The situation isn’t ideal. Just a handful of games into the 2021-22 NBA season, Joel Embiid’s health is already a concern for the Philadelphia 76ers.
If you recall, Embiid suffered a right meniscus tear in the first round of last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards. The All-Star center missed a game as a result of the injury, but he returned for Philadelphia’s second-round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks and played in all seven games of that series.
The knee didn’t seem to bother Embiid too much against Atlanta as he averaged 30.4 points and 12.7 rebounds in 37.4 minutes per performance over the course of the series. However, there was some speculation about whether or not he would need to undergo surgery after the season. Such a surgery never occurred as Embiid instead opted for a natural healing process. We didn’t hear much from Embiid over the offseason, but at Philadelphia’s media day in September, the big man provided a promising update on his knee.
“It’s been fine,” Embiid said of his knee at the time. “I’ve just been working out all summer. It’s been fine, no problems. I’m getting back to where I was and I feel pretty good.”
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Unfortunately for Philadelphia, the positive vibes around Embiid’s health didn’t last long. During Philadelphia’s first game of the season against New Orleans, Embiid tweaked that same right knee during a collision with Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas. Though he’s played in them all, Embiid has been listed as questionable for every game since then, and he has visibly winced on a couple of different occasions after putting pressure on the knee. It’s clearly bothering him. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported that Embiid couldn’t walk for two days after the season opener.
While he doesn’t deny that it has been a bit of a bother, Embiid has done his best to downplay the issue during media availability. After Philadelphia’s 110-102 win over Detroit on Thursday night (a game in which Embiid had 30 points and 18 rebounds), he explained that his goal, in addition to being out on the floor for his teammates, is to play more games than he did last season (51). The fact that he finished second in MVP voting last season — and games missed was frequently pointed to as a determining factor — probably played into the formulation of that goal.
“I’m just trying to be available for my teammates and my team, every single night playing hard, trying to do the best job I can,” Embiid said. “Every single year I come in with the mindset of playing as many games as I can, and this year obviously that first game is unfortunate, it happened, I got hit during the first game and it kind of handicapped me. But, every single year I come in with the mindset that I got to play more games than I have in the past and so far this year I am on the right path and whatever I am needed to do I am going to be doing it.
“Like I always say, there are no excuses,” Embiid added. “I’m fine, I can’t complain, I am doing what I love and every single day I wake up and that’s what I want to do and that’s what I want to keep focusing on and whatever happens, happens. But I am fine.”
What Embiid didn’t say is that Ben Simmons’ continued absence has put added pressure for him to be out there. The Sixers are already down an All-Star, and in an improved — and competitive — Eastern Conference that features the defending-champion Bucks, the Nets, Heat, and several upstart squads like the Knicks, Bulls and Hornets, they simply can’t afford the inevitable slow start that would come if they were without both of their All-Stars. If they finish below sixth in the standings, they’ll be forced to participate in the postseason play-in tournament. For a team that finished with pole position in the conference last season, having to play in the play-in tourney would represent a major step backward. And imagine if this Sixers squad, with its bloated payroll and high-profile coaches and executives failed to make the playoffs. Yikes.
The added wear and tear on Embiid was a previously overlooked aspect of Simmons’ standoff with the Sixers, but it’s a real one. If Simmons was out there, Embiid likely would have sat for a game, or two, already, and he would likely be afforded the opportunity to sit more if necessary moving forward. But for now, last season’s MVP runner-up is pushing through the pain, like he did last postseason, to be out there for his teammates. It’s admirable on Embiid’s part, but it’s certainly not an ideal situation for him or the team to be in this early in the season. After all, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. The ultimate goal is to have Embiid healthy, or close to it, for postseason play, and it’s fair to wonder if his playing through pain early on is conducive to that end goal.
Philadelphia’s success this season — and beyond — hinges completely on Embiid’s health, so any ailment, big or small, is enough to make Sixers supporters sweat. Here’s some advice for them: Grab a towel, because there’s a whole lot of season left.