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March 02, 2017

Three thoughts on the Sixers and Joel Embiid

Sixers NBA

On Wednesday, the Sixers finally made the results of Joel Embiid’s MRI from Monday public. And as you know by now, it wasn’t good news: The team revealed that their uber-gifted 7’2” center and the Rookie of the Year frontrunner (?) will be shut down for the rest of the 2016-17 season after previously ruling Embiid “out indefinitely.”

The news is a colossal bummer for the Sixers organization, the fans, and most importantly, Embiid himself. Here are a few thoughts I have after trying to digest the news for a few hours:

1. The Sixers’ initial handling of this situation comes into question: Unfortunately, it’s difficult to come to another conclusion besides the team and its doctors initially misdiagnosing Embiid’s injury. It’s either that, or Bryan Colangelo lied through his teeth and purposely gave out inaccurate information. But it has to be one or the other.

This, from Sixers Chief Medical Director Dr. Jonathan Glashow on Wednesday…

"The assessment of Monday's follow-up MRI of Joel Embiid's left knee appears to reveal that the area affected by the bone bruise has improved significantly, while the previously identified meniscus tear appears more pronounced in this most recent scan.”

Sounds like the complete opposite of this, from Colangelo the night it was initially revealed that Embiid had a torn meniscus

"The MRI [after the Portland game] revealed obviously what we had thought to be a bone bruise. And there was also the recognition that there was a very minor meniscal tear. But it was not thought to be acute and it was not thought to be the source of the pain, inflammation or symptoms."

Forget the whole transparency discussion for a minute. From a front office standpoint, this type of miscalculation is worrisome. Trying to manage Embiid’s health would be tricky for any medical staff in the world — heck, I saw Embiid practicing just last week (Video 1, Video 2), and he was moving extremely well in addition to talking some trash with Dario Saric — so I don’t want to pretend like this is easy. Remember, Embiid wasn’t in any pain during Summer 2015 when the Sixers determined that he needed a second surgery on his navicular bone. This is someone who has a history of not even realizing that he’s hurt!

Colangelo said that Embiid was “asymptomatic” (my favorite Sixers buzzword behind “optionality,” which will never be topped) before the Houston game only a week after the initial injury occurred. But despite JoJo’s utter brilliance that night (32 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, and 3 steals), he clearly wasn’t moving at 100 percent.

“My knee felt great,” Embiid said after that game. “It was a little bit sore after, but that’s to be expected. The doctor told me that’s a bone bruise, it’s supposed to take at least two to three weeks to heal.” 

That was only a one week layoff, and Embiid is going to miss the rest of the season. You can make the argument that having to shut him down for the final 22 games is only a speed bump in terms of his career, and it very well could turn out that way. But moving forward, at the very minimum, the Sixers’ handling of Embiid over the past six weeks doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.

2. Perspective can work both ways with this injury: NBA players come back from a torn meniscus. Russell Westbrook suffered the injury almost four years ago now, and he’s doing OK athletically. Some players can actually play on a slightly torn meniscus, which was Colangelo and the Sixers’ initial hope for Embiid. This was an awkward landing, and if handled properly (surgery perhaps?) from here on out, Embiid logically should be ready to go for training camp. I understand that.

You’re going to hear the Greg Oden comparisons, and for this type of injury, those are unfair. Still, Embiid has played 31 games in three seasons. At some point, you can’t keep brushing these injuries aside, even if they’re not career-threatening.

Embiid fell on the floor in some manner or another approximately 10,000 times in those 31 games. And while the highlights that his all-out style produced were breathtaking — The play that he hurt himself on was bananas, for instance — he was out of control far too many times. Brett Brown compared him to a yearling multiple times this season, and sooner rather than later, Embiid will need to find his balance.

Don’t get me wrong, I still Trust The Process. But even with Embiid’s crazy talent level, the Sixers need him on the floor much more consistently if they want to start attacking their long-term goals.

3. Embiid’s contract extension negotiation is going to be interesting: Under normal circumstances, Colangelo would be delivering a max contract to Embiid that starts in the $25 million range at 12:01 AM on July 1st. Not only that, but he would do so with a big, fat smile on his face. In terms of talent, this is not 2016 Nerlens Noel and this is not 2012 Jrue Holiday, whose contract negotiation went all the way to October before he and the Sixers eventually struck a deal.

As you know, this isn’t a normal circumstance. Embiid’s talent and impact on your average NBA basketball game are undeniable, but that type of financial commitment isn’t to be taken lightly when talking about someone who has barely played throughout his rookie contract.

There are reasons for the Sixers to let the 2017-18 season play out. The front office might want to make a splash in free agency in the 2018 offseason, and more than anything, they probably want to see how Embiid reacts physically knowing that they still have the right to offer him a max contract or match any offers that he receives in restricted free agency.

Under the new CBA, the deadline for rookie-scale extensions will be moved up from October 31 to a day before the start of the regular season. Maybe the Sixers will see everything they need in training camp and the preseason and max Embiid out, but even if they do, it’s notable that we could potentially be questioning the decision.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann