February 20, 2019
Sixers center Joel Embiid appeared in the All-Star Game on Sunday evening, and nobody would have suspected bad news was coming on the health front. That made it more of a gut punch Wednesday afternoon when the Sixers ruled Embiid out for at least a week, all thanks to a sore left knee.
That left knee, as Brett Brown noted at Sixers practice on Wednesday, did not just become a problem overnight. The Sixers have been aware of the issue for what Brown called, "several weeks," and even that may be selling the issue short. Embiid missed a game against the Portland Trailblazers on December 30 due to soreness in the same knee, which is nearly two months ago at this point.
"Evidently it reached a stage where he just felt uncomfortable with it, he had an MRI on it," said Brown. "It's a little bit of tendonitis, it's stuff I think is quite common actually. So we will miss him for a week and then we will reevaluate it."
Brown dismissed concerns raised by reporters about Embiid playing in the All-Star Game while dealing with this issue. Had Embiid sat out of All-Star festivities altogether, he could have gotten a full week of rest between games, and even if he wasn't ready for Thursday's game against Miami, he'd presumably be closer to returning.
The coach pushed back on that concept.
"We'd all be making a mistake, and it's a natural dot connector, and it shouldn't be, to think that had anything to do with it," said Brown. "In fact, when you speak to the medical people, one of the things that at times exacerbates it is time off. You know to keep your core, your quads, etc. strong, and just try to have some level of maintenance, is really in a prescribed area, their recommended area, and maybe time off actually did more harm than good."
"But the bottom line is, nobody needs to read into anything here. This is an NBA athlete that has some soreness in a knee, that has had an MRI, and we all should move on. We'll miss him obviously, playing wise, but it's not anything that isn't completely pointed toward keeping him ready, and especially ready when it matters most at the end of the year."
I would disagree with Brown's assessment here, not because I pretend to have any level of medical expertise but because it's incoherent with their own treatment plan.
If your assertion is that the issue can be exacerbated by rest, what is the public supposed to make of a treatment plan centered around holding him out of practices and games for another week? It's an explanation that offers a thesis — "time off can exacerbate the issue" — only for you to recommend more time off in order to get him up to speed. That reads like B.S.
The attached physical therapy program is, obviously, important to note here, but the Sixers just allowed their franchise center to play in a meaningless exhibition only to rule him out of real games several days later. It's a franchise with a murky medical history, and one that has not handled Embiid's knee well in the past, and they deserve the scrutiny they'll get here.
Then, of course, there's the matter of what this means for the Sixers who are actually able to suit up and play. Philadelphia needs to build a level of chemistry and familiarity on the fly, having added another major piece at the deadline in Tobias Harris. Without their best player on the floor, it's a bit hard to begin molding that new identity.
Embiid's absence also creates a situation where there's not a clear pecking order, nor is there a clear-cut safety valve for when their offensive possessions break down. Typically, when the Sixers offense breaks down and it's late in the clock, the ball gets dumped into Embiid, and the Sixers bank on him creating something out of nothing.
Who does that responsibility turn to now? Brown believes it's Butler who will take a lot of those touches, and the team will likely lean into sets build around Butler and Harris in crunch-time situations.
"If you made me guess, I'd guess Jimmy," said Brown. "When it's down to crunch time, the static basketball, I'd be surprised if we don't end up going through Jimmy and Tobias and maybe putting those two in some two-man actions, and expecting some switch outs from that pairing...in the normal play and flow of a game, we're going to do what we do, we're going to move the ball and pass and share and run."
It doesn't sound like Butler will mind that one bit.
"Going about it the same way, [but] it's time to pick it up a little bit," Butler added after practice. "This is the final stretch. I'm ready man, my mind, my body, I'm relaxed, calm and collected, I'm ready to win some games."
With Furkan Korkmaz also being ruled out for the foreseeable future, the victim of a torn meniscus, Philadelphia's thin rotation just got even thinner. Their schedule is about to get much easier than it was over the last month or so, but every game is important for them, with playoff seeding looming large in mid-April.
And so as the big man hits the shelf for an extended break, the Sixers can only approach it one way.
"Obviously we're losing our guy," Harris said. "It's a next guy up mentality, but it's the same focus to win games, come out and compete, and get better as a team."
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