WITH 8 1/2 minutes to play in the 76ers' game at Houston on Monday, I received an email from a reader asking a question I would get many times over the next 24 hours; his was the first. "Will Joel (Embiid) be playing on Wednesday?"
As much as I hated saying "I don't know," it was the only answer I could truthfully give. Because even after that 27-point loss, Embiid didn't know if he was going to play Wednesday's home game against the Washington Wizards. Nor did Brett Brown, his assistants, fellow players and probably not even the sports-science team that makes the decisions on who plays when and how much.
It's futile to try to find reasoning behind the decisions that are made on Embiid, who missed his fourth of 11 games this season Wednesday but is scheduled to face the Timberwolves Thursday in Minnesota. Before this season, Brown had to deal with the bevy of questions that faced him daily about his team's health. This season, however, the medical updates are given by the public relations department before the media has a chance to talk to Brown.
Really, it's fair to the coach. During his four seasons here, he has had more than enough to deal with, just in terms of coaching the team, without having to understand timetables of meniscus tears and fractured feet.
Still, to a fan, none of that means a thing. Did anyone in the organization care that the average Joe was plunking down a good part of his paycheck for his family to see the Sixers, particularly Embiid, on Wednesday at Wells Fargo Center? Or is it a case of the organization taking the money, come hell or high water?
My gut says many feel the pain of the fans and would love to keep them abreast of the availability of Embiid and Jahlil Okafor, both on game and minute restrictions while recovering from surgeries. Part of me is convinced that the organization believes that if all goes the way it envisions, the reward for fans will be a healthy Embiid for years to come, helping the Sixers contend for championships.
Still, the hidden agenda of the sports scientists really helps no one, least of all the fans. Embiid and Okafor claim to understand, but they don't, and shouldn't be expected to. They want to play, feel like they are capable of playing. Their teammates aren't usually alerted of the playing schedule between the two until the day before, or morning of, a game, so continuity is obviously an afterthought. Even the coach is kept in the dark for the most part.
Before Wednesday's game, I asked Brown for an update on Nerlens Noel, out since training camp due to knee swelling, and why he couldn't recover at the team's new practice facility, built for just such occurrences. "I'm not the guy to ask," Brown said. "It would be Dr. David Martin." Martin is the team's director of performance research and development.
I was told, not by Martin, that Noel was still recovering in Alabama following his Oct. 24 knee procedure and to check the statement the team released then as to why he is in Alabama. The statement said Noel would continue his rehab in Alabama under the direction of associate clinical director Kevin Wilk at Champion Sports Medicine. It also said additional updates of Noel's recovery and return-to-court timetable will be provided upon his return to Philadelphia.
And round and round it goes. When it will end, nobody knows.
Wednesday, it didn't seem to matter as the Sixers played some of their best ball of the year in a 109-102 win. Ironically, a big part of the win was due to the team's play while Okafor and backup Richaun Holmes were on the bench with foul trouble in the first quarter and a small lineup that featured Dario Saric at center dominated.
"I am a recipient of news from the medical staff and I follow the instruction," Brown said. "It's really that simple. It's completely designed for what is best for Joel Embiid. It's just the rhythm that the medical staff has put him on. I think if you look back at back-to-back games and those types of things, or the time in between games, they felt like (Wednesday) wasn't going to be a game that (he would play). I follow the marching orders of people smarter than myself.
"We talk freely with the group about the frustration, at times, of trying to figure out who's in the game and who is going to play and who isn't and about trying to coach that and (the) Jahlil and Joel (situation). But what comes last is, how about the rest of their teammates? It's true and I talk to my team just like I'm talking to you . . . Sometimes it's a funky matchup. But I feel like we've seen enough of Jahlil to know what he's capable of doing. We expect him to keep moving forward. We're going to challenge him to rebound. We're going to try to focus on that. We feel that is where he could help us the most."
It probably would help Okafor and Embiid if they could just lace up their oversized sneakers and anticipate playing as much as possible. But that's not how the organization sees it now.
"I'm sure Joe and I would love just to be able to say 'Let me go. Let me play.' But that wouldn't be the best thing for our situation," said Okafor, who scored 19 in the win. "Physically, I want to be able to say that. Just me, I would definitely try it. I would try to get out there and play as much as I could."
So here's where the seemingly unfairness to fans could be beneficial for the team and the organization in the future.
What if Embiid goes on to have a productive 10-, 12-, 14-year career in the league with no more complications surrounding his surgically repaired right foot? If that were to happen, the first two years that he sat and the small percentage of games that he missed this season and possibly next will be forgotten. The hope is obvious: If Embiid and Okafor have long careers, it was all worth it. That doesn't do much for Wednesday's paying customers, especially those who counted on watching Embiid.
As I made my way to the press room after the game, a fan asked, "Will Embiid play on Saturday?"