It’s been a busy week for Joel Embiid.
On Tuesday, he was in Baltimore to help launch his first signature shoe, the Under Armour UA Embiid 1, which is done up in the red, green, and yellow national colors of his native Cameroon. On Wednesday, The Players Tribune posted an emphatic article under Embiid’s byline defending his style of play to some of his consistent national critics.
The only thing missing from the schedule of the man at the core of the local basketball team was actual basketball.
That’s not his fault, of course. Embiid tore a ligament in his left ring finger nearly two weeks ago, had surgery a week ago, and is on the shelf until further notice. The Sixers are not given to providing much notice on the injury front, further or otherwise, but the team said he has been cleared for non-contact drills and would be re-evaluated soon.
Doing the standard back-of-the-envelope figuring, the recovery from this type of operation is usually about four weeks, and then factor in another couple of weeks of rehabilitation before he can get back on the court.
Optimistically, if the timetable is accurate and all goes well, Embiid could return for the first game after the All-Star break, a Feb. 20 home game against Brooklyn. That would give the team and its best player nearly two months of the regular season to smooth out the wrinkles in the offense, of which there are a few.
On the surface, there’s no reason Embiid can’t be ready by then. He can’t catch basketballs for a while, but he can run from here to there endlessly without stressing his left ring finger. He can do every conditioning drill imaginable.
If Embiid works at it assiduously, he can be in peak physical shape as soon as the doctors drop the flag. He won’t be getting 30 minutes of NBA play three times a week, but he can make up for that himself.
The question is, will he?
Perception can be a fun-house mirror version of reality, but the perception throughout Embiid’s career is that he isn’t devoted to off-court workout regimens. Maybe that’s not fair, but the perception is there. He’s no longer just a kid who can be forgiven for lapses of personal discipline. This is Embiid’s sixth season in the organization, he turns 26 in March, and, to be honest, he wasn’t in great shape when this season began.
The team overworked him at the start of last season and he finished the year on fumes, but there was plenty of time between Kawhi Leonard’s quad lutz and the new season to prepare for the next go-round. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen as fully as it could have.
Embiid previously said he would accept and embrace a lighter load during the regular season. If that meant he viewed everything from November to April as the launch pad for the postseason, it could explain his training-camp fitness. With this injury, however, the stakes have changed.
It’s not like he’s having a bad season. Anyone who complains about 24 points and 12 rebounds is looking at the hole and not the doughnut. You can nitpick about his shooting percentage – which is a function of nearly a quarter of his shots being three-pointers, a ridiculous amount – but his perambulation in the half-court does open the middle for teammates.
Plus, you give that in order to get what he does on defense, which is everything. Embiid’s presence around the rim allows the Sixers to make up in aggressiveness what they generally lack in speed.
No, he’s very good as is, but for the Sixers to turn this season into something special, he has to be better than that. The team is awkwardly constructed and, even assuming a perimeter upgrade at the Feb. 6 trade deadline, Embiid is the difference between a potentially great team and a nuisance that can be dismissed with some attention to detail.
That’s what Embiid’s recovery and his play afterward mean to the Sixers in what looks to be a pivotal year. If the mission goes south this time – we’ll set the definition as not getting out of the conference semis – that’s probably the end for the coach. Beyond that, the organization will have to take a hard look at the very core of things.
Would the commitment to Ben Simmons wane? That’s the big question.
He’s a point guard in the top five for minutes played and assists per game. He can guard one through five at a high level. But his game is weird because he won’t shoot from the perimeter, and can’t from the foul line, and there is a limit to how much weirdness a team is willing to work around before it concludes the liabilities outweigh the assets. The Sixers probably aren’t there yet, but a disappointing postseason might change that.