When it comes to the health and future of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the 76ers have managed to put themselves in a rather awkward position. They don't say very much, and when they do, no one trusts what they say.
Embiid has missed 10 consecutive games because of two injuries to his left knee, a bone bruise and a torn meniscus. The latter was a secret until Saturday, when a reporter broke the news minutes before the Sixers played the Miami Heat, forcing team president and general manager Bryan Colangelo to admit that yes, the team had known about the meniscus tear for a while. That revelation made the manner in which the Sixers have handled their public comments about Embiid's status all the more curious. Instead of offering a longer, more defined timeline for Embiid's rehabilitation and return, they made several smaller announcements, in effect stringing everyone along as if the situation were a TV drama with a series of episode-ending cliff-hangers. Embiid is doubtful tonight. He will not join the team for the upcoming two-game trip. When will he play again? Tune in next time . . .
As for Simmons and the fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot that he broke in September, coach Brett Brown told reporters Monday that he didn't believe Simmons would be ready to participate in five-on-five workouts during the all-star break. So it seems less likely that Simmons will play at all this season, even as Colangelo, during a couple of recent talk-radio interviews, has said that it remains the Sixers' goal to have Simmons return as soon as possible. Different franchise player. Same kind of tease.
So why the subterfuge? Why has Colangelo addressed the paying public so infrequently? Why has he been so evasive when he has talked? There are plenty of theories, many of which have merit, and the answers to such questions never come down to just one factor.
One explanation is that these latest PR bungles are consistent with a trend that has played out since Josh Harris assumed principal ownership of the Sixers: a persistent conflict between the image that the marketing department wants to present and the reality that the basketball-operations people must confront. There was that over-the-top introductory news conference for Andrew Bynum. There was the "This Starts Now" ad campaign that featured Michael Carter-Williams and that launched two weeks before the 2015 NBA trade deadline - you know, the deadline at which the Sixers traded Michael Carter-Williams.
Now, there is the hope that maybe Embiid and/or Simmons might be back for the team's next home game, or maybe the one after that. And if you buy tickets based on that hint of a promise, only to have the Sixers announce that Embiid and Simmons aren't quite ready to play yet, well, there's always StubHub. As former GM Sam Hinkie wrote to Sixers ownership in his resignation manifesto, "when your team is eventually able to compete deep into May," CEO Scott O'Neil "will ably and efficiently separate the good people of the Delaware Valley from their wallets on your behalf." Before then, too.
But there's another explanation that's worth considering. To consider it, let's review some history and present some context.
In late 2015, after the Sixers had tanked for more than two years, several NBA owners reportedly lobbied commissioner Adam Silver to stop Hinkie from carrying out his rebuilding plan. In came longtime league power broker Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations. Out, eventually, went Hinkie. Why? Because the Sixers were tanking? Yes, but it was more than that.
From the outset of Hinkie's tenure, the Sixers were up front about their approach. Even though Nerlens Noel was probably healthy enough to play by the end of his first season, the Sixers had him sit out all 82 games anyway. Even though they knew Embiid wouldn't play in 2014-15, they drafted him. Even though their roster had no proven or serviceable point guard at the start of last season, they didn't acquire Ish Smith until after Jerry Colangelo showed up.
It's not that the Sixers were bad. Lots of NBA teams are bad. It's not that the Sixers tanked. Other teams have tanked. It's not that their strategy wasn't smart. It was. Hell, the power of a superstar and the NBA's draft-lottery system incentivize teams to follow the Sixers' strategy. It's that the Sixers weren't willing to keep up appearances. They weren't trying to be good, and they didn't hide it, and the league couldn't abide it.
Fast-forward to this season, to Bryan Colangelo, to Embiid's knee. Why didn't the Sixers just reveal both injuries immediately, announce that Embiid would be out for a few weeks, and have everyone just relax? Because the entire pretext for the Colangelos' arrival and influence is that the Sixers are trying now. They say they're trying to get Embiid on the floor, even though it's better for him and them in the long term if they remain cautious.
They say they hope Simmons can return this season, even though, with each game that he misses, having him play makes less and less sense. They ride the excitement over the roster's obvious improvement, even though - between the possible free-agent signings and the potential for multiple lottery picks - they stand to make greater, more tangible gains in the offseason.
They are saying what they have to say because appearances matter again. The Colangelos - the stewards of the Sixers, handpicked by the NBA - are here, so everything must be different. Even if it really isn't, not yet.