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March 07, 2021

Sixers' Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons sit out All-Star Game due to COVID-19 contact tracing

Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have been ruled out for Sunday evening's All-Star Game in Atlanta, the NBA announced late Sunday morning, due to a contact tracing issue that came up over the weekend. 

The league said in a press release that both players had been in contact with "an individual" who had returned a positive test for the coronavirus on Sunday, with ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reporting the person in question was a barber in the Philadelphia area. No other players attending the All-Star Game are believed to have been impacted/in contact with Embiid and Simmons at this time, and the NBA does not plan to replace either player in the hours leading up to the All-Star Game.

We're still short on specifics for the time being — both players were preparing to speak with the media shortly before they were removed from the festivities, so word from them will not come until sometime down the road. And while missing the All-Star Game is relatively meaningless generally speaking (and honestly, mostly a good thing), this specific example is problematic for the Sixers on multiple fronts.

For one, if either player actually contracts COVID-19, there are all sorts of complications that can spring from that even if they emerge from it relatively unscathed. Teammate Seth Curry is one of many players who have tested positive this season, and his play following a layoff has been far spottier than it was to start the season. While Curry's shooting coming and going is a natural part of an NBA season, he has said on numerous occasions that there are good days and bad days, and the Sixers even removed him from a game altogether after Curry copped to not feeling well during the middle of the contest.

"We’re checking out everything. He just looks tired and he's looked like that for a while," head coach Doc Rivers said at the time. "We just need to be very safe. We’re in uncharted waters with all this stuff. He said he didn’t feel great. That’s all we needed to hear. We just have to be very careful right now."

“I’m still working through it,” Curry added during another interview in late February. “I’m still getting my rhythm back, still getting my wind and my lungs, and in shape again. I’m still a work in progress. I got to use the games to do it. I’ve kind of been up and down.”

Curry is far from the only player who has been up and down following a positive test, so that's an outcome the Sixers need to prepare for diligently in the event it happens for either one of their top two players. Even in a best-case scenario, the league's health and safety protocols will likely have an impact on their season in the immediate future. Once the Sixers return from the All-Star break, they play a series of five games in seven days, including back-to-back to open the second half against the Bulls and Wizards (3/11 and 3/12 respectively) before returning for their first home game with fans on 3/14 against San Antonio.

They're likely looking at a minimum of 2-3 games missed to open up the second half due to the required week quarantine period, and even if they aren't against the toughest slate of teams, playing without their two best players simultaneously is a tall order at any time, particularly in the case of Embiid, who has dragged this team to respectability all season. With how thin the margin already is at the top of the conference, these games could end up being the difference between ideal seeding and positioning come playoff time and a nightmare round two matchup (or even round one, if things really go off of the rails from here). A scenario like this one is something the Sixers warned their players about heading into the break.

"We did a great job as far as at least getting information out. Elton Brand, Daryl [Morey] talked to the team right after the game [against Utah]. We jokingly said, 'Let's get it in, clubs on three!' being sarcastic. Because the memo was no clubs, no restaurants. Please be smart, stay home if you can, and we're hoping they do that," Rivers said during All-Star availability. 

"I've been very surprised and been proud of our guys because this is a young group of guys who do believe they're invincible...they're not scared of much of anything and, and they've done great staying out of all that stuff for the most part, and so let's hope that they can all do it over this break because the last thing we need is an outbreak to start the second half. It looks like we may be having one as a team. So, I'm already concerned."

We'll wait to learn more before we fire up the panic signal, but it puts a major damper on what was supposed to be a great time for the Sixers — an honoring of their two best players, and a bit of rest for a team that badly needed it. Quite a season we're having. 

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