We came so close.
Not to an exciting, full-strength playoff run with likely first-round home-court advantage -- though dammit, that would've been kind of nice -- but to Joel Embiid finally passing the 65-games-and-two-working-legs test that I've long said would define a Good Season for the Sixers. His legs still seem to be fine, thank John Legend, but after news today that Embiid has been diagnosed with both a concussion and an orbital fracture -- needing surgery to repair the latter -- it looks all but certain that he'll tap out at 63 games played this season, missing the final eight of the regular season (and very possibly whatever playoff games follow from there).
So, looks like despite all the progress made as a franchise this year -- the win streaks, the home dominance, Dario Saric's improved shooting, Ben Simmons' Rookie of the Decade campaign, all of the good vibes we'd ever dreamed of -- it appears this will ultimately be yet another Bad Season for the 76ers after all. Imagine enjoying a sport in Philadelphia.
You probably could've guessed that this was more than the facial laceration Embiid was initially diagnosed with. Cuts to the cheek don't generally inspire woozy stumbling to the locker room, subsequent visits to the hospital, and social media posts captioned "Not Good." Indeed, as the hours went on and the rumblings from the Sixers and their beat reporters seemed more and more disquieting, it started to feel like only a matter of time before the official Sixers e-mail brought the hammer down. And just like that, Sixers fans have reverted from plotting their road trips to Cleveland for the conference finals to the traditional lead-paint guzzling that this time of the year usually brings.
We all have a number of questions following a Philly sports catastrophe such as this, so let's deal with them one at a time.
Could Embiid return in the postseason? Not impossible, it seems. NBA scribe Zach Lowe gave Sixers fans a ray of hope by reporting a likely 2-to-4-week timetable for Joel's return, more optimistic than the 4-to-6 weeks some smart people were predicting. Still, there's only two weeks and change until the playoffs start, and playoff series take a max of about two weeks, so essentially, the Sixers would need Joel to hit the optimistic end of his recovery time to play in the first round -- which as we all know has not traditionally been a Sixers strength. If you want to play the emotional odds there, do your thing, but can't say I'll be joining you.
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If they get to the second round, though? Well, hold that thought.
What does this mean for the Sixers' playoff push? Well, they've already clinched, so no backsies there -- and the Sixers' remaining eight-game schedule is so friggin' billowy that going 4-4 or 5-3 without JoJo seems entirely within reach. You can probably kiss the three-seed (and Joel's dream of 50 wins) goodbye, though, and I'd be concerned about Indiana (just a half game behind Philly at the moment) passing them, too -- they have a superficially tough schedule coming up in their final seven, but a bunch of those games are against teams with injuries and/or not much left to play for. I could easily see them doing enough to at least tie Philly at season's end, with tiebreaker in hand from their 2-1 head-to-head advantage.
Most likely, the Sixers' focus should just be on staving off the Wizards -- currently 3.5 games behind Philly, but with a nearly-as-easy remaining schedule -- and holding on to that 5 seed. The Pacers with home-court are hardly a dream matchup for these Sixers, but it's still infinitely preferable to the world of hurt they'd be in for as a six seed visiting LeBron James and Cleveland without their big man.
Would they have a shot without Embiid in the first round? Against Indiana? Again, not impossible, and maybe not even the next-worst thing to impossible -- but not terribly probable. The Pacers are really good, they've given the Sixers problems all year, and without Embiid, there's a distinct threat of them just running us out of the building.
The one silver lining here, I'd say, is that the Pacers were actually a sorta bad matchup for JoJo himself, with floor-stretching big man Myles Turner exploiting his tendency to get paint-locked, and with speedy guards Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo and Lance Stephenson taking advantage of his occasional sluggishness in transition and in help situations. Embiid put up good numbers against Indy across three games this season (23-10-4), but also turned the ball over a ton (21 times total) and ultimately rated poorly in advanced stats across the three contests. Don't get me wrong, I'd certainly still much rather have him than not, but I always believed the Pacers would have one of the best chances at neutralizing Joel of any of the East's playoff-bound.
Against Cleveland? LeBron would probably have to retire immediately after his elimination. Not bloody likely.
Who'll need to step up in Embiid's absence? Well, the obvious answers are Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes, who Brett Brown might have to toggle between in the starting five as the season/postseason goes on. Richaun stepped up in the absence of both JoJo and Amir in the final three quarters of the New York game, tying a season high with his 15 points, but the coach is unlikely to trust him defensively down the stretch in big games, and he'll do a couple things on offense each game to turn Brown's hair an even whiter shade of pale.
Amir has been a sneaky source of stability for the Sixers down the stretch this season, and he has the best chance of replicating 75% of Embiid's defensive impact for these Sixers. But it's unclear if he's ready to step into starters' minutes for Philly, and his bowling-ball-heave jumper is guaranteed to strangle the Sixers' spacing in the half-court -- a problem on a team that will now be increasingly reliant on the similarly shot-less Ben Simmons to generate offense.
Ersan Ilyasova is also an option at the five, as he has pretty good rebounding instincts and his floor-stretching could open up things for the Sixers to simply outshoot the Pacers for seven games. But his relatively creaky legs would certainly be tested by Indiana, and his entire strategy for rim protection would likely amount to him attempting to draw 15 charges a game. Ultimately, the Sixers' best options all involve replicating parts of Embiid's production while coming up glaringly lacking in others -- which, of course, that's why Embiid is Embiid.
The real answer to this question, though, might be Dario Saric. Unlikely that Saric will spend too much time at the five -- he's had some memorable blocked shots over the years, though that's largely because they were pretty much the only ones he's had. But as we saw Wednesday night against New York, Dario is the Sixers' best hope of generating offense in the half-court out of nowhere -- just dumping it to The Homie in the post and letting him unleash his poor-man's-McHale arsenal of spin moves, pump-fakes and, uh, hurling it at the rim and getting putback after putback until it finally goes down. Against NY, it ended up not the worst strategy: Dario had 26 and 14 and the Sixers won by 17. Might not be able to do it consistently in the playoffs, but he's probably the best chance we've got.
Of course, there's another offense initiator / shot creator on this squad that recently rejoined us and one who should be more motivated to do whatever he can to make up for Joel's absence as possible. It'd be nice to imagine Markelle Fultz as a difference maker in this series, but ultimately, I don't see it . He's got too much hesitation in his hesi-pull-up jimbo at the moment, and the Pacers will consistently dare him to try to finish at the rim, and they will be able to deny him more often than not when he does so. He could still have value for Philly off the bench as a pace-setter and defensive pest -- a more athletic T.J. McConnell -- but he's probably not ready to shoulder any really heavy offensive lifting for Brett Brown & crew.
But... Carson Wentz, right? Yes, of course Philly fans are well acquainted with a relatively recent example of a team's best player going down late in the regular season, and still managing to fare pretty well in the playoffs anyway. And, well, fair enough, but I have to pour at least a little water on that by pointing out that it's much easier to get crazy hot for three games than for four (or even one) best-of-seven series -- and that, well, Richaun Holmes has never thrown seven touchdowns in a game for the Sixers previously.
All that said, I do think even sans JoJo, the Sixers might put up more of a fight than expected. As previously mentioned, Embiid was kind of a net negative for them against the Pacers in this regular season, and even without him, I think they'll be able to do some interesting things to muck up the series defensively and throw some unexpected looks at Indiana. And while the team will likely be a little dispirited without their leader, it's worth remembering they had been playing their best team basketball of the season the last few weeks, both with and without Joel, who didn't even play in half of some of 'em. If Robert Covington and Marco Belinelli continue to hit shots, if Simmons continues to push the ball with this sense of invincibility, if Dario keeps playing like an inside-out beast, I still think they're an extremely dangerous playoff team.
Could they pull of the upset against Indiana, and hopefully be joined by JoJo for the ensuing second round (likely against the Raptors)? Again, I think the odds are against them, but if they're somehow able to hold onto home-court advantage, and if Richaun steps up as he's proven sporadically capable of doing... it'll be a series, at the very least, and probably a pretty entertaining one.
How bad is this in the cosmic sense? Look, something was gonna go wrong this season. No team (and particularly not this team) ever has as many things go right for them as the Sixers have had this season without some sort of necessary karmic balancing -- and now that Fultz is back from his whatever, it's hardly surprising that the basketball gods have demanded an additional sacrifice. Sucks that it's Embiid, sucks that it's this late in the season, sucks that this poor guy was so. goddamn. close. from changing the entire narrative of his first three years as a guy who was talented but couldn't stay on the court -- and now it's been reinforced once again.
But long-term? I gotta say, I'm kinda chilling. As bad as this feels, it's nothing compared to the email announcing how Embiid was likely to miss his entire season for the second straight year with another lower-body injury. Doesn't get much less lower-body than the head, and while this'll probably take some time to come all the way back from -- mentally as much as anything -- it doesn't compound the earlier miseries Embiid has endured. Even if he doesn't play in another game this season, he should still be fully on track for next season, which is the first time in four seasons with JoJo we've been able to say that with confidence.
And look, this was never supposed to be the year. The Sixers' over-under was only 43 wins, and most sensible people seemed to believe that was way too high. They've been playing well enough in 2018 that we talked ourselves into these Ballers maybe already being a good two or three years ahead of schedule -- many nights, it seemed surprisingly plausible -- but the chances of this team actually winning the title this year remained fantastically slim. Maybe that's next year, maybe that's the year after, but the important thing is that we're clearly on track. If I told you preseason that the Sixers would win 40-something games, get a top-five seed in the East, and get eliminated in a hard-fought first-round series -- you'd probably have taken that, wouldn't you?
It's cold comfort today, of course, as we'd all started to believe that so much more was possible with this crazy-talented, crazy-exciting ascendant team. But add it all up and we're still doing OK: Fultz is back, the Lakers pick might still end up top ten, everyone on the team is awesome and who even knows what delightful opportunities await in free agency? This is bad, but we've been through so much worse, and the path to the promised land remains relatively clear. The Process, y'know -- sometimes you just gotta trust it.