats in a (bad result) blowout this time.

Embiid wouldn’t escape unscathed and missed the next one vs. Utah with “left knee swelling.” (Note, that’s not the same leg as the right ankle he was nursing).

Uh oh. Have our problems multiplied like wounded jellyfish?

Before the year, Nick Nurse made some comments that made a few of us nervous.

The first time I spotted Joel Embiid favor that right ankle was following this vicious dunk vs. the Timberwolves, in late December.

And here was the ankle roll we all saw vs. Toronto:

After seven years of this stuff, maybe some of us fans are developing a sixth sense for “Joel danger-zone games” because I tweeted this before that Raps contest too:

And during:

Might he have missed less than four consecutive games and five out of seven if he’d been pulled from the Toronto or Knicks battles sooner? Might they have somehow avoided the reported left knee swelling that’s since arisen? Was he compensating for the ankle?

Still worried about Joel and Sixers’ process for load management

I’ve been writing for years and years now that most of Embiid’s ***predictable*** — not the freak variety where say, Markelle Fultz goes all Conor McGregor shoulder shiver, crushing Jo’s eyesocket — are on dunks and track-down block attempts in traffic.

That’s the stuff that’s mostly limited him in the playoffs in at least two of the last three seasons.

Embiid, as dominant as he is when healthy, has picked up a significant, playoff-altering injury (or three) in the first round every year for the last three seasons.

Should we expect that to change?

I don’t know.

Embiid logged nearly 30 minutes (29.5 by my math but who’s counting?) more minutes of action ***after the initial ankle injury.***

As you saw from some game tweets above, Embiid was visibly limping around fairly late into garbage time vs. New York.

Since the Toronto game, Nikola Jokic has taken a slim lead in the MVP odds race over on DraftKings. So is Bryan Toporek right that this (alleged) streak chasing amid injuries might even be hurting Embiiid’s MVP chances, not to mention the team’s title odds?

Why does this stuff keep happening to this team?

Please, time hop with me, a long-tortured soul.

2016-2017 regular season

Embiid would be permitted to play NBA basketball with a known-to-the-team torn meniscus (failing to stick the landing on a running jam) that would eventually require surgery.

2018-2019 regular season

I wrote at the time before any serious Embiid knee tendinitis ailments developed:

“But the Sixers should now try and nip this nagging [back] injury in the bud even if it means [Embiid] missing a chunk of games before the All-Star break... it would not only be smart, it might be irresponsible and detrimental to their championship odds if they don’t....”

They did not.

Embiid would play through the 2019 All-Star game before we learned he would be out “indefinitely with knee soreness.”

He’d only play in 10 of the team’s next 24 games and upon return, looked like he’d gained weight; likely, from all the prescribed rest for what the team began calling “tendinitis.”

Kawhi Leonard (who did opt to formulaically rest under former Raps coach Nick Nurse every 3-4 games, despite being relatively healthy) drained his bouncing dagger and the rest is Raptors’ load-management success story history.

2020-2021 playoffs

That ’21 team defeated the Washington Wizards in just five games. The final win came without Joel, because he attempted to posterize the gargantuan Robin Lopez in a first-round game where the team already possessed a 3-0 lead.

It was the type of wildly-ambitious-highlight-play-in-a-non-critical moment Embiid has mostly matured through gunning for today, so credit there.

But the accident almost certainly cost the team the next series vs. Atlanta (remember his blown layup in Game 4, and his general limited mobility throughout that series) and the chance to host an Eastern Conference Finals vs. the eventual champs, the Milwaukee Bucks.

You just wish someone had sat him down pregame and reminded Jo not to take too many death-defying leaps in traffic for at least another two games.

2021-2022 regular season, James Harden

If you’re not skimming over any of these sections, you’re a fellow masochist and I respect your unhealthy lust for torture.

Harden came to the Sixers midseason from Brooklyn needing about two weeks off due to nagging hamstring issues. Nearing mid-March of that first Beard season, he wasn’t playing very well, but despite the lingering soft-tissue stuff, the team kept asking him for huge minutes.

Seeing him struggle, but dialing up minutes anyway, during grueling patches of the schedule... it would all culminate in him visibly pawing at the balky hammy in a game on Mar. 27, 2022.

And it occurred a couple of days after Doc Rivers admitted James’ hammy was “still not there.”

Increasing his minutes, as we all acknowledge he isn’t right... it probably at least contributed to another Harden-playoff-flameout, and an offseason’s worth of “so was his hammy bugging him, or has he just lost two steps?” questions as reporters and fans pondered his health limitations for the next six months.

2021-2022 playoffs

Doc Rivers and the Sixers simply couldn’t find a way to get the then MVP runner-up out of a key closeout game in time, in which they possessed a 29-point lead with less than four minutes to go.

Fans have labeled this one another “freak injury,” (like the Fultz collision) but yeesh.

Why did it have to happen?! There would have been no “freak” anything if the team had a training staff or coach who had more common sense than that 2022 group.

‘Hey, we’re up 25 with a few minutes left, should we pull at least JoJo yet?’

‘Nah, let’s push for 30 first!’

To be fair, Joel could have also simply pulled a Jokic, letting Siakam waltz harmlessly by, in a moment that should have been meaningless but could one day be regarded as legacy defining.

2022-2023 regular season, more Harden

Before last season began, I was arguing that because Harden came into the ‘23 season severely limited by hamstring injuries the prior two seasons, the Sixers should be especially careful with his early-season workload.

What did they do? Yup, they pushed the 33-year old to his absolute limits, allowing him to vie for the NBA lead in minutes, for a decent chunk of that season.

Harden sustained a mid-foot sprain, just a few games into that season, and it would cost him over a month.

In that game Harden would limp off the locker room for treatment, and then be allowed to return, logging more than 30 minutes on said injury!

It was outrageous as the game was happening....

Like Joel, James hurt himself very early in that game, and was clearly not healthy during the next 30 minutes he’d log before undergoing scans.

Comically, the same coach, training staff, and team that allowed James to play 30 minutes on that bum foot would express relief (!?) that Harden was only set to miss a month or more. WTF!?

If you were THAT worried, pull him from the game like we yearned for on Twitter!

More 22-23 regular season: Harden’s Achilles Heel

Harden would admit deep into the season that he’d been nursing a sore heel dating back to mid-Jan. 2023.

Despite knowing as much, and despite seeing how limited he’d look (after flaring up the issue late in the regular season), the Sixers would allow Harden to log 46 total minutes on that Achilles. Beard appeared to injure himself with 3:31 remaining in the second quarter vs. Chicago. And he’d wind up logging another 28 minutes (47 in total!!), as a winnable game trickled away in double overtime.

He’d miss time, and post some creepy before-after Achilles injury splits upon return. We even got this discomforting gem shortly before the 2023 playoffs, which sounded an awful lot like the “hamstring isn’t there yet” stuff from 12 months prior.

2022-2023 playoffs

More semi-predictable yet crushing disappointment. I tweeted this before the Game 3 Embiid got injured vs. Brooklyn in round one, suffering an LCL sprain, last spring.

And into the game:

To recap that series, Joel took some wicked Nic Claxton forearm shivers to the low back. By Game 3, Brooklyn must’ve started to get extra desperate. They’d hammer Joel early and often, and Claxton probably should have drawn an ejection on Joel after a well-timed taunt:

Brooklyn did everything to get Joel out of that game and they failed. Embiid saved the game, giving the team a 3-0 lead capped by a huge block vs. Spencer Dinwiddie.

But Philly won the battle and lost the war that evening.

Joel would first go to the locker room for treatment on his back, return, take a bunch more punishment, even appearing to roll an ankle, all before spraining the LCL in his knee... chasing another ambitious track-down block on Brooklyn’s Cam Johnson:

He’d finish that game. Then have to miss the next two playoff battles.

Yes, that was the third consecutive season the team had a chance to host an Eastern Conference Finals but fell in the second round, at least in part due to significant Embiid injuries.

Who is to blame and what’s the solution?

Because so much of this stuff predates Daryl Morey, and because it’s still apparently an issue now under Nick Nurse, maybe Joel is the main culprit?

Is it possible that no one in the front office or on the sidelines is comfortable benching a perennial MVP candidate who hates missing games, after missing the bulk of the first three seasons of his career? Maybe Joel always insists he’s fine like any ace pitcher, just before Skip taps the bullpen. But here, he’s being permitted to pitch long after “his count” is up?

Are they worried he’d simply ask for a trade to Miami or New York if they pushed back when he wants to keep playing on an obvious injury?

If that’s the case were things the same way with James Harden? The team being so worried that benching a likely injured, limping star, hoping to minimize damage, would disgruntle him and force a trade?

Or would Joel or James have heeded their advice if the team had simply been stern enough?

Probably a lot of blame to go around on a big load management bungling pie-chart.

Hopefully, Joel is fine, and they’ll get away with this.

But my main point is this: the Sixers may just have the league or at least the Conference’s best player (when healthy).

But the more poster dunks he goes for, the more ambitious track-down blocks he chases, then the more likely he is to take physical punishment or land on someone’s feet and pick up ailments. And then the more likely his team becomes to allow him to play 30 min. plus on a serious injury.

And if nobody here changes a thing, well then, maybe we’ll continue to get what we’ve always seen.

At the very least, the Sixers need to just hire someone to check Sixers’ Twitter during games. Our concern and collective wisdom might well have helped these guys to a Conference Finals or better; and a pile more healthy games for their studs.

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