Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Joel Embiid is hurt. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Joel Embiid is hurt because of a freak ailment. Last season, there was the illness in the Raptors series. The year before that, there was the cruel turn of events in which Markelle Fultz ran into Embiid’s face and broke his orbital bone. This season brings us an injured finger. On Monday, Embiid dislocated his ring finger in the Sixers’ game against the Thunder, prompting a slew of stomach-turning images of his digit pointing in a direction it should not have. Embiid returned to the game and played with a wrapped finger (he said it was like playing with one hand), and the Sixers won.
It was a short-term victory. On Thursday, the Sixers announced that Embiid tore a ligament in his left hand and is evaluating his treatment options. I don’t have the math on this, but evaluating treatment options rarely seems to produce a pleasant outcome. Soon after, the team announced that Embiid would undergo surgery. While there is no reported timetable on when Embiid could return, the Sixers plan to reevaluate him in one to two weeks, which seems like a prelude to a longer absence, since a hand surgery could have a longer timeline.
For Philly, which is 3-4 in games Embiid hasn’t played in this season and has lost four of its last five to fall to fifth in the East (8.5 games behind the Bucks), this is nightmarish news. For us neutral onlookers, this sparks intrigue, as it will prompt a midseason change of pace for one of the league’s more talented teams. With Embiid out, this means we’ll get to see what the Sixers will look like with an unleashed Ben Simmons running things. As my colleague Dan Devine pointed out, Sixers lineups without Embiid that feature Simmons have an offensive rating that is higher than the Dallas Mavericks, who currently feature the best offense in the league. That doesn’t seem like a fluke, because it tracks: Without Embiid on the floor as a traditional big man, Simmons can play the game with more pace and space, which maximizes his elite passing and attacking while minimizing his lack of deep shooting.
Much has been made of the Simmons-Embiid fit, their potential ceiling, and the positional and structural quandaries the duo present while on the floor together. And while the Sixers’ biggest critics, as well as Brett Brown himself, fan the flames over Simmons’s reluctance to shoot 3-pointers, there’s not as much discussion about the fact that all of Embiid’s stats have declined this season. But there should be. Watching him tear through Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks on Christmas gives one the false sense that he could be one of the best players in the league. His inconsistent effort and performance, though, is not helping the Sixers’ on-court chemistry. And that chemistry is what Embiid’s absence will hurt the most. The team will lose valuable opportunities to jell ahead of the playoffs.
Philly is a weird team. They don’t have a true point guard, or rather someone who can distribute the ball and score from the perimeter, aside from Trey Burke (!). They lack the catch-and-shoot pop of JJ Redick, and don’t have the roster to fully maximize Simmons’s best traits. Without Embiid on the floor, we may finally start to see what an unlocked Simmons looks like, and especially what the combination of him and Al Horford could be. While Horford has been struggling, he’s been at his worst when he shares the floor with Embiid. It appears the fit hasn’t been what the Sixers’ envisioned when they super-sized their team in the off-season. Still, their surplus of talent is undeniable, and even if Brown has yet to figure out how to cook up the right formula, it will be impossible to count them out until they’re eliminated in the playoffs.
There’s a world in which Embiid’s injury is a blessing in disguise. The development could boost Simmons’s role and give the Sixers a different look—one that could help in the playoffs. Embiid’s injury could become just another dilemma in the Sixers’ complicated team-building endeavor. Once you hand the car keys to Simmons for an extended time, will he be willing to give them back? And if the Sixers go on a run with him at the steering wheel, will they even want him to?