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January 16, 2020

Practice notes: Sixers' Joel Embiid cleared for non-contact conditioning

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3_Joel_Embiid_sixers_76ersvsCeltics_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Sixers center Joel Embiid.

After having a follow-up visit with his surgeon, the Sixers say center Joel Embiid has been cleared for non-contact conditioning drills, with another update on his health expected to come within about a week.

This is viewed as a good sign for Embiid, who the team says is progressing in the right direction following surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left hand. The next step for Embiid is getting to a point where he's able to participate in contact drills with the use of both hands, whether that's for work in the post, finishing drills, or an assortment of other basketball activities at the facility.

The silver lining of the hand injury is that Embiid can still be put through a battery of conditioning drills, which we have seen the Sixers put him into over the last few days. Before Wednesday's game against the Brooklyn Nets, a few Sixers staffers ran sprints with him while players for both teams warmed up at the Wells Fargo Center, and Embiid would later go through a series of one-handed shooting drills with the assistance of Chris Babcock, Philadelphia's Director of Player Development, and other Philly staffers.

Those drills continued at practice on Thursday afternoon, with Embiid lingering on the court post-practice to run up and down the floor with Performance Director Lorena Torres Ronda.

The Sixers have split their last four games without Embiid, with two ugly road losses sandwiched between home wins over the Celtics and Nets. His absence has loomed large on both ends — the Sixers no longer have their best player to turn to when they need a bucket down the stretch, and their safety blanket on defense has been removed, demanding more of Al Horford and backup center Norvel Pelle, who has been thrust into a larger role with Embiid injured.

Philadelphia has slightly altered its scheme to try to best mold the defense around Horford, who lacks the size and length of Embiid and is a worse fit for their "centerfield" drop coverage against pick-and-rolls. Brett Brown has tried to bring Horford up further when defending these plays in an effort to give Horford the best chance to blow up these plays.

"We're onto the notion of what should happen, we don't see him all the way back," Brown said Thursday. "I don't see him all the time blitzing. We did quite a bit with Kyrie [Irving], we did with some of the key guards, Kemba [Walker], but not as a steady diet. Somewhere in the middle of like, drop back and deal with Dinwiddie at the rim, or blitz and get punished with the pieces behind the rotation when Kemba drops it over the roller's shoulder, somewhere in the middle of those two worlds is his world."

"I want him up where he's making some level of confrontation on the ball, and at times DeAndre Jordan's going to get behind you and the low man, you better be ready to put out that fire...that's the perfect world. How do I assess us how are we doing? I think we're doing okay, I think especially in the fourth quarter last night we did really well."

It has worked in fits and starts, though Horford has continued to have his difficulties defending vertical threats around the basket. In the first half of Wednesday's win over Brooklyn, Horford was often caught in no man's land against a pair of centers (Jarrett Allen and the aforementioned Jordan) who don't need much room for takeoff. 

There is an additional level of responsibility, as Brown points out, on the rest of Philadelphia's defenders to help out Horford when he does play further up. This stretch without Embiid puts the defensive improvements of someone like Tobias Harris to the test. With Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson guarding most point-of-attack players on opponents, Harris frequently ends up defending corner shooters, leaving him in best position to help on the rim if and when the Sixers blitz the ballhandler.

Philadelphia's general philosophy sans Embiid is to make sure they're not giving teams predictable looks on defense. When Embiid is out there, he is imposing enough that the Sixers are often content with living out of the same looks and daring teams to try to beat him. That is not the case with Horford in his spot, in part because they feel more comfortable throwing him into different situations than they do with Embiid.

"With Jo, to have him stalking, blitzing pick-and-rolls 25 feet from the basket, doesn't seem so smart," Brown said. "A steady diet where they're just constantly used to something isn't what we're interested in. And when you look at the dynamic scorers we have faced without Joel...that's stuff where there's a sort of consistency with how we see that world that we have to keep doubling down on."

The Sixers have not committed to an exact timetable for Embiid's return, and though he is trending in the right direction, it is not the worst thing in the world that they have to figure out how to get by without him for an extended stretch midseason. Failing without him on the floor was the biggest reason they lost the Toronto series last season, and the progression of the lineups without him will loom large in their quest for a title.

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