Nothing the 76ers said about Joel Embiid on Wednesday night was good. Nothing.
First, there was general manager Elton Brand, acknowledging that Embiid might not be ready to play in Game 1 of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets. Later, there was coach Brett Brown, refusing to answer more than three Embiid-related questions following the team’s meaningless victory over the Chicago Bulls.
Two poles on the same spectrum, the big reveal and the media blockade, both signifying the same thing: that Embiid’s health – his knee, his conditioning, his apparent weight gain – is cause for concern.
For most of his pregame remarks Wednesday night, Brand tried to sell the idea that the starting five he had assembled – Embiid, Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris – was talented enough to carry the Sixers to the Eastern Conference Finals, at least.
That’s a dubious notion, considering that those five have played just 10 games together and that the Sixers’ bench is so weak, and it rested on the premise that the organization was sacrificing continuity and familiarity among the starters for the sake of their being as fresh and healthy as possible. But when he spoke about Embiid, who has missed 14 of the team’s last 24 games, Brand seemed ready and willing to dispense with the head-faking and butt-covering and let everyone understand where things really stood.
He was not asked directly whether Embiid might not play. Someone brought up Embiid’s conditioning, about the easy-to-see 10-to-15 pounds that he has added over these last few weeks of intermittent action, and Brand instead offered a non-denial denial. He answered a question that no one had thought to ask.
“I’m optimistic,” Brand said. “I’ve seen him. He’s doing everything in his power to be ready for this weekend.”
Optimistic? It was a curious word choice. Is his health at all an issue?
“No, I’m optimistic that he’ll be ready this weekend and he’s doing everything he can to get back.”
So there’s a possibility he won’t be ready …
“Again, I’m optimistic he’ll be ready.”
But it’s possible he won’t?
Understand: Ready did not mean “in shape.” Ready meant “available.” Everyone in the room knew it, including and especially Brand, and everyone should have recognized that the parameters of Embiid’s status for the playoffs had changed.
It was one thing to presume that Embiid would need some time to get back to being the best version of himself – “None of us should expect anything greater than a B” when Embiid returns, Brown said – but it was something else entirely to suggest that Embiid might not take the floor at all for Game 1 on Saturday afternoon.
Again, that’s not a reason for optimism in any regard. At best, this will all turn out to be irrelevant: Even if Embiid does miss one or more games, the Sixers can and should beat the Nets, and even with Embiid at full strength, they would not and should not be favored against their likely second-round opponent, the Toronto Raptors.
At worst, though, Wednesday night was a glimpse into a problem that has plagued the Sixers for years and that might have passed the point of remedy.
“He’s a hypercompetitive player,” Brand said. “He wants to win everything, so it’s about how he presents. We work with Joel in load management. How do you feel today? Can you go out there? What do you want to do? Our athlete care [staff] and Joel work together side by side. So when he presents well, when he goes out there and he’s dominating with 30-point, 20-rebound type games, five blocks, and no after- or ill effects, you keep going with it because that’s what he wants to do. He knows how important he is to our organization and his teammates.”
If Embiid knows that, then Brand and Brown should have had an easier time persuading him to rest more frequently earlier in the season, to take time off here and there so he could be in better shape come springtime. But no one in the Sixers organization wields more power than Embiid, and from the moment they drafted him in 2014, their reluctance to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear has left them relying on his own competitiveness and judgment as their primary guide, prudence and maturity and good sense be damned.
“We all should be reminded of is, look at the games that he has played statistically when he has had rest,” Brown said. “They are dominant. It’s not like they’re statistically little games. They are completely jaw-dropping stats. The rhythm of a playoff – game, off, game, off – can he sustain that? I believe he will be able to. Time will tell, but I think that conditioning and sustainability, durability, is always challenged in the playoffs. And I believe Joel’s base is going to be good enough to see him through this.”
That’s the rosiest of possibilities, and that’s always the temptation with Embiid. He is a great player, and he is the Sixers’ essential player, and they are fortunate that he is so driven and gifted. Nevertheless, he has shown, even five years since entering the NBA, that he still isn’t inclined to temper his excesses.
When he’s playing 41 minutes in a gotta-have-it game against the Celtics, when he’s flashing his personality and humor on social media, everyone loves it, the Sixers most of all. But when he’s sucking down Shirley Temples and putting himself and his body at risk, someone has to be strong enough to say no to him, if someone can.
The alternative is the scenario that Elton Brand hinted at Wednesday night and that threatens to unfold in this postseason – that Joel Embiid really is physically ill-prepared for the rigors of playoff basketball, that the second round will be as far as he and the Sixers go, and that they will learn their lesson from the hardest teacher of all: failure.