Joel Embiid is no stranger to the tedium of the training table, the shudder before jumping in an ice bath, the feeling of dragging around a balky, frozen knee. He lost the first two years of his NBA career to injury. He’s missed a swath of regular-season and a handful of playoff games. So when he tore the meniscus in his right knee in Game 4 of the first round against the Wizards, it hardly came as a surprise.
The surprise was that he decided to play through the pain, pushing the tension of watching Joel Embiid—holding your breath every time he falls, hoping this landing isn’t the one that does him in again—to a new extreme.
“Playing on a torn meniscus is not easy,” Embiid said after Game 1 against the Hawks. “All I gotta do is keep managing it. Get as much treatment as I can, make sure it doesn’t swell up too much. Obviously the pain is gonna be there. That’s normal.” Every day, he fills his cup as much as he can, trying to replenish it, trying to manage the pain, to push his mind to be stronger than his body. Then he tests it out. “It” being his torn meniscus. “My goal is to win the championship, and I’m gonna put my body on the line to make sure that happens. I’m gonna give everything I got.”
Embiid knows how fragile contention is, how it depends on a million different variables, many of which lie in his balky joints. So does Kevin Durant, who played all 48 minutes Tuesday night despite being robbed of 533 days of his prime after he came back from a calf injury too soon in the 2019 NBA Finals. So does James Harden, who played 46 minutes in the same game after rushing back from a hamstring injury, despite knowing how that injury took his former teammate Chris Paul out of the playoffs in Houston.
It’s not a surprise that these players are so familiar with injuries riddling their hopes. For years, the game has been getting faster and harder and zippier while the off-court demands have ballooned. Injuries have swelled. Trainers have been ringing the alarm for years. The playoffs have become a war of attrition. Availability has become the determining factor.
When COVID-19 shut last season down, the NBA had a golden opportunity to reevaluate problems that were bubbling beneath the surface. Ratings were dropping, the regular season was becoming a boring farce, and injuries—especially to star players—were increasing to the point of inevitability.
Instead, the offseason after the bubble was the shortest in the modern era, giving the Lakers and the Heat just 71 days off after their Finals tiff. The NBA rushed back so they could play on Christmas Day and get in those lovely Santa bucks, and they shoved an All-Star Game into the middle of an already-compressed 72-game season, despite pushback from multiple star players.
In response to the correlation between injuries and heavy workloads, players and teams have spent the past decade educating themselves and investing in injury management, from teams hiring more athletic trainers and meticulously tracking data to resting players. The league, however, is almost exactly where it’s been for decades.
The NBA’s chickens came home to roost when the Lakers, with both Anthony Davis and LeBron James hobbling, lost in the first round. On Wednesday, we found out that Kawhi Leonard will be out indefinitely with a troubling knee sprain after going into Terminator mode against the Jazz. LeBron, who spends a reported million dollars a year on maintaining his body, was quick to remind the league just how predictable all this was.
They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season. I knew exactly what would happen. I only wanted to protect the well being of the players which ultimately is the PRODUCT & BENEFIT of OUR GAME! These injuries isn’t just “PART OF THE GAME”. It’s the lack of PURE— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 16, 2021
RIM REST rest before starting back up. 8, possibly 9 ALL-STARS has missed Playoff games(most in league history). This is the best time of the year for our league and fans but missing a ton of our fav players. It’s insane. If there’s one person that know about the body and how it— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 16, 2021
works all year round it’s ME! I speak for the health of all our players and I hate to see this many injuries this time of the year. Sorry fans wish you guys were seeing all your fav guys right now.— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 16, 2021
Embiid has been injured frequently enough to notice the little things. “If you look at history,” he said after Game 1, “every time I have an injury, it always feels like I don’t miss a beat.”
In that light, it makes sense that he is playing with a sense of no tomorrow, a sense that a torn knee meniscus is not an anomaly to be tended to, but a setback to be pushed through, that he has decided this opportunity to win a championship is more fragile than his knees.
Destiny caved to his desires until Game 3, when Embiid landed awkwardly on Clint Capela’s foot and rolled his ankle in the third quarter. Despite wincing and limping down the floor afterward, he cut to the basket a few plays later and took his frustration out on the rim, flexing and screaming on his way down after the dunk. But the defiance on his face was interrupted by a flash of pain.
For most of the series, he has weaved through pain, resilience, frustration, failure, and glory. In Game 4, he went 0-for-12 in the second half and missed a point-blank layup in crunch time. After the game, he said he couldn’t jump. In Game 5, he had 24 points at the half. To guard the likes of Trae Young, Embiid has been asked to carry his 280-pound frame with grace and agility, to squat low and jump high. He obliged, keeping up and guessing when Young would try to float the ball up and when he’d throw a lob.
But one can only betray the body for so long. With just over four minutes left in the fourth quarter, Embiid tried to meet Young at the summit and landed awkwardly on his left knee. He moved slower on defense, giving Young the inch he needed to open the floodgates. After making Capela look like a kid all game, he took timid, off-balance fadeaways and missed point-blank shots in the lane. So did his teammates; the Sixers blew a 26-point lead and lost 109-106. The meltdown only underlined the urgency of Embiid’s health. Without him, their offense becomes rudderless, their defense penetrable.
Game 5 unraveled for the Sixers, and now Embiid has two days to ice his knees before an elimination game. This could be Joel Embiid’s NBA, if only somebody would fix it.