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The Inevitability of Joel Embiid’s Injury

Their superstar is out for the year, but Sixers fans knew this was coming

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Joel Embiid, rookie center for the Sixers and charming internet boyfriend to the Delaware Valley, is out for the season. The bone bruise that dogged him in mid-January is getting better, but his torn meniscus is worse than originally feared.

Lucky Sixers fans will have already become numb to this level of predictable disappointment. Of course Embiid is out for the year. Andrew Bynum was eventually out for the year. Nerlens Noel was eventually out for the year. Ben Simmons was eventually out for the year. It’s always worse than it looks because that’s just how things work.

At least it’s not his foot, I guess. But Embiid, who missed the postseason of his freshman year at Kansas and his first two NBA seasons with a broken navicular bone, has never had good injury luck. Based on what we know about meniscus tears in athletes of Embiid’s stature, this has the potential to get even more frustrating in the years to come.

Embiid’s history makes it hard to get too angry at team president Bryan Colangelo. Sure, Embiid played through the knee injury when the Sixers were on national TV, then Colangelo obfuscated about the injury’s severity before getting tetchy when Comcast SportsNet’s Michael Barkann pressed him on the topic on Monday.

Colangelo was supposed to be a departure from the total radio silence of his predecessor, Sam Hinkie. Colangelo was supposed to be good at message discipline and put a good public face on the organization. “This is a relationship business,” Colangelo said 11 months ago at a press conference introducing him as team president. That job came open when Colangelo’s father, a longtime NBA executive brought on as an adviser to Sixers ownership at the urging of commissioner Adam Silver, forced Hinkie out. It is indeed a relationship business.

For as badly as Colangelo has bungled his one job, those relationships no more injured Embiid than they protected him from injury. It isn’t Colangelo’s fault that the Sixers haven’t been able to keep a big man healthy since Moses Malone; he just took a situation that was worse than it looked at first and made it more difficult than it had to be.

The only long-term question that matters is how Embiid heals for 2017–18, when presumably he’ll be joined by Simmons and at least one more high lottery pick. In just 31 games, Embiid proved that when healthy he’s one of the best centers in the game. Even when he was healthy the Sixers didn’t let Embiid play back-to-backs and restricted him to 28 minutes a night. That means he’ll end his rookie season having played only 786 minutes, but he still might be worthy of Rookie of the Year.

Among rookies with at least 700 minutes played, Embiid leads in points per 100 possessions (38.9; second place is Dario Saric at 22.0); blocks per 100 possessions (4.7; second is Pascal Siakam at 2.6); and free throw attempts per 100 possessions (15.1; second is Andrew Harrison at 6.9). He’s also pulling down 15.1 rebounds per 100 possessions, second to Willy Hernangomez. On a per-possession basis, Embiid scores as much as James Harden and Kawhi Leonard and blocks more shots than anyone in the NBA. In a year when the no. 1 pick (Simmons) hasn’t played at all and the no. 2 and no. 3 picks (Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown) are still works in progress, Embiid has been a superstar in a power vacuum.

But nobody’s ever won Rookie of the Year playing fewer than 50 games or fewer than 29.1 minutes a game; Embiid has averaged 25.4 minutes over 31 games. Even in an otherwise lackluster rookie class, voters might well choose the consistency of Dario Saric or Malcolm Brogdon. Embiid was unbelievably good, but for an unbelievably short period of time.

Jesus, I hope that doesn’t end up being a microcosm for his career.