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October 07, 2019

How pain, defeat shaped Sixers plan for Joel Embiid this season

Joel Embiid is one of the few athletes who is good enough to warrant shaping an entire offseason around his talents. Playing under the weather at half speed against the eventual NBA champions, Embiid nonetheless propped the Sixers up all by himself on defense in game seven, registering a +10 across 45 minutes played in a two-point loss.

Watching the franchise player sputter at the worst possible moment inspired a lot of soul searching in Philadelphia. It started, to let Elton Brand tell the story, with Embiid reflecting on how things could have gone differently and where the franchise could have served him best before they got to that moment.

Alarm bells went off for a lot of people last year when Embiid was the NBA's leader in minutes through the first month of the season. A player with a history of health issues was playing through circumstances of all sorts as if to prove to his critics he was capable of being the ironman they wanted him to be. There are nits to pick with Embiid and his game, but no one can question his competitiveness and desire to play.

Embiid would eventually pay the price for all those minutes when he returned from the All-Star break with knee troubles, and with the Finals on their mind, Philadelphia kept Embiid on the shelf for 14 of their final 24 regular-season games, harming their effort to build chemistry with a new-look group.

"It's hard," Elton Brand said recently of reining Embiid in, "especially when you're as dominant as Joel is and can be. He wants to play, as competitive as he is, but I think the setback last year, losing game seven in the semi-finals, it really hurt. And he understood that look, I need to be the best in May and June that I can be. I think that hiccup helped us a lot."

From the perspective of helping Embiid grow up and let go, it certainly helped matters to have Kawhi Leonard send the dagger through Philadelphia's heart. 

The former Spurs star was as productive as he has ever been when he was on the floor for Toronto in the 2018-19 regular season, but the Raptors built their entire season around proactive rest for Leonard, playing him in just 60 games before the playoffs. That move didn't just allow Leonard to save his legs, it afforded players like Pascal Siakam a chance to assume more responsibility and learn to help the team while juggling different responsibility levels from night to night.

As early as exit interviews in May, Embiid was looking to Leonard as a potential blueprint for the path forward, even if he couldn't quite shake the drive to play that put him in this predicament to begin with. For the big man, it all started with putting a team around him that could thrive with and without him.

"Looking at the way Toronto managed Kawhi last season, obviously I don't want to miss that many games," Embiid said in May. "But when you start thinking about back-to-backs and all that, obviously having a good team around you helps. Most of the time I kind of feel bad, because I feel like I let everybody down by not playing or suiting up. If you see that and you know that guys are going to take over or be sure that you'll definitely win, we have the talent to do so, I guess it's an easier decision for me." 

"I think as long as I think we got it all covered and I feel like we have an opportunity to win games without me I'm up to it. Definitely got to take a better approach. Just got to keep working on my body, it's only going to get better."

It's fair to say the Sixers are no longer going to be drawing dead with Embiid sitting out. The acquisition of Al Horford didn't just give the Sixers an elite big man to start in Embiid's place, it provided them with a capable player who can cut into Embiid's minutes when he does play. The acquisition of Kyle O'Quinn has flown under the radar some, but he's an excellent third option behind their frontcourt pillars and more than capable of anchoring the second units on nights where Embiid or Horford sit.

Building that base of talent was the biggest and most important step, but the Sixers had other housekeeping to take care of. Their medical department has come under fire time and time again in recent years, with a blend of miscommunication, murky timelines, and the aforementioned recklessness with Embiid's minutes all factoring into public mistrust.

Trust between doctors and any sort of patient is important, but think about how different the stakes are for athletes. Their ability to remain effective and make money is a direct reflection of their physical health. To invoke the Leonard example again, his departure from San Antonio in the first place was driven by a dispute over his health with the Spurs, with San Antonio disagreeing over the state of his health and alienating the star in the process.

In a twist of fate, the Sixers went out and hired a staffer from those Spurs, Lorena Torres, to help shape their new look sports science department. During a recent meeting with reporters, Brand specifically highlighted her history in data science as a driving force behind hiring her, and her work there has been extensive. Torres has authored or co-authored research on hydrotherapy, player tracking devices, and the implementation of tech in sports, all of which are potentially relevant for Embiid in particular.

Leading the other half of the department is Scott Epsley, the newly-promoted Medical Director who has been on staff with Philly since the 2016-17 season. Brand noted this past Saturday that part of Epsley's task, in concert with Sixers consultants and doctors, would be to build relationships and communicate openly with the players, who know their bodies much better than anyone else ever could.

But there is a third pillar in Philadelphia's front-office reshaping: Brand himself, who says part of the challenge this season is for him to step up and lead in the health department.

"I'll admit, I'll be more a part of it," Brand said. "We'll be aligned with the player in a partnership for their care. I felt for their daily care, changes needed to be made."

That shift has not gone unnoticed by Embiid and the other players around the team. Over the opening week of training camp, the center has gone out of his way to praise Brand for creating an open dialogue and building trust with him. Unlike, you know, the guy who was the general manager before Brand.

"Elton is a great guy," Embiid told Zach Lowe on a recent episode of The Lowe Post. "He has been amazing since he took over for, what was it, Bryan Colangelo I think? Yes it was."

In some cases, that means Brand is going to have to leave the door open and not say something now that he may contradict later. It did not go over well when he communicated that back-to-back appearances are still potentially on the table for Embiid this season, or that he could play more games than last season. But it's better to keep that door open for now, even if it's only slightly ajar, than it would be to rule him out and then go back on their word a month from now, risking the anger of the public, the media, and most importantly, the big man himself.

Embiid, who dropped 20 pounds in the offseason to prepare for the long road ahead, has a set of lofty goals for the season including winning the MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and capturing the No. 1 seed. But none of those achievements will matter if the Sixers falter in the second round of the playoffs for a third straight season. 

That is the message Embiid will hear every day from the man sitting in the GM's chair, an ex-player who knows firsthand how fragile success can be in the NBA. After a full year of wheeling-and-dealing, the biggest task in front of Brand is just getting his franchise player to listen.

"We'll be thoughtful, strategic, aligned with Joel. It's a partnership," Brand said. "We talk to him, we talk to each player daily to make sure we're on the same page. He knows that I feel we're a championship-caliber team, and for us to reach that goal it has to start with Joel in the postseason being the best Joel possible."

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