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The Sixers Will Go As Far As Joel Embiid Can Take Them. How Much Weight Can He Bear?

Philadelphia accelerated its development this season by adding Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, and the Process-trusting team of the future became a win-now proposition. Then its star center’s knee started aching, and things got really complicated.

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Joel Embiid apologized, but it didn’t seem sincere. The laughing sort of gave it away. The opening game of the Sixers’ first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets hadn’t left Philadelphia with much to joke about. The Nets were a heavy underdog but won at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday, leaving some people panicked. The Sixers returned the favor in the second game and thumped the opposition—in at least one case, literally.

Before and during the series, there was a lot of talk from Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson and his Sixers counterpart Brett Brown about “haymakers” and “fistfights” and going “toe-to-toe.” Atkinson said their opponents “held us, pushed us” and “really got into us” in Game 2. He classified the second bout as “extreme physicality.” You could say that, yes.

Poor Jarrett Allen. At one point on Monday evening, Allen’s face made the regrettable mistake of getting between Embiid’s elbow and the basket. If nothing else, Allen has a better jaw than Andrei Svechnikov.

After leveling the first-round series at 1-1, Embiid was asked about his full-contact post move.

“Obviously, it wasn’t intentional,” Embiid said. “I got him pretty good and I’m sorry about it.”

Ben Simmons was seated right next to him for the postgame chat. He also doubted Embiid’s sincerity. Simmons laughed. Embiid laughed, too. It went on for a while.

The Sixers have not shot well from distance in the series—they’ve made just 12 of 48 3-pointers—but they’ve been excellent down low. They’ve outrebounded the Nets in both games by a wide margin (plus-32), and they’ve scored more points in the paint (plus-20). Atkinson said the Sixers “dominated” the Nets in both areas. That obviously had a lot to do with Embiid, who notched a double-double for the second straight game in limited minutes. In Game 2, he also scored the first seven points in a blowout 51-point third quarter (tied for the most points in a quarter in NBA history).

But the Allen thing, Embiid was just so sorry about that, you know? Here, again, the mischievous smirk on his face suggested otherwise. He apologized a second time, and Simmons laughed a second time.

“I’m not usually humble,” Embiid said. He gestured toward Simmons. “That’s why he’s laughing.”

No. Embiid is not usually humble. Barely a month ago, he peacocked in a nationally televised postgame interview after the Sixers beat the rival Celtics. Embiid had a game-high 37 points, 22 rebounds, four assists, a steal, and a block against Boston that night. He felt pretty good about it.

“I’m the most unstoppable player in the league,” he boasted.

It was a bold statement, and it might even be true. But for it to be true, he has to be on the floor, and that hasn’t always been the case. Not lately, and not for long stretches of his career. After the All-Star break, Embiid missed 13 of the team’s final 23 games. The Sixers initially attributed it to “load management,” then later revealed that Embiid was experiencing pain in his left knee due to what they diagnosed as tendinitis. Embiid said he’s “playing through the pain” and seemed to realize that, without him, the Sixers are a dimmer, less dangerous version of their best selves. They were plus-5.8 with Embiid on the court this season and minus-1.9 without him, according to NBA.com/Stats. But all the stats in the world only confirm what anyone can see: The Sixers are really good with Embiid and something south of that without him.

In a playoff promo for ESPN, Embiid was conscripted into a bit of forced humility for the purposes of propaganda and leaguewide PR. “It’s not just about me,” he said with a straight face into the camera. Except it really is.

After Game 1, Brown said Embiid looked “tired,” and Embiid called himself “out of shape.” During parts of Game 2, I thought he looked sloooow in certain stretches as he lumbered up the court well behind the rest of the pack.

Embiid’s Game 1 line: 25 minutes, 22 points (5-15 FG, 0-5 3PT, 12-18 FT), 15 rebounds, four assists, five blocks.

Embiid’s Game 2 line: 21 minutes, 23 points (8-12 FG, 0-0 3PT, 7-8 FT), 10 rebounds, one assist.

Embiid was questionable to play in both games. Imagine if he was fully healthy and not on a minutes restriction. Jarrett Allen would need a goalie mask.

“Obviously, missing so many games, it’s hard to find a rhythm,” Embiid said. “And also being on a minute restriction it’s hard to find a rhythm.”

He said he tries to forget the pain when he’s on the floor. That’s probably not so easy. He hasn’t practiced during the series. When we were let into the Sixers’ training facility for media availability earlier this week, Embiid was facedown on a table at the opposite end of the court with a member of the medical staff working over his body, all of it. Before the series started, Embiid initially told us “the pain level has changed. It’s gotten worse.” He said it bothered him only when “jumping. Landing. Moving. The game of basketball.”

Given that their star basketball player is in pain when playing “the game of basketball,” and considering how terribly that opening game went, you’d expect these to be tense times for the Sixers. The vibe surrounding the team—with the noted exception of questions concerning Embiid’s health—has been surprisingly loose, though. Simmons kept insisting—both before the series started and then again between the first two games—that there was “no pressure.” And if anyone was secretly hoping that Jimmy Butler would pop off after the Game 1 loss, they were disappointed. Butler was the calmest of all.

“Man, same shit,” Butler said when asked about the team’s mood over the weekend. “We’re fortunate. We get to play basketball every day. We’re in the playoffs. We’re a 3-seed. We’re happy. It could be a lot worse. We could be down 0-4, but we’re not.”

If they were down 0-4, we would have been having a very different conversation with him while the Sixers cleaned out their lockers and headed off into an extremely uncomfortable offseason. But you get his point. On the whole, the Sixers seemed like they were in a pretty good headspace—which does not mean they are without any concerns.

Embiid’s situation has been frustrating for him. For Brown, too. The latter had to answer endless questions about Embiid’s condition in the run-up to the postseason, which made him atypically huffy with reporters. Lately, he’s tried to avoid being Embiid’s health-update point person and instructed us to “please refer” to the official medical sheet distributed by the PR staff. This probably won’t resolve itself anytime soon. People I talked to in the organization said Embiid’s availability moving forward will likely be a day-to-day unknown for however long their postseason lasts. Brown didn’t deny it.

“We’re in a phase, we’re in a stage where we’re buying time,” Brown said. “Can we get a win and buy a few more days? Can we get another win and buy a few more days? We might lose, but we’re alive. Buy three more days. This is just the path we’re on with Joel.”

That path puts the Sixers in a tough spot. They don’t have their eyes on the horizon any longer. If they did, there would have been no need to trade rotation players/fan favorites like Dario Saric and Robert Covington or young sharpshooters like Landry Shamet, or dip into the previously-but-no-longer deep stockpile of draft picks. These Sixers are hyperfocused on what’s directly in front of them: this postseason and keeping it going as long as possible. That’s a fine approach in theory, but in reality it pits what ownership and the front office are demanding against what the medical staff is trying to stitch together on a near-daily basis.

That’s not just frustrating for Embiid, Brown, and the Sixers. Fans and critics aren’t thrilled, either. As plenty of people have grumbled, the whole idea of “load management” is to do the management part in the early and middle sections of the season so there’s more load left for the playoffs. The Sixers had that all upside down. Embiid played in 26 straight games to start the season. That included four back-to-backs. He averaged 34.3 minutes over that stretch. That is a lot for anyone, and it is definitely a lot for someone who is listed at 7 feet and 250 pounds (feels like the PR staff generously shaved off a few pounds there), has a long and well-documented history of injuries, and missed the first two seasons of his career. It’s part of why the organization reportedly wrote health provisions into the new contract he signed before the start of last season.

There’s a reason the Sixers coaching and medical staffs have often been criticized for how they handle these things—they haven’t been very good at it, and they’re frequently on different pages. In fairness, it’s not all on the team. Embiid said he’s trying to focus on his diet, getting good rest, and improving his conditioning to help his body heal so he can keep playing in the playoffs. It’s something we’ve heard before. Last offseason, he vowed to get in better shape—only to return this season and have Andre Drummond bust his balls and label him “fat outta shape.”

Embiid’s constantly questionable status necessarily changes the Sixers’ strategy. When Brown was asked a few days ago about how it’s different when Embiid is available as opposed to when he’s not, the head coach looked at his left hand and said, “There’s night,” and then looked over at his right hand and reached it way far away and said, “And there’s day.”

“You go to both sides of the ball, it’s completely different,” Brown said. “Let’s call that for what it is.” Brown said they’ve had “sample sizes” with Boban Marjanovic and “little-bit sample sizes” with Greg Monroe and was hopeful to get something out of Jonah Bolden in the series. But even if he could stitch them all together into some kind of Frankencenter, all three combined wouldn’t come close to Embiid’s ability.

“There is zero doubt,” Brown admitted, “that [Joel] is our crown jewel.”

Ben Simmons fans might interpret that as a snub and shake their (wrong) fists at the sky, but it’s a hard point for any objective observer to argue. As Brown put it last offseason, Embiid’s “whole future is his body.” The same could be said for the Sixers’ future.

The Sixers declared their window is now, but that window pretty plainly slams shut without a fully healthy Embiid on the floor. And even with a fully healthy Embiid on the floor, things don’t necessarily get any easier for the franchise. There are lots of complications here, many of which feel like potentially unforced errors of the Sixers’ making.

Joshua Harris admitted that the Sixers have “high expectations.” The team’s managing partner said so more than once last week during an unexpected and oddly timed Q&A. (Apparently, no one told him that these aren’t the best times for surprise press conferences.) About an hour before the Sixers started their series at home against the Nets, Harris addressed the media at Wells Fargo Center in an interview room mere feet from the court and declared, “We want to make a deep run.”

That’s probably true for the organization writ large, but in that moment it felt more like an “I” statement than a “we.” When he and his partners first bought the team (for a criminally low price of less than $300 million), Harris was usually seen around the team but rarely heard. That’s lately changed. At this year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Harris said the Sixers “have enough talent to go very deep into the playoffs.” Simply saying that much was a bit out of character compared to his usually reserved approach when it comes to evaluating his team. Then he went further and said not going deep in the postseason would be “problematic” and would make him “unhappy.” He said the “pressure is on to deliver.”

Saying that in Boston in early March is one thing, but calling an impromptu press conference to underscore your point right before your team takes the floor in the postseason is something else entirely. Harris is a pretty soft-spoken guy, but that message came across loud and clear. It was interesting to see him step forward in that moment and be so direct. General manager Elton Brand was seated right next to him, but it was unquestionably Harris’s show. He put the players on notice. The coach, too.

When Harris was asked whether Brown would be the head coach regardless of what happens in the playoffs, the managing partner thanked Brown for “a tremendous job” in winning 50 games in consecutive seasons, credited Brown with working “side-by-side with me for six seasons” and added, “Right now, I think we’re supportive of Brett.” Then Harris said he was focused on the Nets. As votes of confidence go, it wasn’t much of one. That’s not the kind of thing anyone would want to hear from his boss right before what amounts to an important performance evaluation that could determine everyone’s future.

If the Sixers‘ “deep playoff run” mandate wasn’t evident to everyone after the trade deadline, it certainly was after all that. The juxtaposition between this season and last is striking. A year ago, the Sixers swept into the postseason riding the high of a 16-game winning streak. They beat the Heat in the first round. And even though they lost to the rival Celtics in the second round—which included the indignity of prematurely firing their celebratory confetti cannon in a loss—it was a successful run by any measure.

This season seems different even though the Sixers won more than 50 games for a second straight year for the first time in more than three decades. It should have been a happy occasion; instead, the principal owner is out here telling everyone from the players to the coach that they’d better do more. He didn’t have to add the “or else” part; that goes without saying now. The old organizational ethos of taking the long view was scrapped in favor a win-immediately strategy. There was no gradual transition. One minute the Process was over and the next the Sixers were “star hunting” in full public view.

Part of that is understandable. The Sixers want to get the most out of Embiid and Simmons while they’re in their prime. Embiid is only 25, but sometimes he moves like he’s considerably older. Every time he hits the floor or dives into the crowd, which happens more than the Sixers would probably prefer, it seems like everyone in Philly holds their collective breath. The Sixers might as well hand out promotional paper bags for the crowd to hyperventilate into instead of rally towels to wave.

Accelerating the timeline ratcheted up the attendant anxiety. How could it not when everyone from Brown to Elton Brand to Josh Harris keeps pushing the Sixers forward as contenders right now, right this very second? The Sixers wanted to upgrade this season and traded Covington, Saric, Jerryd Bayless, and a second-round pick for Butler, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Then they shipped out Landry Shamet, Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, two future first-round picks (including Miami’s unprotected 2021), and two second-round picks for Tobias Harris. He will also be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Certain former Sixers in that deal are better than others, but on the whole that is a lot to give up for two players who have been alternately inconsistent. (Butler had a killer Game 1, then fell off in Game 2; Harris was invisible in the first outing, then showed up for the second.)

The troubling part is that after making those moves, the Sixers still can’t be sure what, exactly, they have here. Entering the postseason, the crucial players in question had done it on the court together only 10 times. Embiid, Simmons, Butler, Harris, and JJ Redick went 8-2 together in the regular season. And while they had an impressive 119 offensive rating and a 101.4 defensive rating, per NBA.com/Stats, they played a grand total of 161 minutes together. That’s a small enough sample size that it’s barely a sample at all. Any grade on the Sixers remains incomplete.

Josh Harris told us last week that the Sixers want to keep both Tobias Harris and Butler because players of that caliber are difficult to acquire. He’s right. The franchise learned that difficult lesson last offseason when they had oodles of cap space but no high-level free agents to ladle it out to. Retaining Harris and Butler would zoom them deep into the luxury tax for the foreseeable future and handicap how the Sixers can fill out the rest of the roster—especially because Simmons will soon be in line to sign an extension. That would be a lot of money wrapped up in four players. “We get it,” Harris stipulated. “It’s expensive.”

Do the Sixers want to pay max money for Harris and Butler and thereby limit their flexibility if they aren’t absolutely certain they’ll be consistent championship contenders? Conversely, can they afford to let either of those guys walk after surrendering so much to acquire them? The Sixers have tough decisions ahead, but none of it will matter unless Embiid is healthy. The Sixers could lock in Tobias and Jimmy, but if Embiid isn’t healthy they’ll have to board up the new practice facility and spray-paint “abandoned” on the building.

Brown has a saying for the Sixers’ approach: “form, spirit, health—land the plane.” Those last two are important, and they’re directly connected to their best player. The only thing that matters to the Sixers is landing that plane somewhere deep in the postseason—but unless Embiid is onboard, they’ll be lucky not to crash it.

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