Now that we know that Joel Embiid will be undergoing surgery for a torn radial collateral ligament in the ring finger on his non-shooting hand, here is everything that we know, and what we don’t.
1) How long will Embiid be sidelined?
Judging by the prognoses of NBA players who have previously suffered similar injuries, the Sixers are likely expecting to be without Embiid for at least six weeks. The most recent case study is that of Isaiah Thomas, who tore the radial collateral ligament in his non-shooting thumb on Sept. 15 and was back playing in games on Oct. 26, for a total layoff of 40 days. Back in 2017, Chris Paul missed a total of 39 days after tearing a thumb ligament on Jan. 16. He ended up returning for the Clippers’ final 25 games and averaged 19 points and 8.6 assists while shooting .432 from three-point range over that stretch.
For Embiid and the Sixers, such a timetable would see the big man miss at least 19 games, leaving open the possibility of his returning to face the Bucks on Feb. 22 in Milwaukee. An eight-week absence would cause Embiid to miss at least 27 games, with the potential for him to return for the Sixers’ final 18 games of the season. The official word from the team is that Embiid will be reevaluated in one to two weeks, but an overall timetable of six to eight weeks seems pretty standard, at least when it comes to the RCL in pinkies and thumbs. (Chris Mullin missed six weeks after tearing the RCL in his pinkie in 1993, for whatever that is worth.)
Six to eight weeks was the timetable announced for then-Portland big man LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015 before he decided to postpone surgery and play through a torn RCL in his non-shooting thumb. Aldridge ended up playing the rest of the season with the injury, averaging 23.6 points (pre-injury: 23.2 ) and shooting .470 from the field (pre-injury: .462), and .250 from three-point range (pre-injury: .512). His free-throw percentage dropped from .863 to .827. Kobe Bryant played through a torn RCL in his non-shooting pinkie in 2008. He suffered no drop-off in his shooting percentages pre- or post-injury.
Long story short: if Embiid’s ring finger takes a similar amount of time to heal as previous pinkies and thumbs, it’s reasonable to think that he’ll be back with the Sixers well before the start of the postseason.
2) How does the Sixers rotation change with Embiid out?
With Al Horford sliding to the five spot, Brett Brown has a number of different directions that he can turn with his starting lineup. On Thursday, against the Celtics, he plugged in Mike Scott at the four. But that could change, depending on the opponent. Rookie Matisse Thybulle was available for the first time since suffering a bone bruise in his knee on Dec. 21. Once Thybulle gets his sea legs back, it’s conceivable that Brown could think about starting the rookie at the three and moving Tobias Harris to the four. It’s also possible that Trey Burke could get some run with the starters. Even before Embiid’s injury, Burke had worked his way into a steady role in the rotation as the Sixers continue to look for ways to create scoring opportunities in the halfcourt.
3) What does the Sixers’ big man situation look like behind Horford? Is rookie Norvel Pelle the new backup?
It certainly looks that way, although veteran backup Kyle O’Quinn and second-year end-of-the-bencher Jonah Bolden could also get some looks. (Brown specifically mentioned Bolden in his press conference, for what that is worth.) Pelle has only played in eight games this season, but he is averaging 4.7 blocks, 2.4 offensive rebounds and 8.1 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes, so it will be interesting to see what the 26-year-old rookie will do with more regular minutes. O’Quinn is a much more refined offensive player. He has played in 19 games this season, averaging 10.3 minutes per with averages of 11.3 points, 2.8 blocks, 4.1 offensive rebounds and 9.0 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes.
“It’s not like a definitive answer that exists,” Brown said. “It’s still a competition. ... Kyle O’Quinn, he’s a great, not a good, teammate. Just look at him on the bench. You look at a veteran player that’s trying to find a role and he hasn’t really come in and has not played that much basketball for us to date, and he’s still a personality and a spirit in the locker room, on the plane, on the bus. I think he’s incredible, really. I love him on this team. ... Then you go to the court, he’s a man. He’s an athlete. There’s toughness, he can make a shot, he’s an excellent passer, he’d probably be more of an aggressive pick-and-roll guy than he would dropped, and then you go over to Norvel who’s really the complete opposite. He’s really more of a rim protector, really excellent back and trying to read things. Obviously doesn’t have the experience that Kyle has but is kind of built out that Nerlens, Capela rim protector, flyer mode. Kyle’s like a lumberjack, a street fighter, and they’re different.”
4) How does the Sixers’ on-court identity change?
Completely. On both ends of the court. On offense, you should expect to see a more up-tempo attack, with Simmons spending more time at the four while Burke runs the offense. Defensively, it will be interesting to see how the Sixers compensate for the lack of their rim protector.